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Also covered in this article are the characters Snowden and Yo-Yo's Roomies.

Capt. John Joseph Yossarian is a fictional character and protagonist in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 and its sequel Closing Time. In Catch-22, 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 Air Corps, stationed on an island off the coast of Italy during World War II.



Although he claims to be Assyrian, his name indicates an Armenian background. In Closing Time, he is revealed to be an Armenian jokingly posing as an Assyrian.

Yossarian's first name, John, is discovered quite late in the novel, with a throwaway remark by Colonel Korn: "Call me Blackie, John. We're pals now." The movie poster has Yossarian's dog tags listing his first name as "Aram," which is an Armenian name (while Hovhannes is Armenian for John)[1]. Later in the novel, a doctor also calls him John. In Closing Time, his first name is used frequently, as the novel has a civilian, rather than a military setting. The exotic name "Yossarian" was chosen by Heller to emphasize his protagonist's detachment from the mainstream military culture. Yossarian's name is described ironically 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 Dreedle."

Moreover, Heller saw the Jewish community of America becoming more integrated and less sidelined by mainstream society, and so decided not to give his protagonist a Jewish name and a Coney Island background (as Heller himself had). 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 Yohannon, but that the character of Yossarian himself was 'the incarnation of a wish' (Now and Then 175-6)."[2]

Character sketch



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 try to prevent his death.


Yossarian's motivation in the novel is summed up in this quote: "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive." In order to survive the war and prolong his life, 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 Bologna”).
  • 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 that he always runs a temperature of 101 degrees.
  • Ordering his pilot to perform harsh evasive action in the face of flak, something that he will not trust anyone else to do.
  • "Plotting an emergency heading into Switzerland" so that he can be interned for the duration of the war "under conditions of utmost ease and luxury."

Yossarian also, like many of the other soldiers, tries to escape the realities of war by getting drunk, gorging himself in the mess hall, and sleeping with women, although events in the novel make it easy to believe that he would do these things anyway.

Relationships and conflicts

Yossarian is in continual conflict with Catch-22, an extremely vague governmental policy which his superiors use to justify many of their illogical deeds.

The bulk of Catch-22 concerns Yossarian's relationships with the other soldiers in his squadron, such as the neurotic Hungry Joe, the war profiteer Milo, the spoiled, idealistic Nately, and selfish Doc Daneeka. There are many characters that Yossarian hates and likes. His best friends seem to be Dunbar, the Chaplain, Nately, Hungry Joe, McWatt and Orr. There are two characters with whom Yossarian argues, but he is greatly saddened when, on separate occasions, Clevinger and Orr disappear. He hates the majority of his superiors for continually 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 soldiers 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 very vivid and intense, and is the emotional center of the book. When Snowden gets injured over Avignon, it is Yossarian who tries to treat and comfort him, only to see him die gruesomely.


At the end of the novel, Yossarian is forced to accept a deal with Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn or else face a court-martial for going AWOL in Rome. The deal allows Yossarian to go home, but only if he acts as "pals" to Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn; to "become one of the boys." Korn explains that this means that 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 also making 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 previous dissent to force the superior officers to treat them all differently, and admits that he did it "in a moment of weakness". Also, when he learns that the "official report" had twisted the event of Nately's Whore stabbing him into Yossarian taking a knife wound from a Nazi assassin to protect the colonels, Yossarian begins to resent being manipulated as "part of the deal."

Yossarian’s epiphany comes when he hears of Orr’s escape to neutral Sweden and realizes that it is possible to defeat, or at least escape, the military philosophy 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."

Biographical summary

Timeline in "Catch-22"

Yossarian features to some extent in all but two of the forty-two chapters of the novel, but due to the skewed timeline it is often not clear which events follow which. A timeline has been developed by CS Bruhans Jr [1], whereby the main plot follows the actions of Yossarian:

