by Joseph Heller
Captain John Yossarian
When we think of World War II, we have to admit that we always imagine life in black and white. Think about it—most of our images of the war (with the exception of Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Basterds) come directly from History Channel documentaries or photos in our old social studies textbooks. But whatever comes to mind when you think about American soldiers fighting in Europe, we're betting that you're not imagining someone as darkly funny and rebellious as Yossarian in Catch-22. The tone of the novel seems less Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and more like MASH. We're not sure which of the two is more realistic.
The thing is, even though Yossarian is fighting in World War II, Heller is careful not to criticize this particular war. Instead, he focuses his criticism on the way governments treat their soldiers during war—any war. Catch-22 rages against war and a state bureaucracy that uses men like replaceable parts in a giant machine.
It's through Yossarian's point of view that the redundant, circular logic of bureaucracy becomes excruciatingly clear. Remember, we never actually see "the enemy" that Yossarian's squadron is fighting. All of Yossarian's antagonists are men in the upper ranks of the American military who keep extending his tour of duty.
But before we go any further, let's talk about the man himself: John Yossarian is a 28-year-old bombardier (that is, a member of a fighter plane crew who is in charge of aiming and releasing bombs), a captain in the U.S. Fighting 256th Squadron.
He's also anti-heroic from the first moment he appears on the page, as he lies in a military hospital nursing a liver illness that he's using to keep from flying missions.
Through a series of recollections, flashbacks, and out-of-order storytelling, we discover that Yossarian "once" was brave: he flew two passes over a target to be sure that his bombs landed correctly, even though it cost the lives of several men in his squadron. But then something happened that cost Yossarian his courage—we'll get to that later.
By the time the book begins, Yossarian has become (legitimately) convinced that people are constantly trying to kill him, and begins to work exclusively in his self-interest. Still, he does manage to maintain some concern for his fellow men, an unusual trait that makes him the ethical and emotional center of the novel.
It's pretty clear that Yossarian is the main character of Catch-22. Apart from the fact that he's in almost every chapter and gets by far the most page space, the novel structures itself around the slow revelation of the single trauma he can't move past. The narrative's circular progress back and forth through time gives the reader the impression that we can't get past Yossarian's trauma either, an effect that Heller maintains right until the final chapters of the novel.
Yossarian and Books
As a person, Yossarian's origins are unclear; all we know is that he's fighting in an American squadron and that he identifies as Assyrian. At one point his nemesis, Colonel Cathcart, expresses disgust at Yossarian's foreign-sounding name. Cathcart's bigotry tells us that Yossarian appears to be an outsider, no matter where he might have been born. He's a part of the squadron because many of his fellows respect him for his mischief making, but he has also been excluded from the squadron for his odd, erratic behavior.
Heller does, however, give Yossarian plenty of literary ancestors. Yossarian describes himself as "Tarzan, Mandrake, and Flash Gordon. He was Bill Shakespeare. He was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; he was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Sweeney in the nightingales among trees. He was miracle ingredient Z-247" (2.48). Squadron member Clevinger also calls Yossarian "Raskolnikov," the name of the protagonist of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
See the "Allusions" section for a more detailed list of references, but for now, we'll just leave it at this: Tarzan, Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman, Lot, even the melancholy and murderous Raskolnikov—all of these are mythic outsiders, men who have lost their homes and live outside of society. And in the cases of Raskolnikov and Cain, they are exiled because they commit murder, which might clue us in to how Yossarian feels at this point about shedding blood.
Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not Out to Get You
The early chapters of Catch 22 critique the self-sacrificing patriotism that Heller believes war inspires in people, especially in young men being sent to the front. Yossarian is the conduit for these critiques: he is paranoid that people are trying to murder him, but whenever he raises his fears in conversation, he is reminded, "They're shooting everybody."
People are actually trying to kill him. Nearly every day. It is a war after all. Yossarian's proof that men are trying to murder him is that "strangers he [doesn't] know [shoot] at him with cannons every time he [flies] up into the air to drop bombs on them" (2.19).
In other words, Yossarian views every attack against his squadron as one against him personally, rather than against the squadron as a whole. In Yossarian's mind, dead is dead, in either case.
Major Sanderson, the local psychiatrist, takes it upon himself to psychoanalyze Yossarian in what turns out to be a pointed attack on Heller's part against the psychiatric profession. Sanderson diagnoses Yossarian with "a morbid aversion to dying. [He] probably resent[s] the fact that [he's] at war and might get [his] head blown off any second" (27.143). What's more unnatural than not wanting to die is suppressing your survival instincts and throwing yourself willingly into harm's way.
So—How Crazy Is He?
If there's one adjective that gets thrown around more than any other in Catch-22, it's "crazy." Pretty much everyone in the novel thinks Yossarian has lost his marbles. Still, while Yossarian may be a bit odd (he does have that habit of wandering around naked), no one else is certifiably sane either.
