The NaturalBernard Malamud
For Further Study
In his Dictionary of Literary Biography article on Bernard Malamud, Joel Salzberg notes that the author "holds a preeminence among Jewish-American writers that has consistently been reaffirmed by recent critical assessments." Malamud, however, began his career with his popular first novel, The Natural, influenced by his love of baseball and his fascination with stories of the mythological quest for the Holy Grail. The novel's allegorical framework blends realism and fantasy in its exploration of the theme of moral responsibility. Malamud employs forces of good and evil to complicate the choices and consequences that face his protagonist.
The novel introduces Roy Hobbs, an initially innocent young man, who strives to be "the best there ever was in the game" of baseball. As he attempts to reach that goal, his moral courage will be tested. Ultimately, this flawed hero will learn too late of the consequences of blind ambition. The novel received mixed reviews when it first appeared, due to its complex narrative structure. However, critical response grew to the point where many now consider it among Malamud's best works.
Malamud set The Natural in New York City, where he was born in 1914 and raised by his Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Growing up near Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Malamud became an avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and of baseball as an American pastime. In 1936 he earned a B.A. from the City College of New York, where he became interested in the Grail legend, and in 1942 a M.A. in literature from Columbia University. Other than serving as a clerk at the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. in 1940, he devoted his life to teaching and writing. He began his teaching career in New York City high schools and from 1949 to 1961 taught literature at Oregon State University. In 1962 he accepted a position at Bennington College in Vermont where he continued to teach until his death in 1986.
Malamud published stories for his high school literary magazine, but his literary career did not begin until years later. Greatly affected by World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, Malamud engaged in an exploration of his Jewish heritage. His first novel, The Natural, written while he was at Oregon State, would be one of the few works that would not center on a Jewish protagonist. The novel does, however, explore the themes of suffering and redemption that Malamud would return to in his later writings. While at Oregon State, he produced his most notable works including The Assistant, The Magic Barrel (1958), and A New Life (1961). His work gained him several awards, including the National Book Award in fiction in 1959 for The Magic Barrel and in 1967 for The Fixer, and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1967 for The Fixer.
Part I: "Pre-game"
Bernard Malamud's novel, The Natural follows the career of baseball player Roy Hobbs from his first false start to his final failure. The story is divided into two parts, the first recounting an event during Roy's nineteenth year, and the second picking up the story some fifteen years later. Although the first part is considerably shorter than the second, it is nonetheless just as important to the novel as a whole.
The Natural opens on a train hurtling eastward toward Chicago. We learn that Roy is travelling with his manager Sam for a try out with the Chicago Cubs. Other passengers on the train include Harriet Bird, a beautiful woman who catches Roy's eye; Max Mercy, a curious sports writer; and Walt "The Whammer" Whambold, the leading hitter in the American League.
When the train makes an unexpected stop, the passengers leave the train and move toward a carnival at the edge of a town. Roy comes to the attention of the Whammer when he consistently wins at a baseball contest. Angered at remarks that the Whammer makes toward Roy, Sam bets the Whammer that Roy can strike him out.
In the contest that follows, Roy does strike out the Whammer; however, his last pitch hits Sam in the chest so hard that the old man dies later that night on the train. The contest also focuses Harriet Bird's attention on Roy.
Sam's death leaves Roy alone in Chicago. To his surprise, he receives a telephone call from Harriet Bird, inviting him to her hotel room. Roy is overjoyed, thinking that Harriet must intend a sexual tryst. Instead, when Roy arrives at her room, she shoots him in the gut with a silver bullet.
Part II: "Batter Up"
The second section jumps ahead fifteen years. Roy is now thirty-four, and has been signed to play with the Knights, a losing major league team managed by Pop Fisher. Now a batter rather than a pitcher, Roy still carries his handmade bat, Wonderboy, with him. Roy arrives as a man without a past; neither the reader nor the other characters know where he has been or what he has done for the past fifteen years. Consequently, Roy's arrival piques the interest of Max Mercy, who does not remember their earlier encounter on the train. Max is determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery of Roy Hobbes.
The team's best player, Bump Baily, subjects Roy to innumerable practical jokes. However, the rivalry between Roy and Bump seems to motivate the other players. Meanwhile, Roy falls in love with Pop's niece, Memo Paris, who is also Bump Baily's girlfriend.
The rivalry between Roy and Bump escalates until Bump accidentally kills himself by smashing into the outfield wall in pursuit of a fly ball. Roy then becomes the Knight's top player. He continues to pursue Memo, who rejects him.
Roy longs for Memo and begins an extended hitting streak in an attempt to win her. Finally, he decides that he needs more money in order to court her properly. Therefore, he approaches Judge Goodwill Banner, the team owner, for a raise. Rather than convincing the Judge to give him a raise, Roy finds himself responsible for the uniforms that Bump Baily destroyed.
After his unsuccessful visit with the Judge, Roy is accosted by Max Mercy. Roy accompanies Max to a nightclub where he meets bookie Gus Sands who is there with Memo. After betting unsuccessfully with Gus, Roy performs a series of astounding magic tricks. For the first time since Bump's death, Memo laughs.
Later, Memo and Roy go for a drive. When Roy kisses Memo and touches her breast, she rejects him. Pop Fisher warns Roy that Memo is no good for him. Roy enters a hitting slump. Memo continues to refuse to see Roy. Finally, during a game, a woman in a red dress stands up in the crowd. When Roy sees her, he smells a wonderful fragrance and knocks a pitch out of the ball park.
The woman is Iris Lemon and she and Roy meet after the game. They walk along the lakeshore, and eventually make love. But when Iris tells Roy that she is a grandmother, Roy rejects her, and returns to his longing for Memo.
Unbeknownst to Roy, Memo and Gus Sands plot to destroy Roy. Memo agrees to date Roy, but refuses his requests for sex. Somehow Roy's sexual hunger is transformed into physical hunger. Memo urges Roy to eat and he gorges himself. When he returns to Memo's room and drops his pants in preparation for sex, he has a sharp pain in his stomach and he passes out. Roy's gluttony nearly costs him his life.
Now in the hospital, Roy is approached first by Memo and then by the Judge who want him to throw the pennant game. At first Roy refuses. When the Judge suggests that Roy wil lose Memo to someone richer, Roy agrees to throw the game for money. Memo is thrilled. When he is once again alone in his room, Roy reads a letter from Iris, in which she explains her life. However, when she once again talks about herself as a grandmother, Roy crumples up the letter and throws it away.
At the pennant game, Roy begins to keep his bargain and strikes out. Otto Zipp, a dwarf, taunts Roy, and Roy starts aiming foul hits at him. Just as he hits another foul ball, Iris Lemon stands in the crowd. The ball hits her square in the face and she collapses. Roy rushes to her side, and she begs him to win the game for her and for their son. In this way, Roy learns that Iris is pregnant with their child. Roy resolves to win the game and has renewed hope for his future. However, on his next hit, he not only fouls the ball, he also breaks his bat, Wonderboy. In spite of his renewed effort, Roy again strikes out, using another bat, and thus the Knights lose the game.
Later that night, Roy goes to the Judge's office where he finds the Judge, Memo, and Gus. Roy throws the money at the Judge and knocks out Gus. Memo goes after him with a gun, in a scene reminiscent of the earlier Harriet Bird incident. Memo screams at him, "You filthy scum, I hate your guts and always have since the day you murdered Bump." Roy takes away the gun and leaves the office, filled with self-loathing:
Going down the tower stairs he fought his overwhelning self-hatred. In each stinking wave of it he remembered some disgusting happening of his life. He thought, I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again.
