Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Literary Timeline Six Novel Ideas My Favorite Novel Elements of the Novel Top Novel Lists About the Program
Navigate through 200 years of the American Novel using scrollable tools and pulldown menus.
Use these pulldown menus to read more about novels, authors & movements.
The Naked and the Dead
The Naked and the Dead
THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, by Norman Mailer
The first published novel by Norman Mailer, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD (1948) is one of the most acclaimed war stories of the 20th century. Rooted in Mailer's own experiences as a G.I., the book follows an infantry platoon in and out of combat on a Japanese-held island in the South Pacific. The action is set during World War II, and some of its concerns are relatively specific to its time and culture: in particular, the problem of the assimilation of various ethnicities into an American identity based, at least nominally, on transcendent ideals. There is also the question of modern technology's effect on the waging of war. Beyond that, Mailer employs his martial setting to illuminate more universal themes: the depiction of officers and common soldiers exposes the tension between the rational arguments for a hierarchical social order (in war and, implicitly, outside it) and the instinct for self-determination. Examining the psychology and behavior of men confronted with the prospect of violent death and committed to kill, he draws a portrait of life at a supposed extreme that is, in fact, central to human history since it was first recorded. Reflecting on the novel 50 years after its debut, Mailer described it as an attempt to pass on a lesson learned from the work of Leo Tolstoy: "Life is like a gladiators' arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not."

Previous | Next

The American Novel