The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/1. The Naked and the Dead
In “The White Negro,” Mailer writes:
The Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it . . . one was then obliged also to see that no matter how crippled and perverted an image of man was the society he had created, it was nonetheless his creation, his collective creation (at least his collective creation from the past) and if society was so murderous, then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature?
The Naked and the Dead, drawing its subject matter directly from that war, proceeds on the two levels of concern suggested by the quotation: the sickness of society and the flawed nature of the individual which engenders and perpetuates that sickness. Mailer’s vision of American society as it is represented in the American army is one of abject pessimism. In conjunction with his treatment of individual soldiers and officers it more closely approaches despair than any novel he has written since.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mailer’s performance in The Naked and the Dead is the structural effectiveness of the novel. The control of such a massive weight of material is not often within the ability of so young an author. It should be noted, however, that the structural success here proceeds naturally out of a happy choice of subject and setting, and out of extensive emulation of established writers, rather than from overwhelming precocity. The novel is, in fact, a rather naive product at many points. It is the recognition of his own limitations, and the establishment of certain guidelines within which his developing talent could operate without overextension, that enabled Mailer to execute a valid and comprehensible artistic statement.
The first of these limitations is that of subject matter. It was natural that a recent veteran should write of the war, and particularly of the Pacific theatre, in which he had served. But it would seem that the choice of this area over the European conflict represented to Mailer a greater decision than is immediately apparent. In Advertisements for Myself, speaking of the short novel “A Calculus at Heaven,” which is the obvious precursor of The Naked and the Dead, he says:
I may as well confess that by December 8th or 9th of 1941 . . . I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific, and the longer I thought, the less doubt there was in my mind. Europe was the place.
So if a year later, in this short novel, I chose to write about the Pacific war, it was not because I was in love with the tropics but because . . . it was and is easier to write a war novel about the Pacific—you don't have to have a feeling about the culture of Europe and the collision of America upon it. To try a major novel about the last war in Europe without a sense of the past is to fail in the worst way—as an overambitious and opportunistic slick.
As will be seen later, Mailer returned, after almost twenty years, to his concern with the collision between European and American culture, in An American Dream. But at this point he resisted the temptation to attempt too much. He carried his self-imposed structural limitation further by setting the entire action of the novel on the island of Anopopei, tracing from landing to victory the history of a single, relatively minor campaign. Thus, although he incorporates well-spaced and accurate passages dealing with military tactics on the command level, these are not confused by a commitment to deal with the rest of the theatre, and thus with massive reams of historical documentation.
The concentration upon one infantry platoon from which to draw major characters is one of the most over used devices of war novels and grade B movies. The fortuitous makeup of the platoon, whose geographical and racial representation spans every area and ethnic group, may justly be considered clumsy. But the device is necessary to structural control, and criticism of it may be mitigated by the fact that here it is not the self-conscious establishment of a miniature melting-pot society as it is in hack novels and simplistic wartime movies. Instead, once provided with the method of introducing his characters, Mailer uses their various backgrounds to build a broad condemnation of American society and politics.
Certain obvious parallels may be drawn, here, between several of Mailer’s characters and those of writers he had read and admired at Harvard. In Advertisements for Myself, he tells us that:
Before I was seventeen I had formed the desire to be a major writer. . . . I read and reread Studs Lanigan, U.S.A., and The Grapes of Wrath. Later I would add Wolfe and Hemingway and Faulkner and to a small measure, Fitzgerald; but Farrell, Dos Passos and Steinbeck were the novel for me in that sixty days before I turned seventeen.
The influence of Farrell may be seen in Gallagher, the Irishman from the Boston slums, who has many superficial similarities to Studs Lanigan. But while Gallagher, like Lanigan, is represented as a mass of inarticulate frustrations and hatreds, and while Mailer, like Farrell, deals in a sort of economic determinism which lays much of the blame at the feet of society, the emphasis has shifted drastically. From Farrell, Mailer has inherited and accepted the doctrine that poverty and ignorance and local political corruption are self-perpetuating, and that they are destructive to the common man caught up in them. But where Studs is a sympathetic character, and ultimately one of some stature, Gallagher can evoke in us little more than a grudging pity. Certainly neither is a man of particular morality. The childhood Jew-baiting scenes in Farrell’s trilogy are, if anything, more brutal than the parallel scene in the Gallagher flashback, for example. What mitigates reader sympathy for Gallagher, and throws some blame upon the individual as well as society for the hatred and brutality which make up Gallagher’s world vision, is the man’s own self-indulgent, aggressive stupidity. Further, he is portrayed with no saving virtues. Unlike such men as Croft, Martinez or Goldstein, who for widely different and often selfish reasons act with courage or perseverence to the ultimate good of their immediate society, the platoon, Gallagher is craven in his hatred. It would seem to be one of Mailer’s theses that no matter what the environment, only a particular type of man responds entirely to the corrupt manipulation of machine politics and professional bigots.
There is more than one side to the responsibility of the individual here. It is significant that while Gallagher represents in purest form the considerable bastions of anti-Semitism in the Army and in America in the forties, he has a despicable opposite number in Roth, the soft, whining, intellectually pretentious graduate of C.C.N.Y.; and even in the relatively admirable Goldstein, whose paranoia when confronted with anti-Semitism is justified but unbecoming. Despite the corruption of society, each individual has a certain latitude within which to establish a viable system of personal morality if he so chooses. In this novel, few achieve one, though the attempts of such men as Red, Martinez, and even Lieutenant Hearn are important. It will be seen that it is the vision of personal moral failure as much as that of social failure which makes Mailer’s so very pessimistic a statement.
In this one sense, he has gone beyond another of his teachers, Steinbeck, whose powerful but idealized portraits of common men victimized by economic depression (especially in such novels as The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men) have parallels in the depression experiences of Ridges and Red. But where Steinbeck’s novels climax so often in the pathetic, almost tragic destruction of a noble proletarian, they end characteristically on a note of hope. After the Preacher’s death there is still Tom Joad to take up the position of representative for social justice; in the clumsier and more patently propagandistic ending to In Dubious Battle, the pattern is still more obvious; and after Lennie’s death there is still George to remember their dream and to question what changes are necessary so that such a dream need not be impossible. Steinbeck’s works are optimistic because they throw total responsibility upon society, and society can be changed. What cannot be changed by legislation or revolution is the character of the common man, the primary resource upon which Steinbeck relies for his hope, and of which Mailer almost despairs.
To Steinbeck, ignorance and a stage version of in articulacy are the things of which nobility and pathos are made. Tom Joad’s parting speech to his mother represents perhaps the peak of effectiveness to which Steinbeck could bring these qualities. But to Mailer there is nothing noble about ignorance, which thrives upon and aggravates stupidity and hatred. His version of the Steinbeck “Okie” is Oscar Ridges, a stolid farmboy so beaten down by generations of poverty and blind religious acceptance of what misfortunes an incomprehensible God consistently showers upon him, that he is more bovine than human. An other direction is taken by Croft, a man who started with ignorance, and when he early learned enough to be cynical, fed every experience he had into a comprehensive, absolute hatred. He loves to kill gratuitously, and the massive scope of his hatred makes him a fascinating figure, more important to Mailer’s treatment of the individual than any enlisted man besides Red Valsen. The latter, too, brings to Anopopei the credentials of a stock Steinbeck character. A coal miner at fourteen, subsequently a hobo/truck driver/dishwasher, Red has developed and clung to one basic value: to remain a loner. The considerable pain thrust upon him by the Depression and by other men have not created in him the passivity of a Ridges, nor the aggressive hatred of Croft. Concerned with preserving his own insular world, he reacts only to what threatens it.
