The thing about Catch-22 is that it has all of the elements of a classic novel, but they're out of order. We don't know the initial situation until Chapter Thirteen. We talk about the circular structure of the novel in the "Character Analysis" for Yossarian, so check out that section for more information. For now, bear with us as we try to arrange the plot in chronological order – against the grain of the novel itself.
Even though we only discover this tidbit of Yossarian's history many chapters into the novel, we're still counting it as the initial situation. Here's why: Yossarian's dedication to his early mission stands out in stark contrast to the next plot stage, his conflict with the military. We need to know this background information so that we understand that Yossarian's not just a random troublemaker or a coward. By the time the novel begins, he's had a genuine change of heart about his relationship to the American military.
Catch-22 begins with Yossarian's resistance to the military as he plots to stay in the hospital to avoid additional missions. From the first chapter on, examples of Yossarian's resistance to military discipline accumulate rapidly. But Yossarian's conflict with his higher-ups is most clearly revealed in Chapter Five, when Doc Daneeka explains the logic of Catch-22. He tells Yossarian that he could leave the military if he were crazy, but by asking to go, he's proven that he's sane – because no sane person would want to stay in the military. It's a Catch-22. Yossarian's concern for his own life is the root of this conflict, a fear that he learned somewhere between the "Initial Situation" and the beginning of the novel's "Conflict."
In the first stage of his conflict with the military, we see Yossarian's attempts to get out of missions by pleading insanity and sickness. His nudity at his own medal ceremony seems like it might be a good indicator of the former (see Yossarian's "Character Analysis" for more on this).
The conflict intensifies when Yossarian is assigned a bombing mission to Bologna in Chapter Twelve: he doesn't want to go, so he shifts the line on his commanders' map to indicate that they've already taken Bologna. He also poisons his squadron's food so that everyone appears too sick to attack. When they finally do fly the mission, Yossarian fakes a broken intercom on his plane and lands prematurely, without bombing anything.
It's worth noting that the complication of this plot stage is both internal and external. Internally, Yossarian's self-interest comes against his increasing concern for his squadron-mates. His decision to abandon the rest of the Fighting 256th leaves him worried about their fate even as he enjoys his own safety ("the nagging bitch of a doubt" [14.29]), and his initial efforts to prevent the mission entirely would have saved all of the men from what he believed would be certain death. It's no longer just Yossarian and the military at stake; the squadron starts to matter, too.
As for complications in Yossarian's external struggles with bureaucracy, the Bologna mission is particularly important. This mission leads to a reprimand and redeployment for Yossarian and his crew. Yossarian, thinking that this second mission over Bologna will be a milk run, is in fact injured. Speaking more generally, though, Yossarian's resistance to missions brings him to the attention of several key members of the military establishment, including vindictive, vile Captain Cathcart. Cathcart's hatred of Yossarian's protests over the increased number of missions (and of Yossarian's frequent nudity – see Chapter Twenty-One) brings us to the novel's ethical climax.
This proposed deal with the devil is the result of Yossarian's initial conflict with the army's bureaucracy. He wants to protect himself at all costs, but as he forms bonds with the other men in his squadron, his self-interest starts to extend to everyone around him. Yossarian doesn't want anyone to be compelled to fly extra missions they weren't drafted to fly. Here, Cathcart is offering Yossarian a way to save himself, but only at the expense of the other men in the squadron. Basically, he's being forced to choose between the plot's conflict (man vs. bureaucracy) and its complication (squadron vs. bureaucracy).
This chaotic novel, underlining the confusion of war, supplies us with plenty of suspense about the fate of these characters under fire. As we watch Orr, Chief White Halfoat, Kid Sampson, McWatt, and even Hungry Joe die (often in random, grotesquely unexpected ways), we realize that Heller has no interest in white-washing what happens to soldiers: anyone in the novel might die at any time.
But in the Classic Plot sense, the suspense comes as a result of the main ethical question at stake in the novel: having come face-to-face with the reality of death, Yossarian decides he doesn't want to stay in the army, (we're getting at the whole Snowden thing in the "Denouement"; suffice it to say that it's pretty significant that Yossarian's decision-making takes place in Chapter Forty-One, titled, "Snowden"). But he also doesn't want his remaining friends to be stuck flying an unheard of 80 combat missions. The suspense comes from the reader's disbelief that Yossarian could possibly choose self-interest as the lesson of his experiences in Italy. We want to know if he's going to go home or stay honest.
We said in the "Initial Situation" and "Conflict" sections of this analysis that something happened between these two plot points to change Yossarian's attitude towards the army entirely. Well, the denouement is the section of the plot when all is explained, and it is appropriate that the end of the ethical suspense of the novel coincides with the end of our suspense about the enigmatic Snowden.
Yossarian realizes that all of the men of his squadron have died, and that the contagious insanity of Catch-22, the insanity which drove Nately to die and leave his prostitute behind to stab Yossarian, McWatt to take the foolish risks that led to Kid Sampson's death and McWatt's suicide, and Hungry Joe to die with Huple's cat on his face, still remains in place if he makes the decision to cover up Colonel Cathcart's illegal mission-running. So Yossarian decides to let his ethical responsibility overcome his self-interest. He turns his back on Cathcart's deal.
The background of this choice becomes explicit in Chapter Forty-Two, in which we encounter the traumatic memory of Snowden for the last time. Yossarian's history with Snowden has been told throughout the novel. But it is only in this penultimate chapter that we learn what Snowden's death revealed to Yossarian. As Yossarian opened Snowden's flight suit to attempt to treat his wounds, the coils of Snowden's innards spilled out onto Yossarian. The reality of Snowden's injured, dying body is the secret that Yossarian uncovers: he discovers the truth that all man is matter, that everyone will die one day, even Yossarian himself.
Final decision made, Yossarian tells Major Danby, "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). This danger is not primarily physical any longer – by not choosing Cathcart's deal, we know that Yossarian has managed (at least to some degree) to overcome his fear of death. Rather, the true threat to Yossarian after the climax and denouement of the novel is to his integrity.
Hearing that Orr has successfully managed to escape to Sweden, Yossarian follows in his footsteps, even though, as he tells Major Danby, he has no chance of getting there. Yossarian knows that the deck will always be stacked against him in the army, and the best way to play is not to play at all. Having decided that he cannot fly any more missions and that he cannot accept Cathcart's deal, Yossarian's only remaining, principled choice is desertion. And while we will never know whether he lives or dies, at least we know that Yossarian leaves the army a free man.