How do the two novels, The Great American Novel by Philip Roth and The Natural by Bernard Malamud, compare?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Both baseball novels, The Great American Novel and The Natural certainly share one common theme--the American Dream. In fact, both novels aim to analyze and even criticize the American dream.

The Great American Novel takes us through an account of the final losing season of the fictional major league baseball team The Patriots. The novel is essentially a satire of American society, using the baseball team to symbolize everything American. Author Philip Roth particularly stereotypes the characters, making them too pathetic to be able to succeed as major league players, with the purpose of showing America as it is, complete with its prejudice and discrimination. Roth further shows that it is a result of prejudice and discrimination that the league becomes a part of history American just wants to forget. More specifically, by the end of the book, Gil Gamesh becomes known as a Communist and begins influencing the players of the Patriot League to start hating everything American, including the other teams and even the fans. As a result, as part of the historic Red Scare, the Patriot League is investigated and many Communists identified, which Roth satirically refers to as "agents of the Red Menace" (eNotes, "The Great American Novel: Summary"). More importantly, the Patriot League is unable to overcome the Communist scandal, is deserted by its fans, and dies by the late 1940s. This satire of the Red Scare is clearly Roth's means of capturing not only the prejudice and discrimination that is typical of American society but also the consequences. While the team certainly played a losing season, it is only due to the prejudice against Communists that led to the team's complete demise. The team's failures and demise also capture Roth's philosophy concerning the American Dream. The American Dream, through idealizing capitalism, also idealizes success. While during this losing season the team did start having successes due to eating "atomic-powered Wheaties," the team was ultimately a failure and thus the antithesis of the American Dream. Hence, through the team's failures, Roth asserts that there is really more to life and more to be valued than just the American Dream.

The novel The Natural also questions the American Dream and America's values, but in a different manner. The novel uses references to the successes and failures of baseball giants, such as the Black Sox, Babe Ruth, and Eddie Waitkus to how those in American society value overcoming obstacles to create better lives. However, he also uses the failures of his character Roy Hobbs to show that sometimes it's not possible to overcome one's obstacles. In particular, author Malamud uses the values of the American Dream to show that it's due to these shallow values that some are actually unable to overcome obstacles, even though overcoming obstacles is a big part of the American Dream. Again, the American Dream values capitalism and believes that monetary gain is the ultimate happiness. Malamud uses Hobbs to show that there are more important things to be valued, such as selflessness, integrity, and honor. Hobbs demonstrates his inability to understand the value of these things first when he selfishly responds that all he wants to be is the best in the game and then again in his mistreatment of the respectable Iris Lemon. We particularly see Hobbs's selfish desire to only be the best player when he says into the microphone before the crowd on the Knights Field:

... but I will do my best--the best I am able--to be the greatest there ever was in the game. (p. 108)

Hence we see that in both books, both authors question the American Dream and all of the values associated with it.

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