Take a look at some of these important quotations from Catch-22 to gain a better understanding of the underlying themes in the novel.
These quotes from "Catch 22" demonstrate many of the themes and ideas at play in the story. The analysis provided includes ideas on how to write about them, and how to go about using them as springboards for writing in class or for your own personal journaling as you read Heller’s novel. These prompts could be used in high school or college English classes, depending on the level of your students.
Note: These page numbers are based on the 1996 edition, ISBN #068483395.
Why Can't You Just Be Like Everyone Else?
“What if everyone felt the same you did?"
“Well, then I’d be a fool to feel any differently!" (p. 28)
This pairing of quotes happens several times in the novel, with one of the book’s authority figures (the chaplain, Colonels Korn and Cathcart) asking the main character, Yossarian, what the risk would be if the others in his unit shared his dissident feelings about flying more combat missions. Yossarian’s answer turns the questioner’s intent (to use peer pressure to get Yossarian to “toe the line") on its head. The irony is that a lot of the airmen in Yossarian’s unit are terrified of dying while on a bombing run, and are also outraged about Colonel Cathcart’s constant increases in the amount of missions flown before rotation home.
Writing Prompts: What are some situations in which others have tried to get you to follow along? This could involve a peer pressure situation, but an even more applicable situation would involve authority figures trying to get you to along with what everyone else is supposed to do.
That's Really Punny
“Yossarian lost his nerve on the mission to Avignon because Snowden lost his guts." (p. 234)
“Guts," here is both literally true – because Snowden has shrapnel destroy his intestines – and metaphorically true – because Yossarian loses his courage, which has a metaphorical association with the word “guts." Heller uses puns throughout the novel to express the ironies at work in the story.
Writing Prompts: What other puns can you think of that could be used to express dark humor like this? Is Yossarian more, or less, courageous after he refuses to fly any more missions? Why?
Jumbo Shrimp -- The Power of Paradox
“The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them." (p. 413)
“Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he’s in his office." (p. 116)
“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."
These three quotations all contain paradox – an apparent contradiction that is, nonetheless true. Paradox is the main literary device at work in Catch-22, because one of Heller’s rhetorical arguments is that contradictions serve as the basis of many governmental institutions. Paradox and dark humor serve to express Heller’s contempt for this way of operating.
Writing Prompts: In the first quotation, how is Yossarian “jeopardizing" his basic constitutional rights? How is he at risk of losing them by using them? How does Heller use the story of Major Major’s promotion to ridicule the way that the military, and government institutions, use promotion to move staff around? What is a paradox that you have run into during your experience with school, or with other institutions of authority? Tell the story of that paradox with sufficient detail and plot so that a reader who does not know you can easily follow the story.