Analysis — Chapters 38–42

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.