written by: Peter Boysen
• edited by: SForsyth
• updated: 1/20/2012
Read an overview of the plot of Heller's classic novel. Includes a summary and explanation of events.
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Running in Chronological Circles
Any plot summary worth its salt has to mention the unusual structure of the narrative. John Yossarian is an Air Force bomber stationed on the island of Pianosa, just off the coast of Italy. The novel takes us through his journey from brave airman to disillusioned dissident to runaway soldier. However, the same events are occasionally repeated, but from different points of view, and the central event in Yossarian’s despair with the war – the death of Snowden – is told several times, each with an increasing level of detail.
Yossarian’s interactions with the people around him are organized by character, in a way, instead of by chronology. You’ll notice that most of the chapters are named for specific characters in the book, and each chapter contains that person’s story, by and large, and Yossarian tends to wander in and out of each chapter.
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So What Actually Happens?
The Air Force base at Pianosa is run by Colonel Cathcart, whose primary mission in World War II appears to be building up his own personal prestige and reputation. Throughout the story, he gradually increases the number of missions that an airman has to fly before being rotated out of active combat from thirty to a hundred. There’s no real reason for this, other than to make his unit “look" better than all of the other ones.
Yossarian is happily flying his missions, and gaining a reputation for bravery as a bombardier, when his plane is hit by enemy flak, and Snowden, a young soldier, is hit and dies. Initially, it looks like Snowden just has a wound in his leg, which Yossarian quickly patches up for him. However, Yossarian then notices an odd stain under Snowden’s arm and pulls at his flak suit. It comes away, and Snowden’s abdominal organs all spill out. All that the shocked Yossarian can do is cover Snowden in extra parachutes and stammer, “There, there."
This event unhinges Yossarian mentally. He decides not to wear his uniform anymore; at Snowden’s funeral, he sits in a nearby tree, naked; when General Dreedle comes to give him a medal for bravery (although he hadn’t saved anyone’s life), he stands in formation, still stark naked.
Eventually, Yossarian starts dressing again, but he starts finding as many ways as he can to avoid flying combat missions. He gets himself checked into the hospital on several occasions; he calls one mission off while the planes are in the air, after he rips out the intercom and makes it “defective." His roommate, Orr, seems even more darkly bent on getting out of missions, because he crashes all of his planes, parachuting over water. After a while, his mission becomes clear – he’s practicing survival in a life raft, so that he can escape to Sweden (a neutral country) – which he finally does.
Is the War Worth it?
Other characters in the novel also wrestle with their own opinions of the war. Clevinger is the voice of the patriotic establishment and continues to argue in favor of the war. Nately is a big believer in the greatness of the United States, and is infuriated when an old man in a brothel in Rome argues that it’s actually better to lose wars, because occupying powers come and go, but the occupied people always remain.
Yossarian’s agitation about the ever-increasing number of required combat missions becomes so disruptive that his commanders, Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn, agree to send him home, as long as he agrees to appear in a patriotic parade and only say good things about his experiences overseas. Yossarian cannot agree, and so he deserts at the end of the novel, hoping to escape like Orr had. His escape from Pianosa is the end of the story.