The most obvious influence upon The Naked and the Dead, however, is that of Dos Passos. Maxwell Geismar, writing in The Saturday Review at the time of the novel’s appearance, remarked that “Mr. Mailer uses some of the technical devices which John Dos Passos initiated in the American novel, while there is also an influence of tone.” Although the qualified comparison drawn by Geismar is to Three Soldiers, its far smaller scope and the relative lack of sophistication of plot and character development make it less like Mailer’s novel than is USA.
Much that has been said of Steinbeck’s proletarian characters can be applied to those of Dos Passos as well. Joe Williams, for example, is a totally sympathetic character whose consistent misfortunes are brought about by the social structure and by the treachery of others (such as his faithless wife, Del). Throughout, he remains ignorant to the point of opacity, thereby generating further misfortunes. But he never becomes evil, and rarely reacts with more than an apologetic slang euphemism. It is not with such a highly idealized and false portrait as Joe that Dos Passos can claim importance in an artistic (as distinct from a topically political) sense. Among his characters, it is the more socially mobile, such as Richard Ellsworth Savage or Eveline Hutchins, who are conducive to the far more sophisticated view of American society for which the trilogy is valuable.
The structure of USA is all-important here. Dos Passos had used an episodic structure in Three Soldiers, but that employed in USA not only presents in effective juxtaposition the experiences of characters from a widely divergent social and cultural context, but also adds elements of painful satire by means of several devices which then represented a major breakthrough in fictional form. The Camera Eye, the newsreels, and the short biographical sketches highlight the irony in the main episodes they adjoin. (For example, passages relating Joe Williams’ victimization by bureaucratic governmental organizations are often followed by self-satisfied news releases from such organizations.) The effective scope of Dos Passos’ social statement is extended so as to be almost unlimited, for no event or attitude or person is immune from The Camera Eye, newsreel, or biography.
Mailer seems to have lifted the basic structural concept of The Naked and the Dead directly from USA, with an important distinction. While he has not limited the scope of society that he can portray and attack, he has limited the arena within which the actual action, the main plot line, takes place. He follows, in a sense, a personal set of dramatic unities. In USA, the basic plot line is made up of the lives of the main characters, while the interlaced devices discussed above are used for authorial comment on wider concerns. In Mailer’s novel, the plot is scrupulously limited to the happenings on Anopopei. The Time Machine, a dramatically effective mechanical device which must have been suggested by those used by Dos Passos, presents detailed flash-backs to the reader, of the previous life of each major character. With effective timing, Mailer introduces these “offstage” events at points where they will bear most directly upon the present action. Another device used periodically by Mailer is the Chorus, by which in a highly stylized manner he is able effectively to introduce the opinions of many enlisted men on a single topic (such as the faithlessness of women) within a short space.
Where Dos Passos relies heavily upon his three devices for the broad social scope that he wishes to represent, Mailer has provided himself, by his choice of setting and situation, with a natural hierarchical structure in the military chain of command. Thus, while The Time Machine is used to portray the home of a Midwestern businessman, the slums of Boston, or Harvard Yard, it is the presence on Anopopei of men who have experienced these places, which justifies Mailer’s detailed treatment of them, and obviates the possibility of their introduction seeming stilted. Every element of American society dealt with be comes integral to the novel as a whole, not merely because it seems to fit into a recreation in retrospect of that society, but because it is drawn from the life of a character in whom the reader has come to believe. For example, Martinez’ desperate concern with the racial inferiority he feels as a Mexican-American is demonstrated by his actions in regard to other infantrymen, then further explored through a Time Machine sequence of his childhood. The two episodes integrally substantiate one another.
Rather than limit himself to the experiences of the enlisted man, Mailer seeks a broader scope of social experience by dealing as well with the upper strata of military society (which often coincides here with the upper strata of civilian society). It has been noted above that Mailer has executed the necessary campaign effectively, even to the point of providing a map of the island. This is a relatively simple and mechanical task. What is not simple nor mechanical is the manner in which he is able to create a believable general out of whose character the major action of the campaign proceeds.
General Cummings is an effective military man of considerable intelligence. He is presented in primarily rational terms, and the things he believes, in his emotional and highly informed logic, are frightening. He is reactionary, and believes that Hitler was right in foretelling a long ascendancy for the reactionaries. Coldly and logically he persists in sharpening and maintaining the class distinctions existing between officers and enlisted men, because he knows that effective command is made up of resentment and fear from below. Although he has certain very real neurotic traits, he rarely indulges them, but at times they have an immediate effect on the direction the novel’s action takes. One of his indulgences is to provide himself with an intellectual companion by choosing Lieutenant Hearn as his aide.
Traditionally, second lieutenants are in an untenable position, pressured both from above and below. In Hearn’s case the situation is immeasurably aggravated by his personal makeup. Product of a Midwestern prep school and Harvard, he is an upper class liberal who doesn’t like people very much. As an officer, he is forced into daily contact with stupid bigots who outrank him. As a man who prides himself on a certain moral consistency (which shows itself in a dangerously self-indulgent freedom of speech) he manages to derive considerable discomfort from his co-officers’ loud stupidity without managing to stay safely silent; and at the same time manages to speak out with no moral victory. In his relations with the General, he brings about a situation through minor rebellions which results in an unnecessary major humiliation. His relations with the enlisted men are distant if not hostile, but he finds himself, as a liberal, taking their part in his talks with General Cummings.
Hearn is a crucial structural device, bridging the gap between the enlisted men and their commanders. It is significant that during the first half of the novel, he spends most of his time in the reader’s view, talking to the General. In the latter half, up to his pointedly anticlimactic death, he is the commander of the platoon about which the book revolves. But as a character, Hearn is rather empty. He comes off as less real, as well as less sympathetic, than most of the other characters. If only because Hearn’s vacuity would appear more interesting as an intentional part of the pessimistic view of wartime and postwar America posited by Mailer, I prefer to believe that the deficiencies in the Lieutenant’s character are not accidental. In a gallery of well-drawn characters, it is difficult to believe that so pivotal a figure as Hearn would have slipped away from Mailer’s control. Rather, it would seem a logical part of the statement this novel makes, that an intelligent and outspoken man who is ineffectual with and resented by both the upper and lower classes, and who is ultimately killed to no purpose, might be exactly the representative of liberalism that Mailer wished to show.
Such an intention on Mailer’s part seems substantiated by General Cummings’ confident prophecy that the world, and America in particular, is destined to undergo a long era in which the reactionaries will reign. But what crushes all hope for liberal ascendancy in American politics is Mailer’s view of the common man. Mailer’s enlisted men are not idealized representatives of the lower classes who make up the basis of Steinbeck’s optimism for America. Nor are they the carefully documented representatives of diverse ethnic groups who are brought together in such war novels as Leon Uris’ Battle Cry to point up with a maudlin, neo-Crane pride the brotherhood of men under fire. Rather, with as intense a liberal leaning as Steinbeck and as vivid a feeling for the realities of combat as any ex-riflemen writing, Mailer establishes a gallery of men in whose reality the reader believes, and destroys them all, leaving a message of despair. Lieutenant Hearn, the self-styled liberal, is killed by direct pressure of the hatred of the lower classes as it reposes in Croft, but not before he has recognized in himself a corresponding disgust for the men; and, more disturbing, a desire for power parallel to that of General Cummings. Both Hearn and Cummings make up part of Mailer’s comprehensive despair at the plight of the individual. Not only is Hearn destroyed, but even Cummings, who survives and wins the campaign, recognizes personal failure at the novel’s end:
The men resisted him, resisted change, with maddening inertia. No matter how you pushed them, they always gave ground sullenly, regrouped once the pressure was off. You could work on them, you could trick them, but there were times now when he doubted basically whether he could change them, really mold them. And it might be the same again in the Philippines. With all his enemies at Army, he did not have much chance of gaining an added star before the Philippines, and with that would go all chance of an Army command before the war ended.
