Capt. John Yossarian is a fictional character and protagonist in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 and its sequel Closing Time. In Catch-22, Yossarian is a 28-year-old captain in the 256th squadron of the Army Air Forces where he serves as a B-25 bombardier stationed on the small island of Pianosa off the Italian mainland during World War II. Yossarian's exploits are based on the experiences of the author: Heller was also a bombardier in the Army Air Corps, stationed on an island off the coast of Italy during World War II.
In Catch-22 the author introduces Yossarian as a soldier in World War II with an Assyrian heritage, even though his name indicates an Armenian background because of the "ian" suffix. Yossarian is not an Armenian last name, however. One suggestion is that Yossarian's first name is given as John late in the novel, with a throwaway remark by Colonel Korn: "Call me Blackie, John. We're pals now." But the line is ambiguous at best. This all serves to make Yossarian that much more enigmatic as a character.
The exotic name "Yossarian" was chosen by Heller to emphasize his protagonist's detachment from the mainstream military culture. Yossarian's name is described as being "an odious, alien, distasteful name, that just did not inspire confidence." It was "...not at all like such clean, crisp, honest, American names as Cathcart, Peckem and Dreedle."
Moreover, Heller saw the Jewish community of America becoming more integrated and less sidelined by mainstream society, and so decided not to give his protagonist a Jewish name and a Coney Island background (as Heller himself had). As to the origins of the name itself, "Heller admitted in later years that the name 'Yossarian' was derived from the name of one of his Air Force buddies, Francis Yohannan, but that the character of Yossarian himself was 'the incarnation of a wish' (Now and Then 175-6)."
Throughout the novel, Yossarian's main concern is the idea that people are trying to kill him, either directly (by attacking his plane) or indirectly (by forcing him to fly missions), and he goes to great lengths to stay alive.
Yossarian's motivation is to "live forever or die in the attempt". To survive the war, Yossarian employs a number of strategies:
- Postponing dangerous missions by any means possible (e.g. poisoning the squadron and moving the bomb line during the “Great Big Siege of Bologna”).
- Constantly checking into the hospital with contrived liver complaints ("a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice"), including the fictitious "Garnett-Fleischaker syndrome" and by exploiting the fact he always runs a temperature of 101 degrees.
- Ordering his pilot to perform harsh evasive action in the face of flak, something he will not trust anyone else to do.
- "Plotting an emergency heading into Sweden" so he can be interned for the duration of the war "under conditions of utmost ease and luxury."
Yossarian, like many of the other soldiers, tries to escape the realities of war by getting drunk, gorging himself in the mess hall and having sex, although events in the novel make it easy to believe he would do these things anyway.
Relationships and conflicts
Yossarian is in continual conflict with Catch-22, a vague military policy which his superiors use to justify many of their illogical demands.
The bulk of Catch-22 concerns Yossarian's relationships with the other officers in his squadron, such as the neurotic Hungry Joe, the war profiteer Milo, the idealistic Nately and selfish Doc Daneeka. There are many characters Yossarian hates and likes. His best friends are Dunbar, the Chaplain, Nately, Hungry Joe, McWatt and Orr. There are two characters with whom Yossarian argues but he is greatly saddened when Clevinger and Orr disappear. He hates the majority of his superiors for putting him in harm's way, especially the sadistic Joe McCarthy-like careerist Captain Black and the egomaniacal Colonel Cathcart, who continually raises the number of missions required before the aircrews can rotate back home as well as volunteering his aircrews for the most dangerous missions, in an attempt to make himself look good to his superiors.
Yossarian shows particular grief for the men that die during the novel, particularly Snowden, McWatt, Nately, Dobbs and Hungry Joe or those who appear to disappear; Orr, Clevinger and Dunbar. His relationship with the enlisted gunner Snowden is vivid and is the book's emotional center. When Snowden gets injured over Avignon, it is Yossarian who tries to help him, only to watch him die a revolting death.
