Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Catch-22 is set during World War II. The story's hero—or antihero—is Captain John Yossarian, a 28-year-old bombardier stationed on the fictional island of Pianosa during the Allied invasion of Italy. Yossarian's primary goal is to be sent home from the war.

The book's plot is not chronological. Much of the action is seen through Yossarian's eyes, and when that's the case, the narrative follows whatever Yossarian happens to be seeing or thinking about. Often his memories temporarily seize control of the story line.

These are the most important plot points and settings in roughly chronological order:


Hospitals are a constant for Yossarian, who takes refuge in them whenever life seems too stressful. Catch-22 opens in the hospital on Pianosa, where Yossarian is malingering, along with many other soldiers. His only task is to censor the enlisted men's mail home. He amuses himself by signing off with the name Washington Irving. Once he uses the squadron chaplain's name. Later during that stay, he is actually visited by the chaplain and finds the man's awkward behavior appealing. It will develop that Yossarian's use of fake names on the mail triggers an official investigation involving the blameless chaplain.

Once he's out of the Pianosa hospital, Yossarian dedicates himself to his main activity: fearing death. To impress his superiors, the squadron's Colonel Cathcart continuously increases the number of combat missions his men are required to fly. Yossarian has lost his nerve for reasons that are only hinted at here, and he begs the squadron's medical man, Doc Daneeka, to declare him unfit to serve so that he can go home. Doc Daneeka explains that the Catch-22 rule makes this impossible.

School Days

Yossarian attends basic training at Lowery Field in Colorado in 1942. He receives his cadet training in Santa Ana, California, where he also discovers that hospitals make a good place to hide out.

The Flight over Ferrara

As a newly trained bombardier, Yossarian arrives in Pianosa in early 1944. That spring, his squadron is assigned to destroy a bridge over the Po River. For six days, none of the flights succeeds. On the seventh day, Yossarian takes his first flight over Ferrara. The first time his plane flies over the bridge, Yossarian doesn't manage to bomb it. He grits his teeth and orders the plane over the bridge a second time. The bridge is destroyed, but an airman named Kraft is killed in the attempt. Yossarian is promoted to captain for destroying the bridge, but he blames himself for Kraft's death—and so do some of his superiors.

The First Flight over Bologna

Bologna is heavily guarded, and none of the men wants to fly a mission there. Yossarian sneaks into the intelligence tent, where an easel map is marked with a red ribbon bomb line. The bomb line shows how far the Allied troops have advanced. By the simple expedient of moving the bomb line, Yossarian is able to trick his superiors into believing that Bologna has already been bombed.

The Second Flight over Bologna

When the raid is rescheduled, Yossarian manages to get his plane turned back because of a faulty intercom, faulty because Yossarian has tampered with it. The next day the squadron again raids Bologna, this time with Yossarian as lead bombardier. Yossarian is spooked when his plane is hit. Many of his friends are killed in the second siege; his roommate, Orr, is presumed lost at sea when his plane crashes.

The Flight over Avignon

This is the worst flight of Yossarian's military career. His plane is hit, and a young gunner named Snowden is fatally wounded. Yossarian tries to repair Snowden's injured leg and believes he's been successful until he discovers that Snowden has a much more serious wound. Snowden dies in Yossarian's arms, and Yossarian never gets over his death.

Visits to Rome

When they can, Yossarian and his friends spend time on leave in Rome. The innocent 19-year-old Nately falls in love with one of the many prostitutes who hang around the apartment. She's totally indifferent to him, but Nately does not care. He and the other men often spend time at the brothel where she works. Her kid sister, a would-be prostitute herself, irritates Nately by hanging around where she's not wanted.

The Roman woman who makes the biggest impression on Yossarian is named Luciana, but he loses track of her after a few happy hours together.

When Yossarian learns that "Nately's whore" and her kid sister have been put out on the street, he goes to Rome without leave to look for her. He's arrested and brought back to Pianosa. There his superiors offer him a deal. They'll let him go home if he agrees not to bad-mouth the army—especially his superiors in the army—and if he promises to say only positive things about them once he gets back to the United States. Yossarian accepts the deal and immediately begins to have doubts.

Last Days on Pianosa

Yossarian can't dodge the fact that, if he goes home, the rest of the men in his squadron will have to fly more missions that will put them in more danger. When the chaplain learns that Yossarian's former roommate, Orr, did not die at sea but instead fled to Sweden, Yossarian decides to follow him, deserting with his conscience intact. He knows his escape may not succeed, but he's willing to try it and see what happens.

Catch-22 Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Relaxing in the hospital, Yossarian observes the patients.

Rising Action

2 Yossarian returns to active duty.

3 Doc Daneeka introduces Yossarian to the concept of catch-22.

4 Milo conceives the idea for the black-market syndicate.

5 The Great Big Siege of Bologna takes place.

6 Milo is paid by the Germans to bomb his own squadron.

7 Aarfy rapes and kills Michaela.

8 Yossarian makes a deal so his superiors will send him home.


9 A flashback reveals the full story of Snowden's death.

Falling Action

10 Yossarian reneges on his deal.

11 Yossarian decides to go AWOL and follow Orr to Sweden.


12 Yossarian takes off to Sweden.

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