Time was going by, and with it, opportunity. . . . He was getting older, and he would be bypassed. When the war with Russia came he would not be important enough, not close enough to the seats of power, to take the big step, the big leap. Perhaps after this war he might be smarter to take a fling at the State Department. His brother-in-law certainly would do him no harm.
Cummings' sense of failure grows out of his final recognition that men cannot be controlled as he thought they could. Yet this refusal to be molded by leaders is not seen by Mailer as a proud reaffirmation of the human spirit. The sullen unwillingness with which the men respond to command is a totally negative quality, and not at all a noble one. The enlisted men who survive the Anopopei campaign are destroyed as surely as are those who die in it. They are dehumanized and beaten by the island and by the evil within their companions.
Certain of the characters serve only to fill out the spectrum of American culture represented, and to provide sounding boards for the more central ones. These may be dismissed quickly: Brown, the classic middle-class sales man, who believes in the Horatio Alger myth, but is totally cynical about women’s fidelity; Stanley, the sycophant, who is frantically driven to achieve army promotions and material possessions in civilian life, at the expense of integrity and sound sleep; Wilson, whose obsession with sensual pleasure grows to disgust rather than amuse the reader, by the time of his death. No sympathy is shown either of these extremes by Mailer. The men driven to achievement by the Protestant ethic are viewed with scorn, but so is the irresponsible pleasure-oriented country boy.
More central to the particular statements on flaws in the makeup of American culture and the American character are Martinez, Goldstein and Roth, Gallagher, Ridges, Croft and Red. Throughout the novel, the men are related to one another in a complex and comprehensive series of relationships. These proceed out of the enormous complex of neuroses which characterize each man. Momentary alliances are formed and broken constantly. For example, Martinez’ value as a scout puts him in a position of favor with Croft. Brown, ambitious for promotion, plays upon Martinez' personal insecurity, flattering him in the hope of being mentioned favorably to Croft. Goldstein and Martinez are momentarily united by their shared fears of rejection, though none of their basic values are at all similar.
Of all the characters, Martinez is perhaps the most obviously and understandably neurotic, and the most sympathetically presented. A product of the Mexican slums in Texas, Martinez is an outsider who desperately wants acceptance. Existing on the periphery of a white man’s society, he has received less from America than any other man in the platoon. Yet, ironically, it is he who gives most of himself, in his yearning after the American dream. Throughout his youth, Martinez has accepted his inferior position with external passivity, with the result that he has become a mass of insecurities. The slightest hint of acceptance melts him, while the smallest rejection throws him into a panic. In Australia, British subjects can always get a shilling or two from him by calling him Yank, a name which embarrasses and thrills him. When Brown casually refers to him as a Texan, he is proud and fearful:
Martinez was warmed by the name. . . . He liked to think of himself as a Texan, but he had never dared to use the title. Somewhere, deep in his mind, a fear had clotted; there was the memory of all the tall white men with the slow voices and the cold eyes. He was afraid of the look they might assume if he were to say, Martinez is a Texan. Now his pleasure was chilled, and he felt uneasy. I’m a better noncom than Brown, he assured himself, but he was still uncomfortable. Brown had a kind of assurance which Martinez had never known; something in him always withered when he talked to such men. Martinez had the suppressed malice, the contempt, and the anxiety of a servant who knows he is superior to his master.
Martinez is a very frightened and yet a very brave man. After his menial assignments as houseboy to officers in the peacetime army, he has been presented with the opportunity, as he sees it, to gain recognition and acceptance through courage and competence. He is the scout of the platoon, constantly exposed to greater danger than anyone else, and he does his job well, with a fierce pride in his ability, and in the sergeant’s stripes it has earned him. The price he has paid for this pittance of recognition is exorbitant. His nerves are shattered. Any loud noise frightens him, he cannot sleep or eat normally, and it is only with a sheer effort of will that he continues to function. But he is so committed to what he sees as his one path to success, and to the paradoxical loyalty he feels to a country that has treated him so shabbily, that he continues to seek out dangerous assignments:
And another part of his mind had a quiet pride that he was the man upon whom the safety of the others depended. This was a sustaining force which carried him through dangers his will and body would have resisted . . . there was a part of his mind that drove him to do things he feared and detested. His pride with being a sergeant was the core about which nearly all his actions and thoughts were bound. Nobody see in the darkness like Martinez, he said to himself. . . . His feet were sore and his back and shoulders ached, but they were ills with which he no longer concerned himself; he was leading his squad, and that was sufficient in itself.
Martinez lives by a code of desperate courage, and it has almost destroyed him. Yet he is by no means a totally admirable character. Not only are his motives held up as neurotic and his achievements viewed as foolish and ironical in light of the country in whose name he does them, but his ambitions are nebulous and shoddy. He is a sensitive man, but not an intelligent one, and his vague notions of success revolve about a vision of sexual vindictiveness. The time machine episode dealing with Martinez juxtaposes with enormous irony the passive exterior and the submerged, vindictive yearnings within him, as well as the futility of his efforts to satisfy himself:
Fort Riley is big and green and the barracks are of red brick. The officers live in pretty little houses with gardens. Martinez is orderly for Lieutenant Bradford.
Julio, will you do a good job on my boots today?
The Lieutenant takes a drink. Want one, Martinez?
Thank you, Sir.
I want you to do a real good job on the house today.
Yes, Sir, I do that.
The Lieutenant winks. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
The Lieutenant and his wife leave. Ah think yore the best boy we eveh had, Hooley, Mrs. Bradford says.
Thank you, Ma’am.
• • •
The blonde prostitutes to whom he makes love. Oh, what a roll you got, Joolie. . . . Gi' it to me, again.
I do that. (I screw Mrs. Lieutenant Bradford now. I screw Peggy Reilly and Alice Stewart, I will be hero.)
• • •
Martinez makes sergeant. Little Mexican boys also breathe the American fables. If they cannot be aviators or financiers or officers they can still be heroes. No need to stumble over pebbles and search the Texas sky. Any man jack can be a hero.
Only that does not make you White Protestant, firm and aloof.
Sex is a serious and important concern to Mailer, and it plays a large part in the development of many of the characters. To Martinez, it is an instrument of vengeance, a leveling force. It is also an opiate to the lower classes. Both Martinez and Wilson have pursued indiscriminate promiscuity as an escape from poverty and boredom. The results of their irresponsibility are an illegitimate child whom Martinez deserted and an advanced case of venereal disease in Wilson. Other examples of sex in the novel are no more healthy. To Red it is something to be pursued without involvement, because comfort in another person can trap a man. For Croft it is another building block in the structure of his hatred for other people. His wife has been unfaithful and he trusts no woman. Sex for Hearn has had more sophisticated trappings in the New York publishing world, but it is still an empty thing, motivated by a desire to control. In General Cummings, sex is, in the first year of his marriage, a passionate conflict, symptomatic of his voracious ambition. When his marriage becomes an open conflict, the General becomes coldly asexual, with the exception of certain vague homosexual tendencies which contribute to the complex tension between him and Hearn. To the men as a group, sex and women are viewed cynically almost without exception, and a chorus is devoted to their mutterings on the topic.
