Set on an island in the South Pacific where the American Army under General Cummings is trying to drive out the Japanese, The Naked and the Dead focuses on a single reconnaissance platoon. The novel is split between alternating chapters depicting ongoing action on the island and retrospective chapters focusing on a particular character’s personality and past. The Naked and the Dead contains several combat scenes and a great deal of description of Army protocol, as well as detailed descriptions of the many trials and agonies of the enlisted man. The novel deals with the difficulties of the campaign, the danger posed by the Japanese, the conflict between officers and regulars, each man’s own internal conflicts and fears, and the aggression between squad members. Everyone, from the General down, has character flaws, and there are few depictions of lasting happy family life or of good male-female relations. Later in the book a former general’s aide, Hearn, becomes the Lieutenant of the squad, to the ire of Croft, the ambitious Sergeant previously in command, and to the detriment of the men of the platoon.
The novel questions the competence and motives of high-ranking officers, as well as the integrity of each of the many men depicted. The men suffer physical hardship and even casualties, but there is little mourning or kindness. There is no mercy shown to the Japanese. Occasionally, individual soldiers show sparks of sensitivity or thoughtfulness.
The Naked and the Dead was Mailer’s first published novel and is still his top ranked novel by sales; it established his reputation as a novelist and brought international recognition.