Catch-22 is a tragicomic novel detailing the efforts of a man named Yossarian, a captain in the US Army Air Force, to avoid flying any more combat missions. The novel takes place on Pianosa, a small Italian island not far from Rome, at the end of the Second World War.
Catch-22 is narrated in a fragmentary manner, meaning events are often sketched out in non-chronological order, to be filled in as other stories progress. At the start of the novel, Yossarian, in the hospital with a fake liver ailment, is visited by a chaplain named Tappman. The chaplain feels uncomfortable talking to most officers, but Yossarian is kind to him, and invites him to return in the future.
The narrator goes on to introduce a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Orr, Yossarian’s bizarre handyman of a tent-mate; Clevinger, a Harvard-educated man whose plane later disappears into thin air; Havermeyer, who loves flying dangerous missions; McWatt, a daredevil who constantly “buzzes” the camp with his plane; Nately, son of a wealthy businessman, who is in love with a Roman prostitute; and Chief White Halfoat, a Native American intending to die of pneumonia.
Yossarian asks Doc Daneeka, the group’s medic, if he can be grounded from flying on account of insanity. Daneeka introduces one of the novel’s themes by answering “no”—because Yossarian is sane enough to ask to be grounded, he is sane enough to fly. Only those crazy enough to want to fly are crazy enough to be grounded. This is called a Catch-22.
Cathcart, the Colonel in charge of the group, keeps raising the number of missions required for soldiers to be sent home. Yossarian believes this is unjust, but Cathcart and his assistant Korn do not care. Korn merely wants a promotion to Cathcart’s job, and Cathcart wants to be made general, replacing Dreedle and Peckem, the two warring commanders in charge of the Italian campaign. Dreedle is mostly concerned with his mistress, and Peckem does not care what gets bombed so long as bombs fall in an appealing “bomb pattern” for documentary photographs.
Cathcart signs the men up for a dangerous mission over Bologna. In this mission Yossarian has a close brush with death, as his plane is nearly downed by enemy fire, and he runs off to Rome where he meets a woman named Luciana, with whom he spends a single night. At this point the novel takes a more serious turn. Soldiers begin dying or disappearing on a more regular basis. Dunbar, another friend of Yossarian’s, is “disappeared” by the military brass, for his complaints about unnecessary bombing runs. Orr has to crash land his damaged plane in the Mediterranean Sea and floats away on a raft. McWatt, buzzing the camp once more, kills Kid Sampson by accident and, in recognition of this, flies his plane into a mountain. Nately, Havermeyer, and Dobbs (another comrade) are killed on the same mission.
Meanwhile, the chaplain has been crusading on behalf of Yossarian, now his friend, to send the pilots who have flown enough missions home. Cathcart, Korn, and other higher-ups rebuff the chaplain. Government officials investigating the group for supposed forgeries of letters settle on the chaplain as their prime suspect; he is tortured and threatened with imprisonment, but later set free. Although the chaplain’s faith is tested throughout, he eventually decides that he does believe in God, and that only by standing up to Cathcart, Korn, and other superiors will he aid the soldiers with whom he serves.
Yossarian, too, undergoes a slow change of heart over the course of the novel. In the beginning, he is satisfied merely avoiding his own duties whenever possible. But as his friends die, Yossarian begins to feel it is genuinely unjust for Cathcart to raise the number of required missions, especially since the war is almost over, and many missions are no longer militarily necessary. After a final visit to Rome, which is now devastated by war, Yossarian says he will no longer fly. Cathcart and Korn offer him two options: court-martial, which would place him in prison, or a deal sending him home. The deal’s only catch is simple: Yossarian must pretend to like his commanding officers.
Although Yossarian is tempted by this deal, the chaplain subtly convinces him that it would be unfair to his fellow men. Yossarian thus finds a way to escape his Catch-22 altogether: he will no longer fly, nor will he be a lackey to his commanding officers. He resolves to flee to Sweden, where he believes Orr now lives, to wait out the end of the conflict. The novel ends with Yossarian running out the door on his way to neutral territory.