Catch-22
Joseph Heller
Contributed by Sherie Debus
Chapters 1-5
Summary

Summary Chapter 1: The Texan

Hoping to avoid the violence involved in World War II, an American solider called Yossarian has presented himself to an Italian military hospital, claiming that he has pain in his liver. It seems that the doctors are unable to show that he is well, so they allow him to stay. They are confused, however, because his condition does not appear to be worsening or improving. The hospital patients are made to censor letters that travel between the soldiers and people they correspond with at home. Yossarian interferes with the letters to play games with the people in authority. He deletes words using arbitrary criteria and signs letters as “Washington Irving.” He is in the hospital ward with his friend Dunbar. Dunbar is bandaged and entirely immobile. He is referred to as “the soldier in white.” There are two nurses who seem to hate Yossarian.

One day, a likable Texan is brought into the ward as a patient. This man tries to persuade the patients that “decent folk” should have some extra votes. The other patients find the Texan’s patriotism irritating. A chaplain arrives to visit Yossarian, who enjoys his company. However, within ten days of the Texan coming into the hospital, nearly everyone, Yossarian included, finds themselves so annoyed by the Texan that they decide to flee the ward. They go back to active duty.

Summary Chapter 2: Clevinger

When Yossarian leaves the hospital, he feels that he is the only person worried about the pointless war in which millions of young men are being bombed by other young men. He recalls having an argument about the character of the war with Clevinger, an officer in his group. Yossarian had declared that everyone wanted to kill him, while Clevinger asserted that no one was personally attempting to kill Yossarian. Yossarian had cast aside the arguments Clevinger posed about countries and honor. To Yossarian, the only significant fact was that people continued to shoot at him.

Yossarian sees Orr, his roommate. He discovers that Clevinger remains missing. He recalls the most recent time he and Clevinger referred to each other as crazy. It was during an evening at the officers’ club when Yossarian made the announcement that he was superhuman because no one had been able to kill him yet. Yossarian finds everyone suspicious when he leaves the hospital. He enjoys a delicious meal in the gourmet mess hall. After that, he talks to Doc Daneeka, who angers Yossarian by relating to him that Colonel Cathcart has increased the number of missions in which a soldier must participate before he may be discharged from forty-five to fifty. Yossarian had flown forty-four missions before this change was made.

Summary Chapter 3: Havermeyer

Orr shares with Yossarian a nonsensical tale about how he enjoyed stuffing crab apples within his cheeks when he was younger. Yossarian recalls a time in Rome during which a prostitute beat Orr in the head with her shoe. Yossarian calls attention to Orr’s size. Even Huple, a young boy who resides near Hungry Joe’s tent, is larger than him. Hungry Joe experiences nightmares every time he isn’t scheduled to fly on a mission the following day. When this happens, his loud screaming keeps everyone in the camp awake. Hungry Joe’s tent is in close proximity to a road where the men occasionally pick up girls and bring them to an area with tall grass found opposite from an open-air movie theater.

P.P. Peckem, an ambitious general, has sent a U.S.O. (United Service Organizations) troupe to visit the theater that afternoon. P.P. Peckem hopes to take over command of Yossarian’s unit, which is currently being overseen by General Deedle. Colonel Cargill, who is General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was once a marketing executive paid by firms on Wall Street to deliberately fail in marketing in order to facilitate tax losses. Cargill does something very similar now as a colonel. His most notable failure is in the area of fostering enthusiasm among the men. Some of the men have done their fifty missions and eagerly hope that they will get their orders to return home before Colonel Cathcart increases the number of missions again.

Doc Daneeka refuses to ground Yossarian even though he feels ill. The doctor tells Yossarian that he should seek to emulate Havermeyer, a courageous bombardier, and try to make the best of the reality he finds himself in. Yossarian, however, believes that his fear is healthy. The narrator calls attention to the fact that Havermeyer enjoys shooting mice in the dark of night and that one occasion he awakened Hungry Joe with a shot that forced him to go into a slit trench. These slit trenches were quite mysterious in that they had suddenly appeared before the tent each morning after the bombing of the squadron by mess officer Milo Minderbinder.

Summary Chapter 4: Doc Daneeka

The narrator says that Hungry Joe is crazy. This is why Yossarian is attempting to give some advice. Hungry Joe refuses to listen, though. This is because he thinks that Yossarian is the one who is crazy. In turn, Doc Daneeka informs Yossarian that his own problems are more severe than those of Hungry Joe because the war has caused an interruption in his medical practice, from which he generally makes a lot of money.

Yossarian recalls attempting to disrupt the educational meeting that took place in Captain Black’s intelligence tent. He did this by posing questions that were impossible to answer. This led Group Headquarters to institute a rule that the sole people who were allowed to ask questions were the people who never did. This rule comes from Lieutenant Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart. Both of these colonels also provided approval for the building of a skeet-shooting range at which Yossarian never ends up hitting anything. Dunbar, however, shoots skeets on a frequent basis because he dislikes it. Dunbar thinks that when he takes part in activities that are uncomfortable or boring, time goes by more slowly and in this way he make this life longer. He talks about this theory with Clevinger.  In the meantime, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen has set off a panic among the officers in Rome. He has done this by phoning them and saying only the words, “T.S. Eliot.” While he means for these words to be a response to a general memo that the colonel send stating that it would be difficult to name a poet who makes money, General Peckem thinks that the words are really a coded message that he doesn’t understand. This makes him terribly anxious.