In addition to the formal choruses of opinion on such topics as women, rotation or million-dollar-wounds, almost every man has an individual conversation with almost every other man in the platoon, sometime during the course of the novel. These interactions serve not merely to develop the characters involved but to make certain statements, by juxtaposition, on the social strata involved. For example, the conversation between Brown and Martinez (cited above) leads to an internal reaction in the latter which exposes the extent of his insecurity. At the same time, there is irony in Brown’s statement to Martinez, which consists of sentimental nonsense about wanting to be received home in pride by his country. Brown, a miniature Babbitt, is the lesser man, but it is he who has received a share of the Horatio Alger rewards, while Martinez will always be emptyhanded.
The men’s reactions to each other are conditioned by a complex system of personal neuroses, ambitions, and anxieties. They are petty, scheming, oversensitive to slights. More often than not, they act like schoolgirls, and despite the massive incongruity of their jealousies, angers and shifting alliances in the face of suffering and impending death, Mailer’s portraits seem disturbingly complete and accurate.
Each man is linked to several of the others by particular complementary needs or shared assumptions, but these are very tenuous and each man is ultimately isolated. Certain of these temporary liaisons are of particular interest. One obvious parallel exists between Martinez and the two Jews, Roth and Goldstein, as members of minority groups. The parallel is, in fact, a superficial one, although the vivid portrayal of particular instances of racial prejudice both on Anopopei and in the time machine sequence is not the least of Mailer’s thrusts at American values. Not only is Martinez separated from the Jews by a complete absence of shared assumptions and values, but Goldstein and Roth are almost as far apart from each other. The conversation between Goldstein and Martinez about America is rife with irony, because the two men think they are communicating, when they really are not. While Goldstein rambles on about the typical bourgeois ambitions of New York Jewry, Martinez translates these in terms of his own experience. When Goldstein talks of his plans to open a small shop of his own and move to a suburb, Martinez thinks hungrily of his childhood memory of a rich brothel keeper flashing a roll of bills. Yet while each pursues his separate visions, the two men are alike in their ingenuous acceptance of the American dream. Goldstein remarks:
“I really believe in being honest and sincere in business; all the really big men got where they are through decency.”
Martinez nodded. He wondered how big a room a very rich man needed to hold his money. Images of rich clothing, of shoeshines and hand-painted ties, a succession of tall blonde women with hard cold grace and brittle charm languished in his head. “A rich man do anything he damn well feel like it,” Martinez said with admiration.
"Well, if I were rich I’d like to be charitable. And . . . what I want is to be well off, and have a nice house, some security. . . . Do you know New York?”
“Anyway, there’s a suburb I’d like to live in,” Goldstein said, nodding his head. “It’s really a fine place, and nice people in it, cultured, refined. I wouldn’t like my son to grow up the way I did.”
Martinez nodded sagely. . . . “America’s a good country,” he said sincerely. He had a glow of righteous patriotism for a moment; half-remembered was his image of a schoolroom and the children singing ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee.’ For the first time in many years he thought of being an aviator, and felt a confused desire. “I learn to read good in school,” he said. “The teacher thought I was smart.”
“I’m sure she did,” Goldstein said with conviction.
The conversation helps also to characterize Goldstein, a man like a puppy dog:
Goldstein was feeling rather happy. He had never been particularly close to Martinez before, but they had been chatting for several hours and their confidences were becoming intimate. Goldstein was always satisfied if he could be friendly with someone; his ingenuous nature was always trusting. One of the main reasons for his wretchedness in the platoon was that his friendships never seemed to last. Men with whom he would have long amiable conversations would wound him or disregard him the next day, and he never understood it. To Goldstein men were friends or they weren’t friends; he could not comprehend any variations or disloyalties. He was unhappy because he felt continually betrayed.
Yet he never became completely disheartened. Essentially he was an active man, a positive man. If his feelings were bruised, if another friend had proved himself undependable, Goldstein would nurse his pains, but almost always he would recover and sally out again.
The most striking element in Goldstein’s character is the fact that he is an effectual man. He has achieved part of his dream already, through hard work. Unable to afford college, he has put himself through a course in welding, and his small shop is within reach after the war. He has come willingly to war, despite his employer’s protestations that he should be granted an occupational deferment. A physically strong man, he cheerfully accepts more than his share of the work assigned. Mailer calls Goldstein a “positive man,” but it is questionable whether his greatest strength lies in his active nature. Rather, his capacity to emerge relatively more intact than others from the campaign seems to rest upon a sort of passive resilience. It is upon this that his developing friendship with Ridges seems to rest, and it is in terms of Ridges and of Roth that Goldstein’s strengths may most clearly be defined.
Roth and Goldstein are as different as two men can be. Yet they are complementary figures, making up in sum Mailer’s portrait of the New York Jew. Roth is a despicable man, whining, self-pitying, lazy; weak but not particularly kind or gentle; oversensitive to slights but not sensitive to the needs of others. Even his one act of apparent kindness, fondling a crippled bird he discovers in the jungle, is described in terms of pity for himself. Both his motives and his actions in the bird episode are disgusting. He lisps baby talk to it, makes “little kissing sounds,” and basks in the attention it draws from the other men. Croft’s gratuitous killing of the bird is somewhat understandable. (The further ramifications of Croft's act will be discussed later.)
Roth is the most ineffectual man in the platoon and the most dishonest to himself. In a beautifully conceived scene on guard duty, Roth is shown to be governed by a mass of conflicting and debilitating fears. Imagining he hears a noise, he cannot decide whether to fire the machine gun. Then he is unable to remember whether it is cocked, but is too afraid of making a noise to pull the bolt back. He considers throwing a grenade, but is so weak from fear that he feels he may throw short and thus be killed. He throws the safety catch on his rifle, and is so frightened by the audible click that he does nothing more. Afraid to awaken any of the men, he broods over his undeserved plight until he falls asleep, endangering everyone’s life. Because Roth has overslept his stint, his relief accuses him of having fallen asleep, and he retires to his blankets in massive self-pity at being so unjustly chastised.
Strangely, since he is so much the weeping, beaten down Jew of stereotype, Roth does not practice his faith, and in fact wishes to divorce himself from it as much as possible. Although he is quite willing to admit that much of his trouble may have come from being born a Jew, he is annoyed when Goldstein launches a tirade against anti-Semites. Roth is torn, in fact, between the temptation to absolve himself of certain failures by crying anti-Semite, and the desire to play the agnostic intellectual. He prides himself on being a graduate of C.C.N.Y., but says nothing particularly intelligent at any point, and has been singularly unsuccessful in civilian life, diploma notwithstanding.
Roth is proud that his parents were “modern,” and scornfully sees Goldstein as “an old grandfather full of mutterings and curses, certain he would die a violent death.” The observation is well taken, for Goldstein does come from the pain-sodden, orthodox background. It is Goldstein’s grandfather, in fact, who in the time machine sequence presents the most valid definition of what a Jew is. Mumbling half to himself, half to the boy Goldstein, the grandfather, lost in the mazes of archaic and useless Talmudic lore, makes an important statement:
I think a Jew is a Jew because he suffers. Olla Juden suffer.
So we will deserve the Messiah? The old man no longer knows. It makes us better and worse than the goyim, he thinks. But the child must always be given an answer. He rouses himself, concentrates and says without certainty, It is so we will last. He speaks again, wholly lucid for a moment. We are a harried people, beset by oppressors. We must always journey from disaster to disaster, and it makes us stronger and weaker than other men, makes us love and hate the other Juden more than other men. We have suffered so much that we know how to endure. We will always endure.