At the end of the novel, Yossarian accepts a deal with Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn rather than face a court-martial for going AWOL in Rome. The deal allows Yossarian to go home but only if he pretends to be "pals" to Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn; to "become one of the boys." Korn explains this means the Army is "going to glorify you and send you home a hero, recalled by the Pentagon for morale and public-relations purposes." It allows Yossarian to get out of the war, without any more contribution to the low morale which has been spreading through the Group because of him and to make the colonels look good to their superiors. Yossarian finds this deal "odious" as it lets down all the others in the squadron who were relying on his dissent to force their commanders to treat them better and admits he did it "in a moment of weakness". When he learns the "official report" had twisted the event of Nately's whore stabbing him into Yossarian taking a knife wound from a Nazi assassin to protect the colonels, Yossarian resents being manipulated as "part of the deal."
Yossarian’s epiphany comes when he hears of Orr’s escape to neutral Sweden, the culmination of Orr's many attempts to escape combat duty (constantly crashing his plane, the prostitute hitting him over the head, etc.) which Yossarian had previously interpreted as incompetence; Orr had offered hints of this intention in exchanges between the two. Yossarian realizes it is possible to defeat (or at least escape) the military and the Catch-22 that supports it. Yossarian justifies his desertion by stating "I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life."
Throughout the book, Yossarian's main concern is the idea that people are trying to kill him, either directly (by attacking his plane) or indirectly (by forcing him to fly missions). His suspicion develops into paranoia after his attempts to find answers by using logic and reason are thwarted by a combination of vague bureaucracy, transparent yet contradicting Army regulations and personality conflicts. He is unable to fly the required number of missions to be discharged from duty because his superiors keep increasing the number of required missions. Additionally, he cannot obtain a Section 8 by pretending to be insane because his superiors see his desire to get out of flying as a sign of perfect sanity (hence Catch-22). Therefore, Yossarian boycotts flying missions as much as possible, either through feigning illness or inventing an excuse to return to base (like a busted intercom.) In fact, the novel begins with Yossarian staying in the hospital due to an invented liver condition. He busies himself by arbitrarily censoring letters and signing them Washington Irving, Irving Washington, or (as gets the Chaplain into trouble with authorities) A.T. Tappman, the Chaplain's name (R.O. Shipman in the original version of the book and in British Editions).
Whenever on leave, Yossarian and his friends carouse, drink, and sleep around as much as they can, knowing and fearing they could die on any given mission. One of the prostitutes they employ becomes Nately's unofficial girlfriend (she is referred to only as "Nately's Whore" and "Nately's Girl"). Despite Nately's repeated advances, she spurns him cruelly until he, instead of sleeping with her, lets her get a good night's sleep. By the next morning she has fallen deeply in love with him. When Nately is killed, she blames Yossarian for his death; she manifests a towering rage and tries to kill Yossarian several times during the remainder of the narrative in an impossible manner (constantly tracking Yossarian down, even after he dumped her hundreds of miles behind enemy territory.)
The squadron houses its soldiers in large tents. At the start of the novel Yossarian is assigned to a tent with Orr and a third officer referred to as "The Dead Man in Yossarian's Tent" - Lt. Mudd - who was sent on a mission immediately upon his arrival and died in combat before having the chance to check in. His belongings remain on the bed where he threw them; due to illogical bureaucratic procedures the belongings can't be officially removed since Mudd had never officially arrived.
Yossarian and Orr get along well and Orr customizes the tent making it much more comfortable. After Orr is declared M.I.A. and presumed dead, four new officers are assigned to the tent, but Yossarian cannot tolerate them. Sergeant Towser offers Yossarian the option of being assigned to same tent Nately is, but he refuses to leave.
