How do the four novels The Great American Novel by Philip Roth, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover and Shoeless Joe by...

How do the four novels The Great American Novel by Philip Roth, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover and Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella compare in terms of a concept that can be analyzed as being in each, such as the American Dream, religion, etc?

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Karyth Cara | College Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Besides having the topic of baseball and players' hopes, dreams, fears and failures in common, there are a number of themes that can be analyzed and compared as having a prominent role in each of them. The most significant ones are:

  • myth and mythological figures
  • mythological heroes
  • religion
  • fate and destiny
  • religion and the force of religious powers in life
  • juxtaposition of myth/religion and reality

These are most significant because they show up as the first themes elucidated in the opening paragraphs or the opening pages of each book. While each story takes its own slant on the themes, for example, concerning mythological figures, Roth's The Great American Novel foregrounds a mythological villain, the personification of evil, in the character of Gil Gamesh. We can examine the role of religion in each text.

The Universal Baseball Association

The opening sentences of the story set up the theme of religion through the Creator/created binary (dichotomy). We come upon Henry in excited and contemplating the pinnacle of joy in the game "world" of baseball he has created (of course the reader does not yet know what is going on: the point of is very objective and close and conveys only what Henry is experiencing and thinking at the moment). He is acting in the capacity of God, J. Henry Waugh, or the Jewish "YHWEH," and watching the results of his decision, which will themselves lead to other decisions about who will live and who will die. 

In addition to the general religion theme, a variation on the theme is introduced quite early with Henry's visit to the delicatessen to get two pastrami sandwiches with whole dill pickles (reminiscent of actor Danny Kay's midnight foray to the downstairs deli in Wonder Man of 1945). We get our first real clarity on what is going on in the story before us while Henry is mounting the stairs: the hints scattered beforehand are confirmed and tell us that myth (the mythology "created" in Henry's baseball "world") and reality (complaining Benny and pastrami sandwiches with two pickles owed at a later date) meet seemingly seamlessly in Henry's head, mind and life, which tells us much more about Henry as the "Creator," as well:

Mounting the stairs, Henry heard the roar of the crowd, saw them take their seats. Bowlegged old Maggie Everts trundled out of the Haymaker dugout to replace Hill. That gave cause for a few more warm-up pitches, so Henry slowed, took the top steps one at a time.

The Great American Novel

The religion theme in this story emphasizes the question God's power in terms of the questions of good over evil and who can punish evil and how far punishment can go. In this variation of the religion theme, allusion is made to both the precepts and commandments that pertain to God's influence over the world through the General's and the Mouth's "Rules and Regulations" and through the concepts or perfection and flawlessness:

"Now I'll go down in the history books as someone who once lost! And I didn't! I couldn't! I can't!" [said Gil Gamesh to the General].
   "And why can't you may I ask?"
   "Because I'm Gil Gamesh! I'm an immortal!"
   "I don't care if you are Jesus Christ!" barked the General. "There are Rules and Regulations in this world and you will follow them ....!"

The Natural

In The Natural religion's precept of the controlling hand of God is explored in the life of Roy Hobbs whose brilliant career in baseball is begun and ended with a gunshot fired by an obsessed woman whose determined ambition it is to shoot the best baseball player in the major leagues: At that moment on that train after that game, the best baseball player is Roy Hobbs. After being shot, he returns to public life in the game of baseball thirty-four years later. In the opening paragraphs, Roy Hobb's is set up to symbolically represent the perfection of Saints' or of Christ's life through the symbolic halo around his that we see in reflection as he sees it:

... [he held] the spurting flame [of a match] in his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head ....

Shoeless Joe

This is a magical realism novel. Religion and the presence of a life determining God are present from the earliest lines in the novel. The story starts with Ray hearing a disembodied voice--that he neither questions nor fears, that makes him feel neither uncomfortable nor doubtful--that gives him a command, a command that he can envision immediately, that he intends to immediately fulfill.

... I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in eastern Iowa when a voice very clearly said to me, "If you build it, he will come." The voice was that of a ballpark announcer

W.P. Kinsella. Where it began: 'Shoeless Joe': Reflections from the man who wrote the book that became "Field of Dreams." ESPN MLB

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