But it is Goldstein rather than Roth who is more adaptable to the “modern” world. And it is Goldstein who survives, while Roth dies the “violent death” he snickered at Goldstein for brooding over. There are further ironies evident here. Goldstein has been speaking of some possible future pogrom, and to a postwar reading audience his concern would appear justifiable. Also, Roth’s violent death proceeds not out of accident, but directly out of his character, aided slightly by the goadings of the anti-Semite Gallagher. Weaker than anyone else on the climb up Mount Anaka, but not decisive enough to refuse to continue, Roth feebly attempts to step across a gap in the trail while Gallagher curses and goads him, and plunges to his death.
Goldstein is far from a totally admirable character. Yet certain of his deficiencies, such as his inability to strike back at others, ultimately aid his survival as a whole human being. Despite the fact that Mailer is careful to present enough concrete examples of anti-Semitism towards Goldstein to show that Goldstein’s preoccupation with it is not mere paranoia, the man’s silent, passive suffering under injustice fits well with his grandfather’s definition. Throughout the novel, Ridges and Goldstein have not been thrown together. But on the long march they are part of the same four-man work party, cutting trail through the jungle. Because Roth and Minetta are weaker and unable to do their share of the work, Ridges and Goldstein shoulder most of it, and in the almost pleasant rhythms of labor they begin to establish a comraderie. Later, after Wilson is wounded, Ridges and Goldstein are selected as part of a four-man party to carry him back. The work is backbreaking, and eventually the other two men drop out and the two friends continue doggedly, even after Wilson dies, only to lose the body in crossing the rapids, when they are almost at their destination.
Ridges, we have said, is an unimaginative, ignorant, farm boy, characterized by a consistently uncomplaining capacity to endure labor and suffering. He is, in effect, a Jew. The Christian God he worships is an Old Testament deity who dispenses pain, crop failure and uncertainty which must be accepted. Within his faith he is able to endure untold hardship, although at times his willingness to do so makes him more a beast of burden than a man. Between Ridges and Goldstein, then, there grows a real bond, and if there is any minor pleasant note at the novel’s end, it lies in the indication that Goldstein has found a real friend at last.
But it is only the man passive by nature who can emerge relatively unchanged from the Anopopei campaign. The values with which the men arrived on the island, whether informed by selfish cynicism or by a naive accept ance of the American dream, are enough to damn American society. The trek up Mount Anaka will be seen to eliminate the possibility for real hope on the individual level, by throwing into frightening focus the futility of individual courage or determination.
The division between the enlisted men and the officers in the structure of the novel is considerable in that the primary thematic concerns dealt with through development of the platoon’s members are the sexual, and the immediate results of social corruption, such as personal bigotry. Broader political and cultural issues are dealt with almost exclusively through the officers’ experiences, and particularly in several long conversations between Hearn and Cummings. But the sheer fact of their location on an island subjects both officers and men to certain of the same experiences, such as oppressive heat, torrential rain, and the risk of death in combat. Out of these shared dangers and discomforts grow certain unarticulated universal ramifications, and in the experiences of General Cummings and several of the enlisted men there seems to emerge some pattern, some theory of fate.
The role of fate in the action of this novel is not central to Mailer’s statements on the nature of war, human character, and American society. It is, however, integral to the development of certain characters, and to one of the final plot reversals. Further, it may be noted as an early indication of the more systematically articulated view of fate in An American Dream.
Fate functions on two major levels in The Naked and the Dead. It is explored as an intellectual problem in the minds of two decidedly unintellectual characters, Croft and Red. In the first half of the novel, then, it is dealt with as a part of the human condition as seen by the individual. Later, not explicitly stated, but rendered in the action, fate manipulates the outcome of the campaign, thereby affecting each individual. The most direct recipient of the irony generated is General Cummings, and the agent of fate is, most ironically, Major Dalleson.
Important to both Croft’s and Red’s uncomfortable intuitions about fate is the death of an otherwise minor character, Hennessey. In the first chapter, crammed as it is with a rather clumsy exposition of a number of characters, Croft is established as a man who rides the tide of fate:
He entered everything with as much skill and preparation as he could bring to it, but he knew that things finally would hang on his luck. This he welcomed. He had a deep unspoken belief that whatever made things happen was on his side. . . .
Therefore, Croft’s prophecy about the cautious Hennessey is invested with a portentous effect:
Then, as Croft watched, Hennessey pulled his left trouser out of his legging, rolled it up to expose his knee, and with a great deal of care rubbed a little spittle over the irritated red spot on his knee. Croft gazed at the white flesh with its blond hairs, noticed the pains with which Hennessey replaced his trouser in the legging, and felt an odd excitement as if the motions were important. That boy is too careful, Croft told himself.
And then with a passionate certainty he thought, “Hennessey’s going to get killed today.” He felt like laughing to release the ferment in him. This time he was sure.
Although the intuition is immediately undercut in Croft’s mind by his recognition that such premonitions have not always proved correct, it is nonetheless invested with some significance:
You figure you’re getting a little too smart for your self, he thought. His disgust came because he felt he could not trust such emotions, rather than from any conviction that they had no meaning at all.
Red, in his initial appearance, is characterized in juxtaposition to Hennessey. Standing alone on deck the night before the assault, Red thinks mockingly of Hennessey’s concern, on another occasion, with his life belt. Hennessey’s stated ethic is to be prepared:
“Listen,” Hennessey had boasted, “I ain’t taking any chances. What if this boat should get hit? I ain’t going into the water unprepared.”
Red, on the other hand, is characterized by an isolated fatalism, and by a series of negations and rejections:
He understood it all, knew he could do nothing about it any longer, and was not even tempted. What was the use? He sighed and the acuteness of his mood slipped out with his breath. There were some things you could never fix. It was too mixed-up. A man had to get out by himself or he became like Hennessey worrying over every gimcrack in his life.
He wanted none of it. He’d do no man harm if he could help it, and he’d take no crap. He never had, he told himself proudly.
For a long time he remained staring at the water. He had never found anything. All he knew was what he didn’t like. . . . All through his body he had the sense of every second sliding past, racing toward the approaching morning. This was the last time he would be alone for months, and he savored the sensation. He had always been a loner.
When Hennessey does become the platoon’s first casualty, because of his own frenetic attempts to move from a relatively secure position to one he feels will be safer, the reactions of Croft and Red are dramatically different. Red fearfully senses the presence of some malignant governing force:
What bothered Red was the memory of the night they had sat on deck during the air raid when Hennessey had inflated his life belt. It gave Red a moment of awe and panic as if someone, something had been watching over their shoulder that night and laughing. There was a pattern where there shouldn’t be one.
But Croft is seized by an overwhelming sense of power, in this reaffirmation of his own infallibility:
But Croft brooded over the event all day. . . . Hennessey’s death had opened to Croft vistas of such omnipotence that he was afraid to consider it directly. All day the fact hovered about his head, tantalizing him with odd dreams and portents of power.
Hennessey’s death has several other reverberations of lesser import, later in the novel. Gallagher, wandering on the beach with his dead wife’s last letter in his pocket unopened, thinks hazily of Hennessey and of death in general. When, some time after Hennessey’s death, mail arrives for him, it becomes the subject, for Mailer, not of poignance, but of a contemptuous irony directed at the superficiality of other men’s sympathy:
“Was Hennessey transferred from headquarters company?” he asked his assistant.
