Yossarian marches around backward so that no one can sneak up behind him, and he refuses to fly in any more combat missions. When informed of Yossarian’s defiance, Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn decide to take pity on Yossarian for the death of his friend Nately and send him to Rome to rest. In Rome, he breaks the news of Nately’s death to Nately’s whore, who tries to kill him with a potato peeler for bringing her the bad news. Her kid sister materializes and also tries to stab him. Covered with stab wounds, Yossarian goes to a Red Cross building to get cleaned up. When he emerges, Nately’s whore is waiting in ambush and tries to stab him again. She follows him everywhere, even back to Pianosa, but he retaliates by flying her to a distant location and dropping her in a parachute from the plane. Yossarian still walks around backward, and, as word spreads that he has refused to fly more combat missions, men begin to approach him at night to ask him if it is true and to tell him that they hope he gets away with it. Worried, Yossarian’s superior officers offer to assign him only nondangerous missions if he agrees to fly; he refuses, because that would mean that other men would have to fly his share of dangerous missions. One day, Captain Black tells him that Nately’s whore and her kid sister have been flushed out of their apartment by the military police (M.P.’s), and Yossarian is suddenly worried about them.
Yossarian travels to Rome with Milo, who is disappointed in him for refusing to fly more combat missions. Rome has been bombed and lies in ruins, and the apartment complex where the whores lived is a deserted shambles. Yossarian finds the old woman who lived in the complex sobbing. She tells Yossarian that the only right the soldiers had to chase the girls away was the right of Catch-22, which says “they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Yossarian asks if they had Catch-22 written down and if they showed it to her, and she says that Catch-22 stipulates that they don’t have to show her Catch-22. Yossarian knows that Catch-22 does not exist but that its nonexistence does not matter, because everyone believes that it exists. Milo agrees to help Yossarian track down the kid sister, but he becomes distracted when he learns about huge profits to be made in trafficking illegal tobacco. He slinks away, and Yossarian is left to wander the dark streets through a horrible night filled with grotesqueries and loathsome sights: men beat dogs and children, a soldier convulses helplessly, a woman is raped, and the sidewalk is strewn with broken human teeth. He returns to his apartment late in the night to find that Aarfy has raped and killed a maid. The M.P.’s burst in. They apologize to Aarfy for intruding and arrest Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass.
Back at Pianosa, Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn want to send Yossarian home, but Catch-22 prevents them. They offer Yossarian a deal: They will ground him and send him home if he will agree to like them. He will be promoted to major and all he will have to do is support the two colonels. Yossarian realizes that the deal is a frankly atrocious betrayal of the men in his squadron, who will still have to fly the eighty missions, but he persuades himself to take the deal anyway. The prospect of going home fills him with joy. As Yossarian departs from Colonel Cathcart’s office, Nately’s whore appears, disguised as a private, and stabs him until he falls unconscious.
Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. . . . Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. . . . Ripeness was all.
In the hospital, a group of doctors argues over Yossarian while the fat, angry colonel who interrogated the chaplain interrogates him. Finally, the doctors knock him out and operate on him. When he wakes, he dimly perceives visits from Aarfy and the chaplain. He tells the chaplain about his deal with Cathcart and Korn, and then assures him that he isn’t going to do it. He vaguely remembers a malignant, almost supernatural man jeering at him, “We’ve got your pal,” shortly after his operation. He then tells the chaplain that his “pal” must have been one of his friends who was killed in the war. He realizes that his only friend still living is Hungry Joe, but then the chaplain tells him that Hungry Joe has died—in his sleep, with Huple’s cat on his face.
Later, Yossarian wakes up to find a mean-looking man in a hospital gown leering at him, saying, “We’ve got your pal.” He asks who his pal is, and the man tells Yossarian he will find out. Yossarian lunges for him, but the man glides away and vanishes. Yossarian then has a flashback to Snowden’s death, which he relives in all its agony. Smiling at him wanly, Snowden whimpers, “I’m cold.” Yossarian reassures him and tries to mend the wound in Snowden’s leg, thinking that he will live. Finally, Yossarian opens up Snowden’s flak suit, and Snowden’s insides spill out all over him. Yossarian remembers the secret he read in those entrails: “The spirit gone, man is garbage.” He thinks to himself that man is matter and that, without the spirit, man will rot like garbage.
In the hospital, Yossarian tries to explain to Major Danby why he can no longer go through with Cathcart and Korn’s deal: he won’t sell himself so short, and he won’t betray the memory of his dead friends. Yossarian tells Danby that he plans to run away, but Danby tells him that there is no hope, and Yossarian agrees. Suddenly, the chaplain bursts in with the news that Orr has washed ashore in Sweden. Yossarian realizes that Orr must have planned his escape all along and joyfully decides that there is hope after all. He has the chaplain retrieve his clothes and decides to desert the army and run to Sweden, where he can save himself from the madness of the war. As he steps outside, Nately’s whore tries to stab him again, and he runs into the distance.
This section plunges Yossarian into the deepest, most surreal darkness in the novel—the night in Rome after the disappearance of Nately’s whore and her sister is the most wrenching, despairing scene in Catch-22—as Yossarian encounters example after example of abuse, neglect, and oppression. This scene culminates in Aarfy’s rape and murder of the maid, which finally explodes the question of moral absolutes in war: Yossarian, outraged, repeats the most inviolable of those absolutes—one cannot kill another person—and is then arrested for the meaningless crime of being in Rome without a pass, while Aarfy receives an apology from the police. Obviously, war carries a requirement to kill other people, and, as the old woman who notes the dominance of Catch-22 is aware, this fact undermines every other natural and moral law.
Snowden’s death has been hinted at throughout the novel, but it is only in the second-to-last chapter that we are finally allowed to see the scene from beginning to end. Because it is placed near the end of the novel and is so clearly an important event, Snowden’s death functions as the technical climax of Catch-22, even though it took place before many of the novel’s other events. The progression of the scene of Snowden’s death is similar to Yossarian’s progression throughout the novel: at first, Yossarian thinks that he has control over death and that he can stop Snowden’s leg wound from bleeding and save Snowden’s life; later, he finds that death is a force utterly outside his control. The “secret” revealed to him here is that man is made of inanimate matter and that no human hands can restore life to a body once it has been destroyed by flak, disease, or drowning.
Yossarian has taken Snowden’s secret to heart, and he realizes that the impulse to live is the most important human quality. But the impulse to live is not simply a desire to survive at any cost: Yossarian cannot live as a hypocrite or as a slave; as a result, he decides to incur enormous personal danger by attempting to escape from the military rather than take the safe deal that would betray his friends. Yossarian chooses simply to take his life back into his own hands, openly rejecting (rather than, as the deal would have required, falsely embracing) the mentality of Catch-22 and making his run for freedom. He is inspired in this decision by the rather absurd example of Orr, who has escaped to Sweden.
The appearance of Nately’s whore in this section works as a bizarre kind of moral point of reference. Though Yossarian is not responsible for Nately’s death, Nately’s whore still seems to blame Yossarian, and, to an extent, Yossarian blames himself—at least enough to feel responsible for the whore and her sister. But as long as he refuses to comply with the military authorities, he manages to escape Nately’s whore’s attempts to murder him. Only when he agrees to the deal with Cathcart and Korn does she succeed in stabbing and seriously injuring him, suggesting that the act of agreeing with these bureaucrats constitutes the metaphorical death of Yossarian. At the end of the novel, when Yossarian makes his escape, the whore’s presence is a surprisingly welcome one—and Yossarian succeeds in getting away from her—proof that he is doing the right thing in refusing to sell himself out to the bureaucracy.