Catch-22

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Themes and Colors
Paradox and Impossibility Theme Icon
War and Bureaucracy Theme Icon
Communication and Miscommunication Theme Icon
Gallows Humor Theme Icon
Self-interest, Altruism, and Morality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Catch-22, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gallows Humor Theme Icon

Much of the humor in Catch-22 is gallows humor (or black humor)—the kind that takes on serious subjects without sacrificing its funiness. Some of the novel’s characters use gallows humor good-naturedly; others, less so. McWatt, for example, is always “buzzing” the camp, flying low over it, but one day he flies too low and accidentally kills Kid Sampson. Captain Black and Corporal Whitcomb make fun of the chaplain constantly, because they find his religious beliefs and non-combat assignment to be inherently funny. This bullying nearly drives the chaplain to abandon his beliefs altogether. Many of the novel’s subordinates make fun of their commanders, including Korn, who spends much of the novel reacting to Catchart’s stupidity and vanity. Major de Coverley’s strange abilities—horseshoe-playing and the renting of apartments in recently-liberated cities—are celebrated among the soldiers. De Coverley finds these apartments for the men despite the many dangers associated with flying to these far-flung locales. The Soldier in White and the Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice, two wounded men who eventually die, supply comic relief for Yossarian and others—until the presence of these injured soldiers make Yossarian and his friends fear that they, too, will succumb to injuries and not survive the war.

Indeed, a turning point occurs when Yossarian encounters Aarfy on their last visit to Rome. Aarfy, who has long joked about his behavior with women during his college fraternity days, tells Yossarian he has just raped and killed a woman. Yossarian is aghast, and is doubly horrified that Aarfy passes this behavior off as a joke. This traumatic event, coupled with the other horrors Yossarian has seen in destroyed and ransacked Rome, and with the death of many of his fellow soldiers, causes Yossarian to rethink his moral obligations, and his willingness to continue to fight in the war.

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Gallows Humor Quotes in Catch-22

Below you will find the important quotes in Catch-22 related to the theme of Gallows Humor.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Insanity is contagious. This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world, for that matter.

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning, the novel introduces a state of "in-betweenness" from which Yossarian will try, throughout, to escape. Yossarian's temperature and ailments are not severe enough for him to be treated seriously, but he is not well enough to be sent back into service; he is not "crazy" by any doctor's metric, but he seems also to view the war from a slant, according to rules only he perceives. In this, Yossarian is caught, and the only way for him to be "uncaught" is for him to decide, as it were, whether he is crazy or not, whether he is healthy or not - and of course these are exactly the things one is not capable of deciding for oneself.

Thus this passage introduces the paradoxes of the novel, which unfold from here. Heller is concerned in particular with spaces like the hospital or sick ward, in which people are on the limits both of the battlefield and of life itself - it is these "in-between" places that the novel takes up, again and again, in its illustration of the impossibilities of war. 

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Chapter 2 Quotes

As far back as Yossarian could recall, he explained to Clevinger with a patient smile, somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him.

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker), Clevinger
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Yossarian's argument here is both simple and mind-bending. Because he is in war, he states, there are people on the other side of the battle who want to kill him. He does not want to be around those people - he wants, instead, to survive. So he does everything he can to avoid battle, knowing that, outside, there are people trying to kill him. 

When fellow soldiers say that Yossarian is behaving irrationally, he argues that they, the other soldiers, are the ones refusing to acknowledge the truth - that enemy soldiers would kill them, too, if they had the chance, and anyone willfully going into battle to be killed is someone not of sound mind. Yossarian seems further to argue that because he is able to do this kind of reasoning he is sane, even though those who cannot, who insist he must fight despite the possibility of his dying, continue to argue that he is insane. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

Do you remember . . . that time in Rome when that girl who can’t stand you kept hitting me over the head with the heel of her shoe? Do you want to know why she was hitting me?

Related Characters: Orr (speaker), John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian
Related Symbols: Rome
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Orr is a foil to Yossarian's protestations of sane insanity - as Yossarian has a difficult time understanding the logic linking Orr's thoughts, one to another. When Orr offers to tell Yossarian why a prostitute was hitting him over the head, he never follows through, and Yossarian doesn't ask - it is a broken-off point in the narrative, one that will recur and lightly preoccupy Yossarian.

In this way, Orr's seemingly non-rational speech connects to the larger lack of explanatory value in anything the airmen do - at least, in Yossarian's view. Thus the war itself continues, and people die, even though no one wants to die, and no one person seems capable of defining how each mission relates to the overall goal of winning the war. War, then, is disconnected from rational values even as it appears based on the most fundamental values of all - human bravery over cowardice, strength over weakness, good men vs. bad. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age?

Related Characters: Dunbar (speaker), Clevinger
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Clevinger and Dunbar have an argument about the passage of time during war. Dunbar wants to be bored during wartime - in this way, war itself makes time slow down, and he, Dunbar, feels that he is living longer. Clevinger finds this absurd, and believes that a life worth living is a life of interest - and that being bored is akin to death. Yossarian tries to intervene, saying that each man can live his own way, but Dunbar states that, as an airman, his only job is to stay alive. If he can stay alive, then he is "winning" in the war, and if he dies, then that's the end. Thus, anything that prolongs his life would have to be a good thing.