When Roy hits the street, he finds that Max Mercy has published an article uncovering both his past and his sellout of the Knights. In the closing lines of the novel, Roy weeps for his own failures.
Like the Whammer, an arrogant, loudmouthed ball player and the leading hitter in the league. As he did with the Whamner, Roy challenges Bump's top standing in the team. Trying to maintain his reputation, Bump lunges for a ball, bangs into the outfield wall, and dies.
Judge Banner, a "slick trader" and controlling owner of the Knights, offers Roy money to fix a game and thus lose the pennant for the team. The Judge took advantage of Pop's financial troubles and gained from him an extra 10% interest in the Knights. Since then he has tried to push Pop off the team. His forced trades have made him money but have hurt the Knights. When Roy appears in the Judge's office after he strikes out during the last pennant game, he throws the bribe money in the Judge's face. Humiliated and afraid for his safety, the Judge pulls a gun on Roy. After disarming him, Roy beats the Judge with his fists.
Harriet Bird is a mysterious, beautiful woman who appears on the train Roy takes to Chicago. Her "nyloned legs [make] Roy's pulses dance." Harriet, however, initially shows more interest in the Whammer, until Roy defeats him during a test of their athletic skills. When Roy tells her his ambition is to be the best in the game, Harriet replies, "Is that all? Isn't there something over and above earthly things—some more glorious meaning to one's life and activities?" When they arrive in Chicago, they meet in a hotel room where Harriet takes out a pistol and shoots Roy in the stomach. She then dances around his prone body, making "muted noises of triumph and despair." The narrator suggests she may be the same mysterious woman who has shot other athletes with silver bullets from a .22 caliber pistol.
Red is Pop's assistant and protector. Red admits, "I would give my right arm if I could get Pop the pennant."
Passionate about baseball, sixty-five year old Pop Fisher manages and is part owner of the Knights, a New York City baseball team. Depressed about the Knights' lackluster performance before Roy joins the team, he insists he "shoulda bought a farm." He pines for the old days of baseball and for players who put their heart into the game. Marked as a failure after a missed chance at a run during the World Series, he withstood his shame and played ten more years, compiling a fine record. Now, however, he considers himself jinxed, and looks to Roy to help him break it. Pop becomes a father figure to Roy and tries to keep him out of trouble, especially with his niece Memo Paris. He also serves as a role model to him. Pop admits he "would give his whole life to win the pennant," but is not ambitious or proud enough to expect to "be the best" and win the series.
Roy Hobbs, the novel's protagonist, faces a test of his moral character. The novel opens with Roy as an innocent young man, whose ambition is to be "the best there ever was in the game." This ambition sometimes creates a callous determination in Roy, as when, during his contest with the Whammer, he "smelled the Whammer's blood and wanted it." His dream is shattered for a time, however, by Harriet Bird who shoots him in a hotel room in Chicago, before he gets a chance to play ball for the Chicago White Sox. He gets a second chance years later, when at the age of thirty-three, he signs with the New York Knights and helps propel them to the top of the league. Roy replaces Bump Baily as one of the leading hitters in the game, but is still "gnawed by a nagging impatience for more."
- The Natural was adapted as a film by Barry Levinson, starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, Glenn Close as Iris Gaines, and Kim Basinger as Memo Paris, Tri-Star Pictures, 1984.
Red Blow, Pop Fisher's assistant, claims Roy is a "natural" at the game, but not perfect because "he sometimes hit at bad ones." Predicting Roy's eventual fall, Pop adds that he "mistrust[s] a bad hitter. They sometimes make harmful mistakes." Joel Salzberg in his Dictionary of Literary Biography article on Malamud, argues that Roy's failure "to transcend his own desires for merely personal gratification" causes him to agree to a bribe and fix the battle for the pennant. Salzberg continues that "despite Hobb's eventual change of heart, his inherent moral weakness and immaturity diminish his effectiveness as a baseball hero and culminate in the fracturing of Wonderboy, as Malamud's flawed hero literally and metaphorically strikes out."
See Goodwill Banner
Doc is the team doctor. He tries to help the players relax during their slump through mesmerism and autosuggestion. Roy refuses to participate in the sessions. When Doc tries to hypnotize Pop, he fires him.
Iris Lemon becomes a symbol of selfless love in the novel. Her belief in Roy's heroism helps him "regain his power" during his slump. She gives her heart to him, admitting, "I don't think you can do anything for anyone without giving up something of your own." She also tries to guide and advise Roy, explaining that he will learn from his suffering: "it brings us toward happiness. It teaches us to want the right things." Roy rejects her love and concern, however, in his pursuit of his dream to be the best and to gain Memo's love. The news that she is pregnant with his child helps Roy turn his back on Memo and the Judge's offer.
Max Mercy is a cocky sportswriter, with a "greedy, penetrating, ass kissing voice." To the tenacious reporter, "a private life is a personal insult." He trails Roy doggedly in order to dredge up personal information about him for his readers. Roy tries to avoid him, hoping he will not remember their initial meeting on the train to Chicago or discover details about his past. After Roy strikes out in his final pennant game, Max exposes him in his article, "Suspicion of Hobb's Sellout" and includes a photograph of Roy prone on the floor of the Chicago hotel room, taken after he had been shot by Harriet.
Memo, Pop's redheaded niece, is a "sad spurned lady, who sat without wifehood in the wive's box behind third base." When Bump dies, she goes "wild with grief" and tells Roy that she is "strictly a dead man's girl." Pop insists "she's unlucky and always has been" and is afraid her bad luck will rub off on Roy. He warns Roy that "she is always dissatisfied and will snarl you up in her trouble in a way that will weaken your strength." Roy does not heed Pop's prediction and starts a relationship with her, which throws him into a slump. Memo's greed and her vindictiveness prompt her to help ensnare Roy in the plot to fix the pennant game. When he confronts her and the Judge after losing, she, like Harriet Bird, shoots him.
Gus Sands is a "shifty-eyed" gambler with a "magic" glass eye that "sees everything." Gus helps set up the fix for Roy and has a shadowy relationship with Memo that is never fully explained.
Sam Simpson, an alcoholic scout for the Chicago Cubs, discovers the young Roy Hobbs and puts a great deal of faith in his abilities and future. Sam becomes a father figure to the innocent Roy, helping him plan out his every move in order to help insure his success. On the train to Chicago, his concern for Roy emerges. He escorts Roy to his first Major League chance, a position with the Chicago Cubs, but dies suddenly on the train after being injured by Roy's pitch to the Whammer.
At thirty-three, the Whammer is the leading hitter of the American League and three times winner of the Most Valuable Player award. Proud and arrogant, the Whammer meets Roy on the train to Chicago and challenges him to a test of their athletic skills during a stop at a carnival. This test gives readers their first glimpse of Roy's exceptional talent and reveals how fleeting fame can be. After Roy strikes him out, the Whammer becomes an "old man" before everyone's eyes and soon fades out of the game.
See Walter Wambold
A fanatically loyal Bump fan, who calls encouragement through a bullhorn. When Bump dies, he stops attending the games for a while, but then returns to harass Roy and forecast his doom.
