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Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Natural is the account of a talented athlete who wants to play major league baseball more than anything in the world. The story opens when Roy Hobbs is about nineteen and traveling from somewhere out west to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. After winning a pitching contest against a major leaguer named Whammer Whambold, he attracts the attention of a crazed young woman, Harriet Bird. She follows him to a hotel in the city and, after inviting him to her room, shoots him as he enters. The material in this section is entitled “Pre-game.”

The second and much longer part of the novel is entitled “Batter-Up!” Roy reappears at the age of thirty-four after signing to play for the New York Knights. The intervening years are a mystery. Well past his prime to start major league baseball, he surprises the manager, Pop Fisher, and the rest of the team with his skill. He is so good that he begins to give them hope of winning a pennant. Roy’s big chance for a starting position as well as for love begins when a player named Bump Bailey dies from an injury in the outfield, thereby vacating that position and leaving behind his beautiful girlfriend, Memo Paris, who is also Pop Fisher’s niece.

Roy’s relationship with Memo begins to interfere with his ability to play ball, so much so that Roy sees everything that he has a dreamed about for so long threaten to disappear. He falls into a midseason slump and becomes the object of fans’ derision. At a game in Chicago, however, Iris Lemon, a young woman who has followed his career, literally and symbolically stands up in the bleachers for Roy. As if by magic, he hits one into the stands. At this point in the story, Bernard Malamud’s direction becomes clear. How Roy Hobbs deals with these two women is symbolic of the choices all people make. Iris and Memo are opposite forces: To choose the first, who is good, is to risk suffering, but to choose the second, who is beautiful but dangerous, is to court disaster.

Roy’s life becomes more complicated when newspaper reporter Max Mercy thinks that he recognizes Roy from the unsavory shooting incident fifteen years before. It is also revealed that Memo is primarily interested in men with money and is not interested in how they earn it. She is involved with an underworld figure, Gus Sands, and he is involved with Judge Banner, who is trying to wrest total control of the team from Pop Fisher.

Ultimately, they concoct a way to bribe the Knights players, including Roy Hobbs, to throw the World Series. They bet heavily on the Knights to lose because then the Judge can force Pop to relinquish ownership of the team: Pop has agreed to sell his shares to Judge Banner if the team does not win the World Series that year. The team does indeed lose, and Roy is the player who makes the final out in a pitcher-batter duel that is riveting to read. Roy returns the thirty-five dollars in bribe money to the evil trio of Judge Banner, Max, and Memo. He understands that he has not learned from his mistakes of the past and that the cycle of suffering must begin all over again.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. City in which Hobbs’s major league baseball team, the Knights, is based. Bernard Malamud’s mixture of affection for and displeasure with New York City is at the source of Hobbs’s experiences with the Knights. The energy, sophistication, variety, and ethnic diversity of the city form a fascinating background for the narrative, and Hobbs’s American heartland perspective makes him a somewhat daunted, but nonetheless fascinated, observer of the city’s allure and dangers.

Baseball stadium

Baseball stadium. Stadium in which the New York Knights play. Local landmarks, such as Grant’s Tomb, the Empire State Building, and the prominent Sardi’s supper club, project an aura of importance over the actions of the characters, but it is the Knights’ stadium—a simulacrum for society at large—that is the most significant setting in the book. There, Malamud...

(The entire section is 3,616 words.)