Chapter 39 Summary
The Eternal City
Yossarian is “absent without official leave” as Milo Minderbinder flies him to Rome, piously scolding him for being disloyal. It is selfish of Yossarian to think only about his own safety while he, Colonels Cathcart and Korn, and others (none of whom do anything dangerous) are doing everything they can to win the war. Minderbinder claims that Yossarian is “jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”
Yossarian nods but is thinking of all the people he knows who have died in this war. He understands why Nately’s whore holds him responsible for Nately’s death, as he is part of the older generation responsible for every “unnatural tragedy” that befalls the younger people.
Rome is “in ruins” from the war, and only one old woman remains at the crumbling apartment where Nately’s girlfriend and kid sister once lived. She is mourning the loss of all the young girls who were chased by the police into the cold streets without even their coats. She tells Yossarian the police claimed they could do this because of Catch-22, which says they have a “right to do anything [the people] can’t stop them from doing.” Yossarian is furious, certain that Catch-22 does not exist, but he knows all that matters is that people believe it exists.
Yossarian enlists Minderbinder’s help in finding the kid sister; for a time Minderbinder is engaged in helping, but he is soon distracted by the prospect of smuggling illegal tobacco. Yossarian wanders the streets, moved to such intense pity for all the poverty-stricken people he sees that he wants to kill them because they remind him of all the “stupefying misery” in the world. The evidence of awful inhumanity assaults him until he longs to be soothed. He remembers he has no leave papers and hurries to the officers’ apartment where Aarfy has raped an innocent maid and then killed her by dropping her out of the window.
Aarfy explains simply that he had to kill her after he raped her or she would have said “bad things” about American officers. Aarfy is confident that he will not be imprisoned “for killing her.” Her broken body is still lying outside below the window, a clear violation of the curfew, according to Aarfy, so she is to blame. Yossarian hears the sirens and finally convinces Aarfy that the police are coming for him. The Military Police arrive and arrest Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass, apologizing to Aarfy as they drag Yossarian out of the apartment.
Yossarian sits in jail overnight and is then flown to Pianosa. He is constantly surrounded by burly MPs who could have crushed him instantly. They march him directly to Cathcart’s office, and Yossarian begins to panic as he enters the room. Korn is sitting casually on Cathcart’s desk and “greets [Yossarian] with a genial smile” before announcing that Yossarian is being sent home.