This novel is set during the second half of World War II. Yossarian, a soldier, is stationed on the island of Pianosa, with his Air Force squadron. He is near the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Yossarian and his friends have an absurd existence that seems out of a nightmare. Their lives are defined by violence and bureaucracy. They aren’t seen as fully human but rather resources by their ruthlessly ambitious superior officers. The squadron is pushed thoughtlessly into violent combat situations and bombing expeditions in which it is seen of more importance to the squadron to get high-quality aerial photographs of explosions than to actually hit their targets. The colonels continue to increase the number of missions that the men need to fly before they will be sent home. This means that no one is ever given the chance to go home. Yet there seems to be no one other than Yossarian who seems to understand there is a war occurring. People think he is insane when he declares that there are millions of people who want to kill him.
Yossarian’s story comprises the novel’s core. This is why most of the story’s events are refracted through his own point of view. Yossarian sees the whole war in a personal way. He is not swayed in any way by any sort of national ideal or abstract principle. He is angry that his life is always being put in danger when he hasn’t done anything wrong. He has an intense desire to live and shows his determination to somehow be immortal or die trying to be so. A result of this is that a great deal of his time is spent in the hospital, feigning a variety of illnesses in an attempt to avoid the war. The novel progresses by way of its loosely linked series of recurring anecdotes and stories. Yossarian is clearly always disturbed by his memory of Snowden. Snowden was a soldier who passed away in his arms on a mission when Yossarian ceased to feel any wish to take part in the war. Yossarian is placed in circumstances that are desperate, absurd, ridiculous, and tragic at all once. He witnesses the death and disappearance of friends, his squadron be attacked by bombs by its own mess officer, and colonels and generals volunteer their men to take part in the most perilous battle in order to aggrandize their own reputations.
Catch-22 is a law that is depicted in a number of different ways in this novel. We see that Yossarian finds out that it could be possible for him to be discharged from military service by reason of insanity. He is always looking for a way to get out of the military, and he claims insanity. He finds out, however, that the fact that he said he is insane has shown that he must, in fact, be sane. This is because it is the action of a sane person to claim that he or she is insane in order to avoid going on bombing missions. In other parts of the book, Catch-22 is defined to be a law that it is against the law to read. It is ironic that the place where it is in writing that it is against the law to read the law is found in Catch-22 itself. It is again defined to a law that the enemy is permitted to do anything that one cannot prevent them from doing. It is clear, then, that Catch-22 signifies any sort of circular and paradoxical reasoning that traps the victim in its lack of logic and serves the interests of the lawmakers. Catch-22 can be seen in the book not only where it is explicitly made reference to but also throughout the stories of the characters. These stories are replete with catches and examples of circular reasoning that catch innocent bystanders in their snares. An example of this is seen in the ability of Milo Minderbinder, a powerful officer, to make enormous amounts of money by trading among the companies that he owns.
As Yossarian struggles to maintain his life, several secondary stories develop around him. Natley, his friend, falls in love with a prostitute from Rome. He woos her all the time, in spite of her evident indifference and the face that her little sister consistently interferes with their romantic meetings. She does eventually fall in love with him, but he is killed on his next mission. Yossarian is the one who brings her the bad news. She puts the blame for Natley’s death on him and tries to stab him every time she comes across him after this. Another subplot focusses on the growth of Milo Minderbinder’s black-market empire. Milo Minderbinder is the mess hall officer for the squadron. Milo has a syndicate in which he borrows military pilots and planes, making use of them to bring food between several different points in Europe. The sales involved in this brings him an enormous profit. While he says that “everyone has a share” in this syndicate, this is proven to be a lie. His enterprise makes a great deal of money, nevertheless. He is seen in a reverent light by communities in many different places in Europe.
The novel nears its conclusion as Yossarin, who is distressed by Nately’s death, refuses to go on any additional missions. He makes his way around the streets of Rome, coming across every kind of horror—murder, rape, and disease. Eventually, he is arrested for being present in Rome without the required pass. Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, his superior officers, offer him two options. He can go before a court martial or he can be allowed to go home with an honorable discharge. The condition to being released would be that he would need to approve of Korn and Cathcart and declare his support for the policy requiring the squadron’s men to fly eighty missions. While he finds the offer tempting, Yossarian knows that his compliance would cause many other innocent men’s lives to be put at serious risk. He opts for another way out. He decides to simply desert the army and go to neutral Sweden. When he does this, he is completely rejecting the military’s dehumanizing machinery and casting aside the rule of Catch-22. He is trying to put himself in a position of control over his own life.