A "Catch-22" refers to a frustrating type of circular logic, one that repeats throughout the novel. A Catch-22 always turns back in on itself, making it impossible to progress.
Doc Daneeka uses this logic to prove that Yossarian can't be discharged from the army on mental health grounds. Yossarian tries to get sent home through a medical discharge by pointing out that everyone in the squadron thinks he's crazy. Doc Daneeka notes:
There [is] only one catch and that [is] Catch-22, which specifie[s] that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that [are] real and immediate [is] the process of a rational mind. (5.64)
In other words, if you're crazy enough to ask to leave the army, that's proof that you're too sane to be allowed to go. But, Doc Daneeka points out, it's also part of the rule that you can't be discharged on the grounds of insanity unless you ask.
The thing that gets to Yossarian is not just that he is trapped into doing a crazy number of missions for the military, but also that no one else around him seems to recognize the absurdity of his situation.
This point is especially clear when Yossarian discovers that Nately's prostitute and her kid sister have both been turned out of their home onto the street. When Yossarian demands to know what right the soldiers and police had to kick them out, an old woman replies, "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing" (39.21).
This is the real logic of Catch-22: it's a name given to any policy that benefits people in power. There's no escape from it because those with authority can compel you to obey, no matter how ridiculous the rule is.
Yossarian's process of discovery, from the moment he first hears one definition of Catch-22 (5.63) to this revelation (39.21), also gives the novel its suspense, as we keep peeling away layer after layer of Catch-22s until we reach its heart.
Yossarian's astonishment at each new form of Catch-22 reminds us that this is the driving force of the novel. We start to see a Catch-22 as a sometimes humorous, sometimes brutal revelation that bureaucracy and government can become a way to trap the individual.
A Regular Ladies Man
Yossarian loves the ladies. This novel has more references to sex than anything else we read in high school except maybe Shakespeare. Yossarian's always visiting prostitutes or sleeping with local girls in the grass. His relationship with Nurse Duckett is entirely physical, and contains some of the few descriptions of Yossarian's body that we see in the novel (apparently, he has bronzed skin and a "wide, long, sinewy back" [30.32]). Interestingly, he only has two affairs in the novel that involve any dialogue.
One of the two women he converses with is the nameless Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife, who, along with her friend Dori Duz, really likes to seduce the men under the Lieutenant's command. She and Yossarian wind up engaged in a debate about God. The wife takes the pro side and Yossarian takes con. The Lieutenant's wife sobs, "the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God" (30.49). Yossarian laughs and says, "You don't believe in the God you want to, and I won't believe in the God I want to" (30.50).
This exchange is striking for several reasons: first, the Lieutenant's wife has a Catch-22 logic of her own when she claims that even though she doesn't believe in God, he is good and merciful. Even though he doesn't exist. The appearance of this contradictory logic outside the battlefield suggests that irrationality may just be a general human trait. Heller is cynical here about how we think as a species: we're all self-deceiving, illogical, and irrational.
A second thing that we can't help but notice is that Yossarian knows the Lieutenant's wife is irrational and illogical; his laughter signals to us that Heller gets the joke. We, Yossarian, and Heller are all having a laugh at the expense of many of the novel's other characters. Heller uses Yossarian's quips to bring the reader closer to Yossarian – and to distance the reader from the novel's other characters far enough that we can laugh at them.
Then there is Luciana. Luciana has an "invisible scar" (15.57) that she will not let Yossarian see, though he can feel it running down her back. The scar is the result of an American air raid.
Luciana exposes Yossarian in one of his rare Catch-22 moments: she gives him her phone number but predicts that, once he leaves her house, he'll become so flattered that such a pretty girl slept with him that he'll tear up the number. This is, in fact, exactly what he does.
The idea is that once Luciana is out of Yoassian's sight, he values her less and tears up her number. But as soon as he's torn up the number, he realizes that he really wants her after all. Unfortunately, he can't get in touch with her, so Yossarian never sees Luciana again.
This tells us that Yossarian may not be ready for his life to change. He wanders around in shock from the Traumatic Moment and refuses to allow his life to move beyond it. Despite his frequent protests against the injustices of Catch-22, Yossarian has his own self-destructive streak, one that becomes clearer as the novel progresses.
So, Just How Bad Is His PTSD?
A big question is how bad Yossarian's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is. We know that there was a time before Yossarian adopted his rebellious efforts to get out of the military. Heller tells us that Yossarian became a captain "at a moment when he was up to his own ass in the same vile, excruciating dilemma of duty and damnation" (13.46).
