by: Joseph Heller


John Yossarian, the protagonist of Catch-22, is both a member of the squadron’s community and alienated by it. Although he flies and lives with the men, he is marked as an outsider by the fact that many of the men think he is insane. Even his Assyrian name is unusual; no one has ever heard it before. His difference from the rest of the men leads us to expect something exceptional from Yossarian.

But Yossarian’s characteristics are not those of a typical hero. He does not risk his life to save others; in fact, his primary goal throughout the novel is to avoid risking his life whenever possible. But the system of values around Yossarian is so skewed that this approach seems to be the only truly moral stance he can take, if only because it is so logical. What we come to hate about military bureaucracy as we read Catch-22 is its lack of logic; men are asked to risk their lives again and again for reasons that are utterly illogical and unimportant. In this illogical world, Yossarian seizes hold of one true, logical idea—that he should try to preserve life. Unlike a conventional hero, however, Yossarian does not generalize this idea to mean that he should risk his own life in attempts to save everybody else’s. In a world where life itself is so undervalued and so casually lost, it is possible to redefine heroism as simple self-preservation.

This insistence on self-preservation creates a conflict for Yossarian. Even though he is determined to save his own life at all costs, he nonetheless cares deeply for the other members of his squadron and is traumatized by their deaths. His ongoing horror at Snowden’s death stems both from his pity for Snowden and from his horrified realization that his own body is just as destructible as Snowden’s. In the end, when offered a choice between his own safety and the safety of the entire squadron, Yossarian is unable to choose himself over others. This concern for others complicates the simple logic of self-preservation, and creates its own Catch-22: life is not worth living without a moral concern for the well-being of others, but a moral concern for the well-being of others endangers one’s life. Yossarian ultimately escapes this conundrum by literally walking away from the war—an action that refuses both the possibility of becoming an officer who avoids danger at the expense of his troops and that of remaining a soldier who risks his life for meaningless reasons.

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