In only the second sentence of the novel, the narrator employs two of its most common techniques: surprise and contradiction.
The comment that Yossarian, a man, falls in love at first sight with the chaplain, also a man, will catch most readers up short -- or certainly would have in 1961 when the book was first published. When the encounter is actually described a few pages later, there is no talk of love, let alone at first sight, though later in their conversation Yossarian is said to regard the chaplain with “affection.”
Note, however, that Yossarian also casually and even unintentionally victimizes the chaplain as described on the next page, under “Washington Irving.”
By the second page, the reader is treated to another situation that will be repeated many times in the book: arbitrariness. Officers and enlisted men will arbitrarily exercise power over one another, simply because they can, or arbitrary events will happen for no explicable reason.
Here, given the monotonous job of censoring letters written by the enlisted men in the hospital ward, Yossarian assuages his boredom by playing games, such as removing all the adjectives and adverbs, then censoring all the articles (a, an the), or blacking out names and addresses.
Though it seems like somewhat harmless fun, it does affect the lives of other men, and it mimics larger examples of arbitrariness that will govern Yossarian’s fortunes and choices -- one of the most crucial being Colonel Cathcart’s repeated decision to raise the number of bombing missions everyone in his squadrom must fly before being allowed to go home.
This is the first mention of the principle that gives the book its title, though it is not explained here, and will not begin to be described for almost another 40 pages.
On page 46, the fullest explanation of Catch-22 is offered during a conversation between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka. Catch-22 “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, who is always eager to fly, can be grounded because he has to be crazy. But if he ever requests to be grounded, he will obviously be sane and his request will have to be denied. He doesn’t have to fly since he wants to, but if he ever doesn’t want to then he’ll have to.
In other words, there’s absolutely no way Yossarian can get out of the bombing missions that terrify him more and more as time passes.
A pioneer of American literature, Washington Irving was born the year the American Revolution ended (1783) and died two years before the commencement of the Civil War (1859). Biographer, essayist, and historian, he is best known today for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The image at the right is actually an 1861 copy by Matthew Brady of a daguerreotype of Irving that was made by John Plumbe sometime between 1855 and 1860. Brady also reversed Plumbe's original.
There is no particular reason Yossarian should substitute the name of Washington Irving on censored correspondence -- his choice of it seems to have been utterly arbitrary -- but that’s the point. We will witness Yossarian become the victim of so many other arbitrary regulations and decisions by others above and below him in the chain of command. In this instance, Yossarian arbitrarily and even unknowingly victimizes someone else, in fact the exact person he was described a page earlier as being “madly in love” with, though at this point he apparently has not made his acquaintance: Chaplain Tappman.
This passing reference to “Washington Irving” will become an ongoing theme in the book. The C.I.D. man (see below, same page) notices the name and becomes obsessed with tracking down the responsible party. Yossarian mentions the mysterious name to Milo Minderbender in Chapter 7. In Chapter 9 Major Major gets the idea to forge the name on documents after hearing about it from the C.I.D. man (pages 90 and 93-96 in this edition). The name will vaguely cross the consciousnesses of other characters, such as Colonel Cathcart.
If Yossarian or Major Major managed to execute a decent forgery of Washington Irving's actual signature -- the odds are they didn't, because they probably didn't know what it looked like, or care -- then it would have resembled the name above, as the actual personage wrote it.
In Chapter 36, “The Cellar,” the chaplain finally gets interrogated about the very letter Yossarian defaced back in Chapter 1.
Because it was originally called the Criminal Investigation Division when it was founded during World War I at the direction of General John J. Pershing, the command’s agents and operations are still known as “CID” and certainly were referred to as such during the Second World War.
This is probably as good a place as any to recall that although Catch-22 seems to take place mostly in what we would now call the U.S. Air Force, at the time the novel takes place bombers and fighter planes were still under the aegis of the U.S. Army. They went by the name of U.S. Army Air Service between 1918 and 1926, the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1926 to 1941, and U.S. Army Air Forces from 1941 to 1947.
The U.S. Air Force only became a separate branch of the military on Sept. 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of 1947.
In other words, it is on the other side of the Italian "boot" from Pianosa.
At right is a scene with Marilyn Monroe from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," directed by Howard Hawks, which gives a sense of the color saturation of Technicolor.
The narrator likely describes the Texan from Texas this way to suggest that he is garish, hyperreal, a little much.
The Dodgers and the New York Giants developed a heated rivalry when they were situated across the East River from each other, and this continued when both teams moved to California (the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco) after the 1957 season.
Yossarian refers to the Dodgers as being something that is as American as mom and apple pie.
