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.”...
(The entire section is 852 words.)