Yossarian is a fictional character, the protagonist of
Joseph Heller's satirical novel
Catch-22 and its sequel Closing Time.
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.
2 Character sketch
2.3 Relationships and conflicts
3 In Catch-22
3.1 Yossarian's tentmates
4 Film portrayal
6 External links
Catch-22 the author introduces
Yossarian as a soldier in World War
II with an Assyrian heritage. His first name appears to be "John",
since late in the novel
Colonel Korn says to him "Call me Blackie,
John. We're pals now."
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
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 – an Assyrian – but that the
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
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
fahrenheit (38 degrees celsius).
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 Switzerland" so he can be interned
for the duration of the war "under conditions of utmost ease and
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
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.
greatly saddened when
Clevinger and Orr disappear, despite frequently
arguing with these characters. 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
At the end of the novel,
Yossarian accepts a deal with Colonel
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
Yossarian taking a knife wound from a
Nazi assassin to protect
Yossarian resents being manipulated as "part of the
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."
Main article: Catch-22
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
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
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
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 he ever even got the official chance to check in. His
belongings remain on the bed where he threw them; due to the illogical
bureaucratic procedures the armed forces are shown to follow, the
belongings cannot be officially removed since Mudd had never
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
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 (character)" redirects here. For the snowman, see Snowden on
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
Yossarian notices bleeding from Snowden's armpit and
realises he has another wound below his flak suit. As
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
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 the 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. When the MPs finally come, they do not arrest Aarfy
and instead 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
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.
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
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
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.
In Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of the novel
played by Alan Arkin, while in the 1973 television series pilot
Catch-22, based on the novel and the 1970 film, he was played by
Richard Dreyfuss. The series never proceeded beyond the pilot stage.
^ 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 Archived August 3,
2006, at the Wayback Machine.)
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Quotations related to
Catch-22 at Wikiquote
Joseph Heller's Catch-22