The protagonist of Catch-22 is Captain John Yossarian, age twenty-eight, a bombardier in the 256th Squadron of the Twenty-seventh Air Force, stationed on Pianosa during World War II. Critics often refer to Yossarian as an antihero. By that, they mean that he is a leading character who is unlike — perhaps the opposite of — classic heroes of mythology or legend, such as Homer's Odysseus. Classic heroes usually are endowed with exceptional physical strength, ability, or natural beauty. Odysseus, for example, was a great warrior blessed by the gods and strengthened, or physically altered, by them when necessary to his best interests. When appropriate, he was made to appear as the most beautiful of men. Such heroes usually belong to a ruling class, are born to greatness, and transcend their peers in courage and devotion to a cause. War brings out the best in them; they love battle and relish in victory. Some, like Odysseus, are especially wise or cunning; but they do not devote much of their time to contemplation. They are men of action, and their actions are noble. They prefer death to dishonor.
This is not Yossarian. Yossarian may be a good friend, a lively companion, even a lovable scamp. But he is no hero and would not want to be one. In contrast, the captain is not endowed with great strength, ability or natural beauty. He is of common birth and certainly does not believe that the gods are with him. As a warrior, he would just as soon be a civilian. Yossarian considers concepts like "courage" and "heroism" to be foolhardy at best and deadly in the end. Initially, the only cause he is devoted to is his own survival; he needs to grow and develop as a character before he thinks of others. He loves women, or at least sex, much more than fighting. Victory, for Yossarian, would be a free ticket home. The Captain can be cunning and clever, but he is not a man of action so much as a man of avoidance. He worries a lot and freely admits to being a coward. Yossarian prefers life over any attempt at glory.
Yossarian does grow and change as a character, but he is always an antihero. Early in his military career, while stationed at Lowery Field, Colorado, in 1942, he discovers the joy of malingering and the refuge of the hospital. He fakes appendicitis, avoiding training as he begins a long, loving relationship with hospital life. A helpful English physician suggests that Yossarian should fake a liver ailment rather than appendicitis, the former being much more difficult to diagnose and treat.
Structurally, the novel opens and closes with hospital scenes. The hospital is Yossarian's home away from home and much more civilized than the war front. People die in hospitals, but they do so with more decorum. There is less screaming, and death is seldom a surprise. One of Yossarian's happiest Thanksgivings is spent in the Lowery Field hospital; it is so good that he considers spending every Thanksgiving in a hospital. But by the time the protagonist is in cadet training, at Santa Ana, California (1943), he is having an affair with his commanding officer's wife on Thanksgiving, still indulging in behavior atypical of a classic hero.
Bombardier Yossarian arrives on Pianosa early in 1944. That spring, he performs a feat that might be considered heroic; he lives to regret it. The squadron has been trying to destroy a bridge at Ferrara for a week without success. On yet another raid, Yossarian is unable to release his bombs on the first run. He orders his flight to take a second pass at the target. This time, he succeeds in knocking out the bridge; but a young airman named Kraft is killed. Kraft's death haunts Yossarian despite the fact that Colonel Cathcart decides to promote Yossarian to Captain and award him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Yossarian has had enough of heroics.
In the raids on Bologna and Avignon (in late June and July 1944), Yossarian has no interest in medals. Nor is he devoted to the cause. He just wants to stay alive. When the first Bologna mission is announced, Yossarian manages to get it canceled by moving the red satin ribbon on the easel map in the intelligence tent. This ribbon is the bomb line, indicating the farthest advance of Allied troops; no bombs are to be dropped south of it, so Yossarian simply moves the line north of Bologna, confusing the commanding officers. The ploy eventually is discovered and the Bologna mission rescheduled. By now, Yossarian is braver than he was at Ferrara. He is so brave, the narrator tells us, that he avoids the raid altogether. Yossarian convinces his pilot, Kid Sampson, that they must turn back because of a faulty intercom. Surprisingly, the squadron meets little resistance over Bologna that day; however, the mission must by repeated because they miss the targets. On the second Bologna raid, Yossarian is rewarded for his cowardice by flying lead bombardier. The flak is merciless, and his plane is hit but not knocked down. Yossarian is even more certain that he wants no more of war. During the Avignon mission, Snowden is mortally wounded. This event haunts Yossarian even more than young Kraft's death because the Captain attempts to tend Snowden's wounds in flight. He thinks he has performed adequately until he discovers that Snowden's worst wound has not even been addressed.
When Yossarian is not hiding in the hospital, he seeks refuge in Rome, the Eternal City. Much of his time in Rome is spent seeking women. Yossarian's relationships with women are assuredly less than heroic. He claims to fall in love with every bed partner, but his devotion is short-lived. Luciana, the girl with the invisible scar whom he meets at a club in Rome, is the most romanticized of his lovers. She is an earthy, exuberant, delightfully cryptic young woman with a sense of humor and some class. Naturally, Yossarian rejects her soon after they make love; they part, and he tears up her address with false bravado. Yossarian regrets it but not enough to keep him from rutting with someone else within twenty-four hours. His fidelity to Nurse Duckett is no more devout. On one trip to Rome, he misses her so much that he goes searching through the streets for other women and has meaningless sex with "a thin streetwalker with a wet cough" and a chubby stranger he finds in his apartment.
Yossarian's struggle with personal integrity is the result of Colonel Korn's offer of a discharge under certain conditions. After Cathcart has raised the required number of missions once too often, Yossarian refuses to take part in any more combat flights. He goes AWOL to Rome, is arrested, and is returned to Colonel Cathcart's office where Korn presents him with the option of returning home if only Yossarian will become a team player and support his commanding officers: "Be our pal," says Korn. "Say nice things about us here and back in the States." Yossarian selfishly accepts the deal even though he knows that he is betraying the other airmen: "If they don't want to fly more missions, let them stand up and do something about it the way I did. Right?" Colonel Korn, of course, concurs. But Yossarian is forced to reconsider.
After Nately's whore severely wounds Yossarian as he exits Cathcart's office, the captain is once more in the hospital. While there, he believes that he sees a strange figure who says to him, "We've got your pal, buddy. We've got your pal." Yossarian reflects on all of his pals who have been killed or who have disappeared during the war. He has a change of heart. When Chaplain Tappman reports that Yossarian's former tent mate, Orr, survived his crash in the sea and escaped to Sweden, Yossarian decides to join him. He will first go to Rome and find Nately's girlfriend's kid sister; together, they will somehow flee to Sweden.
Yossarian has changed — grown — during the course of the novel, but he is still an antihero. If anything, he has grown to hate war and clichés involving "heroism" even more than he did initially. He has grown brave enough to admit that he is a "coward" in military terms. He doesn't care about medals or honor or glory. Yossarian just wants to live his life, make a separate peace, and maybe help one lost kid to have a life also. Although he could have accepted the easy road home, Yossarian feels that he would have lost himself if he had gone along with the establishment. The way to find himself is to escape the control of people like Cathcart and Korn: "I'm not running away from my responsibilities," he says, as he is about to flee the hospital. "I'm running to them." Dodging one last assassination attempt by Nately's whore, Yossarian takes off for Rome and a new life.