InThe Natural, Bernard Malamud indicates his artistic concern with personality development in an allegorical story utilizing baseball to present the challenges the hero must undergo. Roy Hobbs, the new player on the last-place Knights, has the opportunity to help gain the pennant and discover his own identity. Roy, however, cannot bring himself to make the right choices.
Structured in two parallel stories, the novel presents Roy Hobbs’s attempts to succeed. In both stories, Roy undergoes allegorical trials of initiation that test his strength and moral fiber. In both he fails by placing immediate, personal satisfaction ahead of larger goals. In the first story, Roy, a nineteen-year-old, has been discovered by the alcoholic, spent-out Sam Simpson, who hopes the presentation of Roy to Sam’s manager will redeem Sam. Roy can pitch and hit, armed with Wonderboy, a bat crafted for him from a lightning-felled oak tree. His first test comes when traveling to training camp. When the train mysteriously stops, a challenge match between Roy and the current superhero of baseball, the Whammer, takes place. Roy strikes out the Whammer, making it seem Roy may indeed replace him. After Roy passes the test of strength, his values are tested by a mysterious woman to whom he is attracted. When she asks him what he wants to be, his selfish response, “the best in the game,” is unworthy.
In the second story, a decade after the major setback that his response precipitated, Roy is trying to get back on track. He arrives at the Knights’s locker room and announces to the beleaguered manager, another father figure, Pop Fisher, that he has been assigned to his team. Roy shows he can save the Knights and draw the lagging crowd. Pitted against another hero, Bump, he again defeats his rival on the field. Honored by the fans on a special appreciation day, he again fails the humility test when he repeats his selfish intention to be the best and neglects to credit his teammates and manager.
His dealing with women parallels the first story also. He is attracted to glamorous, ruthless women who manipulate him to their selfish goals. He is presented with an alternative in Iris Lemon, who helps him overcome a slump. A woman who has experienced life’s difficulties herself, she tells him that “suffering teaches us to want the right things.” He nevertheless chooses all the wrong things when he rejects her, his team, his manager, and his best self by throwing the final game.
In section one, “Pre-Game,” nineteen-year-old pitcher Roy Hobbs journeys by train to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. He is accompanied by Sam Simpson, an alcoholic former major-league catcher and scout who hopes to use his discovery of Roy to resurrect his scouting career. Roy is naïve, self-centered, and unsophisticated. With his homemade bat, Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree that had been split by lightning and seems to possess an energy all its own, Roy is, however, a superbly gifted ballplayer.
Also on the train is Walter “the Whammer” Wambold, aging American League batting champion and three-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award. When the train is mysteriously delayed, Roy and the others wander over to a nearby carnival, where the Whammer displays his prowess in a batting cage and Roy attracts a crowd by throwing baseballs at milk bottles. As the rivalry builds to its confrontation, Sam bets that Roy can strike out the Whammer with three pitches. After the third pitch, the Whammer drops the bat and returns to the train, “an old man.”
Roy’s triumph brings him to the attention of Harriet Bird, who guards a shiny black box as jealously as Roy guards Wonderboy. Excited by Roy’s victory in “the tourney,” she tells him he is like “David jawboning the Goliath-Whammer, or was it Sir Percy lancing Sir Maldemer, or the first son (with a rock in his paw) ranged against the primitive papa?” Roy responds, “I’ll be the best there ever was in the game.”...
(The entire section is 2,460 words.)