Catch-22’s Capt. John Yossarian is both a member of the squadron’s community and alienated by it. Although he flies and lives with the men, he is an outsider, as many of the men believe he’s insane. Even his Assyrian name is strange—no one has heard it before. His contrast to the men of his squandron leads readers to expect something exceptional from him.
But Yossarian’s characteristics are not those of a hero. He doesn’t wager his life to save others. On the contrary, his goal throughout the story is to save his skin. The values of the system in which he orbits are so off-kilter, expecting men to risk death for trivialities, that his approach might be the one logical and moral stance available to him. In a world where life is undervalued, maybe it’s possible to redefine heroism as self-preservation.
Yossarian’s mandate, though, creates a conflict for him. Determined to save his life, he cares no less for the members of his squadron. His horror at Snowden’s death stems as much from the realization that he, too, is vulnerable as it does from grief. In the end, when offered a choice between his safety and the safety of the squadron, Yossarian cannot choose himself over others. The desire for self-preservation has created a catch-22—life is not worth living without a moral concern for fellow human beings, but a moral concern for others endangers one’s life.
Here’s how Joseph Heller introduces his protagonist, the 28-year-old B-25 bombardier and protagonist of Catch-22, John Yossarian.
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.
Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian. They read the chart at the foot of the bed and asked impatiently about the pain. They seemed irritated when he told them it was exactly the same.
“Still no movement?” the full colonel demanded.
The doctors exchanged a look when he shook his head.
“Give him another pill.”
Nurse Duckett made a note to give Yossarian another pill, and the four of them moved along to the next bed. None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors never suspected. They just suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.
Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.
After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. “They asked for volunteers. It’s very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I’ll write you the instant I get back.” And he had not written anyone since.
The passage goes on to say how Yossarian approached his job of censoring the enlisted men’s mail, arbitrarily inking out words and salutations, then inscribing “I yearn for you tragically A. T. Tappman, Chaplain, U.S. Army” at the bottom. As it was required to sign his name to the letters he reviewed, he amended those he left untouched with his signature while signing those he massacred with the pseudonym Washington Irving.
Heller exceeds the requirement to fascinate and does so in the blink of an eye.
Catch-22 ends with: "The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off." While Yossarian has come to realize that Catch-22 does not exist, the powers that reign claim it does (and the world believes them). The outcome, then, is the same—its far-reaching effects persist precisely because it does not exist, for how can something that does not exist be repealed, undone, overthrown? But recognizing the true catch-22, the hero can, finally, become free.