The roomies call Yossarian "Yo-Yo" and are afraid of him and go out of their way to help him, always offering him the warmest expressions of goodwill, and generally behaving with intolerable conviviality. They are rambunctious because of their young age and lack of military experience. They tend to like those who Yossarian hates and fears and do not mind the idea of the increasing missions. They do what Yossarian and the Air Force were unable to do — get rid of The Dead Man in Yossarian's Tent — by throwing his belongings into the woods.
Snowden is a member of Yossarian's flight during a mission, and acts as catalyst for the fundamental change in Yossarian's mentality and outlook. After their plane takes heavy anti-aircraft fire, Snowden is mortally wounded and Yossarian attempts to come to Snowden's aid by treating a serious leg wound with white bandages and sulfanilamide powder.
Eventually Yossarian notices bleeding from Snowden's armpit and realises he has another wound below his flak suit. As Yossarian rips open the flak suit, a fatal wound beneath exposes Snowden's internal organs which fall out onto the floor. A huge chunk of flak had ripped straight through his ribs from behind. Yossarian is horrified at the sight. Snowden is about to die, but is able to tell Yossarian he is cold. Yossarian covers Snowden in a parachute, and comforts him by saying "there, there".
Snowden's death embodies Yossarian's desire to evade death; by seeing Snowden's entrails spilling over the plane, he feels that "Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage."
The experience on the plane dramatically changes Yossarian's attitude towards life. He looks only to protect his own life and, to a lesser extent, the lives of his close friends. Yossarian turns against the military and refuses to wear a uniform, his justification being he simply "doesn't want to," perhaps because he was traumatized and depressed by Snowden's death. The excuse Captain Korn gives to General Dreedle is that Snowden died in one uniform, and his remains were soaked into Yossarian's, and all of Yossarian's other articles of clothing were in the laundry. General Dreedle says "That sounds like a lot of crap to me." Yossarian replies, "It is a lot of crap, sir."
By end of the book, just about every other member of his squadron has been killed, disappeared, gone AWOL or otherwise removed. When Yossarian learns from Captain Black that Nately’s Whore’s kid sister has been evicted by the Military Police, he flies with Milo to Rome, AWOL, to try to save her. He can't find her, and ends up walking through the street observing all the horrors that come with war. He gets back to the officers' apartment where Aarfy has raped and murdered Michaela, but when the MPs come they do not arrest Aarfy, they arrest Yossarian for going AWOL.
Yossarian is forced by Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn into an odious deal whereby if he acts as their "pal" he will be allowed to go home. The deal is designed so the rest of the squadron will not believe Yossarian will be sent home because he has "turned into such a stubborn son of a bitch" and refused to fly, but because - being a hero from the Ferrara mission in which he went into the flak zones a second time without support - he is being sent home as a P.R. representative for the Army.
On leaving the colonels, Yossarian is badly injured when Nately’s whore stabs him, and he is rushed to hospital where he recovers and is visited by the Chaplain and Major Danby. Major Danby confirms the deal with the colonels is still on, but Yossarian wishes not to take it as it lets the rest of the squadron down.
While Yossarian is trying to work out how to escape this Catch-22 situation, the Chaplain runs in to announce the missing Orr is alive and well, and has rowed his way to neutral Sweden, escaping the war. This gives a new lease on life to the Chaplain and Major Danby, and more so to Yossarian who now sees the genius of Orr’s plans, and makes him determined to escape the war. As Yossarian leaves, Nately’s whore again tries to kill him, but Yossarian jumps out of the way and runs off.
Closing Time hints the idealistic escape did not eventuate, with Yossarian saying that when he went home, he was made a major. While Korn and Cathcart are not mentioned, there are implications that perhaps Yossarian took their deal in the end. This reflects more the character of the elderly Yossarian, who by his late sixties has become a part of the society he spurned in his youth.
- Scoggins, Michael C.: "Joseph Heller’s Combat Experiences in Catch-22"; War, Literature and the Arts, vol. 15; pg. 223. United States Air Force Academy, 2003. (available here)
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