  • 1943, Yossarian sent overseas, Splendid Atabrine Insurrection
  • September 1943, required number of missions for tour of duty is 25, Colonel Nevers dies on Arezzo mission
  • September 1943, arrival of Colonel Cathcart, required missions raised to 30
  • April 1944, setup of M & M Enterprises by Milo, death of Mudd on Orvieto mission
  • May 1944, required missions raised to 35
  • May 1944, death of Kraft and Coombs on Ferrara mission, first poisoning of mess
  • May 1944, bombing of squadron by Milo
  • May 1944, Great Big Siege of Bologna, second poisoning of mess, required missions raised to 40
  • June 1944, fall of Rome
  • June 1944, first Avignon mission, death of Snowden
  • June 1944, Yossarian naked at Snowden’s funeral and medal for bravery on Ferrara mission
  • June 1944, Clevinger disappears in cloud
  • July 1944, required missions raised to 45, Yossarian admitted to hospital (Beginning of book)
  • July 1944, Yossarian leaves hospital, required missions raised to 50
  • August 1944, missions raised to 55
  • August 1944, Yossarian tries to punch Colonel Cathcart in officer’s club
  • August 1944, fall of Paris, missions raised to 60
  • September 1944, Yossarian wounded over Leghorn
  • September 1944, second Avignon mission
  • September 1944, Bologna mission, Orr shot down and disappears
  • September 1944, Scheisskopf joins General Peckem’s command
  • September 1944, raid on small Italian village, dissent by Dunbar
  • September 1944, death of Kid Sampson and McWatt, missions raised to 65
  • October 1944, missions raised to 70
  • October 1944, Yossarian’s new roommates
  • November 1944, Yossarian breaks Nately’s nose on Thanksgiving Day, Dunbar is "disappeared"
  • November 1944, Chief White Halfoat dies
  • December 1944, missions raised to 80, Dobbs and Nately killed on La Spezia mission
  • December 1944, General Peckem becomes wing commander under General Scheisskopf
  • December 1944, Yossarian with 71 missions refuses to fly any more
  • December 1944, Yossarian knifed by Nately's Whore, Hungry Joe dies, Orr escapes to Sweden, Yossarian deserts

Actions in "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 becomes full-blown paranoia when he discovers that, because of Air Force red tape, he cannot leave. 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 radio.) In fact, the novel begins with Yossarian staying in the hospital due to an invented liver condition. He busies himself by censoring letters — seemingly done arbitrarily — and signing them Washington Irving, Irving Washington, or (as gets the Chaplain into trouble with authorities) A.T. Tappman, the Chaplain's name.

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 him. When 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 (constantly tracking Yossarian down, even after he dumped her hundreds of miles behind enemy territory.)

Yossarian's tentmates

In the beginning, Yossarian lives with Orr and "The Dead Man" who died before he even got there.

After Orr seems to die when his plane goes down and Yossarian is left in their large tent alone, the Air Force decides to put new personnel in with him. Yossarian kicks out his four new roomies, when they are still halfway unpacked. Although Sergeant Towser said that Yossarian could move in with Nately, he refuses to abandon Orr's tent and stays.

The roomies call Yossarian "Yo-Yo" and are afraid of him. Because of this, they go out of their way to help him, jeer him, and destroy much of what Orr built. 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 Lt. Mudd—simply by throwing all his belongings into the woods.


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 it is Yossarian who attempts to come to Snowden's aid by treating a serious leg wound with white bandages and sulfanilamide powder.

Eventually Yossarian notices bleeding from Snowden's armpit and realises that he has another wound below his flak suit. As Yossarian rips 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 still just able to tell Yossarian he is cold. Yossarian covers Snowden in a parachute, and comforts him by saying "there, there".

Snowden's death embodies Yossarian's desire to evade death in combat; 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 now looks only to protect his own life and, to a lesser extent, the lives of his close friends. Yossarian also turns against the military after this flight and refuses to wear a uniform. His justification is that 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 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 and save her. He is not able to find her, and ends up walking through the street observing all the horrors that comes with war. Eventually he gets back to the officer’s apartment where Aarfy has just raped and murdered Michaela, but when the MPs come they do not arrest Aarfy, they arrest Yossarian for going AWOL.

Yossarian is then 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 that the rest of the squadron will not believe 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. There he recovers and is visited by the Chaplain and Major Danby. Major Danby confirms that the deal with the colonels is still on but Yossarian wishes not to take it as it lets the rest of the squadron down.

While Yossarian is trying to work out how to escape this Catch-22 situation the Chaplain runs in to announce that the missing Orr, is alive and well, and has rowed his way to neutral Sweden escaping the war. This gives a new lease of life to the Chaplain and Major Danby, but more so Yossarian, who now sees the genius of Orr’s plans, also making him determined to immediately escape the war. As Yossarian leaves, Nately’s whore again tries to kill him but Yossarian jumps out of the way and runs off.

However, Closing Time hints that the idealistic escape did not really 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 perhaps Yossarian took their deal in the end. This reflects more the character of the elderly Yossarian, who by his eighties has become a part of the society he spurned in his youth.

Major themes

Major themes include:

  • Sanity vs. insanity
  • The individual vs. society
  • Heroes and heroism
  • Absurdity
  • Paranoia
  • Language and meaning
  • The inefficacy of bureaucracy

Literary significance & criticism

Film portrait

In Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of the novel Yossarian was played by Alan Arkin.


  1. ^ Armenian names Hohhannes (John)
  2. ^ 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)

External links

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