Bernard Malamud Essay - Critical Essays

Bernard Malamud American Literature Analysis

Malamud first came to prominence during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a period when trends in fiction centered on the “new novel.” In part, Malamud’s writings can be seen as a reaction to this school, which devalued form, presented weak, atypical characters, offered a negative view about the future of humankind, and often provided an amoral view of the world. Taking an opposite stance, Malamud was absolutely adamant about the role of fiction: “The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment. Artists cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry.”

Indeed, Malamud’s literary roots extend deeply into the nineteenth century narrative method. He is foremost a storyteller. “I feel that story is the basic element of fiction,” he claimed, “though that idea is not popular with disciples of the ’new novel.’” He admitted to being influenced by the great European realists such as Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Stendhal as well as modern Americans such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Malamud tells a story in the traditional manner. He was a great believer in form, which he called an “absolute necessity . . . the basis of literature.” At the heart of every story stands character. In fact, Malamud is devoted to the development of the individual:The sell-out of personality is just tremendous. Our most important natural resource is Man. The times cry out for men of imagination and hope. Instead, our fiction is loaded with sickness, homosexuality, fragmented man, “other-directed” man. It should be filled with love and beauty and hope. We are underselling Man.

Like his literary forebears, especially the American writers, Malamud favors the initiation story. A typical Malamud story follows the maturation pattern: A young man who has led an unfulfilled life fraught with failed relationships, undeveloped emotions, and questionable morality undertakes a journey. Most often this odyssey involves physical movement—from a rural setting to a city, or the reverse. There, the young man encounters a series of father figures—some false and some true—and by asking questions, suffering for past inadequacies, facing new experiences, and accepting responsibility for himself, he grows.

The quintessential Malamud format, then, is mythic. Joseph Campbell, the eminent scholar and myth critic, reduced the basic structure of myth to “separation-initiation-return.” Certainly Malamud’s most familiar protagonists follow this pattern. Roy Hobbs and Yakov Bok separate from their bucolic innocence for the urban experience, S. Levin departs New York City for a small town in rural Oregon, and Frank Alpine journeys from the West to New York City. All four protagonists are male, young, and without parents; furthermore, all four search for father surrogates to guide them through the difficult passage to adulthood. In their new worlds they are initiated through a series of trials; encountering deception, often in the form of female temptresses, they make mistake after mistake and are forced to suffer.

Iris Lemon, the heroine of The Natural, teaches the essential Malamud lesson when she says, “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness.” The returns are varied. Each novel ends after a decisive moment in which the youthful protagonist is at the threshold of maturity. Roy Hobbs cuts off his involvement with gamblers by returning the bribery money and stalking off. Frank Alpine replaces Morris Bober in his tomb of a grocery store. S. Levin loads up the car with his new family to return to the East. Yakov Bok leaves the prison cell of his self for a trial, now willing to shoulder the load of communal suffering. While these novels are open-ended (the reader has no idea of any protagonist’s ultimate fate), the important thing is that these characters have come to sense who they are, have clarified their relationship to the world, and have willingly accepted their responsibility.

Ultimately, in the battle between humanism and nihilism, Malamud’s novels are an affirmation of life. As Malamud himself has said, “Literature, since it values man by describing him, tends toward morality. . . . Art celebrates life and gives us our measure.” Though starting in the gloom, all of his lead characters search for “possibilities,” “a better life,” “a new life,” “opportunities,” and, to some degree, they find them. They may live in a modern wasteland—a world of suffering, toil, and degradation—but they persist. They learn to turn suffering into a positive value rather than letting it crush them. His schlemiels prosper.

While Malamud’s heritage is undeniably Jewish (his father was a Jewish immigrant, and, like Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, he is part of the tradition of Yiddish storytelling), to see him as wholly a fixture in the so-called Jewish Literary Renaissance is to limit him. “I write about Jews because I know them,” he says. “But more important, I write about them because Jews are absolutely the very stuff of drama.” Malamud does not envision the Jew as unique, as primarily a product of the Judaistic culture and consciousness in the manner of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. The Jew is a metaphor for all people, a modern-day Everyman—as Malamud’s oft-quoted remark “All men are Jews” suggests. As a humanist, Malamud seeks through his synecdochic method to examine the whole human race.

Malamud’s works are essentially an affirmation of the community of humankind. Despite his protagonists’ varying ethnic, geographic, educational, and national backgrounds, Malamud emphasizes not their differences but their similarities. His plots, themes, characters, and mythic underpinnings all combine to stress the essential community of humanity. Moreover, Malamud is full of hope: “My premise is that we will not destroy each other. My premise is that we will live on. We will seek a better life. We may not become better, but at least we will seek betterment.”

The Natural

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

In the modern world, heroism is a difficult struggle for a young man.

The Natural, Malamud’s first novel, initially received mixed reviews but is now generally regarded as a superb piece of literature. The novel is both an anomaly for and an introduction to the author. The book differs from the typical Malamud novel: Its style is not as realistic; its central protagonist, Roy Hobbs, is not Jewish; it closes on a note of defeat; and it centers on a sport, professional baseball. As such, The Natural is generally viewed in the top echelon of sports novels, such as Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) and Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly (1956). The Natural is also one of the two Malamud books to have been made into a film (though in this case, to ensure the film’s popularity, the ending is more optimistic, with Hobbs’s hit winning the play-off). The book follows the traditional Malamud initiation story pattern, has a mythic structure, uses an Everyman figure as protagonist, and utilizes a mixed tone of comedy and tragedy.

