The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Natural | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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What does Roy's reaction to the superstition in Batter Up!, Part 2 of The Natural reveal about his character?

Most of the players on the Knights rely on superstition to relax in the game. For example, Bump has a red string he moves from sock to sock during games, and Flores secretly touches his genitals whenever a bird flies overhead. Even Pop superstitiously hires a hypnotist to help the team relax, although Roy says he doesn't believe in that "bunk." Still, while Roy chastises players for their superstitious habits, he refuses to bat with anything other than Wonderboy. He believes his success comes from skill alone, yet his refusal to try proves he is as superstitious as the rest. Roy's immature views of himself and the world slant toward his own greatness.

In what ways is Wonderboy a phallic symbol in The Natural?

Wonderboy, Roy's magical bat, is also a phallic symbol—an object that represents the male sex organ—tied to Roy's masculinity. Roy carved the bat out of a fallen tree when he was a young teenager. When he boards the train at age 19, Roy is awkward with, and even frightened of, women. It requires no stretch of the imagination to suggest Roy is still a virgin. Supporting this idea, during his discussion with Harriet, Roy voices concern over Wonderboy's treatment, saying, "I don't want the stick all banged up before I [get] the chance to use it." Later when Roy returns to baseball and enters his slump, the narrator says Wonderboy "sag[s] like baloney" when Roy's at the plate. Then, when Iris—the story's equivalent of the goddess of fertility—enters the scene, Wonderboy returns to its hard, powerful form, and Roy resumes his strong play. Finally, it breaks when Roy hits Iris, who is carrying his child.

How are Iris and Memo compared and contrasted in The Natural?

A superficial contrast of Iris and Memo can be drawn from their physical appearances. Memo has red hair, wears a black dress, and is slim. Iris has black hear, wears a red dress, and is "heavy." This physical contrast prepares readers to understand their symbolic contrast. When analyzing The Natural within the tradition of vegetative myths, the narrator clearly presents Iris as a vegetative goddess, or a goddess of fertility who offers a life-giving force. Iris breaks Roy's slump, for example, and is already a grandmother in her 30s. In her letter to Roy at the end of the novel, Iris describes nursing her daughter despite cultural norms against it: "I had been nursing her—although warned against ... [because] they were afraid for my figure." This directly contrasts with Memo, who has a "sick breast" that cannot be touched, let alone nourish another life. Memo displays a negative, selfish treatment toward Roy, pushing him into his slump. In this way Memo is the representation of evil, while Iris is the representation of goodness.

What parallels can be drawn between Harriet and Memo as temptresses in The Natural?

The narrator describes both Harriet and Memo as temptresses determined to destroy Roy. Memo's motivation is clear—she blames Roy for Bump's death—whereas Harriet's motivation remains unclear. The reader simply knows Harriet wants to take down "the best" athletes in the game. Harriet's straightforward destruction of Roy—simply shooting him—contrasts with Memo's manipulative and cunning plan. She lures Roy to her and strings him along, learning what she can in order to destroy him and secure her own financial future. Because Roy didn't learn his lesson about ego and the allure of beautiful women, he condemns himself to suffer the same fate under Memo's destructive plan.

How are Memo's tears in Batter Up!, Part 3 of The Natural significant to the novel?

When Roy succeeds in his first at bat, the sky opens and pours down rain, which nourishes the fields and affirms his role within the vegetative myth as a life-giver: "The long rain had turned the grass green and Roy romped in it." The description of Memo's tears after Bump's death parallels the deluge: "There was no end to her tears ... Whenever she turned she cried, the world was wet." Unlike Roy, Memo does not become a life-giver, although the flood does transform her: "Her thoughts dripped on flowers, dark, stained ones in night fields." From this moment on, Memo is a dark and destructive force.

How are Roy and Gus similar and different in The Natural?

On the surface old, overweight, rich Gus and young, athletic, poor Roy appear to be opposites. However, the men have much in common. Both are interested in Memo, making them rivals. In addition both live life solely for themselves. Gus makes bets and amasses personal wealth, while Roy plays baseball and amasses sports records. Neither concerns himself with how his actions or ambitions affect those around him. Both characters also have a unique view of the world. Roy's hallucinations prevent him from discerning between reality and fantasy, while Gus has a glass eye that, he claims, gives him a magical outlook.

How does The Natural characterize America's love of baseball?

In the novel baseball is characterized as a pastime as American as apple pie and fireworks on the Fourth of July. Americans loyally follow baseball teams through seasonal highs and lows. As a culture, Americans elevate sports stars to mythic heights. Iris goes so far as to call Roy—the best baseball player at the time—a hero. Fans tie their personal happiness with the team's success, feeling euphoric when the team succeeds and devastated when they fail, even angry—lobbing rotten vegetables onto the field—when they feel let down. At the end of the novel the devastated young boy selling papers bursts into tears when he believes his hero has cheated.

What parallels can be found in the descriptions of the eyes of villainous characters in The Natural?

All of the evil or villainous characters in the novel struggle with their eyesight, suggesting the image that the eyes are "windows to the soul." The judge lives in darkness, Gus Sands has a glass eye, and Memo's eyes are constantly described as being clouded with tears. Their obscured vision suggests their inability to see the world, or the effects of their negative behaviors: the judge is corrupt, Gus Sands is greedy, and Memo is motivated to vengeance after Bump's death. Even Roy, when sucked into Memo's spell, ends up with a black eye and argues, "There's nothing wrong with my eye!" For the judge, Gus, and Memo, impaired vision also affects their ability to clearly judge Roy's character. Each thinks they can manipulate or use him to serve their own aims, yet Roy manages to elude their control, although he self-destructs in the process.

What is the significance of Roy's strikeout during his last at bat in Batter Up!, Part 9 of The Natural?

When Roy steps up to the plate for his final at bat in The Natural, readers expect him to knock a homer out of the park; traditional sports narratives end this way. The expectation is heightened because Roy has seemingly learned his lesson. He has decided not to throw the game and to become the hero Iris and his unborn son deserve. Yet as he approaches the plate his ego clearly remains the primary motivating factor to his success. He thinks, "Only a homer, with himself scoring the winning run, would truly redeem him." Whatever lesson he has learned comes too late for his moral redemption. He hasn't learned the lessons imparted on him by Harriet Bird, and so dooms himself to suffering.

How does Malamud use the image of white flowers in The Natural?

White flowers show a character's innocence in The Natural. In the novel's first scene Roy imagines his past, including various scenes with white flowers. A few pages later Harriet boards the train with a white rose pinned to her jacket, but she drops and crushes it, later disposing of it: "Her crumpled white rose lay in the ashtray." This foreshadows the way in which Harriet steals Roy's innocence and crushes his dreams by shooting him. White flowers are not mentioned again until Roy sees Iris, whose name itself conjures images of flowers, in the stands during his slump: "He could clearly see the white flower she wore pinned on her bosom." Iris's stand, which breaks Roy from his slump, offers hope that Roy can once again reclaim his dream by choosing her.

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