Published in 1948, The Naked and the Dead earned overwhelming popular and critical acclaim. Most reviewers deemed the novel to be one of the best war stories ever written, praising Mailer's realistic depiction of men at war. The novel focuses on the adventures of a fourteen-man infantry platoon stationed on a Japanese-held island in the South Pacific during World War II. In the course of the novel, the men struggle to survive and find meaning in their lives.
In his introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of the novel, Mailer asserted that The Naked and the Dead reflects what he learned from Tolstoy: "compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiators' arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not." Mailer's deft and evocative portrayal of the characters' heroic struggle to retain their dignity as they experience the horrors of war provides the book with its enduring value.