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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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Catch-22!