Skip to content

A reader's guide to Catch 22

Updated Saturday 1st May 2004

You don't have to be mad to work here, but... you do.

Joseph Heller’s novel ‘Catch 22’ was published in 1961, and has been widely acclaimed as one of the major works of the twentieth century. Down through the years I made several unsuccessful attempts to read it, never getting much beyond the first few pages.

Recently I decided to try again, persevering this time, and I enjoyed the book immensely.

Joseph Heller, Miami Book Fair International, 1986 Creative commons image Icon MDC Archives under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Joseph Heller

It is set in Pianosa, an imaginary island off Italy, and focuses on a group of American airmen based there during World War II. The author served in the US Army Air Force in 1942, flying sixty missions, so it is not surprising that his account of the men’s ordeals is convincing.

The anti-hero, Yossarian, is desperately keen to survive the war, but finds himself up against the might of bureaucrats and the inescapable obstacle of Catch 22.

My copy contains a wealth of superlatives from enthusiastic reviewers, with comments including: ‘enormous richness’, ‘shocking’, ‘hilarious’, ‘exhilarating’, ‘devastatingly original’, ‘sad’, ‘frightening’ and ‘satirical’. Yes, ‘Catch 22’ is all of these things. The range of characters is staggering – each one vividly depicted.

I really cared about Yossarian, and about the chaplain, and numerous other figures. Recurring images and motifs are used to striking effect (sometimes à la Harry Hill), and the overall structure is stunning. The ending, too, is ‘just right’.

At the time of publication ‘Catch 22’ seemed to reflect the mood of a generation of people who were anxious about events in Vietnam. Like many great novels, it still has resonance for us today.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Whose war was it, anyway? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Whose war was it, anyway?

Bill Purdue asks some searching questions about popular views of the second world war.

Article
Germaine Greer on Catch 22 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Germaine Greer on Catch 22

Germaine Greer explains the impact of the publication of Joseph Heller's Catch 22 during the Vietnam War.

Article
The man behind Matilda – what Roald Dahl was really like article icon

History & The Arts 

The man behind Matilda – what Roald Dahl was really like

Roald Dahl: the incredible storyteller loved by millions or a belittling bully? Find out what his character was like in this article.

Article
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

History & The Arts 

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

What does Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus tell us about the author and the time at which the play was written? This free course, Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, will help you to discover the intricacies of the play and recognise how a knowledge of the historical and political background of the time can lead to a very different understanding of the author's intended meaning.

Free course
15 hrs
Lights, camera, action: technology and theatre Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

Lights, camera, action: technology and theatre

Tony Hill from the Royal Shakespeare Company explains the use of technology in the theatre.

Video
5 mins
Faustus Interviews: Paterson Joseph, Faustus Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team audio icon

History & The Arts 

Faustus Interviews: Paterson Joseph, Faustus

Actor Paterson Joseph took the role of Faustus. How do you play someone who makes such an extreme deal?

Audio
5 mins
400 years of Shakespeare article icon

History & The Arts 

400 years of Shakespeare

2016 marked 400 years since Shakespeare died, but his works still 'play on' today. Explore the life, times and legacy of the Bard of Avon...

Article
To Walk Invisible: Interview with the crew Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

To Walk Invisible: Interview with the crew

Crew members including Faith Penhale (the Executive Producer) discuss their part in To Walk Invisible, how the idea came about and their reading of the Brontës' work. 

Video
5 mins
It was a dark and stormy night: The rise of Gothic fiction Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Ronfromyork | Dreamstime.com article icon

History & The Arts 

It was a dark and stormy night: The rise of Gothic fiction

Are you a fan of ‘Frankenstein’ or a devotee of ‘Dracula’? Do you shiver at the graveyard scene in ‘Great Expectations’? Explore the surge of Gothic fiction, in the second half of the eighteenth century

Article