Dunbar's logic is, therefore, an extension of Yossarian's  - that war is irrational because it forces people to put themselves in situations where they might die. Clevinger represents the "carpe diem" school, and believes that war makes life interesting, and therefore more "lively."

Chapter 5 Quotes

Sure there’s a catch . . . Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.

Related Characters: Doc Daneeka (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

This is perhaps the most famous, and deadly earnest, joke in the novel. Doc Daneeka tells Yossarian that he, Doc, can only keep Yossarian from flying if Yossarian is proved to be insane. But asking not to fly is proof of sanity, because anyone would have to be crazy to volunteer to fly missions over Italy - since the chance of dying is so high. Thus, in trying to escape war, Yossarian behaves rationally and is forced to continue fighting in the war. If Yossarian were to volunteer, then his behavior would be irrational, and would qualify him, in Doc's eyes, for removal from duty - since no sane man would want to fly under these conditions.

Yossarian here hits upon one of the foundational truths of the novel - that war is sustained by a paradox, that people must hurl themselves in the way of danger, irrationally, in order to show how rational and courageous they are - and that war itself continues despite the best efforts of the people fighting the war to stop it. It is as if war takes on a will of its own, and continues without any interference. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Even among men lacking all distinction he [Major Major] inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Major Major
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Another of the paradoxical characters in the novel, Major Major has, in the words of the narrator, never done much of anything in life - he has always been "a mediocrity." Yet he keeps getting promoted, perhaps in part because his name is Major - but perhaps, too, because he is simply in the right place at the right time. He succeeds in his career precisely because he is not opposed to anyone, because he never takes a stance on anything.

Heller is a critic of what he perceives to be the static, lead-footed quality of military bureaucracy. Yossarian himself notes that the military seems to reward those who do nothing to ruffle anyone's feathers - the military is, really, a machine that runs on its own ability to keep running, and soldiers who aid in this "forward motion" without opposing their superiors tend to be rewarded. In this regard, Major Major really is the best at what he does - he is the "most mediocre" and "unimpressive" of all. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

The Germans are being driven out [of Italy], and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong.

Related Symbols: Catch-22, Rome
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

The old man Nately discovers in Rome argues that it is Italy's very weakness that is the source of its strength. Nately believes this is a horrible, unpatriotic thing for the old man to argue for - yet the old man insists that weakness, for Italy, makes the country strong. Nately wonders how this can be.

The old man counters that Italy, though not principled, is adaptable, in ways that Germany and the United States could never be. Germany's principles have led it into the current conflict, in which it will be destroyed. And America's principles force Americans to defend freedoms around the world, often at great cost. But Italy's principle is simply survival, at least according to the old man. This means that when occupying powers are gone, Italy can go right back to being Italy, without concern for foreign involvement. This principle of self-preservation over all else keeps Italy alive, the old man insists. 

Chapter 24 Quotes

But the Germans are also members in good standing of the syndicate, and it’s my job to protect their rights as shareholders. . . . Don’t you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany?

Related Characters: Milo Minderbinder (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

Milo here argues for yet another kind of paradox. Because he has an import-export business, he feels it is his contractual obligation to protect his merchandise at all costs. Sometimes this means doing business with the Germans, which Yossarian finds, at best, to be politically suspect. Sometimes this means actively siding with the Germans, to make sure that Americans do not blockade the delivery of his goods. 

When Yossarian argues that the latter activity is most definitely an act of treason, Milo counters that it is simply a defense of his contract. And contracts, Milo insists, are an American tradition, unbreakable in their power. To violate a contract would be, in Milo's mind, to consort with the enemy. But making a profit through whatever means are necessary and available - that is, for Milo, a patriotic thing, the highest ideal to which an American man can ascribe. Although Yossarian finds this utterly absurd reasoning, he nevertheless is impressed by the convolutions of Milo's argument in favor of self-preservation. 

Chapter 27 Quotes

“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker), Major Sanderson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 313
Explanation and Analysis:

Sanderson believes that Yossarian is insane, and indeed, he wants Yossarian to be insane, as it makes his job as therapist more interesting. Sanderson complains that in his position he is often lonely, that no one in the group cares for him, and that the only excitement he has comes in the form of second-hand sex dreams, told to him by his patients.