The Natural has many levels. On the surface, it is a sports book about the rise and fall of Roy Hobbs, a young man with the potential to be a baseball superstar and hero. Malamud knows the diamond sport, and he has infused his tale with actual events from baseball lore. With his being an orphan, his tendency to overeat, and his hitting a homerun for a dying boy, Hobbs is obviously based on Babe Ruth. Hobbs’s being shot in a hotel room by a deranged woman echoes the fate of Eddie Waitkus, and his ultimate succumbing to the gamblers’ desire to throw a game is highly reminiscent of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Thus, Hobbs symbolizes the best and the worst baseball has to offer.

On another level The Natural is an initiation story. Roy Hobbs, whose name means “bumpkin king,” is a white-faced pitcher one year out of the Northwest High School League. After striking out the American League batting champion, he hubristically announces that he wishes to be “the best there ever was in the game.” His pride and immaturity bring him a silver bullet in a Chicago hotel room. Fifteen years later he tries the major leagues again, but his carnal lust, materialism, and immaturity lead him to throw a game. At the novel’s conclusion, Hobbs, feeling old and grimy and filled with overwhelming self-hatred, realizes that “I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again.”

On perhaps the deepest level, Roy Hobbs is the archetypal protagonist on a heroic quest. Malamud borrows from many legends but mostly from the Grail myth. Like Sir Perceval, the youthful Hobbs sets out alone for the Grail(baseball championship) armed with a marvelous weapon—his bat, Wonderboy (seemingly magical and carved from a lightning-blasted tree). Along the way, he tries to aid a dying Fisher King figure, Pop Fisher (manager of the New York Knights). Unable to discern the temptresses (Memo Paris and Harriet Bird) from the Lady-in-the-Lake (Iris Lemon)—that is, to see the distinction between carnal lust and true love—Hobbs succumbs to the evil figure (Judge Goodwill Banner) in the Chapel Perilous (here the Judge’s dark tower). Hence, Hobbs is not granted a vision of the Grail (the right to play in the World Series), and neither the urban wasteland nor the dying Fisher King is saved or replaced.

On a psychological level, Hobbs never matures. Narcissistically fixated on his athletic career, he mistakenly pursues the sterile and feeble-breasted (Memo Paris and Harriet Bird) instead of the fertile Iris Lemon, who is pregnant with his child, and who appropriately breaks his phallic symbol, Wonderboy. Hobbs, though in his thirties, is likewise a broken child. Though aided by various father figures (scout Sam Simpson and Pop Fisher), he is unable to become a real father himself. On a moral level, Malamud stresses Hobbs’s failure to develop a suitable moral code. The protagonist is preoccupied with himself. Unable to recognize the need to live for other people (Iris Lemon, Pop Fisher, or his public) as well as the value of love, self-sacrifice, and suffering, Hobbs ends up alone, defeated.

The Natural is a book of blends. The reality of American baseball is mixed with heroic myth. Moments of sheer terror are rendered in a very poetic style. When Harriet Bird shoots Roy Hobbs, the narrator’s description is vivid, almost lyrical: “The bullet cut a silver line across the water. He sought with his bare hands to catch it, but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut.” At the same time, however, the narrator seems detached and ironic: “She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle).” The Natural, then, is much more highly symbolic and lyrical than Malamud’s later novels, closer to the traditions of the romance than the realistic novel. Rather than being viewed as flawed, even inconsistent, the novel is probably best read as an experiment, a harbinger of forms and themes that in later works will be better rendered.

The Assistant

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

After a series of mistakes, a man matures through suffering and the acceptance of responsibility.

The Assistant, Malamud’s critically acclaimed second novel, is a realistic look at the Jewish community. Malamud, however, transcends the Jewish experience by revealing on a universal moral level what it means to be a man. His protagonist learns about the regeneration of the self and the process of individual redemption.

The focal point of this initiation novel is Frank Alpine, a twenty-five-year-old orphan who has recently come from the West to New York City. Typical of his always making the wrong decision, Frank falls in with a thug and helps him rob and beat a poor Jewish grocery store owner, Morris Bober. Later, after falling in love with the grocer’s daughter, Helen, Frank rescues her from a would-be rapist (the same thug) but then completes the act of rape himself. Clearly at the nadir of his existence and unknowledgable about himself, Frank finally begins to learn.

Deciding that he is, after all, “a man of stern morality,” Frank takes the place of the grocer he injured. He works sixteen hours a day in the grocery, supplements this with a night job, and secretly gives the Bober family money from his savings account. He also cuts his ties to Ward Minogue, the thug, and stops his voyeuristic behavior toward the woman he loves, Helen Bober. Through discipline, love, and suffering, Frank becomes a responsible adult such that even Helen realizes that “he had changed into somebody else, no longer what he had been.” Appropriately, at the end of the novel, Frank has himself circumcised and, after Passover, becomes a Jew.

On the surface, Malamud seems to be suggesting the moral supremacy of the Jewish belief; however, the writer does several things to suggest that he is really interested in establishing a general humanistic code of ethics. First, Frank’s role model, Morris Bober, is not an orthodox Jew (he never goes to synagogue and fails to follow the dietary code). Second, Frank actually...

(The entire section is 5550 words.)