The Naked and the Dead centers on a platoon of soldiers on the Asian island of Anopopei sent on a mission behind enemy lines. As the platoon advances, the novel flashes back to the soldiers’ lives at home, showing how their identities have been shaped by their ethnic, racial, and regional cultures.
There is, for example, Wilson, an easygoing Texan, who favors strong drink and women. Joey Goldstein is self-consciously Jewish but good with his hands. Roth, another Jew, dislikes dwelling on his Jewishness and is bitter about his inability to get a job during the Depression, despite his being a graduate of City College in New York. He is countered by the anti-Semitic Gallagher, a Boston Irishman, and Sergeant Croft, another Texan, brutal and intolerant. Croft clashes with Lieutenant Hearn, a Harvard graduate who takes over leadership of the platoon. Croft is responsible for leading Hearn into an ambush that costs his life. Mexican and Italian characters round out Mailer’s impressive geographical and ethnic study of American identity.
The main conflict in the novel is the debate between Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings. Hearn is a liberal who resists the authoritarian nature of the Army. He wants to lead men because they voluntarily acknowledge his right to rule. Cummings disdains what he considers Hearn’s sentimental view of human nature and government. To the general, it is discipline, force, and imagination that win wars and...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
In the campaign against the Japanese during World War II, U.S. Army troops commanded by General Cummings land on the beach of Anopopei, an 150-mile-long South Pacific island held by the Japanese army. The platoon of Sergeant Samuel Croft is assigned to conduct reconnaissance on the beach. Croft’s men consider themselves lucky because this duty would keep them busy for a week or so while other troops go on the more dangerous patrols into the interior of the island. Red Valsen, however, resents any duties because of his disdain for authority. Croft is able to control all the men but Red. Sergeant Brown considers Croft the best and meanest platoon sergeant in the Army because he seems to love combat. Despite Croft’s courage and leadership, some of his men are fearful, especially after young Hennessey is killed by a mortar shell. After Croft begs for a replacement for Hennessey, he is given Roth, a pessimistic clerk who resents never getting anywhere in the civilian world despite his education. Of all his men, Croft likes only Julio Martinez, a reliable scout.
Lieutenant Robert Hearn, General Cummings’s aide, admires the general’s ability to put his thoughts into action but resents his own position, longing for a combat role. A snob who claims to know everything worth knowing, Cummings picks Hearn as his aide because he considers the lieutenant to be the only officer on his staff with the intellect to understand him. Cummings likes to remind Hearn that Hearn would be nothing without the general.
Croft’s platoon grows restless for combat. Most of them instantly dislike Roth, whom Brown considers lazy and shiftless. Moving antitank guns into the jungle after a storm, they drop one into a muddy creek bed, and Wyman blames Goldstein. Confronted by a Japanese platoon, Roy Gallagher wants to surrender, but the enemy troops are repelled, with Toglio slightly wounded. For the first time in combat, Croft is afraid. He orders Red to shoot four already dead Japanese and then execute a prisoner after being friendly to him, upsetting Red even more. Martinez steals gold teeth from the mouths of Japanese corpses.
Gallagher is told that his wife, Mary, died in childbirth, but he refuses to accept her death. The other men are made uneasy by Gallagher’s loss, made even more painful by his continuing, because of the delay of mail from home, to receive letters from Mary for weeks after her death. After the failure of the Japanese attack, Cummings’s campaign stalls for no apparent reason, and he feels powerless to change matters. The general begins harassing Hearn, who...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)