“I don’t know, name’s familiar.” The assistant thought a moment and then said, “Wait a minute, I remember, he was knocked off the day we came in.” The assistant was pleased that he had recalled it when the mail clerk had forgotten.
• • •
The return address on the letters was “Mom and Dad, 12 Riverdale Avenue, Tacuchet, Indiana.” The assistant read it to himself and thought for a moment of a rosy-cheeked man and woman with graying hair, the Mom and Pop of a thousand billboard ads for soft drinks and mouthwashes and toothpastes. “Gee, isn’t that sad,” he said.
“Yeah, it sure is.”
“Makes you think,” the assistant said.
While it is obvious that Mailer realizes what slight significance death can have to men who deal with it in their everyday life, he presents nonetheless the usual spectrum of reactions: the emotional realization by Wilson that man is just so much carrion, the classic confrontation with the rotting corpse of a dead Japanese soldier that has its counterpart in war novels as far back as The Red Badge of Courage. But nowhere does the emphasis or lack of emphasis on the termination of a human life assume such importance as in the minds of Red and Croft. The knowledge of Hennessey’s death plagues Red, brings sharply home to him a real sense of vulnerability, undermines his self-confidence. For Croft, it is the beginning of a compulsive movement toward power. Between these two men, one aggressively cruel, the other passive, stoical, fanatically resistant to external pressure, there arises a continual, accelerating conflict, which reaches its height on the long trek up Mount Anaka.
If there are gods who govern the larger affairs of the Anopopei campaign, the lesser decisions are carried out by decidedly inferior deities. It is a carefully placed bit of irony that the suggestion that Croft’s platoon be deployed for their ultimately useless and abortive mission is made by the stupid, ineffectual Major Dalleson. It is emphasized that in a discussion of overall tactical policy, this is the only contribution made by Dalleson. It is Dalleson, again, who casually presents to General Cummings the possibility of assigning Lieutenant Hearn to lead the platoon, in the course of which assignment Hearn is killed. And finally, in a massive burst of irony, it is Dalleson who blunders with trepidation into an easy victory that wins the campaign, while General Cummings (whose tactical skill has generated the favorable situation which Dalleson encounters) is temporarily absent to request further support from upper levels. Consequently, what prestige Cummings might have milked the victory for is decidedly mitigated, and he is made to look foolish for the sound military logic by which he established the need for support. Dalleson, meanwhile, has succeeded in nothing but frightening himself by an exercise of power he feels inadequate for, and in alienating the general he worships. The irony extends to the reconnaissance platoon led by Croft, whose probing mission is ultimately purposeless in light of the victory. The death of Hearn, Roth, and Wilson, and the suffering of the other members is reduced to a position of no military significance whatsoever, and an obvious statement on the futility of the human condition is implicit.
Mount Anaka has remained always in the background of the campaign, a massive, distant representative of monolithic nature. But it is in the final portion of the book, when the platoon must climb it, that it becomes a force in its own right. As an exploratory measure upon which the decision to launch a daringly unorthodox attack may depend, General Cummings sends the platoon, led by Lieutenant Hearn, to scout the other side of the island. The full irony of the uselessness of the mission, and of the larger plan itself, is not made clear until the very end of the novel.
In the landing craft, immediately before they begin their march, the men have a clear view of Anaka:
Far in the distance they could see Mount Anaka rising above the island. It arched coldly and remotely from the jungle beneath it, lofting itself massively into the low-hanging clouds of the sky. In the early drab twilight it looked like an immense old elephant erecting himself somberly on his front legs his haunches lost in the green bedding of his lair. The mountain seemed wise and powerful, and terrifying in its size. Gallagher stared at it in absorption, caught by a sense of beauty he could not express. The idea, the vision he always held of something finer and neater and more beautiful than the void in which he lived trembled now, pitched almost to a climax of words.
If Gallagher, easily one of the most insensitive men in the platoon, reacts in this way, it is clear that the distant effect of the mountain is breathtaking. The perversion of this aesthetic appearance to one of unmitigated horror, and the metamorphosis of the men into plodding, cringing animals in the course of their battle with the mountain, are rendered more powerful by the initial view of Anaka. More central to Mailer’s final statement on the position of the individual in the universal scheme are the reactions of Red and Croft, whose entirely different personal defeats will most clearly define the view of the human condition posited by the novel:
Croft was moved as deeply, as fundamentally as caissons resettling in the river mud. The mountain attracted him, taunted and inflamed him with its size. He had never seen it so clearly before. . . . He stared at it now, examined its ridges, feeling an instinctive desire to climb the mountain and stand on its peak, to know that all its mighty weight was beneath his feet. His emotions were intense; he knew awe and hunger and the peculiar unique ecstasy he had felt after Hennessey was dead or when he had killed the Japanese prisoner. He gazed at it, almost hating the mountain, unconscious at first of the men about him. “That mountain’s mighty old,’ he said at last.
And Red felt only gloom, and a vague harassment. Croft’s words bothered him subtly. He examined the mountain with little emotion, almost in difference. But when he looked away he was bothered by the fear all of the men in the platoon had felt at one time or another that day. Like the others, Red was wondering if this patrol would be the one where his luck ran out.
Only three men are actually killed in the course of the mission: Wilson, Hearn, and Roth; and in the two latter cases more explicable causes than mere luck are involved. But in a very real sense, Red’s luck does run out, as does that of Croft and every other man in the platoon (with the possible exceptions of Goldstein and Ridges). Every man is dehumanized to some extent by the debilitating efforts demanded by the climb. But Red, faced finally with a situation with which he cannot cope alone, is forced to relinquish all pride in his own strength as an individual. The combination of nature as represented by Anaka, and the Army as represented by Croft, have beaten him, and he admits it. For Croft, too, the mountain becomes the ultimate, unbeatable foe, and something in him breaks when he fails against it.
In the early stages of the mission, Hearn is in command, and the conflict between him and Croft throws into sharp focus the patterns of power established in the novel. Hearn, despite himself, is forced to realize that many of Cummings’ cold-blooded views are valid. Not only does he recognize the distrust and consequent inertia of the enlisted men when faced with commands, but more disturbingly, he finds in himself a disdain for the men. Further, he is able to see his own desire for power, and the petty glee which the exercise of it brings. In a well conceived scene, an obvious parallel is implied between Hearn and Cummings himself. When Croft kills the crippled bird which Roth has found, all the men are outraged. Red, conscious that he must confront Croft at some point in order to maintain his own code of self respect, takes a stand. But before a fight can ensue, Hearn orders the two apart, and forces an apology to Roth, from Croft. Hearn is pleased with his own power to humiliate Croft, and disgusted by the pleasure. Red is relieved at being spared the showdown, and disgusted by the relief. Croft is homicidal, but unwilling to threaten the structure of military hierarchy (which he values highly) by overt defiance. It is not until after Croft’s murder-by-omission of Hearn that the Red/Croft conflict becomes overt again, but the short period in which Hearn commands fulfills an important function in making clear the consistent corruption to be found in human nature at any level of the social, military or intellectual scale. The almost omnipotent intervention in the affairs of the two groundlings by Hearn is almost a carbon copy of the early scene in which General Cummings bails Hearn out of a confrontation with Lieutenant Colonel Conn. And the relief and self-disgust felt by Hearn on that occasion is pointedly similar to that of Red in the later scene.