Choices and Consequences
The novel's focus on morality incorporates the theme of choices and consequences and the related issue of responsibility. Malamud presents Roy with moral choices in the novel that require attention to his responsibilities as a father, a team member, and a human being. He must choose whether or not to form a lasting relationship with Iris and their child, and ignore his concerns about her being a grandmother. He must choose whether or not he will try to win the pennant for himself or for his team members and Pop Fisher. He also must choose whether or not he will accept a bribe and disgrace the game he loves in order satisfy his materialism and insure his financial security.
Topics for Further study
- Research the "Black Sox" scandal that involved eight Chicago White Sox players charged with bribery in the 1919 World Series. Compare the events surrounding the scandal with Roy's experiences in the novel.
- Research the mythological quest for the Holy Grail. What symbolic elements of this quest appear in the novel? What purpose do they serve?
- How is the American love of baseball illustrated in the novel?
- Focus on Malamud's development of Roy Hobbs as a character. Is he a static or a dynamic character? Does he gain any knowledge about himself and/or of his world by the end of the novel?
Roy's failure to make moral decisions in the novel cause his downfall. His failure reveals his devotion to the American dream of success that blinds him to the needs of others. A monomaniacal focus on being "the best there ever was in the game" prevents him from becoming a team player and putting the success of the Knights before his own. This selfinvolvement leads to loneliness and alienation. Another important part of the dream is money. Roy's growing materialism links him with the corrupt and greedy Memo and prompts him to accept a bribe from the Judge, which ultimately leads to his disgrace.
Growth and Development
During the course of the novel Roy does show some moral growth. His desire to win the pennant for Pop emerges alongside his own more selfish need to be the best. By the end of the novel, Roy accomplishes a self-transcendence when he decides to forget about trying to fix the game and determines to take care of Iris and their child. However, this development comes too late to save him.
Good and Evil
Throughout the novel, Roy is caught between the forces of good and evil; these forces wage a battle for his soul. Pop Fisher and Iris Lemon represent the forces of good. Pop struggles to turn Roy into a team player and to focus on community rather than individual success. Iris teaches him that through suffering we learn the important things in life, like love and self-respect. Unfortunately, the symbolically evil characters outnumber the good. Memo, the Judge, Gus Sands, and Max Mercy all try to drag Roy down into the world of corruption. Swayed by the power and success they offer, Roy realizes too late the dangerous consequences of his association with them.
The allegorical framework of The Natural successfully links historical, mythical, and fictional elements. Malamud borrows historical elements from the "Black Sox" scandal in 1919, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team were charged with bribery during the World Series. He acquires mythological elements from the Holy Grail legend and the wasteland myth. New York City becomes a moral wasteland in the novel, and Roy Hobbs becomes Perceval the Knight as he searches, under the guidance of Pop Fisher (the Fisher King), for truth and redemption and to restore the team by leading it to a pennant win. In Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field's interview with Bernard Malamud in their Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, he explains, "I became interested in myth and tried to use it, among other things, to symbolize and explicate an ethical dilemma of American life."
Realism and Fantasy
The novel's dominant style mixes realism and fantasy. Malamud grounds Roy's experiences in the world of baseball, but at the same time, he also incorporates supernatural elements. On his first day as a Knight, Roy notices that the team seems to be hexed. After Pop tells Roy to knock the cover off the ball, he literally does just that. Gus Sands "knows" how much money Roy has in his pocket and later, Roy makes a rabbit pop out of Memo's dress. Setting details also become fantastic. The landscape Roy passes through on the train to Chicago becomes an "unreal forest" with "tormented trees." Chicago appears as a "shadowinfested, street lamped jungle."
Malamud employs foreshadowing as part of the symbolic structure of the novel. Roy's defeat of the Whammer foreshadows a similar end for Bump and highlights Roy's ambition to be "the best there ever was" in the game. A street beggar, rebuffed by Roy, warns, "You'll get yours." When strip club dancers in devil costumes jab Roy, they forecast the evil "jabs" he will suffer in his dealings with the Judge and Memo.
The Presidential Campaign
Just as Roy Hobb's moral character undergoes a test in The Natural, so does the character of many other public figures in America during the 1950s. On September 23, 1952, General Eisenhower's running mate, Senator Richard Nixon, appeared on television to defend himself against charges that he took a "slush fund" of $18,000 from California businessmen. Nixon began, "I come before you tonight as a candidate for the vice presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity have been questioned." He then denied that any of $18,000 was spent for personal use and claimed that the only gift he accepted was a cocker spaniel, named "Checkers" by his daughter Tricia. He explained, "the kids, like all kids, love the dog. Regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it." More than one million approving letters and telegrams poured in after this speech. During the ensuing election, Eisenhower and Nixon won 55 percent of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes. Nixon's moral integrity, however, would be questioned continually throughout his political life.
While testifying in front of the Dies Conmiittee on May 22, 1952, playwright Lillian Hellman insisted she was not presently a "Red" but refused to admit whether she had been associated with the Communist party in the past. Hellman claimed she would not answer further questions so as not to "hurt innocent people in order to save myself." She added, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Many Americans are forced to appear at government hearings and some, including movie stars and film producers, betray others or make unsubstantiated accusations about associations and/or involvement in the Communist party.
Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living during the 1950s as a direct result of the United States's participation in World War II, which enabled the country to become the most prosperous economic power in the world. This new affluent age prompted an avid materialism in many Americans, as it did in Roy Hobbs. Goods like automobiles and suburban homes became powerful status symbols. Spending money became a popular American pastime for the rich as well as the burgeoning middle class.
The growing demand for information about famous Americans encourages reporters, like the fictional Max Mercy, to ferret out personal details for newspapers and tabloids. In 1952, Generoso Pope, Jr. takes over the The National Enquirer and promises to expand its emphasis on sensationalism by reporting lurid crimes, gossip about public figures, and sexual escapades. By 1975, Pope will increase his paper's circulation to over four million copies per week.
The 1952 World Series
The New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers four games to two and win the World Series.
The "Black Sox" scandal
In 1919 eight members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team are charged with bribery during the World Series.
The initial mixed response to The Natural focused on the novel's interplay of realism and fantasy. Harry Sylvester in his review in the New York Times insists the work is "an unusually fine novel.… What [Malamud] has done is to contrive a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the 'natural' player… is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment." He closes his review claiming that The Natural is "a brilliant and unusual book."
Not all reviewers, however, found the narrative successful. J. J. Maloney's review in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review argues that the novel is a "troubled mixture of fantasy and realism in which the fantasy is fantastic enough, but the realism is not very real." While he appreciates the subject matter, he finds that "it is unfortunate that The Natural, which is a serious novel about baseball, should have been written by a man who seems to be completely a captive of the present fashionable cult of the obscure." E. J. Fitzgerald in the Saturday Review, offers the following review: "Bernard Malamud has taken some potentially exciting material and gone all mystical and cosmic on it with somewhat unhappy results.… Despite some sharp observation, nice sardonic touches, and an ability to write individually biting scenes, he doesn't quite bring it off." Other reviewers complained that Malamud overused symbolism in the novel.