Summary Chapter 5: Chief White Halfoat

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety . . . was the process of a rational mind.

Doc Daneeka and a Native American called Chief White Halfoat, who is an alcoholic, share a tent. In this tent, Doc Daneeka tells Yossarian about the corrupt medical practice he has in Staten Island. He tells him a story about a sexually inept newlywed couple who once came into his office. Chief White Halfoat comes in. Chief White Halfoat comes in, informing Yossarian that Doc Daneeka is insane. Halfoat then tells the story of his own family. As every place where he and his family have settled ended up being on top of a large oil supply, major oil companies began to follow them. They thought of them as “human divining rods.” The oil companies then threw them off the land. This led to the family having a rather nomadic life.

Yossarian again begs Doc Daneeka for permission to be grounded. He asks whether he would be grounded if he were pronounced to be crazy. Don Daneeka indicates that he would. Yossarian claims that he is, in fact, crazy. Doc Daneeka then talks about Catch-22, a regulation decreeing that, for a pilot to be grounded by reason of insanity, he must ask to be grounded. However, if a plot asks to be grounded, they will automatically be said to be sane, as sane people would never wish to fly bombing missions. Yossarian is impressed and takes Doc Daneeka at his word. This is similar to how he took Orr’s word about the flies that were in Appleby’s eyes. Orr had stated there are flies in Appleby’s eyes, and although Yossarian was perplexed about what Orr meant, he believed him. He did because Orr had never before lied to him.

Yossarian starts thinking about the bombing missions and the extent to which he detests his position in the nose of the plane. In this position, he is kept away from the escape hatch. In order to get to it, he has to get through a tiny passage that he is only just able to fit through. He is always terrified on bombing missions. He begs McWatt, the pilot, the try to avoid antiaircraft fire. He recalls a specific mission when, as the squadron was in the mist of taking evasive action, the co-pilot called Dobbs went crazy. He began shouting, “Help him.” With the plane then spinning out of control, Yossarian thought that he was going to die. The narrator is enigmatic when he declares that there was a person called Snowden dying in the back of the plane.

Analysis

One of this novel’s main goals is to portray the dehumanizing machinery of war in a satirical way. This is done though calling attention to the irremovable impulse to survive that exists at the heart of every human being. Through consistently making fun of the situations that arise in war and through bringing arguments to their extreme and absurd conclusions, the author demonstrates the conflict that occurs when the course of a war is determined by factors that are alien to the people who are actually fighting the war. Catch-22 explores characteristics of war and bureaucracy and how they affect ordinary people. It does this through its maze of events and characters.

In the novel’s early chapters, the way war and bureaucracy affect ordinary people take on the form of an absurd irony that consumes every part of the characters’ lives. The most significant irony, of course, is the apparent uselessness of war—at minimum in the way it is carried out by the characters around Yossarian. The generals in control of the troops only care about getting a promotion, while the troops only focus on remaining alive long enough to be able to go home one day. No one appears to be worried about the larger ethical and political implications of war. This great irony is shown in many different ways, with Yossarian and his companions behaving in paradoxical and self-defeating ways because their actions seem to have so little significance. For example, in the hospital Yossarian and his companions find the Texan annoying because he is so affable. Also, Yossarian makes the chaplain look foolish even though he loves him. Additionally, deployed with sharply satirical intent, the banter we hear between characters is replete with paradoxes as impossible as Catch-22 is itself.

One of the statements that this book makes is that the rules that govern the lives of individuals have the tendency to also shape the way they think. Early in the book, we are shown how the soldiers, who are imprisoned by Catch-22 and its paradox, are affected in a fundamental way by it. They pursue nonsense, meaninglessness, and irrelevancy as though they are true things of value. This seems to make sense of them, as they live in a world where sense, meaning, and relevancy are impossible. Bureaucracy’s power further demonstrates itself in the initial few chapters by way of Colonel Cathcart’s impersonal increase of the number of required missions and even more acutely the way Doc Daneeka explains Catch-22. Yossarian is compelled to confront the fact that the law that governs his life is a paradox that can never be solved.

The failure of communication has a significant role in the creation of Heller’s paradoxes. Words have limited meaning. This is a truth the becomes evident in the first chapter as Yossarian pointlessly and randomly deletes words from letters only because he thinks the letters are boring. Heller frequently uses miscommunication to generate comedy. An example of this is seen when ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen leads General Peckem to have a great deal of worry by calling him and only saying, “T.S. Elliot.” This is entirely harmless, but Peckem sees them as something sinister and complicated. A component of the irony we see here is that insignificant and readily misinterpreted words are what determine the real and consequential aspects of the soldiers’ lives. One of the novel’s most horrifying aspects is seen in the contrast existing between the real fighting and the absurd bureaucracy that controls it.

The absurdity that governs the characters’ lives affects even the concept of time itself. The story is conveyed using a disorderly chronology that involves allusions to future events, recollections, and statements with meanings that can only be understood as the novel progresses.  The story hops from scene to scene with only occasional (and confusing) mention of the circumstances before and after and with no indication of a central now to provide these terms with meaning. Yet several handholds are provided to enable readers to place the events in some kind of order: the continued development of Milo’s syndicate, the positions of specific officers, and, most significant, the number of missions that the men are required to fly.

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