This is the first appearance of a word that will reappear many times in this book. Who or what is crazy, and on what grounds, is a constant point of contention between the characters (almost everyone will accuse almost everyone else of being crazy at one point or another) as well as an issue in the book as a whole.
Though most of the men of the 256th Squadron will accuse the others of being crazy, and defend themselves against the charge of being crazy, Yossarian will repeatedly try to get himself declared crazy. He will act crazy, too, in the hope of getting out of having to fly more bombing missions.
M.P. is the common military service abbreviation for Military Police.
The corps was pretty new at the time the novel takes place, having been established as an auxiliary unit (the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) in 1942 and given full status the following year. About 150,000 women served in the corps during the Second World War, and individual members in the service were familiarly known as “WACs.” The 1943 painting at left, by Dan V. Smith, depicts a WAC air controller at a microphone in an airport tower.
A “Red Cross girl” would be a nurse with the American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton in 1881. The poster at right also dates from the Second World War.
Anabaptists are Christians of the radical Reformation of 16th-century Europe, considered Protestant by some, although some consider Anabaptism to be a distinct movement from Protestantism. Most Anabaptists adher to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount which precluded taking oaths, participating in military actions, and participating in civil government.
Harvard is the oldest and wealthiest college in North America, founded in 1636 and located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I.B.M. is the multinational computer giant, International Business Machines. The company has become known more recently by the nickname “Big Blue,” reflected in the predominant color of its more recent logos. The image at right is the company's original business logo, which it used from 1924 to 1946.
Before the era of desktop computers and laptops, the clients for IBM’s huge mainframe computers were mostly large corporations and government agencies such as the Army.
Only around the turn of the 21st century was it revealed that IBM subsidiary Dehomag had sold punched card equipment and data processing technology to Nazi Germany, and that the equipment was used to help administer the systematic genocide of the Jews.
That a marine mammal specialist from Harvard would have been sent to the front with the Medical Corps because of a malfunctioning anode in a computer is another example of the arbitrariness of fate in these men's (and, by implication, everyone's) lives.
The illustration at right comes from an 1892 edition of the book, published by C.H. Simonds Co.
First mention of the capital of Italy, which the characters of the story visit often for R-and-R (especially in the brothels), and where the emotional climax of the novel takes place, in Chapter 39, “The Eternal City” (one of Rome’s most common nicknames).
See more about Rome on the Settings page.
This is the first reference to a guy we’ll hear a lot about, but not in any great detail. Naturally, it’s startling to hear about a dead man in any case, but that there should be one in Yossarian’s own tent is particularly unsettling. Of course, gradually we’ll be allowed to understand that there isn’t really a body in Yossarian’s tent; the “dead man” is yet another one of those casual paradoxes that populate this book: an Absence that’s a Presence.
Ferrara is a city and province of the same name in north central Italy. It’s west of Venice, considerably north of Rome, but only a short distance north/northeast of Bologna.
Both cities are situated in the Po River valley, although Ferrara stands on one of its main tributaries while Bologna is only near the river. Ferrara has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its beauty and cultural significance, while Bologna is highly industrial and cosmopolitan, and home to the oldest university in the Western world, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088.
When Yossarian refers to these two cities here, however, he is speaking only of his squadron’s bombing missions against them.
Heller cannily assigned his hero a nonexistent ethnicity (or rather, one that is ancient and of uncertain historic validity today). At various times they have been known as Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, or Syriac Christians.
Assyria was a Middle Eastern kingdom named after its capital, the ancient city of Assur, centered on the Upper Tigris River where Persia and eventually Iraq would later be situated. The three primary periods of Assyrian ascendancy lasted from the 20th century BCE to the mid sixth century BCE, after which the neo-Babylonian, Median, Parthian, Roman, and Persian empires took over in turn.
It’s also an appropriate ethnic background for Yossarian because the Assyrians have a long history of being persecuted minorities, often driven from their homes by other peoples. Many emigrated to the Caucasus, Europe, and North America in recent centuries, or were periodically massacred (for example, by the Turks in 1914-20, and by the Iraqi government in 1933 and 1979).
The whole notion that the other men in his squadron would hate Yossarian "because he was Assyrian" is laughable, because they wouldn't know what that was.
In Closing Time, the sequel to Catch-22 that Heller published in 1994, Yossarian is said to be an actual Armenian (the name resembles one from that ethnic background) posing as an Assyrian.
Flash Gordon was the hero of a science fiction adventure, a rocket ship pilot, that first appeared in comic strip form in 1934. The story was intended to compete with a comic called Buck Rogers. The story went on to be dramatized in serial films, radio, television, and animated series.
