Catch-22 Themes

Lack of Communication

One of the most frustrating aspects of the novel is the frequent breakdown of communication. This is a widespread epidemic that affects hierarchical explanation, broad decision-making, and even simple conversation between soldiers. It is often comical, sometimes even resembling an Abbott and Costello routine, but this lack of communication ultimately contributes to a general lack of agency. Many of the difficulties in communication in the novel can be traced to bureaucracy. Many characters are forced to communicate through a middleman, and in many cases, the transmissions are dramatically altered or do not reach their recipients at all. Yossarian edits the letters soldiers are sending home while he is in the hospital, and he takes joy in augmenting them. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen does not even relay messages he considers too "prolix," and overseas communiqués never get through because of his preferences. Messages do not always stay the same from source to destination, and even when they do, they are sometimes misinterpreted.

When the men are supposed to bomb Ferrara and Yossarian moves the bomb line so it appears as if the men have already bombed it, the lack of communication leads the men to believe that it actually has been bombed. No one claims full responsibility for the bombing, so no one can disprove its having taken place. Since the men feel very removed from the object of winning the war and accomplishing important goals in that pursuit, they are very happy about this prank. But such an error can lead to other men dying because they do not receive the support they need. Though this reversal of cause and effect seems comical, it has real consequences that are very serious. Though Heller never describes a bloody scene where men are massacred without this support, the reader can imagine the very real effects of communication breakdowns.

Other times, lack of communication takes on a more dream-like, nightmarish quality. As Yossarian is trying to avoid enemy fire on a mission, Aarfy invades his personal space, distracting him and poking him. Yossarian tries to tell Aarfy to move back, but Aarfy does not understand, and he continues to distract Yossarian, bringing him to tears. The most disturbing part about this scene to Yossarian is Aarfy's lack of comprehension of the danger they are in and how he is contributing to it. This is not a case where two men cannot communicate about an idea; they cannot communicate about the direness of their situation, and Yossarian's inability to instill fear and alarm into Aarfy's smug mind puts them both in harm's way. The stakes are very high in war, and this makes miscommunication deadly. The fact that it has a slapstick quality to it does not diminish this fact.


Insanity is a very broad term with different clinical, legal, and colloquial connotations. It can be used to mean how an individual cannot learn from his or her mistakes. It can also mean that one cannot conform to society or is simply foolish. Every definition of the word, however, pertains to some deficiency in one's relationship with oneself or the world. If a man cannot get along with people in the world because he does not operate by the same set of logical principles, moral precepts, or social graces that the society around him accepts, that society might consider him insane. In the world of Catch-22, however, not only are the rules of society different from those of a non-military society, they are different from tent to tent, from person to person. There seems to be no standard for logical thinking, no universal moral compass. Therefore, the fact that the men often characterize each other as "crazy" is no surprise; everyone has a different set of rules, so to each man, everyone else is not following the rules.

Sanity serves man by making him competent to solve problems and survive in his environment by being able to interact positively in his circumstances. Therefore, a man like Yossarian who fakes illness to stay in the hospital and takes wild evasive action on every mission to avoid danger is, by some standards, quite sane. He is a survivor. In this way, Doc Daneeka is correct when he declares Yossarian sane for not wanting to fly more missions. Technical definitions aside, however, the men use the term "crazy" to describe the world around them because war is unfamiliar, unnatural, and cruel. They are on some level reacting with incredulity to the fact that they must go about their daily lives dealing with death and danger. Paranoia and extreme fits of anger usually mark a person who is not fit to get along in his surroundings, but calm nonchalance amidst destruction and death can be seen as disturbing or perverse behavior, too. The different ways the men find to reconcile this disparity informs their respective worldviews.


Violence and brutality are disturbing to humans because it is difficult to imagine how harming one’s fellow man could be a good choice for anyone. To comprehend such choices, society tends to dehumanize those who commit extreme violence against others. Killers are "cold-blooded" villains. In Catch-22, however, Joseph Heller does not rationalize the violence of war by showing soldiers to be savages. Instead, he shows that violence and death occur as part of daily life, and he does not infuse his characters with an excess of bloodlust. This makes the violence in the novel more strange because it cannot easily be dismissed or condemned. The men committing the violence are normal people who were civilians before the war started, not murderers. The choices to be violent were made initially by others.