Hearn’s death is no accident, and it is more than circumstance which makes Martinez the instrument by which Croft effects it. After the encounter with the enemy in which Wilson is fatally wounded, Hearn wrestles with his own conscience, and comes to the conclusion that no matter how much he is personally driven to succeed in the mission (as a sort of inverted defiance toward Cummings) the responsible thing to do is to turn back. It is night, and in order to insure that he will obey his own decision in the morning, Hearn confides it to Croft. The latter persuades the Lieutenant to send a scout ahead, and to base the decision to continue or turn back on whether the enemy is present. Armed with Hearn’s permission, the Sergeant delegates Martinez for the patrol, and admonishes him to report his findings only to Croft himself. Martinez does come upon a body of Japanese soldiers, and the manner in which the confrontation is rendered is fraught with philosophical overtones. With all of his skills of stealth heightened by his terror, “functioning more like an animal now than a man,” Martinez slips through the Japanese camp. The climax of the sequence comes when the terrified scout comes upon an enemy guard who, though unaware of his presence, poses an insurmountable threat. Martinez can neither retreat nor advance unless he kills the guard, and for a moment he cannot act:
Martinez had a sense of unreality. What was to keep him from touching him, from greeting him? They were men. The entire structure of the war wavered in his brain for a moment, almost tottered, and then was restored by a returning wash of fear. If he touched him he would be killed. But it seemed unbelievable.
He does, of course, kill the guard, skillfully and silently, with his trench knife. But the quality of his hesitation as Mailer renders it is significant. Even in Martinez’ inarticulate reason, the primal basis of humanity holds a last, momentary outpost. But it is a feeble bastion, and reason has no place in war. Insofar as Martinez and the guard are men, they are men irrevocably isolated by the hostility and distrust inherent in the human condition. And they are, in fact, barely human except in the negative aspects of humanity. They are conceived more as animals. Mailer has already described Martinez as functioning as an animal and in the very act of murder for survival:
The Jap thrashed in his arms like an unwilling animal being picked up by its master, and Martinez felt only a detached irritation. Why was he making so much trouble?
Life and death have become merely indisputable facts, physical laws robbed of all moral significance. In a very real sense, Martinez has been thoroughly brutalized. The fact that later in the novel he regains enough sensitivity to feel guilt makes the juxtaposition of human mind and animal instinct the more horrible, for man is robbed of the amoral, guiltless instinct of the predator and the moral choice of the human being, alike.
Martinez is not the only dehumanized character. Throughout the march, animal imagery abounds. When the exhausted men dully drag their bodies up a swift stream, it is “with the motions of salmon laboring upstream for the spawning season.” Ridges at work cutting trail looks “like an animal fashioning its nest.” Under enemy fire, the men are seen “retreating pell-mell, sobbing like animals in anger and fear.” Seconds before Roth plunges to his death, Minetta soothingly calls encouragement to him, “talking to him as though he were an animal.” In an awful sense, it is only Croft’s monolithic determination to conquer everything that is outside himself, and Red’s passive but powerful desire to stand unconquered as an individual, that represent, almost to the end, the last remnants of human values and motivation in the platoon. And ultimately, both men are defeated.
When Croft receives Martinez’ report on the enemy’s presence ahead, he withholds it from Hearn, prompting the latter to order a further advance. Moments before he is killed, Hearn promises the men that if further enemy resistance is encountered, they will turn back. But when, a short distance further on, Hearn steps unsuspectingly from cover and is killed instantly by a machine gun bullet, Croft assumes command and feels no obligation to honor the promise of a dead man. The breakdown of the last humanitarian force as it reposed, somewhat soiled, in Hearn, has been accomplished. The liberal voice, no matter how questionable its motives or ineffective its vehicle, has been present in Hearn, has conflicted and interacted with the common man and with the policy making powers. But the vectors of force from above and below, Cummings’ vindicative power exerted through Major Dalleson as an instrument, and Croft’s murderous resentment operating through Martinez, have proved far more than a match for Hearn. The death, and the circumstances which make it inevitable, are portentous as an authorial statement on the probable fate of liberalism in postwar America.
From this point, the disintegration of the men and the horror of their ordeal accelerate rapidly. Croft has been privately frustrated that the platoon was to advance through the pass, rather than climb the mountain. Now he is presented with a perfect situation. The enemy ahead obviate the further use of the pass; retreat is unthinkable to him; Mount Anaka is the only remaining alternative; and he is in a position of absolute power over the platoon, although he will later be forced to maintain it at gunpoint. The men grumble but obey, united in their hatred of Croft and their desire to turn back, but unable to act in unison.
Affected, as are all the men, by Roth’s death, and suspicious of the truth about Hearn’s, Red is further beaten down by the treachery of his own body. He is past thirty and his kidneys are sick, his appetite gone, his exhaustion complete. On one of the necessarily more frequent rest breaks, he senses his defeat:
He had to face the truth. The Army had licked him. He had always gone along believing that if they pushed him around too much he would do something when the time came. And now. . . .
In one last attempt to assert himself, he openly refuses Croft’s order to move on. Croft levels his rifle at Red, and though the other men mutter in agreement with Red, none has the courage to act. Red, unarmed, faces the rifle for tense moments, but Croft’s trump card is his demon strated willingness to kill in cold blood, and no other man present is equal to it:
Slowly the muzzle pointed toward Red. He found himself watching the expression on Croft’s face.
Suddenly he knew exactly what had happened to Hearn, and the knowledge left him weak. Croft was going to shoot. He knew it.
• • •
It was worthless to temporize. Croft wanted to shoot him.
• • •
The muzzle made a tiny circular motion as if Croft were selecting a more exact aim. Red watched his finger on the trigger. When it began to tighten, he tensed suddenly. “Okay, Croft, you win.” His voice croaked out weakly. He was making every effort to keep himself from trembling.
• • •
He was licked. That was all there was to it. At the base of his shame was an added guilt. He was glad it was over, glad the long contest with Croft was finished, and he could obey orders with submission, without feeling that he must resist. This was the extra humiliation, the crushing one. Could that be all, was that the end of all he had done in his life? Did it always come to laying down a load?
Croft’s immediate reaction after subduing the mutiny is a renewal of confidence in himself. But it lasts only briefly. The common man, no matter how fierce his pride, is no match for the pressures of society and of a natural universe that is indifferent but crushing in its insurmountable, massive passivity. At the same time, as Cummings has finally learned by the end of the novel, the sheer weight of sullen resistance generated by the mass of men will wear out the energy of any leader. Croft is doomed to fail because of this resistance, despite the fact that he has overcome its most overt expression in Red:
Even Croft was exhausted. He had the task of leading them . . . and he prostrated himself trying to pull them up the mountain. He felt not only the weight of his own body but the weight of all their bodies as effectively as if he had been pulling them in harness. They dragged him back, tugged at his shoulders and his heels. With all his physical exertion his mind fatigued him as greatly, for he was under the acute strain of gauging their limits.
There was another strain. The closer he came to the crest of the mountain the greater became his anxiety. Each new turn of the staircase demanded an excessive effort of will from him. He had been driving nearer and nearer the heart of this country for days, and it had a cumulative terror. All the vast alien stretches of land they had crossed had eroded his will, pitched him a little finer. It was an effort, almost palpable, to keep advancing over strange hills and up the flanks of an ancient resisting mountain.
• • •
The mission of the patrol, indeed even the mountain, hardly moved him now. He progressed out of some internal contest in himself as if to see which pole of his nature would be successful.
And at last he sensed that the top was near. . . . Each step he took closer to the summit left him more afraid. He might have quit before they reached it.
But he never had the opportunity.
What removes the choice of action from Croft’s hands at this point is a retributive act by hitherto passive nature. Croft blunders onto a hornet’s nest and accidentally smashes it. The pain of the hornets’ stings drives the entire platoon, including Croft, far back down the mountain, screaming and discarding rifles and packs. When they finally come to their senses, it is obvious even to Croft that they can never climb back up.
