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Catch 22: The Novel

Catch-22 is a novel set in the latter part of the Second World War.  It was written by Joseph Heller, and first published in 1961.

The phrase, 'Catch 22' is now commonly used to describe a no-win situation. As one Wikipedia author puts it..

'"Catch-22" is a term coined by Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22, describing a set of rules, regulations or procedures, or a situation which presents the illusion of choice while preventing any real choice. In probability theory, it refers to a situation in which multiple probabilistic events exist, and the desirable outcome results from the confluence of these events, but there is zero probability of this happening as they are mutually exclusive.' (

In Heller's own words:

'There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's 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. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22" Yossarian observed.

"It's the best there is" Doc Daneeka agreed.'

Other forms of Catch-22 are invoked throughout the novel to justify various bureaucratic actions. At one point, victims of harassment by military police quote the MPs as having explained one of Catch-22's provisions so: 'Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating'. An old woman explains: 'Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing'.

Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. The combination of brute force with specious legalistic justification is one of the book's primary motifs.


Page last modified on 22 jan 10 18:48