While the surface of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead centers around World War II, its focus is on “the conflict…between the mechanistic forces of the ‘system’ and the will to individual integrity” (Waldron 273). The ultimate domination by the ‘machine’ makes for a very depressing, hopeless novel. Mailer explores this conflict mainly in the interactions between General Cummings and Lieutenant Hearn, and although less extensively through their lower ranked counterparts, Sergeant Croft and Private Red Valsen. It is in these interactions that The Naked and the Dead makes a statement about not only war, but society. Therefore, in order to fully understand the novel, Cummings, Hearn, Croft, and Valsen must be examined and understood for both their admirable and contemptible qualities and also analyzed in their interactions with each other. Once the personalities of the characters are established, the conflict between man and machine asserts itself, and Mailer’s idea of this conflict in society becomes clearer.
Much of the realism that The Naked and the Dead has come to be known for comes from Mailer’s experience during World War II. Although he wished to be sent to fight in Europe, Mailer was instead sent to the South Pacific, specifically the Philippines. While there, Mailer did see some limited combat, and he strove to describe it in realistic detail in the novel.
As the backdrop for the conflict between machine and man, Mailer supplies the fictional island of Anopopei in the South Pacific during World War II. Anopopei itself takes on a kind of personality all its own.
“The island of Anopopei, which presented itself as a bright vision, proves to be a nightmare. It is the mysterious world in which men live, working in unfathomable ways to confuse, terrify, and destroy them. Tony Tanner has written eloquently of it: ‘The military concept of a connected line vanishes in the impenetrable jungle-no army could live or move in it. The mountain which dominates the island dominates the men with its motionless hostility. The sea around them wears all things down and is full of death. The land itself becomes terrifying in its somnolent brooding resistance. It seems as if there is a cosmic conspiracy against men, as if something working through the various forces of nature is seeking to bring them to a standstill, erase their identities, annihilate them altogether” (Siegel 291-292).
The men must take the island from the Japanese, and General Cummings formulates a grandiose plan involving a reconnaissance mission, given to Croft’s platoon, a general forward attack, and an amphibious invasion from the other side of the island in order to surround the Japanese. It is while he is planning this attack that he and Hearn have their own intellectual battle. Hearn loses. Cummings then assigns him to Croft’s platoon, as leader of the reconnaissance mission going behind enemy lines. Croft is infuriated that he has been taken out of his...