Many critics, however, appreciated the complex nature of the narrative. While most consider The Fixer to be Malamud's best work, critical response to The Natural remains positive. Earl Wasserman's essay "The Natural: Malamud's World Ceres" cemented the novel's critical reputation. Wasserman argues that The Natural contains all the main themes that can be found in his subsequent fiction. In an exploration of the moral questions the novel raises, Wasserman points out the allegorical and historical connections between Roy Hobbs and Sir Perceval and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Pirjo Ahodas in Forging a New Self: The Adamic Protagonist and the Emergence of a Jewish-American Author as Revealed through the Novels of Bernard Malamud digs further beneath the allegorical structure of the novel where she explores Malamud's astute philosophy of composition. Her examination of the novel presents a new interpretation of Malamud's work.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor at Adrian College and has written for a variety of academic journals and educational publishers. In the following essay, she aligns the failure of main character Roy Hobbs with that of Gawain in Gawain and the Green Knight, demonstrating Malamud's appropriation of popular culture and Arthurian legend to tell a story of pride, testing, and failure.
Bernard Malamud, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, published short stories in a variety of magazines during the 1940s and 1950s. He published his first novel, The Natural, in 1952. That Malamud chose to focus his first novel on baseball surprised and mystified his readers; even in his early short stories, Malamud had generally used Jewish characters, settings, and themes. The early reviews of The Natural illustrate the hesitation with which critics approached the novel. Many found the subject matter strange, the allegory strained, and the symbolism difficult.
Compare & Contrast
1950s: Money poured into defense spending during the 1940s helped to create a successful military-industrial complex that bolstered the economy in the 1950s. Companies produced goods that enabled them to become prosperous and hire more workers who would in turn buy more goods.
Today: A healthy economic forecast causes the stock market to soar and pays huge dividends to investors.
1950s: Critics attack Senator Richard Nixon's moral character when rumors of illegal funds surface during the 1952 presidential campaign.
Today: Critics attack President Clinton's moral character when rumors of illegal funds, shady business dealings, and sexual improprieties surface.
1950s: Baseball is America's favorite pastime. Salaries for top athletes soar into the thousands.
Today: Frustrated by rising ticket prices, the 1994 strike, and players' salaries soaring into the millions, many fans become disillusioned with the game.
1950s: The public clamors for news about the personal lives of actors and athletes.
Today: The public clamors for news about the personal lives of actors, athletes, politicians, and royalty. Public figures hounded by the press lash out over their lack of privacy. "Average" Americans appear on nationally televised talk shows reporting sordid details of their lives.
Consequently, apart from reviews, the novel received little critical attention in the first years after its publication. However, after the publication of The Assistant and The Magic Barrel, literary scholars returned their attention to Malamud's first novel, looking for patterns that would emerge in his later work.
In spite of renewed interest in the novel, however, critics generally agree that The Natural is Bernard Malamud's most uncharacteristic and difficult novel. In his book, Bernard Malamud, for example, critic Sidney Richmond calls The Natural "one of the most baffling novels of the 1950's."
A number of notable critics have attempted to render the novel less baffling by identifying Malamud's sources. Earl Wasserman, for example, identifies important allusions to the real world of baseball, including events from Babe Ruth's life, the White Sox scandal of 1919, and the shooting of Eddie Waitkus by an insane woman. He also discusses Malamud's use of the Arthurian Grail story, noting that the Grail story serves as "the archetypal fertility myth." In addition, Wasserman applies psychologist Carl Jung's notion of mythic archetypes to help explain Roy's relationship with the female characters in the novel.
Indeed, connecting The Natural to Arthurian legend provides one of the most compelling ways to read the novel. Nevertheless, critics who make this connection generally look to Malory as Malamud's source. Certainly, the inclusion of Pop Fisher as the Fisher King and the motif of the Wasteland spring largely from Malory; however, there is another medieval Arthurian romance that seems more closely aligned with The Natural. "Honi soit qui mal y pense," says the Judge to Roy: Shame be to the man who has evil in his mind. This is, not coincidentally, also the closing line of Gawain and the Green Knight, a long poem written by an anonymous writer around 1400. A closer examination of Gawain may offer yet another way to read Malamnud's novel.
Gawain and the Green Knight opens in the Christmas court of King Arthur. A huge Green Knight enters and challenges the knights to a game. He offers any knight the chance to strike him with his ax. In exchange, the Green Knight will strike the same knight with the ax in one year and a day. Gawain rushes to accept the challenge and knocks the head off the Green Knight.
To everyone's surprise, the blow does not kill the Green Knight. Rather, he merely picks up his head and tells Gawain to meet him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. Keeping his bargain, Gawain sets out a year later. On the way, he visits the castle of Bercilak with whom he enters into another challenge: Bercilak will exchange anything he captures hunting with anything Gawain receives while staying in the castle.
While Bercilak hunts, Lady Bercilak attempts to seduce Gawain. She finally succeeds in persuading Gawain to take her green girdle as protection against the blow he will receive from the Green Knight. Gawain does not turn over the girdle to Bercilak, thus breaking his bargain. When Gawain meets the Green Knight, he discovers that he is actually Bercilak, and that Bercilak knows of his deception. Although Bercilak laughs and sends him on his way with his life, Gawain is mortified by his own moral failure and vows ever to wear the green girdle as a reminder of his own shame.
What Do I Read Next?
- Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Nights, John Steinbeck's 1962 nonfiction work. Steinbeck retells the Arthurian legends and Grail romances.
- Jim Bouton's nonfiction best seller, Ball Four, published in 1990, is a funny and revealing diary of one of his seasons playing Major League ball.
- Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, a nonfiction book by Eliot Asinof and Stephen Jay Gould, analyzes the events surrounding the famous baseball scandal.
- In Shoeless Joe, W. P. Kinsella (1996) presents the game of baseball as a metaphor for life. The novel was adapted into the film, Field of Dreams.
Just as The Natural is only apparently about baseball, Gawain and the Green Knight is only apparently an Arthurian romance. That is, while both Malamud and the Gawain poet use the baseball story and Arthurian romance respectively to structure their stories, they each have larger issues at stake. These writers use their genres to allegorically explore the sin of pride, the nature of testing, and the inevitability of human failure.
In order to fulfill their larger purposes, these writers appropriate cultural icons to serve in their tales of human imperfection. The Gawain poet chooses as his main character Gawain, a native English hero known to medieval audiences for his appearance in countless Arthurian romances. Gawain's reputation is complicated, however; although considered the best and most loyal of Arthur's knights, he is also known as a violent, rash, womanizer.
Likewise, Malamud appropriates incidents from the life of the greatest popular icon of baseball, Babe Ruth, and associates them with Roy Hobbs. Like Gawain, Ruth's reputation is complicated. His prowess on the field is uncontested; yet he is also known as a rash, sometimes violent womanizer, and a man of huge sensory appetite. By associating Ruth with Roy, Malamud offers a problematic hero, a man of great prowess, great appetites, and great potential for moral failure.
Further, both Roy Hobbs and Gawain strive to be the best in their respective games. However, it is not always clear what has more value to the characters: being the best, or seeming the best. When Harriet Bird asks the young Roy what he hopes to accomplish, he replies, "Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game." Clearly, it is the reputation that motivates Roy. Likewise, Gawain is reputed to be the greatest of all knights. When the temptress Lady Bercilak attempts to seduce Gawain, her tactic is to remind him of his reputation. The appeal to his pride leads him ever closer to his fall.
