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
A reader's guide to 'Home' Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images article icon

History & The Arts 

A reader's guide to 'Home'

Three novels in 30 years is a sedate pace for an author, particularly in the face of widespread acclaim. Marilynne Robinson and the award-winning Home, are introduced to us by Stephanie Forward.

Article
A journey through two Englands Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Samuel Laurence article icon

History & The Arts 

A journey through two Englands

In this extract from George Eliot's Felix Holt The Radical, a coach makes its way through a nation divided.

Article
How a centuries-old poem hints at Shakespeare’s herbal ‘muse’ article icon

History & The Arts 

How a centuries-old poem hints at Shakespeare’s herbal ‘muse’

Evidence from a poem and sonnett suggest that William Shakespeare drew at least some of his inspiration from cannabis.

Article
Fakespeare: Rewriting the bard Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University activity icon

History & The Arts 

Fakespeare: Rewriting the bard

Rewrite Shakespeare’s best bits for the 21st Century and reveal your inner wordsmith.

Activity
Quiz: Which Brontë sister wrote it? activity icon

History & The Arts 

Quiz: Which Brontë sister wrote it?

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë had very different writing styles but can you tell their writing apart from the other? Try our interactive quiz to find out.

Activity
A reader's guide to Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: photos.com article icon

History & The Arts 

A reader's guide to Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist

As part of the celebration of Darwin's bicentenary, we invite you to join us reading what is considered by many to be the definitive biography. Stephanie Forward introduces 'Darwin' by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

Article
Harper Lee's life was as surprising as any work of fiction Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public Domain article icon

History & The Arts 

Harper Lee's life was as surprising as any work of fiction

Harper Lee, who has died at the age of 89, had a life that was as curious as any plot from a novel. Writing in 2015, before the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Professor Richard Gray shared some of the story.

Article