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The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Natural | Context


Arthurian Legend

Bernard Malamud characteristically blends mythology into his novels, and The Natural exemplifies this style that the writer would refine as his literary career progressed. The novel mirrors numerous Arthurian legends, including the 11th-century legend of the knight Perceval's pursuit of the Fisher King's Holy Grail. In one version of the legend by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, the ailing Fisher King lives in a wasteland that will only be restored after he finds an honorable young knight to retrieve his long-lost Holy Grail (a chalice from which Jesus was said to have drunk). Desperate to prove himself, Perceval performs impressive feats for King Arthur, showing off his skills and earning a place at the Round Table. Although de Troyes died before the story was completed, most critics agree that Perceval eventually won back the Holy Grail, healing the Fisher King and restoring the wasteland.

Parallels to this myth are easy to find, with Roy Hobbs as Perceval, proving himself as a baseball player as Perceval does a knight. Like the knight Perceval, Roy begins the story as a country bumpkin with little understanding of the knightly world. He's in pursuit of Pop Fisher's own Holy Grail, the long-lost pennant. Pop Fisher and the Fisher King have more in common than their names. References to the restored wasteland are also evident in the sudden downpour after Roy's first home run, which transforms the dry, cracked outfield back into a lush green. Like the Fisher King, The Natural can be seen as drawing on ancient vegetative myths, stories deeply tied to the cycles of nature in which a hero rises and falls each season. Roy rises as the hero when he cuts down the old king, the Whammer, and Youngberry rises up to cut down Roy when his season comes to an end.

Roy should not be viewed as a direct parallel to Perceval, however, as Malamud borrows equally from other legends. For example, Roy's magical bat, Wonderboy, stands in for King Arthur's magical sword, Excalibur. King Arthur was a small, unimpressive knight whose sword gave him magical powers to defeat any foe in battle. Similarly, Wonderboy gives Roy an almost magical power to hit any pitch that crosses his plate, even bad pitches other players would let drop. Both Excalibur and Wonderboy lose their magical powers when used improperly, however, leaving their owners to fend for themselves with their natural talents instead. When Roy uses Wonderboy to harass Otto P. Zipp and to throw the pennant game, the bat cracks. To save himself, Roy must bat using his natural talent. Because Roy has relied on his bat rather than honing his skills, he fails and the game is lost.

Heroes and Scandals of Baseball

In addition to mythic tales, Malamud also borrows heavily from real-life events. The most obvious is the reference to the 1949 shooting of real-life Cubs player Eddie Waitkus by a female fan in a Chicago hotel. Waitkus, who had been dubbed "The Natural" by some sportswriters, would go on to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1950.

With the Whammer, and Roy on occasion, Malamud also offers clear references to Babe Ruth, considered by many to be the greatest player in history. When the Whammer comes up to bat against Roy, for example, he "raised aloft two fat fingers and pointed where he would murder the ball," a gesture Babe Ruth was known to make. Babe Ruth was asked by a sick boy's father to hit him a home run, similar to Roy's experience, and he was an insatiable eater, like Roy. Babe Ruth was an amazing baseball player, but like Bump and Roy, he was prone to base pleasures, known especially as a rampant womanizer with a bit of a temper. Malamud also uses the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, in which eight Chicago White Sox players, including "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, fixed the final game of the World Series. Upon the players' indictment for their crime, newspapers carried the headline "Say it ain't so, Joe," a sentiment mirrored in the newsboy's plea to Roy at the end of the novel: "Say it ain't true, Roy."

The disappointment of the line reflects a crack in the American psyche—a recognition that something as pure as America's national sport might be compromised by greed. Astutely, Bernard Malamud recognized a quality of "theology" in baseball. For generations of Americans, baseball represented American values. It requires physical prowess and intellectual strategy in the making of a great double play; it offers the hope of fame in exchange for talent and hard work to every young player despite his or her social or economic upbringing; and it serves as a social bridge between parents and children as they share the ritual of cheering for their favorite teams and players. Writer Roger Angell reflects on the mythic quality of baseball: "Within the ball park, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game ... [baseball] remains somehow rustic, unviolent and introspective." The quest-like aspect of baseball within American life is summarized by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis: "Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy: it is his training field for life work."

1950s Culture

At the time the novel was published in 1952, the American economy was strong. After World War II, Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living, during which time commercialism and materialism blossomed. Americans began the practice of using possessions to mark their social standings. The concept of the American Dream, first coined by writer James Truslow Adams in 1931 to describe American idealism, was culturally translated to describe the pursuit of material wealth and social recognition. This translation is clearly reflected in Roy and Memo's desire to make as much money as possible, hoping it will bring them happiness: "I got to have a house of my own, a maid to help me with the hard work, a decent car to shop with and a fur coat for winter time when it's cold. I don't want to have to worry every time a can of beans jumps a nickel," Memo says during Roy's marriage proposal. During this time the tabloid newspaper that exploits fame, the National Enquirer, was also rising to prominence, which prompted journalists to dig up scoops for articles, a trend clearly displayed in Max Mercy's merciless pursuit of the skeletons in Roy's closet.

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