Because of their preoccupation with their reputations, neither Gawain nor Roy correctly assesses the tests to which each is put. Gawain assumes that the Green Knight tests his courage and Lady Bercilak tests his lovemaking. Roy assumes that his test is to prove himself on the field with the Knights and in bed with Memo. Neither understands that what is truly at stake is honor and truth.
Perhaps not surprisingly, each story has female characters who act falsely. As Gawain and the Green Knight opens, we discover that Gawain is Guinevere's champion. Just as Gawain has cultural currency outside the immediate tale, so does Guinevere. Any reader of Arthurian romance knows that she will betray Arthur by committing adultery with Lancelot and consequently will bring down the court of Camelot. Further, at Bercilak's castle, Gawain encounters both an old hag (whom we later discover is none other than Morgan la Fay, the architect of the entire Green Knight scheme) and Lady Bercilak. Although it appears to Gawain that Lady Bercilak is betraying her husband, she is rather working in concert with her husband to test Gawain.
In The Natural, Harriet Bird also hides her motivation for taking an interest in Roy. Many critics have identified Harriet with the testing women of Arthurian romance, or with Morgan la Fay. Certainly, Roy's infatuation with this false woman nearly costs him his life. Further, Memo's collusion with Gus Sands is reminiscent of Lady Bercilak's collusion with Lord Bercilak. Memo tempts Roy with sex and food, and finally with money. She offers him life, a life with her, if he will accept the Judge's money to throw the game. Roy accepts the money only to discover that Memo's motivation is far different from what he assumed. Her desire is to ruin him, not wed him.
In each story, the protagonist attaches himself to the false women and turns away from the true women. As Gawain prepares to leave Camelot in search of the Green Knight, he has the image of the Virgin Mary, "the high Queen of heaven," placed on the inner part of his shield. He loses sight of his true patroness, however, in the arms of Lady Bercilak. Roy finds a true woman in Iris Lemon, who miraculously rises from the crowd and seems to be the reason Roy breaks free from his batting slump. However, although Roy finds Iris to be a full and fertile woman, someone who would be true to him, he turns away from her when she speaks of her joy in mothering and grandmothering. Rather than remaining true to Iris, Roy rejects her, and renews his attachment to the false Memo.
The failures of these protagonists stem from their inability to learn from their past mistakes. Gawain's rash acceptance of the Green Knight's challenge is repeated in his rash acceptance of Lord Bercilak's game, and although he features himself a "true" knight, he finds himself a false one. Likewise, Roy nearly loses his life at the hands of a false woman early in his life, and then repeats the mistake some fifteen years later. As Malamud writes, "He thought, I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again."
Both Gawain and Roy suffer public humiliation at the close of their stories. Gawain confesses his cowardice and falsehood to the court, and vows to wear the green girdle as an emblem of his own failure. Roy, on the other hand, discovers that his story has been published in the newspaper for the entire community to read:
A boy thrust a newspaper at him. He wanted to say no but had no voice. The headlines screamed, "Suspicion of Hobbs' Sellout—Max Mercy." … And there was also a statement by the baseball commissioner. "If this alleged report is true, that is the last of Roy Hobbs in organized baseball. He will be excluded from the game and all his records forever destroyed." Roy handed the paper back to the kid. "Say it ain't true, Roy." When Roy looked into the boy's eyes he wanted to say it wasn't, but couldn't, and he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears.
By the time the Gawain poet wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain, as a major hero of Arthurian romance, had already been supplanted by the French import, Sir Lancelot. Yet readers of Arthurian romance know that Lancelot, too, proved false. Although he was granted a glimpse of the Grail, Lancelot died a failure, supplanted by yet another, younger hero, Galahad. Within the Gawain poet's choice to use Gawain as his main character inheres a final message: heroes striving for perfection will inevitably fail, and be replaced by yet other heroes.
Likewise, Roy Hobbs' beginning is also his end. His saga begins as he replaces Walt "the Whammer" Whambold and ends with his own replacement by Herman Youngberry, the rising pitcher who strikes him out. As Richman argues, "The Natural concludes, therefore, on a note of total loss." The failure of Roy Hobbs (and of Gawain) is not a failure of courage, but a failure of morals. Roy becomes a kind of Everyman, who fails the tests set before him, and who ends, inevitably, flawed.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Earl R. Wassermnan
Wasserman's essay, hailed as an outstanding example of Malamud's scholarship, provides a thorough analysis of myth as an integral element of The Natural.
The Doges of Venice dropped a ring into the Adriatic to renew annually its marriage to their city and to assure that the sea be propitious. The British monarch ceremonially opens the annual session of Parliament that it may undertake its care of the kingdom. In the United States the President annually sanctifies baseball by throwing the first ball of the season into the field; and, having received its presidential commission, baseball proceeds to its yearly task of working the welfare of the national spirit. The wonder is that we do not have a whole library of significant baseball fiction since so much of the American spirit has been seriously poured into the game and its codes until it has a life of its own that affects the national temperament. Just as a personal indiscretion can topple an English government, the White Sox scandal strained the collective American conscience, and Babe Ruth's bellyache was a crisis that depressed the national spirit nearly as much as the bombing of Pearl Harbor infuriated it. Like any national engagement, baseball, especially in that form that Ring Lardner called the "World Serious," has had not only its heroic victories and tragedies but also its eccentricities that express aspects of the American character and have become part of our folklore: Vance, Fewster, and Herman, all piled up on third base; Hilda (the Bell) Chester, the Dodger fan; Rabbit Maranville's penchant for crawling on window ledges, especially in the rain; Wilbert Robinson's attempt to catch a grapefruit dropped from a plane; Chuck Hostetler's historic fall between third and home when he could have won the sixth game of the '45 Series.
These are not merely like the materials of Malamud's The Natural; the items mentioned are among its actual stuff. For what Malamud has written is a novel that coherently organizes the rites of baseball and many of its memorable historic episodes into the epic inherent in baseball as a measure of man, as it once was inherent in Homeric battles or chivalric tournaments or the Arthurian quest for the Grail. Coming, like Babe Ruth, from an orphanage, Roy Hobbs, unknown pitcher of nineteen on his way to a try-out with the Cubs, strikes out the aging winner of the Most Valuable Player award and then, like Eddie Waitkus in 1949, is shot without apparent motive by a mad girl in her Chicago hotel room. The try-out never takes place, and the years that follow are degrading failures at everything. But at thirty-four, having switched—as Ruth did—from pitcher to fielder and prodigious batter, Roy joins a New York team and, with his miraculous bat, lifts it from the cellar into contention for the league championship. Like Ruth, too, his homerun cheers a sick boy into recovery, and a monumental bellyache sends him to a hospital, as it did Ruth in 1925, and endangers the battle for the pennant. Like the White Sox of 1919, Roy and another player sell out to Gus, an Arnold Rothstein gambler, to throw the crucial game for the pennant, and the novel ends with a heartbroken boy pleading, as legend claims one did to ShoelessJoe Jackson of the traitorous White Sox, "Say it ain't true, Roy." In fact, nearly all the baseball story derives from real events, and to this extent the novel is a distillation of baseball history as itself the distillation of American life: its opportunities for heroism, the elevating or dispiriting influence of the hero on his community, the moral obligations thrust on him by this fact, and the corruption available to him. By drawing on memorable real events, Malamud has avoided the risk of contrived allegory that lurks in inventing a fiction in order to carry a meaning. Instead, he has rendered the lived events of the American game so as to compel it to reveal what it essentially is, the ritual whereby we express the psychological nature of American life and its moral predicament. Pageant history is alchemized into revelatory myth.