Croft, Cummings and Red have all learned in different ways that one man alone cannot overcome the resistance of nature and other men, cannot even remain passively aloof and independent. Hearn, who counted more than any other character upon the common man as a positive force capable of constructive organization, has been betrayed and destroyed because both the common man and those who manipulate him resented and feared his beliefs. And when Red, searching for a new philosophy to replace the one he has lost, explores in a primitive way the very ideals Hearn represented, he finds . . . nothing:
You carried it alone as long as you could, and then you weren’t strong enough to take it any longer. You kept fighting everything, and everything broke you down, until in the end you were just a little goddam bolt holding on and squealing when the machine went too fast.
He had to depend on other men, he needed other men now, and he didn’t know how to go about it. Deep within him were the first nebulae of an idea, but he could not phrase it. If they all stuck together. . . .
Aaah, fug. All they knew was to cut each other’s throats. There were no answers, there wasn’t even any pride a man could have at the end.
Ultimately, then, men cannot help one another. But can one man, unhindered by others and driven by a fierce enough determination, be a match for a non-human foe? The ultimate denial of even this possibility rests with, of all people, Croft:
He had failed, and it hurt him vitally. His frustration was loose again. He would never have another opportunity to climb it. And yet he was wondering if he could have succeeded. Once more he was feeling the anxiety and terror the mountain had roused on the rock stairway. If he had gone alone, the fatigue of the other men would not have slowed him but he would not have had their company, and he realized suddenly that he could not have gone without them. The empty hills would have eroded any man’s courage.
• • •
Croft kept looking at the mountain. He had lost it, had missed some tantalizing revelation of himself.
Of himself and much more, Of life.
The human condition prescribes a movement toward self knowledge that often remains unfulfilled. When it is fulfilled, as in the cases of Red or Cummings, it results in despair or at least the painful disillusionment of a Hearn. With Croft’s admitted failure, the last door is closed to a significant human action in the novel, and the final statement is one of almost unmitigated blackness. Ultimately, the destiny of the human race, and of American society in particular, is left not with the stiff-necked individual, nor with the military strongman or the intellectual. Rather, it falls to the mediocre, placidly stupid, Rotary type, as represented by Major Dalleson. The very last scene in the novel shows him, pleased to be moored once again in the reassuring monotony of bureaucratic detail, filled with self-satisfied glee at one of his own few original ideas: the use of a pin-up girl to illustrate the use of map coordinates.
This final implicit statement on the ascendancy of reactionary mediocrity in postwar America, in conjunction with the preoccupation in The Naked and the Dead with the theme of the shabbiness of the American dream, shows Mailer to be very much a social critic. The obvious and self-admitted influences upon his work of Farrell, Steinbeck and Dos Passos place him at the beginning of his career within the literary continuum established by the social novels of the thirties. In the two decades following publication of The Naked and the Dead, Mailer was to move progressively further from the use of obviously derivative elements in his fiction; but he was to remain consistently critical of the ills of American society. Symptomatic of his proximity to immediately contemporary issues, and of his impending break from the direct influence of other writers, is Mailer’s rejection of the conception of the common man held by the social writers of the Depression, in favor of a sophisticated and pessimistic vision of the human condition which is decidedly characteristic of postwar literary values. Yet it is this very element of concern with a more contemporary problem which draws vitriolic criticism of The Naked and the Dead from at least one critic writing as late as 1960. Daniel Spicehandler, in his dissertation, “The American War Novel,” concludes his otherwise perceptive short treatment of Mailer’s book with this condemnation:
What has Mailer learned from war? What is the question asked, the theme expounded in The Naked and the Dead? . . . What right has an author to choose the topic of war and neither to protest it or learn something from it? . . . Mailer leaves the reader with no tragic sense. One would suppose that so brutal a description of war must result in a bitter protest. Instead, his war experience teaches nothing, “néant.” The nada of the early Hemingway is at least clouded in a romantic idealism gone sour. Mailer’s world is a world stripped of hope. The novel as a literary form is about man—sinful, murderous, inhuman and evil, mostly, but man who, in the final analysis, seeks redemption and who desires to endure against all forces, his own as well as the outside, natural forces. The failure of these negative novels in portraying real characters stems from this refusal to see a purpose in man’s efforts to endure.
These charges, cloaked in an obvious subjectivity, stem from Mailer’s failure to subscribe to the particular form of “protest” which Spicehandler feels is necessary to the validity of a war novel. Yet it is in the very terms of this condemnation that Mailer’s particular achievement in The Naked and the Dead may be finally defined. It is my contention that Mailer learned from war something that no earlier war had so clearly taught: the futility of the human condition. War for Mailer is more than a subject for fiction in itself: it is a concrete representation of human weakness and of the society created by such weakness. If the protest in this novel were limited, as Spicehandler seems to suggest, only to a condemnation of the American social structure, it would be understandable, for Mailer’s world is indeed “a world stripped of hope.” Within this hopelessness, however, is the germ of a protest. Mailer’s fiction is always, even at this point, about “man who, in the final analysis, seeks redemption and who desires to endure against all forces. . . .” In The Naked and the Dead redemption is impossible (except on the very limited level of the passive Goldstein and Ridges), and even the endurance of such a man as Red, defined as it is solely in terms of negatives, must crumble. Mailer saw the plight of the individual in the postwar years primarily in negative terms, but this does not mean that he was willing to give up entirely on man’s chances for redemption, and to rest on the black vision of The Naked and the Dead as his final statement. Other novels were to follow, and although Mailer has maintained his cynicism in regard to American society and to the evil and weakness within man, it will be shown how he progressed steadily toward the vision of possible hope for individual salvation that is An American Dream.
- Mailer 1959, p. 336.
- Mailer 1959, p. 28.
- Mailer 1959, p. 27.
- Reprinted in Geismar (1966, p. 171). The parallel is mentioned by other critics as well, including Spicehandler and Scott, whose dissertations are referred to later in this book.
- Mailer 1948, p. 556.
- Mailer 1948, p. 360.
- Mailer 1948, p. 114.
- Mailer 1948, pp. 54–55.
- Mailer 1948, p. 350.
- Mailer 1948, p. 349.
- Mailer 1948, p. 44.
- Mailer 1948, p. 376.
- For example, Croft unjustly blames Goldstein for not pulling his weight on a gun, and allowing it to be wrecked, when it was Wyman who was to blame.
- Mailer 1948, p. 11.
- Mailer 1948, p. 27.
- Mailer 1948, p. 15.
- Mailer 1948, p. 16.
- Mailer 1948, p. 35.
- Mailer 1948, p. 207.
- Mailer 1948, p. 348.
- Mailer 1948, pp. 348—349.
- Mailer 1948, p. 456.
- Mailer 1948, p. 462.
- Mailer 1948, p. 463.
- Mailer 1948, p. 364.
- Mailer 1948, p. 368.
- Mailer 1948, p. 398.
- Mailer 1948, p. 517.
- Mailer 1948, p. 540.
- Mailer 1948, pp. 541–542.
- Mailer 1948, pp. 544–545.
- Mailer 1948, p. 548.
- Mailer 1948, p. 552.
- Spicehandler 1960, p. 2208.
- Geismar, Maxwell (1966). American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
- — (1948). The Naked and the Dead. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Paperback edition published 1951 by Signet (New American Library of World Literature, New York). All page references are to the Signet edition.
- Spicehandler, Daniel (1960). The American War Novel (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Columbia University, New York.