There is not much graphic violence in this war novel. The death of Kid Sampson is perhaps the most gruesome incidence of violence in the novel; he is cut in half by the propellers of a plane while other men relax on the beach and watch. Heller never breaks stride to inject his description with extra pathos or pause. Though the death is an unthinkable image for many readers, Heller does not give it more weight than other events. Heller's consistency of tone makes this event more disturbing. It is not an act borne of cruelty or hatred but simply a mistake, a practical joke gone wrong. After the accident, McWatt crashes his plane, seemingly on purpose. This is a mysterious event, because his thoughts are not explained. It seems most likely that his conscience is unbearable, and he takes his own life out of guilt. This makes the scene still more uncomfortable because not even the man who killed Kid Sampson feels that there is a good explanation or rationalization for the death. The senselessness of violence in the novel, time and again, is what is most jarring about it.

The most shocking act of actual human brutality in the novel comes when Aarfy rapes and murders Michaela. The candor with which he commits these crimes is what shocks the reader the most. In some ways this could be considered inhuman, but his almost naïve demeanor while causing the death of another is similar to McWatt's accidental manslaughter, too. Both men kill someone because they do not see their actions as having catastrophic effects. They both see their actions as innocent expressions of abandon and fun. What sets Aarfy apart, however, is that after McWatt kills Kid Sampson, the reader is led to believe he feels empathy and remorse, almost immediately killing himself, too. Aarfy feels neither of these things.

The world the men live in has little hatred or rancor, but terrible things happen. This is a tragedy in itself. When characters like Aarfy do not even care when horrible things occur, however, this is a greater tragedy. The level of desensitization that Aarfy has reached is too much for Yossarian to bear. Not only is their world brutal and violent, but Aarfy has grown accustomed to it. Or has he always lacked empathy and simply feels more at home in this more chaotic world? His affable manner and calm demeanor are chillingly antithetical to his inner feelings. There is, perhaps, something about war that brings out the violent tendencies of people and can desensitize them to violence and death.


Nature itself has no sense of moral justice. Yossarian receives a medal for actions that get Kraft killed because his superiors do not want to admit his mistake. Major Major is promoted because of a computer error, and whenever he is to be promoted or demoted, Wintergreen intercepts the order and thwarts it. Simply because Clevinger is intelligent, he makes his superiors uncomfortable. They call him into an inquisition where they make up charges to level against him. In the world of the novel, men are rewarded for wrongdoing and punished for being capable. Justice here is not so much faulty as farcical and inverted.

When the Man in White is found dead by the nurse, she is blamed for his death by the men. None of them thinks that she actually did anything to kill him; her declaration that he is no longer alive is what makes her culpable. This is very strange, for it shows that the men view life almost more as a state of mind or an agreed-upon state than an actual scientific truth. The nurse is almost certainly not at fault for the man's death, but her acknowledgement of the grim reality shatters the other men's willing suspension of disbelief. The way the men blame her is not just. It shows their extreme self-absorption, for they care more about their individual states of mind than they do about the well-being of others.

Misdirected Priorities

Clevinger and Yossarian argue about a soldier's duty to his country. Clevinger argues that a man has a responsibility to fight because if he does not, another man will have to. He argues that running away from combat and one's duty puts other men's lives in danger. Yossarian argues that he has a duty to protect himself from all those who are trying to kill him. While Clevinger's point is predicated on the idea that the war and its missions are basically inevitable, Yossarian's point assumes that war is a choice. It is a choice to begin it and a choice to participate in it, and he sees it as a personal affront that he is robbed of his own choice to abstain from participation. Yossarian has empathy and cares about his friends. He does not want to leave because he has a callous heart or because he does not care about the lives of others. He simply values his freedom, and he sees war as inhumane, unjust, and dangerous. His priority is self-preservation.

Very few of the men have the defeat of the enemy as their top priority. Milo is obsessed with profit, Major Major is focused on his inability to gain approval from anyone, and Doc Daneeka is concerned with proving that his problems are greater than those around him. Major Scheisskopf is the best example of a man whose priorities have nothing to do with winning the war. He is consumed with the idea of winning parades–demonstrations that have little to do with victory or readiness for war. This insular world of parades has its own rules and its own rewards, and he is too consumed with them to pay attention to anything else (including his wife, let alone the enemy or the war as a whole).

The men are not short-sighted due to stupidity. They turn to their small personal battles and wars because they feel isolated from the larger war they are fighting. They do not take place in planning or decision-making and are not rewarded for their actions. When a pilot flies his required number of missions, he is rewarded by being assigned more to fly. He understands that missions are chosen because of how they will look on his commanding officer's resume, not because they are important to the war as a whole. Any investment a soldier feels in the war his country is fighting feels futile because his role is unclear, even misdirected, and there is nothing he can do about it. This makes the men become self-absorbed out of necessity. They find a smaller world that they have more control over, and they invest themselves in that world.