But the clean surface of this baseball story, as a number of critics have noticed, repeatedly shows beneath its translucency another myth of another culture's heroic ritual by which man once measured the moral power of his humanness—another and yet the same, so that Roy's baseball career may slip the bonds of time and place and unfold as the everlastingly crucial story of man. Harriet, mad maimer of champions, conceives of Roy's strike-out of the Whammer as a "tourney"; Roy's obscure, remote origin and clumsy ignorance have their archetypal form in the youth of Sir Perceval; the New York team he ultimately joins is the "Knights"; and one opponent, sick at the thought of pitching to him, sees him "in full armor, mounted on a black charger … coming at him with a long lance." Of the mountain of gifts Roy receives on his Day at the ballpark one is a white Mercedes-Benz, which he drives triumphantly around the field and stops before the box of Memo, coldly disdainful lady of courtly love, to ask for a date. By subsuming the chivalric tourney and the Arthurian quest, baseball expands beyond time, and Roy's baseball career becomes, not merely representative, but symbolic of man's psychological and moral situation. Because of the trompe-l'oeil, Roy at bat is every quester who has had to shape his own character to fulfill his goal, whether it be the Grail or the league pennant. By drawing his material from actual baseball and yet fusing it with the Arthurian legend, Malamud sets and sustains his novel in a region that is both real and mythic, particular and universal, ludicrous melodrama and spiritual probing—Ring Lardner and Jung.…
Malamud's syncretism of baseball and the Arthurian legend … invites a further consideration of the novel in these terms: the psychological, moral, and communal needs of the baseball champion—the American hero—to gain access to the "sources of Life." Roy long since had made his own bat out of a tree, a sort of Ygdresel, and named it "Wonderboy," and a miraculous bat it is, with an energy of its own. Derived from nature's life and shaped by Roy for the game in which he is determined to be the hero, it flashes in the sun, blinds his opponents with its golden splendor, and crashes the ball with thunder and lightning. It is, in other words, the modern Excalibur and Arthurian lance.… The phallic instrument is the raw vitality and fertility he has drawn from the universal "sources of Life." After Roy's fruit-full night with Memo, Bump says to him, "I hear you had a swell time, wonderboy," and during Roy's slump Wonderboy sags like a baloney.
With Wonderboy, Roy joins the dispirited lastplace Knights in a remarkably dry season, and the manager, Pop Fisher, who laments, "I shoulda been a farmer" and whose heart "feels as dry as dirt," suffers, as his form of the Fisher King's affliction, athlete's foot on his hands. Even the water fountain is broken, yielding only rusty water. But when Wonderboy crashes the ball, its thunder cracks the sky, the rains leave the players ankle-deep, the brown field turns green, and Pop Fisher's affliction vanishes. When Roy first appeared and merely entered the batting cage, the flagging Knights suddenly "came to life." The Quester has brought his virility to the Waste Land, and, like Jung's manapersonality, he restores the dying father-king. Roy, the questing Knight, by access to the sources of life, has restored virility to his community and the vegetative process to nature. In the radical sense of the word, he is the "natural."
The Grail vegetation myth has been precisely translated into its modern American mode and is carefully sustained in this baseball story. The "Pre-Game" section, in which young Roy is shot, takes places in early spring, prior to the baseball season. When the story is resumed years later, Roy joins the Knights in summer, a third of the baseball season having passed; and with Roy's failure in the last crucial game the novel ends in a wintry autumn to complete the fertility cycle inherent in both the Grail Quest and the schedule of the baseball season. The traditional Arthurian dwarf who taunts the hero and beats him with a scourge takes his place in the bleachers as the dwarf Otto Zipp, who reviles Roy, honks a Harpo Marx horn at him, contributes razor blades on Roy's Day with the advice, "Here, cut your throat." This stunted growth, who also embodies a good deal of Homer's Thersites, is that portion of the community envious of and antagonistic to the hero's regenerative potency that spreads to the entire team, although Zipp had worshipped Roy's predecessor Bump, whose sterile triumphs were wholly his own while the team slumped; and Zipp exults over Roy's downfall with the empty gesture of hitting a phantom ball for a visionary homerun. Merlin the Magician and Morgan le Fay have evolved into the league of Gus the "Supreme Bookie," who plays the percentages, and Memo, Morganatic in every sense, the temptress for whom Roy sells out. Because of the complementary parts played in King Arthur's life by Morgan, who works for evil and slays knights, and the Lady of the Lake, who works for good and beneficently aids them, Arthurian scholars have claimed they were originally one. Correspondingly, of Roy's two women, red-haired Memo is customarily clad in black, and black-haired Iris, complementarily, in red; and it is Iris who knows Lake Michigan intimately and whose presence restores the power of Wonderboy, his Excalibur. Like the Grail fertility hero, Roy displaces the current hero whose power has waned. In the "Pre-Game" section, like Perceval slaying the Red Knight, he succeeds to the hero's office by striking out the thirty-three-year-old Whammer, thrice chosen the Most Valuable Player, who now knows he is, "in the truest sense of it, out" and trots off, an "old man." In the main narrative Roy gains his life-giving position with the Knights by including the death of Bump, who, although the leading league hitter, has transmitted no potency to his team. (Le Roi est mort, vive le Roy.) And at the novel's end thirty-four-year-old Roy's spiritual death is his being struck out by the young pitcher whose yearning, like Pop Fisher's, is to be a farmer, just as years before Roy had struck out the aging Whammer. Yet at one point Roy confuses the Whammer with Bump, at another sees Bump when he looks in his own mirror, and later dresses exactly like the Whammer; and when Roy succeeds the dead Bump the newspapers marvel at the identity of the two in body and manners. For in fact they are all the same fertility hero, displacing each other with each new seasonal resurgence and decline of potency. In nature, quite independently of moral failures, life and strength are forever renewed.
Besides the hero's charismatic power to restore the maimed Fisher King and bring the fertile waters to the Waste Land, Arthurians have added that the characteristics of the seasonal Grail hero are possession of a talisman, like Excalibur or Wonderboy, representing "the lightning and fecundity of the earth," and "marriage to the vegetation goddess." In every respect, then, Roy seems to fulfill his role as fecundity hero, except for the marriage, despite his yearning for Memo and his passing affair with Iris. His tragic failure therefore is linked with this omission; and the search for the reason takes us to the core of the novel, where we must seek the psychic and moral flaw within the fertility theme—which is embodied in the Arthurian Grail myth—which has been assimilated to the baseball story—which is purified out of actual events.…
In the night of defeat Roy performs the ritual of psychic mourning. In the now parched earth he digs a grave for his split bat, his shattered vital power, and, wishing it could take root and become a living tree again, he hesitates over the thought of wetting the earth with water from the fountain. But he knows the futility—it would only leak through his fingers. Because Roy's failure to be the hero is his failure to accept the mature father role, it is properly a boy who ends the novel, begging hopefully in disillusionment, "Say it ain't true, Roy." More was lost by Shoeless Joe Jackson than merely the honor of the White Sox or even the honor of the national game. For in the boy is each new American generation hopefully pleading that those on whom it depends will grow mature through the difficult love that renders the life of the human community the self-sacrificing and yet self-gaining purpose of their vital resources; that they not, selfishly seeking the womb-like security of disengagement, evade the slime that human existence must deposit within, but willingly and heroically plunge into it, with all its horror, to release for others its lifegiving power.…
Baseball has given Malamud a ritualistic system that cuts across all our regional and social differences. The assimilation of the Arthurian myth defines the historical perspective, translating baseball into the ritual man has always been compelled to perform in one shape or another; and the Jungian psychology with which Malamud interprets the ritual locates the central human problem precisely where it must always be, in one's human use of one's human spirit.
