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During the second half of
World War II, a soldier named Yossarian is
stationed with his Air Force squadron on the island of Pianosa,
near the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Yossarian and his
friends endure a nightmarish, absurd existence defined by bureaucracy and
violence: they are inhuman resources in the eyes of their blindly ambitious
superior officers. The squadron is thrown thoughtlessly into brutal
combat situations and bombing runs in which it is more important
for the squadron members to capture good aerial photographs of explosions
than to destroy their targets. Their colonels continually raise
the number of missions that they are required to fly before being
sent home, so that no one is ever sent home. Still, no one but Yossarian
seems to realize that there is a war going on; everyone thinks he
is crazy when he insists that millions of people are trying to kill
Yossarian’s story forms the core of the novel, so most
events are refracted through his point of view. Yossarian takes
the whole war personally: unswayed by national ideals or abstract
principles, Yossarian is furious that his life is in constant danger
through no fault of his own. He has a strong desire to live and
is determined to be immortal or die trying. As a result, he spends
a great deal of his time in the hospital, faking various illnesses
in order to avoid the war. As the novel progresses through its loosely
connected series of recurring stories and anecdotes, Yossarian is
continually troubled by his memory of Snowden, a soldier who died
in his arms on a mission when Yossarian lost all desire to participate
in the war. Yossarian is placed in ridiculous, absurd, desperate,
and tragic circumstances—he sees friends die and disappear, his
squadron get bombed by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals
volunteer their men for the most perilous battle in order to enhance
their own reputations.
Catch-22 is a law defined in various
ways throughout the novel. First, Yossarian discovers that it is
possible to be discharged from military service because of insanity.
Always looking for a way out, Yossarian claims that he is insane,
only to find out that by claiming that he is insane he has proved
that he is obviously sane—since any sane person would claim that
he or she is insane in order to avoid flying bombing missions. Elsewhere,
Catch-22 is defined as a law that is illegal
to read. Ironically, the place where it is written that it is illegal
is in Catch-22 itself. It is yet again defined
as the law that the enemy is allowed to do anything that one can’t
keep him from doing. In short, then, Catch-22 is
any paradoxical, circular reasoning that catches its victim in its
illogic and serves those who have made the law. Catch-22 can
be found in the novel not only where it is explicitly defined but
also throughout the characters’ stories, which are full of catches
and instances of circular reasoning that trap unwitting bystanders
in their snares—for instance, the ability of the powerful officer
Milo Minderbinder to make great sums of money by trading among the
companies that he himself owns.
As Yossarian struggles to stay alive, a number of secondary
stories unfold around him. His friend Nately falls in love with
a whore from Rome and woos her constantly, despite her continued
indifference and the fact that her kid sister constantly interferes
with their romantic rendezvous. Finally, she falls in love with
Nately, but he is killed on his very next mission. When Yossarian
brings her the bad news, she blames him for Nately’s death and tries
to stab him every time she sees him thereafter. Another subplot
follows the rise of the black-market empire of Milo Minderbinder,
the squadron’s mess hall officer. Milo runs a syndicate in which
he borrows military planes and pilots to transport food between
various points in Europe, making a massive profit from his sales.
Although he claims that “everyone has a share” in the syndicate,
this promise is later proven false. Milo’s enterprise flourishes
nonetheless, and he is revered almost religiously by communities
all over Europe.
The novel draws to a close as Yossarian, troubled by Nately’s death,
refuses to fly any more missions. He wanders the streets of Rome,
encountering every kind of human horror—rape, disease, murder. He
is eventually arrested for being in Rome without a pass, and his
superior officers, Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, offer him
a choice. He can either face a court-martial or be released and sent
home with an honorable discharge. There is only one condition: in
order to be released, he must approve of Cathcart and Korn and state
his support for their policy, which requires all the men in the
squadron to fly eighty missions. Although he is tempted by the offer,
Yossarian realizes that to comply would be to endanger the lives
of other innocent men. He chooses another way out, deciding to desert
the army and flee to neutral Sweden. In doing so, he turns his back
on the dehumanizing machinery of the military, rejects the rule
of Catch-22, and strives to gain control
of his own life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Catch-22!