Joseph Heller

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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.

Paradox and Impossibility

Catch-22 is founded upon a specific “catch,” or logical paradox, introduced in a conversation between Doc Daneeka and Yossarian. This formulation is the novel’s most memorable: because war is dangerous, it is sane behavior to avoid war. So if Yossarian wants to stop flying missions, he is sane and fit to fly, and must therefore fly more missions. Only if Yossarian did want to fly these dangerous missions would he be insane, and subsequently…

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War and Bureaucracy

The novel also offers a commentary on the absurdity of war, and of the bureaucracies wars create. For example: Major Major appears to have been promoted to his position simply because of his name, not his aptitude, and he remains in this position while doing nothing. The chaplain’s assistant, Whitcomb, is an atheist who will carry out none of his superior’s directives out of a desire to ascend to the role of chaplain himself…

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Communication and Miscommunication

The novel opens with Yossarian censoring letters—blocking out important military information—while lying in the hospital. He begins signing his name as Washington Irving or Irving Washington. This introduces a theme of communication, and garbled communication, that runs throughout the text. Appleby, a soldier and superlative Ping-Pong player, is told by Orr that he has flies in his eyes, but hears that he has “sties in his eyes.” Aarfy claims not to be able to…

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Gallows Humor

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…

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Self-interest, Altruism, and Morality

Many characters in Catch-22 undergo moral crises, wherein they must decide between self-interest (a concern for their own safety and wellbeing) or altruism (a concern for the wellbeing of others). The chaplain, initially a morally-upright and religious man, flirts with immorality by pretending to have a fake disease and asking to spend time in the hospital. He realizes, however, that he ought instead to follow his orders and resist military authority without actively revolting…

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