Source: Earl R. Wasserman, "The Natural: World Ceres " in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 45-65.
Frederick W. Turner III
In the following excerpt, Turner points out how Malamud's recurrent theme of the conflict between myths and the outer world appears in The Natural.
The Natural is a curiosity on two counts: first because it is one of the very few "non-Jewish" works of the author; and second because it makes use of a supposedly unadaptable subject for serious fiction—baseball. It is perhaps this latter factor which has contributed most substantially to the novel's wary critical reception. Baseball has resisted the best efforts of American writers to elevate it to a sufficient height to sustain a serious work, though several writers, notably Ring Lardner, Charles Einstein, and Mark Harris, have correctly seen it as a microcosm of American life. The uniqueness of Malamud's treatment derives from the fact that he has been able to invest this boy's game with tragi-comic qualities as opposed, say, to Lardner or Harris, who treat it in largely comic fashion.
Malamud's successful use of baseball in this novel has been commonly attributed to his use of myth, particularly the myth of the hero, and almost every critic who has troubled himself with The Natural has dutifully and sometimes painstakingly pointed out the various mythic parallels. Malamud, they observe, has equated the baseball hero of his novel with mythic heroes of the past so that the actions of Roy Hobbs, left fielder for the New York Knights, take on a significance far larger than that guaranteed even the most glorious of sweaty demigods.
Despite the ease with which critics have exposed the mythic underpinnings of The Natural (or perhaps because of it), there has persisted a sense of uneasiness about the book, as if Malamud were somehow cheating by using myths in such a fashion. So Norman Podhoretz [in Commentary, March, 1953]:
All this amounts to a commendable effort to say that baseball is much more important than it seems to be. Using Homer, however, is not only too easy a way to do it, but also a misconception of what intelligence and seriousness of purpose demand from a writer.
Then too, the mythic parallels themselves seem to lead nowhere, and it has seemed almost as if the use of myth was an end in itself as indeed the critics themselves have made it: to assert the presence of myth in a literary work is not necessarily to explain why it is there, and this has unhappily been too often the case with recent criticism; it is as though finding buried traces of myths were but a refinement of the symbol archeology carried on in the journals for the past thirty-five years. Podhoretz and Marcus Klein can tell us what myths are being used where, but they fail to tell us to what effect. Podhoretz can even suggest that baseball has its own mythology:
Mr. Malamud is truer to the inherent purpose of his book when he finds the elements of myth, not in ancient Greece, but in the real history of baseball.
Yet he fails to follow up this potentially valuable suggestion as have all other critics who have dealt with The Natural. To heed it is to be taken straight to the heart of this novel, and perhaps in some measure to the heart of Malamud's fiction as a whole.
All modern heroic myths are but redactions of the ur-myth of the hero as this has been dissected and outlined by Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Joseph Campbell. That myth is too well known to require reproduction here, but anyone can see, for example, that the Horatio Alger story is a form of the heroic myth and that, existing as it does in a democratic and predominantly Protestant society, the story has taken on the characteristics of that society while dropping those features of the old heroic myths which are culturally uncongenial: its aristocratic and sexual overtones. Similarly, it can be seen that the myth of the baseball hero is an amalgam of the heroic myth and its democratic offspring, the Horatio Alger story:
- the hero is from undistinguished parentage and has a rural background;
- the hero's father teaches him to play baseball, perhaps thereby fulfilling his own unrealized boyhood ambitions;
- the hero is discovered in his rural haunts by a hardworking scout;
- the hero is transported to the city where he finds life frightening and bewildering; he encounters difficulty in convincing the team "brass" that he has the necessary talent;
- the hero finally gets his chance and displays prodigious talents (fastest fastball, longest home run);
- the hero rises to stardom, has a "day" at the stadium and inarticulately expresses his humble thanks;
- everything after the hero's day savors somewhat of anti-climax, his talents gradually decay, and he eventually retires.
Roy Hobbs, Malasmud's hero, is one who lives and finds his meaning only within this mythology and this is his tragic weakness. He is obsessed with a sense of mission which is nothing less than to fill out the heroic proportions which the pattern casts for those who would follow it. Roy's lack of any values outside the mythology is one of the major sources of the tragicomic quality which Malamud has been able to impart to the novel: Roy's refusal to think in any terms other than those of baseball is, to begin with, comic, and he becomes the prototypical goon athlete immortalized in our literature by Lardner and James Thurber. So this passage in which Harriet Bird sizes Roy up as a future victim of her sexually-tinged desire to murder famous athletes:
Had he ever read Homer?
Try as he would he could only think of four bases and not a book. His head spun at her allusions. He found her lingo strange with all the college stuff and hoped she would stop it because he wanted to talk about baseball.
"What will you hope to accomplish, Roy?"
He had already told her but after a minute remarked, "Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game."
She gazed at him with touched and troubled eyes. "Is that all?"
He tried to penetrate her question. Twice he had answered it and still she was unsatisfied. He couldn't be sure what she expected him to say. "Is that all?" he repeated. "What more is there?"
"Don't you know?" …
"Isn't there something over and above earthly things—some more glorious meaning to one's life and activities?"
Fifteen years and worlds of agonies later Roy is still held in the grip of the mythology, still refusing to think or act outside of it. Now, however, Roy's refusal to see outside the myth is not comic, but rather tragic. It is so because we are here witness to the spectacle of a man who has given his life for that myth, and because myth cannot be defended entirely from within; it must be defended by a hero who sees both inside and outside it. Still, there is another chance for Roy to save the myth through an acceptance of the love of Iris Lemon. Such an acceptance would prepare him to confront the world of objective reality while at the same time remaining true to baseball's mythology: Iris is in the real world but she still believes in heroes. Here Roy's refusal of Iris' love guarantees his inevitable (Natural) failure. This time when Roy reveals in conversation with a woman (Iris) his tragic limitation it is no longer a laughing matter; his vision has taken on a kind of Oedipal blindness:
"I wanted everything." His voice boomed out of the silence.
"I had a lot to give to this game."
"Baseball. If I had started out fifteen years ago like I tried to, I'da been king of them all by now."
"The king of what?"
"The best in the game," he said impatiently.
She sighed deeply. "You're so good now."
"I'da been better. I'da broke most every record there was."
"Does that mean so much to you?"
"Sure," he answered.…
"But I don't understand why you should make so much of that. Are your values so—!"
Roy's values are "so—" for this is what distinguishes the hero from ordinary people like Iris. A hero is someone who acts within and for a mythology—national, regional, occupational— even when to do so is to jeopardize his very existence. Malamud's ironic vision is that such an insulated hero cannot possibly win out.
