When Joseph Heller wrote his book Catch-22, published in 1961, did he ever imagine that its title would take such a firm place in the English language?
On the surface, Catch-22 is a seemingly absurd story which centres around the misdaventures of John Yossarian, a World War II U.S. Airforce Bombardier who is desperately trying to avoid flying more missions in order to survive the war. Other characters include Major Major, Milo Minderbender and an annoying dead man in Yossarian’s tent. Underneath the dark satirical comedy, however, is the very grim message that we live in an insane world from which we are powerless to escape, and Heller reveals this through the context of the tragedy of war.
So what does Catch-22 actually mean?
In the book, Doc Daneeka, the army psychiatrist, describes the fictitious Catch-22 of the Airforce Code when he talks about one of the officers: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to”. A Catch-22 is a paradox or “no-win” situation in which a set of contradictory bureaucratic rules or circumstances put in place by those in power to serve their own purposes make it impossible for a person to find a reasonable solution. Colonel Catchcart raises the number of flying missions in order to gain promotion, but Yossarian actively seeks to avoid them because he wants to go home – no one is actually interested in the war they have been told to fight.
But why has the term Catch-22 become such a well-known expression? Even twenty year olds today who have never read the book may use this expression as part of a conversation – young or old, everyone understands its meaning to a greater or lesser extent whether they have read Heller’s novel or not. What defines great literature is its ability to scrutinise the human condition to produce a message that resonates with us all, throughout the generations. The dilemma and madness of Catch-22 type situations is as true and relevant today as it was in Yossarian’s world.
Fortunately, Heller was able to live to see the greatness of his work. From mixed reviews at first to its rise as a great classic of the 20th century, Catch-22 has caught the attention of generations and its title forever has a place in our language.