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A reader's guide to Catch 22

Updated Saturday 1st May 2004

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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.

 

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