Catch-22 By Joseph Heller Summary and Analysis Chapter 39

Summary

Even though he does not have an official pass, Yossarian catches a ride to Rome with Milo, who takes the opportunity to scold the Captain for "rocking the boat" and not being "a good member of the team." For perhaps the first time, Yossarian notices that Rome, "The Eternal City," is a city in ruins. The Colosseum is "a dilapidated shell," and the airdrome has been bombed into "knobby slabs of white stone rubble." At the bordello, he finds only the old woman. She reports that the police have run off all the girls; the only reason given is "Catch-22." The old man is gone too, living one minute and dead the next. Yossarian leaves the some money with the old woman and goes to police headquarters with Milo to seek help finding Nately's whore's kid sister, a twelve-year-old virgin. Both Milo and the police commissioner initially misunderstand. The commissioner suggests, "A virgin might take a little time. But if he [Yossarian] waits at the bus terminal where the young farm girls looking for work arrive, . . ." Yossarian is looking for a specific child, a little girl who needs help. Soon abandoned by Milo, the Captain wanders the streets, witnessing one horror after another.

Analysis

This is the darkest chapter in the novel, a descent into hell that the author presents through an oppressive series of vivid descriptions. The scene with the old woman sets the tone of desolation and hopeless loss. (Heller especially liked the way that the 1970 film version depicted her conversation with Yossarian.) The madness of war has become terribly personal here. The prostitutes were turned out into the streets and the bordello wrecked because of a law called "Catch-22." Of course, the police did not have to show anyone the law called "Catch-22." Who says so? "Catch-22," the old woman says.

Yossarian is forced to proceed alone when Milo hears that there are sales of illegal tobacco in Rome. The entrepreneur is off to gather profits.

In a long, moving passage, Heller describes Yossarian's search through the city. He finds the horrors of man's inhumanity at every turn:

Nothing warped seemed bizarre any more in his strange, distorted surroundings. The tops of the sheer buildings slanted in weird, surrealistic perspective, and the street seemed tilted. . . . What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night, . . . how many homes were shanties, . . . how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned."

A nursing mother holds an infant in tattered rags. An emaciated, barefoot boy struggles against the cold. A woman is being raped. A man is beating his dog. Another man beats a boy just as brutally. Nowhere does the Captain feel that he can effectively intervene. His spirit is sick. Yossarian hurries back to the officers' apartment where he finds a crowd surrounding a dead body on the pavement. It is Michaela, the officers' shy, unassuming maid. Aarfy has raped her, held her prisoner in a clothes closet for two hours, then tossed her out a window. When Yossarian confronts him, Aarfy is certain that he has done nothing much wrong:

"I only raped her once," he explained.

Yossarian was aghast. "But you killed her, Aarfy! You killed her!"

"Oh, I had to do that after I raped her," Aarfy replied in his most condescending manner. "I couldn't very well let her go around saying bad things about us, could I?"

When Yossarian asks why Aarfy didn't just leave the quiet girl alone and get himself a prostitute, Aarfy smugly responds, "Oh, no, not me. I never paid for it in my life."

When the police arrive, Aarfy is sure they are not there to arrest him: "Not good old Aarfy." He is right. They arrest Yossarian for being in Rome without official leave. The next morning, he is flown back to Pianosa and delivered to Colonel Cathcart's office where Colonel Korn greets him with a surprise: "We're sending you home." There is, of course, a catch.

Glossary

recant to withdraw or renounce beliefs or statements formerly held.

carabinieri Italian police.

marchese an Italian nobleman, ranking above a count but below a prince.

insipid without flavor; not exciting; dull; lifeless.

vexation a cause of annoyance or distress.

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