God plays a part in the novel, but does not come up very frequently. The part God plays in the novel can be seen as small because of this, or it can be seen as large because of the conspicuous absence. In times of suffering, questions of God tend to come up; religious men ask for God's guidance, and atheists point out how a good God cannot exist because he would not let terrible things happen. There is little of this discussion, though it crops up occasionally as an undercurrent. Dunbar is the stark voice of atheism in the novel, flatly declaring, "there is no god." Though there is little debate on the topic, there is little hope or good will to speak of among the men. There are few good Samaritans, and not often does a character "turn the other cheek." The good are not rewarded, and the evil are not punished. If the conventional Judeo-Christian God is present in the lives of the men, he does not have a loud voice.

The first character introduced in the entire novel is the chaplain. Yossarian is "madly in love with him." A.T. Tappman has "diffident" eyes and frequently fidgets. He is very nice, has a girl back home named Mary whom he misses "tragically," and all he wants to do is help others. However, he does not know how to help the men; he says that he makes most of the men "uncomfortable." Some of them are atheists, most of them do not trust authority of any sort, and not many of them get along with others very well. Mostly, though, there is little the chaplain can do to change any of their situations, and his impotence is as frustrating to him as it is to them. He cannot heal their wounds, he cannot keep them from flying dangerous missions, and he cannot write them orders to be sent home. As he talks to Yossarian in the first chapter, he repeatedly asks if there is anything he can do for Yossarian. "No," Yossarian tells him, "I'm sorry."

Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife and Yossarian have the most overt theological debate in the novel. She is brought to tears when Yossarian goes on a diatribe about how God is either "playing" or has "forgotten all about us." He calls God a "clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed." When she begins to hit him for his comments, he is incredulous. He asks her if she even believes in God, and she says she does not. But she says, "the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God." They reconcile that they both "won't believe in the God" they want to. This conversation, while comic in its illogic, highlights how the characters in the novel want to believe in God but are disheartened by suffering. They want to believe in goodness and hope, but they are frustrated by the realities of the world, and they do not see a supreme being coming to the rescue. While Yossarian and Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife both admit that they do not believe in God, they both belie their desire to believe. Atheism in the novel is the state most characters find themselves in as frustrated believers. On such points they are more confused than determinate.


There is a prevalent air of misogyny in Catch-22, and Yossarian is the prime culprit, a womanizer who sleeps with any woman he can. He does not factor in his or their feelings; he only wants to have as much sex as possible with as many women as possible. The perfect girl for him is one who will have sex with him and not care about him after they are through. When he meets Luciana, he tells her he wants to marry her because he feels he has fallen in love. His feelings for her are out of the ordinary, but when she gives him her number, he still tears up the piece of paper out of habit. He treats women as objects for his pleasure, so when one actually affects him, he is confused. He does not even know how to treat a woman with respect or love, so he loses his chance to be with Luciana, whom he actually cares about.

Aarfy takes misogyny to an extreme. He actually rapes a girl and kills her, feeling no remorse for his actions. This comes as a surprise, for Aarfy does not seem depraved like Hungry Joe. Hungry Joe desperately tries to take pictures of naked women and have sex with them. He is almost like a wild animal, a creature in need, and his needs are visceral. Aarfy, however, displays restraint with women, talking to them for hours and even taking them home, but not sleeping with them for fear he would be "taking advantage" of them. When he commits the rape, it becomes clear that he only acted with such chivalry before because it fit his idea of manners, not because he respected any of the women he courted or cared at all about them as individuals. When he feels like it, neither rape nor murder goes against his desires; most of the time, he simply finds these actions coarse but does not reject them on principle. Heller's military is a man's world, and women occupy a small and specialized part of it. They are bit players who only serve as accessories to men.

In some ways, the men's careless and sometimes cruel pursuit of women in the novel is a response to their lack of control in the military. They react to the severities of war by ravaging (for the most part) innocent women. They react to their dangerous situation and lack of control by taking control of what they see as conquests they can conquer, members of the "weaker sex." Their emotional distance from women is also a reflection of the aloofness they feel in their daily lives as soldiers. They are emotionally desensitized from combat; getting attached to anyone seems pointless when tomorrow could bring a transfer to another island, papers sending them home, or the deadly mission that will end the war for them in a different way. Misogyny is a form of psychological protection for many of the men.