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
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
World Poetry Day Creative commons image Icon Steve Johnson under CC BY 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

World Poetry Day

21 March is World Poetry Day. Take a look at a range of powerful poems in our poetry prescription tool, view our videos and try a range of free courses.

Article
Between The Stacks: November 2003 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Between The Stacks: November 2003

Debate from the Book Club

Article
Leo Tolstoy on King Lear Creative commons image Icon Mat Fascione under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Leo Tolstoy on King Lear

In this extract from 'A critical essay on Shakespeare' - published in English in 1906 - Tolstoy suggests King Lear shows Shakespeare up as something of a hack.

Article
The poetry of Sorley MacLean Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

History & The Arts 

The poetry of Sorley MacLean

Sorley Maclean (19111996) is regarded as one of the greatest Scottish poets of the twentieth century. This free course, The poetry of Sorley MacLean, will introduce you to his poetry and give you an insight into the cultural, historical and political contexts that inform his work. MacLean wrote in Gaelic and the importance of the language to his work is also examined.

Free course
10 hrs
Sartre & de Beauvoir, Guevara & Castro: When the existentialists met the revolutionaries Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Alberto Korda article icon

History & The Arts 

Sartre & de Beauvoir, Guevara & Castro: When the existentialists met the revolutionaries

The French writers and the Cuban revolutionaries spent some time together in 1960

Article
Between The Stacks:January 2004 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Between The Stacks:January 2004

A stroll down reader's memory lane

Article