It is a clear and banal statement that war brings suffering and anguish. It also creates heroes, archetypes worth of following. After World War II, most of the wartime literature, portray a broad spectrum of experiences and naturally enlight those of them that in common sense would be recognized as righteous and moral.
Norman Mailer in his novel The Naked and the Dead, deprives us of all illusion and hope, leaving no room for the smallest good parts of the war theater. The book, first published in New York in 1948 met with various reviews. Not many of them, at least the American ones, were as enthusiastic as The Guardian review (13.05.49). Each of them, however, regarded at least three common details. First, Mailer’s prose, which is not linguistically engaging, and the use of elements of the Time Machine that the New Yorker has termed pejoratively as “the most popular form nowadays.” Taking into consideration the immensity of the task, namely to show the individuals, human characters and what stands behind them, in the vastness of war and humanity, the form that Mailer has adopted seems to be quite useful. A straightforward, but important, form that does not disturb the course of events, while at the same time is a valuable addition to it. Secondly, some critics found the 721-pages-novel definitely too long while others as an extreme exaggeration. And finally, a lot of attention was devoted to Mailer’s age, who was 25 years old when he published the novel. On the one hand, it was discussed how mature and sensitive Mailer must have been. On the contrary, John Lardner in The New Yorker (May 15, 1948) wondered whether, in this regard, one should hope that with Mailer’s aging he would consider at the age of 27 or 28 writing shorter novels. It is also worth to take a moment and reflect on, interesting from today’s perspective, the problem of receiving the brutal reality presented to the society by Mailer. Wouldn’t be offensive to the reader the way he portrays the world and men? Would the reader be morally strong enough to succumb to the demoralizing influence of the novel? These questions appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the descriptive parts of the book with which Mailer confronts us, at that time could be considered obscene, and characters’ attitude to each other extremely abusive. In fact, today, many could undermine the morality of the novel as well.
The story in The Naked and the Dead begins with the American troops landing, probably around 1944, on an island of Anopopei in the South Pacific, occupied by Japanese. However, the place of the events is not that important for the merits of the story. The war and the engagement with enemy troops are only a background; the context in which the true human nature and character can be witnessed.
The novel can be divided into three major parts: the invasion, the counterattack of Japanese troops and the patrol in the back of the enemy. The space between them Mailer fills in with two types of additions: the philosophical-ideological discourse between General Cummings and his adjutant, Lieutenant Hearn, and the Time Machines, in which we learn about the backgrounds of the novel’s characters. In the context of the war, the story focuses on the reconnaissance platoon commanded by Sergeant Croft. In a very skillful way, Mailer portrays a small, closed world of a group of soldiers. Still, he doesn’t let us forget and completely isolate ourselves from the context of war. It is a combination that creates a critical space in which demons of the human soul come to light; at the beginning timidly, then even excitingly and shamelessly. Mailer shows how, on the one hand, war free human’s brutality, aggression and anger; and on the contrary, how war feeds on those emotions, driving a spiral of barbaric violence. The war we see is a ruthless process of dehumanization and fall of a man. Mailer deprives a man of dignity, self-respect, and regard for others. Sergeant Croft, commanding the reconnaissance platoon, is a perfect illustration of the downside of human nature with murdering a prisoner who fell into the hands of the platoon. Croft initially, seems to be surprisingly friendly toward him, sharing food, water, and cigarettes with the prisoner. Thus allowing him to relax and feel safe for a while. Yet deep inside Croft clinically plays with his victim who’s unaware that his fate has been decided. Then with odd satisfaction, he kills him.
He realized suddenly that a part of his mind, very deeply buried, had known he was going to kill the prisoner from the moment he had sent Red on ahead. He felt quite blank now. The smile on the dead man’s face amused him.
Sergeant Croft overwhelmed with desires he does not understand, also contributes to the death of Lieutenant Hearn during the last patrol behind enemy lines. He also takes out his frustration and uncontrolled anger on innocent and defenseless ones. Like the moment when he brutally kills a wounded bird in his hand.
Croft held it [the bird] for a moment. He could feel the bird’s heart beating like a pulse against his palm… It was no bigger than a stone yet it was alive. He wavered between compassion for the bird and the thick lusting tension of its throat. He didn’t know whether to smooth its soft features or smash it in his fingers.
Mailer draws a brutal and often depraved picture of human nature, enhanced and at the same time justified in some way by the war. He does it in a simple, frivolous way, creating a sense of truth and reality of the world. As a result of his characters continuous dealing with fatigue and toil, at some point, we begin to feel the frustration and anger that accompany them. One of the most frequently repeated emotional states in the novel is humiliation. Its omnipresence seems to set the tone of characters’ lives. Its source is a shame, one’s weaknesses, actions, and the feeling of being deprived of all human basic dignity by brothers in arms.
The Naked and the Dead is in part a picture of the American society of the forties, full of prejudices, stereotypes, xenophobia, and racism. Mailer in this small world collects all sorts of typical American Jew, Gentile, Mexican with an inferiority complex to every white citizen, utopian liberal with the character of Lieutenant Hearn, and finally a dictator and fascist with General Cummings. The latter, throughout the novel, is having conversations with Hearn, his Harvard-educated adjutant, that are a vivid image of the frictions and differences of American society. On the one hand, General who’s a dictator kind of character; and on the other, Lieutenant representing a well-educated liberal side of the America.
In Mailer’s novel, the ambivalence of Cummings’ and Hearn’s relation is quite visible and interesting. On the one hand, General likes to have discussions with his adjutant and allows for far-reaching confidentiality. On the contrary, he also draws great satisfaction from the humiliation and paternalistic treatment of Hearn. You can see quite a turbulent relationship. Since we learn that Cummings’ marriage is a failure, and we can assume the reasons, I see his relation with Hearn, at least from Cummings perspective as in part a kind of romantic one. Then again, this is how Mailer describes the moment when General learns of Lieutenant Hearn’s death.
…for an instant when he first heard the news of Hearn’s death, it had hurt him, wrenched his heart with a cruel fist. He had almost grieved for Hearn, and then it had been covered over by something else, something more complex. For day whenever Cummings thought of the Lieutenant he would feel a mingled pain and satisfaction.
The novel shows naked people – deprived of self-esteem and dignity; people dead emotionally, broken and humiliated. In Mailer’s prose, it’s hard to see any sign of compassion for his characters. As we follow the course of events and accompany the characters in each situation, there is this strange feeling of loneliness and frustration that grow inside of us. Maybe it’s because of Mailer, who doesn’t judge his characters; he doesn’t conclude on what is good and what is wrong. Therefore we become emotionally involved in the lives of his characters, and we are those who subconsciously become the judges and executioners in their case.