What continually threatens the existence of the hero and of the mythology which he serves is what Wallace Stevens called the "pressure of reality." It is always clear that mythologies are in some ways divorced from the real world, though what they contain may be directives for solving the world's problems. Here the fading, sagging ball park where the Knights play their home games functions as metaphor for the other-worldly quality of mythology.… Inside the park gates one is transported to another world filled with grotesque devotees, magic bats, and super-sized demigods. The drama of the hero's story comes out of the conflict between the mythology within which the hero acts and the pressures of reality which work always to force the hero into a betrayal of his mythology.
In The Natural the pressure of reality is represented by the unholy alliance of Judge Goodwill Banner, the Knights' owner: Gus Sands, the Supreme Bookie; and Memo Paris, Roy's love. The sportswriter, Max Mercy (whose name like that of the Judge has its obvious irony), is their press agent. The Judge has a completely cynical, ruthless attitude toward the game. He is in it to make money and Malamud skillfully contrasts him with his coowner, Pop Fisher, who manages the team and subscribes wholly to the mythology of the game. Similarly, Gus Sands has no reverence for the game itself. To him it is simply "action" on which to bet. Because of the death of her hero, Bump Baily, Memo Paris has disavowed her belief in the mythology and she now works with the Judge and Gus to destroy the hero.
The hero must meet the challenge to his mythology head-on, and it is one of the central ironies of the novel that Roy Hobbs meets this challenge as he lies bewildered and enfeebled in a hospital bed. The doctor has told Roy that he must quit baseball or risk a heart attack, and Memo, whom Roy covets, has made it clear that she is to be had only for the kind of money which comes to a famous athlete. Thus when Judge Banner appears at the bedside to bribe Roy into throwing the play-off game the hero is at his lowest ebb. Faced with his physical predicament and an uncertain financial future, the hero succumbs. He has at last seen outside the mythology, but in so doing he loses his grip on the mythology itself.
When in the midst of the play-off game Roy attempts to reattach himself to the mythology he cannot do so. Wonderboy, the magic bat, breaks in two, for once this hero has seen and acted outside the mythology—acted, that is, against it—he can never again act with it; his limited vision will not permit him to. Thus the gates of Roy's Eden are closed forever and there remains for him nothing to do but drag himself up the stairs to the Judge's darkened tower to collect his reward.
This final scene is the novel's best, for in it Malamud makes the reader fully aware of the tragedy of Roy's lost herohood. Divorced forever from the mythology which gave his life meaning, Roy can only beat up Gus Sands and the Judge, tear open the envelope containing the bribe money, and shower it over the Judge's head. The end for this failed hero is to enter the real world and to find it a sordid and bitter place:
When he hit the street he was exhausted. He had not shaved, and a black beard gripped his face. He felt old and grimy.
He stared into the faces of people he passed along the street but nobody recognized him.
"He coulda been a king," a woman remarked to a man.
So with modern man: divorced forever from the mythologies of his past, he finds himself alone, on the street, adrift in a new and mythless world.
And yet, of course, this is not the end for the Malamud hero; it is merely the first installment. Roy Hobbs is the hero of a mythology, but ultimately he fails that mythology by his inability to see and act beyond it without destroying it for himself. The mythology of baseball is what keeps the game alive in the hearts of its fans. Without that mythology the game would disintegrate into a jumble of meaningless statistics and facts. Yet conditions change, and the mythology of baseball must be continually defended on new grounds. What this latest baseball hero should have done is to accept Iris Lemon's love, and, sustained by this new and vitalizing outside force, resist temptation and expose the Judge and Gus who represent the greed and corruption which now threaten baseball's mythology. In this way the hero would have remained true to his mythology while at the same time defending it against hostile forces. But Roy Hobbs, as we have seen, is too limited a hero to assume this difficult stance; for him it is impossible to act within a mythology and at the same time seebeyond it so as to defend it. For him it must be one thing or the other.
Source: Frederick W. Turner III, "Myth Inside and Out: The Naturar' in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, New York University Press, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, 1970, pp. 109–119.
Pirjo Ahodas, Forging a New Self: The Adamic Protagonist and the Emergence of a Jewish-American Author as Revealed through the Novels of Bernard Malamud, Turun Yliopisto (Turku), 1991.
Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, an interview with Bernard Malamud in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1975, pp. 8-17.
J. J. Maloney, a review in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 24, 1952, p. 8.
Joel Salzberg, "Bernard Malamud," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II, Gale, 1978, pp. 107-27.
Harry Sylvester, a review in The New York Times, August 24, 1952, p.5.
Earl Wasserman, "'The Natural': Malamud's World Ceres," in Centennial Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1965, pp. 438-60.
Jonathon Baumbach, "The Economy of Love: The Novels of Bernard Malamud," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, summer, 1963, pp. 438-57.
In a classic essay on Malamud's novels, Baumbach provides an excellent overview of the use of myth in The Natural.
Ronald V. Evans, "Malamud's 'The Natural,' " in Explicator, Vol. 48., No. 3, spring, 1990, pp. 224-26.
Provides a Jungian reading of the novel.
Sheldon J. Hershinow, Bernard Malamud, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980.
Reinforces the identification of The Natural with the Arthurian Legend, adding that the theme of the novel is the inevitable suffering of human beings.
Patric Keats, "Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty: A Source for Malamud's 'The Natural,' " in American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 1, March, 1990, pp. 102-04.
Focuses on Malamud's treatment of Roy Hobbs and finds an historical parallel in the life of Edward "Big Ed" James.
Robert C. Lidston, "Malamud's 'The Natural': An Arthurian Quest in the Big Leagues" in West Virginia University Philological Papers, Vol. 27, 1981, pp. 75-81.
Compares the novel to the Arthurian romance, especially in its linking of baseball and the quest theme.
James M. Mellard, "Malamud's Novels: Four Versions of Pastoral," in Critique, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1967, pp. 5-19.
Contends that The Natural embodies "the pastoral fertility myths of dying and reviving gods, of youthful heroes replacing the aged, of the son replacing the father.…" These archetypes provide the structure of the novel, according to this critic.
Ellen Pifer, "Malamud's Unnatural 'The Natural,' " in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, fall, 1988, pp. 138-52.
Explores the moral character of Roy Hobbs.
Norman Podhoretz, "Achilles in Left Field," in Commentary, Vol. 15, No. 3, March, 1953, pp. 321-26.
Makes connections between Roy Hobbs and the Young Unknown from medieval romance as well as Achilles from the Illiad but concludes that Malamud's novel ultimately fails due to Roy's shallowness.
Sidney Richman, Bernard Malamud, Twayne Publishers, 1966.
Provides an excellent introductory study of Malamud and his major works. In his chapter on The Natural he undertakes a systematic explication of the allegory, the themes, and the characters.
Joel Salzberg, Bernard Malamud: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall Co., 1985.
An extremely useful annotated bibliography of scholarship on Bernard Malamud.
Daniel Walden, "Bernard Malamud, an American Jewish Writer and His Universal Heroes," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, fall, 1988, pp. 153-61.
Examines Malamud's treatment of the hero in The Assistant, The Fixer, and The Natural and shows how each is related to the Jewish experience.
Earl R. Wasserman, "The Natural: World Ceres," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 45-66.
Wasserman connects The Natural with the tradition of the baseball story, the Arthurian Grail quest, and Jungian psychology, arguing that the novel "is the broad formulation of Malamud's world of meaning." Consequently, The Natural is a necessary starting point for any student of Malamud's fiction.