Yossarian insists that, yes, he does have a fear of death, and that he doesn't want to put himself in a position where he might die or be injured. Sanderson considers this to be a signal indicator of insanity, because, after all, Yossarian's anxiety about death is overpowering - it keeps him from doing his job as it is intended to be done. Yet Sanderson does not believe he has the power to keep Yossarian out of active duty - Yossarian's insanity would have to be even more pronounced to keep him on the ground and out of harm's way. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

The War Department replied touchingly that there had been no error and that she [Mrs. Daneeka] was undoubtedly the victim of some sadistic and psychotic forger in her husband’s squadron. The letter to husband was returned unopened, stamped KILLED IN ACTION.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Mrs. Daneeka
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 353
Explanation and Analysis:

Because Daneeka is afraid of flying, he asks to be placed on the flight logs of various planes, so he can "serve" his necessary hours in the air. McWatt agreed, on the day of the tragic accident, to "have" Daneeka on the logs. The rest of the airmen jumped out, but of course Daneeka did not, because he was not on the plane to begin with. But because Daneeka was not found with the other crewmen in the water, the War Department falsely believed that he died in the crash along with McWatt.

Mrs. Daneeka and the other soldiers then have an immensely difficult time convincing the War Department that Daneeka is, in fact, still alive. Because he has "died" bureaucratically, on the records sheet of the unit he is officially dead, and the bureaucracy is so slow-moving and dim-witted that it can do nothing to change this error once it has been written down. 

Chapter 33 Quotes

It just isn’t right for a nice girl like you to go looking for other men to sleep with. I’ll give you all the money you need, so you won’t have to do it any more.

Related Characters: Nately (speaker), Nately’s Whore and her kid sister
Related Symbols: Rome
Page Number: 369
Explanation and Analysis:

Nately does what officers are told not to do when on leave - he falls in love with a woman in Rome, a prostitute. She wants only to go to sleep, but finds that she cannot - because too many other officers seek her attentions. When finally she does sleep, she is refreshed, and she agrees to "date" Nately.

But Nately finds that her habits die hard. In particular, she does not wish to wear clothes, because she is accustomed to sitting around apartments semi-nude, waiting for clients. She does not understand why this behavior hurts Nately, and Nately, try though he might to convince her otherwise, cannot.

Nately's love for his girlfriend is a kind of foil to Yossarian's love, both for Nurse Duckett and for Luciana, whom he still seeks out when in Rome. These romances are all nonstarters - based on impossibilities and miscommunications, just like the miscommunications that occur within the unit before and during battle. 

Chapter 34 Quotes

“They’re going to disappear him.”
“They’re what? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I heard them talking behind a door.”
. . .
“It doesn’t make sense. it isn’t even good grammar. What the hell does it mean when they disappear someone?”

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker), Nurses Duckett and Cramer (speaker), Dunbar
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 378
Explanation and Analysis:

Dunbar, in the eyes of the unit's officers, has been breaking far too many rules - far more than his fellow soldiers, who, the narrative has thus far demonstrated, have no trouble breaking lots of rules. When Nurses Duckett and Cramer state that Dunbar will be "disappeared," however, Yossarian's first response is a grammatical one - he doesn't consider "disappear" to be a transitive verb, something that can be done to someone. He is confused by their logic.

But just as the Army can argue that living people are "officially" dead, or that "sane" soldiers must continue to fly insanely dangerous missions, it can also simply make a soldier "disappear" once it is tired of that soldier. Dunbar's actions have made him like an enemy, but worse - for the enemy, of course, exists enough to torment the members of the unit. When Dunbar is disappeared, he no longer exists, but nor does he not exist - he simply is no longer a person in any sense: he has vanished entirely. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

No, sir . . . it’s generally known that you’ve flown only two missions. And that one of those occurred when Aarfy accidentally flew you over enemy territory while navigating you to Naples for a black-market water cooler.

Related Characters: Milo Minderbinder (speaker), Aarfy, Colonel Cathcart
Page Number: 382
Explanation and Analysis:

Milo makes fun of Cathcart, who, though he dispatches men into harm's way, does not fly missions himself, out of a fear of being shot down. Milo too wants to get out of flying missions, in part out of rational avoidance of danger, but in part to run his business, which he finds to be extremely profitable, especially as Germany becomes weakened and more in need of the goods Milo supplies.

Milo has learned a great deal of trickery over the course of the war, and in this instance he tricks Cathcart, who, like Milo, wants a slice of the M & M industries profits. It is important to note that, in his satire of the relation between capital and war-time activities, Heller seems conscious of the potential for conquering armies, like the Americans in this case, to profit from the very people whom they are fighting. 

Chapter 37 Quotes

Do you know what he wants? He wants us to march. He wants everyone to march!

Related Characters: Scheisskopf
Page Number: 402
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes from one of the more ridiculous characters in a novel full of them. Scheisskopf loves one thing and one thing only, as a military man: parades. He believes that parades are the heart and soul of the military enterprise, and he schedules them with great gusto whenever he can. All the other soldiers are horrified at these parades, because parades mean marching, and marching means physical exertion, especially for the men who are accustomed to sitting at their desks all day, sending other men to fight the war and put their lives in danger.

Heller here satirizes the Army's static quality - the tendency for officers to forget the reality of the field, and to take great comfort in their safe desk-work. Scheisskopf's idea for organization has nothing to do with battlefield tactics, and it will certainly not help the war effort from a strategic perspective. But it will force lots of men to march, and that, for Scheisskopf, is an absolute good in itself.