Norman Mailer

The Naked And The Dead

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The Naked And The Dead Summary

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Norman Mailer based the novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), in part, on his experiences as a member of the 112th Calvary Regiment in the Philippines during World War II. It was ranked fifty-first on Modern Library’s 1998 list of the one hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century. Mailer is known for his journalism and drama as well as his fiction. The Naked and the Dead brought him his first widespread recognition. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Executioner’s Song in 1979 and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, along with the National Book Award, for Armies of the Night in 1968. Mailer is numbered among the pioneers in the genre of creative nonfiction alongside Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe. This style combines factual journalism and literary fiction. He was also a co-founder of the influential newspaper The Village Voice in 1955.

The Naked and the Dead is written in four parts. The sections, “Wave,” “Argil and Mold,” “Plant and Phantom,” and “Wake” contain Chorus sections of dialogue in play form between characters. Also making up part of the narrative are sections presented as Time Machine that offers background and flashbacks. The novel takes place on Anopopei, a fictional island located in the South Pacific. American forces, attempting to advance into the Philippines, are making an effort to drive out the Japanese. The book centers on one platoon.

In the first section, “Wave,” characters are waiting to receive their orders. An attack by sea takes place. The men position themselves on a boat to approach the invasion shore. Battle with the Japanese begins and fire is exchanged. Hennessy, the newest member of the platoon, is so frightened that he accidentally relieves himself in his pants. In his panicked state, he runs from his foxhole and is killed by an enemy grenade. By the end of the first section, Hennessey’s death has shaken many of the men as it is the first death they have seen since they have been at war.

In “Argil and Mold,” the second section of the book, the battle wages on. General Cummings thinks highly of  Lieutenant Hearn. Hearn is the only man among the officers whom Cummings feels he can relate to on an intellectual level. They frequently have discussions. The platoon takes a Japanese soldier prisoner. A member of the platoon, Roy Gallagher, gives the Japanese soldier a cigarette. As he smokes it, the soldier rests with his eyes closed. Sam Croft, a soldier with a thirst for blood, shoots and kills the Japanese man. Soon after this event, Gallagher learns that Mary, his wife, has died while giving birth. Their child has survived, but Gallagher carries heavy guilt with him for the rest of the novel.

In the penultimate section, “Plant and Phantom,” Cummings assigns Hearn to lead the platoon through a jungle and then up Mountain Anaka to find a way to reach the far side of the enemy. Following a skirmish with Japanese soldiers, the friendly American soldier Woodrow Wilson is shot and must be left behind. Croft eventually sends Brown, Stanley, Goldstein, and Ridges to retrieve him and carry him back using a stretcher. They work at this for several days but Wilson dies. The men eventually lose Wilson’s body in a river. Croft gets Hearn to walk into an ambush, resulting in Hearn’s death and Croft taking charge of the platoon. Croft orders the men to continue the hike up the mountain in spite of it being a seemingly hopeless undertaking. Eventually, they give up and return to where the men who had gone for Wilson await them. They find that the battle for the island is almost completed and talk about what their futures will be when they return home from their mission.

The final section of The Naked and the Dead is titled “Wake.” Here, Cummings thinks back upon his experiences in the war. He feels disappointed that the victory seemed to come too easily— attributed to the Japanese troops being taxed to the point of exhaustion. It is not something for which Cummings can take any credit. Major Dalleson, filling the role of deputy for the day, won the confrontation simply by following the proper protocol. Major Dalleson begins to think about a new training system that troops will participate in beginning the following day.

Publishers Weekly says of The Naked and the Dead, “Mailer’s novel vies with James Jones’s A Thin Red Line as the finest fictional depiction of World War II combat. Using the notes he collected on more than a hundred soldiers he served with, Mailer demonstrates his considerable powers of characterization and ability to portray every misery of jungle warfare.”