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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Malamud's first novel is a baseball story designed to portray aspects of American life including, but not limited to, a version of the Horatio Alger myth. It draws upon several well known episodes from baseball lore, such as the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the prowess of Babe Ruth (here represented as Walter "Whammer" Wambold), the shooting of Eddie Waitkus in a hotel in 1949 by a mad girl, and other incidents, along with colorful antics of players and their sometimes eccentric fans. But in patterning his story also on ancient legends, like the quest for the Holy Grail, Malamud provides The Natural with a deeper and richer significance that makes the novel much more than a slice of modern Americana: He universalizes his theme and dramatizes men's perennial search for a better existence and the pitfalls they must overcome to attain it. Unfortunately, as in the example of Roy Hobbs, they do not always overcome those pitfalls, even when at the last moment they at last clearly see what they are. But by then it is often too late.

Central to Malamud's vision of American life dramatized in this novel are those mercenary tendencies that, as Eugene O'Neill long ago remarked, perverted the original conception of America as a new promised land, a land of joy and fulfillment. The concupiscent attitude is symbolized first in the silver bullets that Harriet Bird uses to destroy her victims and later in Memo Paris's connection with Gus Sands, the cigar-smoking bookie. The love of gain, whether to attract and hold a beautiful woman or for some other reason (like Judge Banner's lust for power), is a powerful corrupter of American manhood, as in the opening section, "Pre-Game," and later in "Batter Up!" Roy Hobbs may have been innocent as a nineteen-year-old when Harriet Bird traps and shoots him, but he hardly has that excuse in his pursuit of Memo Paris. When he realizes that to get her to marry him he must have enough money, he agrees to throw the deciding playoff game for his team, the New York Knights, but sees too late that she is not worth the sacrifice of his integrity and honor.

Malamud also dramatizes the competitiveness in American life. When Roy first joins the Knights, Bump Bailey is the star of the team — the person Roy must displace as the team leader as well as Memo's boyfriend. The competition is fatal, literally for Bump, who crashes into a wall (as the Brooklyn Dodger, Pete Rieser, once did). Earlier, in "Pre-Game," Roy showed his ability in striking out the famous Whammer Wambold in an impromptu competition during an unscheduled stop for the train that is carrying them both to Chicago. This episode, like others, also reflects the ritualistic replacement of one hero by another that is integral to certain vegetation myths chronicled and explained by anthropologists like Jessie L. Weston and Sir James Frazer.

Countervailing forces to greed and competitiveness appear in the novel, too. Pop Fisher, part owner and lifetime manager of the Knights, repeatedly shows his devotion to the game and to its players despite their ineptitude and hard luck. Iris Lemon, the woman who rises in the stands and helps bring Roy out of his long slump, represents wholesomeness and selflessness. A very private person, she willingly surrenders her privacy for this gesture and later gives herself to Roy in a way that strongly contrasts with the maddening teasing and sick self-absorption of Memo Paris. Roy's infantilism, as it has been rightly called, prevents him from recognizing Iris for what she really is, and at the end the foul ball that ricochets off Roy's intended target and hurts her suggests how mistaken and foul Roy's behavior has really been.

Themes

(Novels for Students)

Choices and Consequences
The novel's focus on morality incorporates the theme of choices and consequences and the related issue of responsibility. Malamud presents Roy with moral choices in the novel that require attention to his responsibilities as a father, a team member, and a human being. He must choose...

(The entire section is 1,038 words.)