Yossarian brought his squadron around to fly over a target twice, even though they were exposed to enemy fire, because he wasn't able to hit his target on the first pass. This act of foolhardiness makes the brass look bad, especially since the bridge Yossarian succeeded in destroying may have been the wrong bridge. To cover up the mistakes in their orders, Colonels Cathcart and Korn give Yossarian a medal.
But in that scene, his men "had all died in the distance of a mute and secluded agony" (13.46). This cannot be said for Snowden, the radio gunner whose death echoes through the novel from Chapter Four, when Yossarian asks offhand, "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" to the penultimate chapter that bears Snowden's name. Yossarian has to watch Snowden die, and it leaves him forever changed.
Snowden, who was part of Yossarian's small fighter plane crew, dies slowly of hypothermia as he bleeds out from a ghastly wound in his thigh. Snowden's lips turn blue as he murmurs, "I'm cold ... Please help me. I'm cold" (22.12). Yeah, pretty freaky.
At the time of his death, Yossarian barely knows Snowden; he refers to him as a stranger. Nonetheless, it is after this fatal mission over Avignon that "Yossarian [loses] his nerve" (22.1).
After Snowden's death, Yossarian develops a penchant for the absurd, doing erratic things such as walking around naked and appearing at his medal ceremony without his uniform. He swears that he never wishes to wear a uniform again. He also falls into a series of moans throughout the ceremony, accompanied by his despairing friend Dunbar and his naive colleague Nately.
His moans are accompanied by a haze of lust for General Dreedle's nurse. The nurse has never appeared before but seems to represent, in that moment, the sensual life that his shattered confidence has made impossible:
He moaned in deep despair suddenly at the thought that he might never see again this lovely woman to whom he had never spoken a word and whom he now loved so pathetically. (21.60)
Yossarian's sudden awareness of his own mortality, and of that of all those who surround him, provokes him to seek refuge at his military hospital.
When he can't stay sick any longer, he resolves to redraw the line on the map to convince his generals that they have already taken Bologna as planned and do not need to be deployed there. When his squadron is finally sent to Bologna, he orders them to turn back to avoid being shot. They spend the afternoon at the beach.
Yossarian's concern for his own safety climaxes as he heads towards a breakdown. When the young soldiers stationed in his tent let off machine-gun fire as he's sleeping, Yossarian reacts with a rage totally disproportionate to their transgression. And when McWatt tries fancy maneuvers in the plane they're flying together, Yossarian squeezes McWatt's throat until he finally lands. This incident provokes McWatt to observe: "you sure must be in pretty bad shape. You ought to go home" (30.9). Yossarian responds, "They won't let me" (30.10).
Yossarian's intensifying paranoia is accompanied with steadily increasing mentions of Snowden's name, until it all culminates in an extended flashback to Snowden's death starting in Chapter Thirty. After this, the remaining fourth of the book continues as Yossarian loses his remaining friends to war, witnesses Rome's civilian chaos, and is attacked on several occasions by the distraught former prostitute of his friend Nately.
The non-chronological but thematically important contrast of Snowden's death with the chaos of the final days of the war creates an ethical problem for Yossarian: 1) his own mortality has been brought home to him by Snowden's demise, and he's been pursuing his self-protection quite actively since that event, but 2) he's seen how much the world sometimes sucks, and can't entirely give up on his wish to help others.
Yossarian's moment of truth comes when he is given a tough decision. After being stabbed by Nately's prostitute and getting into trouble for refusing to fly additional combat missions, Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn offer Yossarian a deal. If he "says nice things about them to everybody and never [criticizes] them to anybody for making the rest of the men fly more missions" (41.69) beyond their tours, then the Colonels will commend Yossarian and send him home.
Delighted with the prospect of going home, Yossarian agrees to this damning deal with the Colonels. He then tells the horrified chaplain, "Don't worry ... I'm not going to do it" (41.77). Yossarian's decision to consider the other men in his squadron over his self-interest gives him the ethical freedom to make an important decision: he's going to try to escape the American government's war machine by following Orr's example and rowing to Sweden.
In an impassioned conversation with the sympathetic Major Danby, Yossarian tells him:
Christ, Danby, I earned that medal I got, no matter what their reasons were for giving it to me. I've flown seventy goddam combat missions. Don't talk to me about fighting to save my country. I've been fighting all along to save my country. Now I'm going to fight a little to save myself. The country's not in danger any more, but I am. (42.71)
In other words, there are moments when national interest has to overcome personal safety, but there must be an individual amidst the violence. War deadens people's emotional responses, while bureaucracy schools them into Catch-22-style thinking. Yossarian, as one of the last genuinely free thinkers left in the novel, can only protect his clarity of mind by leaving the front entirely. Maybe he'll never make it to Sweden, but his effort to get there proves the importance of protecting the independence of his mind over what the Colonels offered—security of body.Captain John Yossarian Timeline