Leon Mandrake was a Canadian magician (1911-1993), but Yossarian is probably comparing himself to a comic strip character, “Mandrake the Magician,” a specialist in hypnotic technique, who debuted in 1933 and continued to run as a color comic strip for the rest of the century -- also making appearances on radio and in films, theater, and television.
Bill Shakespeare was an English playwright.
Lot is another figure from the Book of Genesis, who sought to rescue his wife and daughters from the wicked city of Sodom, but whose wife did not heed the warning not to look back at the city and was turned into a pillar of salt. “Deirdre of the Sorrows” is the name of a play by Irish writer John Millington Synge, left unfinished by him but completed by William Butler Yeats in 1910, about the foremost figure from Irish mythology: Deirdre was so beautiful that kings repeatedly went to war over her.
The final reference is likely to a 1919 poem by T.S. Eliot, “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” which cynically presents its characters as mundane and vulgar, rather than romantic and heroic. Although it includes a Greek epigraph consisting of the final words of Agamemnon in the ancient Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, Eliot portrays Sweeney as brutish, abusive toward women, and undeserving of a heroic fate, so Yossarian’s use of the reference is ironic, sarcastic, and inappropriate -- as if he’s run out of steam.
Basically, Yossarian comes across here as what we used to call "a legend in his own mind."
Having misheard Yossarian’s claim to be a “supraman,” Clevinger thinks the captain has referred to himself as the comic-book superhero from the planet Krypton. The character was the creation of American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian artist Joe Shuster, who had come up with the character in 1932 but did not debut until Action Comics #1 in June 1938.
Superman received his own self-titled comic the following year (mostly filled with recycled stories) and made appearances in World’s Finest Comics and All Star Comics in the early 1940s.
Yossarian and his army buddies might well have seen Superman in the newspapers, where a daily comic strip and separate Sunday series had launched in 1939 and would run steadily until 1966. The image above is from a 1941 cartoon by the Fleischer Studios. At its peak, the Superman comic appeared in more than 300 daily newspapers and 90 Sunday papers, with a readership of roughly 20 million.
Jehovah is an anglicized version of the proper name for God in Hebrew. The earliest Latin text that employs a name that sounds like it dates from the 13th century. Clevinger is accusing Yossarian of delusions of grandeur, even of godhood, which would be a nifty way to be declared crazy (and therefore unfit to fly).
In building on Clevinger’s accusation that he thinks he’s God, Yossarian is likely saying he sees everyone around him as “Nathaniel,” identified as one of the Twelve Apostles in the Gospel of John (although other gospel accounts refer to the character as “Bartholomew”). It comes from the Hebrew name Netanel, which means “God has given,” from natan (“has given”) and el (“God”). Of course Yossarian instantly pretends not to know or understand the name in his next remark because he’s playing with Clevinger’s head.
Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is the hapless protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, who deludes himself into thinking he is a Nietzschean “great man” with the prerogative to do and take what he wants. He murders an old woman pawnbroker for her money and then spends most of the book wrestling with his conscience and playing an intellectual cat-and-mouse game with police detective Porfiry Petrovich.
Smyrna is an ancient Greek city near Izmir, on the western coast of Turkey. It actually consists of two sites dating from different periods: Old Smyrna, an Aeolian settlement dating back to the 11th century BCE, and a newer city dating from about the time of Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BCE and largely destroyed by an earthquake in the 2nd century AD.
The photo above shows the agora, or public assembly place, of Smyrna today, with columns along the western stoa (a covered walkway or portico) at the rear.
It is anachronistic for the narrative to say Milo is in Smyrna on business, since the city consists largely of archaeological digs.
Iranian of course refers more specifically to the people and culture in the land between the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, to the east of Israel and Jordan and the west of Iraq and Afghanistan, previously known as Persia.
Parmesan is an adjective that can refer to anything from, or in the style of, the north central Italian province of Parma. The most famous example is Parmesan cheese, often used to garnish pizza.
As an adjective, Benedictine could refer to anything coming from a spiritual community of monks that follows the Rule of St. Benedict, but in this context it refers to an herbal liqueur beverage invented by Alexandre Legrand in 1863. He was trying to recreate an aromatic herbal beverage reportedly used by Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy but lost during the French Revolution.
In other words, this is one fulsome meal.
He was best known for playing plain-spoken idealists, and daughter Jane, son Peter, and granddaughter Bridget all became actors of note.
A musette bag is another name for the U.S Army haversack or backpack used by all infantrymen to carry their bedroll, clothing, rations, and personal items. Flaps and adjustable buckle-straps held it together.