Catch-22 Study Guide

In the preface to his new edition, Joseph Heller recalls when he originally submitted Catch-22 to various magazines, including The Atlantic and The New Yorker. He describes how the novel was dismissed, not even making the New York Times bestseller list. It was even snubbed among elitist literary circles. Despite this initially lukewarm reception, the popularity of Catch-22 eventually soared among readers. Readers felt that the phrase “catch-22” very accurately expressed their frustrations with the contradictory institutions and bureaucracies with which they were constantly dealing in modern society. The black humor and wit of Catch-22 also appealed to many. Eventually, “catch-22” became a common phrase for situations in which there is no possible positive outcome--situations without hope because of a technicality or because of hopeless alternatives.

After Catch-22's immense popularity, though, Joseph Heller felt a need to redefine himself through other means. He attempted to address other issues, such as the Jewish identity in American society and the degenerative mental disease that he developed later in life. Nevertheless, Catch-22 provided the high standard against which Heller was continually measured. None of his other works was nearly as successful.

The movie based on the book was well-received and well-loved. The book itself had become a symbol for many groups who were rebelling against “the institution,” and the movie only fed the frenzy more. After exploring other avenues in his literary career, Heller returned to Catch-22 and wrote a sequel, Closing Time. This novel touched upon the lives of many of Catch-22's characters, including Yossarian and Milo Minderbinder. Unfortunately, the reaction to Closing Time was considerably mixed. Some readers found it well crafted and just as humorous as its predecessor, but other readers felt that it was an attempt to resurrect Catch-22 without the craft or freshness. Heller claimed that the portrayal of Yossarian as a hypochondriac sixty-eight-year-old businessman was partially autobiographical and reflected his true voice.

Despite such difficulties throughout Joseph Heller's literary career, Catch-22 remains widely admired today and is considered the hallmark of Heller's works. Not only has the behavior of Yossarian provided much amusement for the mass of readers, but it also has become the source of much psychological analysis of the isolated character trying to flee from neurotic or hostile societies and circumstances, situation that tend to fail to recognize the needs of the individual. As people find themselves struggling between the impositions of social institutions and the need for personal expression, they find themselves in their own “catch-22” situations: how can a society recognize individuality and still make collective decisions? How can a bureaucracy ever be nuanced enough to take individual differences into account? Such topics continue to generate much interest in Heller's writings because the question of individual versus community is an enduring problem for society, philosophy, and politics.