The protagonist of Catch-22, Captain John Yossarian, is motivated by two closely related impulses: to subvert the repressive military establishment and to survive. His desperate attempts to escape death and to preserve a meaningful code of morality reflect the ongoing human struggle against overwhelming and frequently life-threatening forces or institutions. Paranoid that an unidentified “they” are trying to kill him, Yossarian feigns insanity, seeks refuge in the hospital, poisons his squadron with soap powder, and moves a bomb line on a map. When he does fly combat missions, “Yo-Yo” traces irregular patterns in the sky, evading flak right and left. Although labeled crazy by many of the other Characters, Yossarian is sane in believing his life endangered-whether by officers such as Cathcart who care less about their men’s safety than about possible promotions, by Milo Minderbinder and his twisted entrepreneurial schemes, or by Nately’s knife-wielding prostitute.
Graphic reminders of man’s mortality pervade the novel. Heller hauntingly depicts scenes of war: B-25s dodging flak, the claustrophobic womb/tomb environment of the bombardier’s compartment, and Yossarian’s horrifying discovery that “[t]he spirit gone, man is garbage,” as he watches his wounded gunner Snowden’s entrails spill out on the floor. The obscene loss of life is not limited, however, to the battlefield. Chief Halfoat dies of pneumonia, Hungry Joe is suffocated in his sleep by a cat, McWatt accidentally severs Kid Sampson with the propeller of his plane and then commits suicide out of guilt, and Aarfy flings a servant girl from a window to her death on the pavement below. The merging of military and nonmilitary, rational and irrational worlds threatens to destroy the individual at any moment.
One of the key threats to the individual in Catch-22 is the military bureaucracy. Power breeds corruption, and Heller presents a procession of insensitive officers who victimize their men for self-aggrandizement. Milo Minderbinder, mess officer turned syndicate chief, represents capitalism gone awry when he arranges for German planes to bomb his own base in order to turn a profit. The invidious Colonel Cathcart constantly raises the number of required combat missions, and schemes to get his picture into the Saturday Evening Post. Heller depicts the petty one-upmanship games between Generals Dreedle and Peckem, Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s robotlike devotion to perfect parade formations, Captain Black’s red-tape-creating Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen’s godlike manipulation of communication, and the relentless interrogations of Clevinger and Chaplain Tappman, two of the most innocent Characters in the novel. Heller is wary of systems-the military establishment, hospitals, psychiatry, farm support legislation, or corporate monopolies-and concerned about the illogical “logic” they spawn.
Orr, a character who appears deceptively mindless, offers mentorship to Yossarian in his struggle against systems and authorities. Orr works to perfect his survival skills and tries, at first without success, to teach Yossarian to do likewise. But when, at the end of the novel, Yossarian learns that Orr has escaped to Sweden, he is inspired. Reconciling self-concern with a sense of responsibility, Yossarian rejects an offer to return home bearing pro-military propaganda and instead heads toward Rome to rescue Nately’s prostitute’s kid sister. In the end, then, Catch-22 is not a novel without hope. Its most significant theme is that, despite living in an absurd universe, the individual can affirm honor, integrity, and compassion. Yossarian, the existentialist hero, ultimately finds salvation by seeking freedom and accepting responsibility.