The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Natural | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In what ways is The Natural an appropriate or inappropriate title for the novel?

Roy has clear natural talent, hence the novel's title. He had no formal training, playing only on the country fields before being scouted, and is able to return to (and thrive in) the game after nearly 20 years away. His natural talent serves as both a blessing and a curse, allowing him to play professionally but also giving him a sense of entitlement. He wants to thrive on his own, without luck, coaching, or a team: Red Blow tells Pop that he's a natural, though "somewhat less than perfect because he sometimes hit at bad ones, which caused Pop to frown." In this way the title creates verbal irony. Although Roy has a natural talent, he squanders it by going after "bad balls" on and off the field, which leads to his downfall. While the title is appropriate for Roy's talent—and echoes the real-life nickname of the book's inspiration, Cubs player Eddie Waitkus—the novel suggests that natural talent isn't enough to create a hero.

How does violence function as part of baseball in The Natural?

Although baseball is not a contact sport, The Natural is filled with violence. Harriet shoots Roy, Bump dies violently, Memo causes a car crash, foul balls cause injuries, fistfights occur, and nearly every character, at one point or another, receives a threat to have their "head smashed." The occurrence of violence serves to stress the underlying stakes for the characters in the novel, especially Roy, for whom baseball is a battle between life and death. The story does not simply detail a game but a quest, the Arthurian myth that provides structure to the novel. For medieval knights, quests would be violent, with bloody battles to the death. Through his inclusion of violent descriptions, Malamud draws a clear comparison between Arthurian knights and the "Knights" of the novel.

What does the forest represent in Malamud's The Natural?

Primarily the forest evokes Roy's past, which has been plagued in darkness, difficult to see through, and nearly impossible to escape. "The forest stayed with them," the narrator says, "climbing hills like an army, shooting down like waterfalls." Despite being eager to begin his baseball career, Roy feels "a kind of sadness" about leaving the forest and his past behind. Significantly, Roy takes both his dates—Memo and Iris—into the woods, yet he only feels at ease with Iris, suggesting that a future with her would allow him the "privacy so complete his inmost self [would have] no shame of anything he thought there." Throughout the novel, Roy desires to return to the forest—sometimes with Memo, sometimes alone—yet he hasn't found a way to return without destroying himself.

What meaning can be found in character names in The Natural?

Nearly all of the character names in The Natural hold symbolic meaning or give deeper insight in their characters. Some of the names are verbally ironic: Max Mercy, for example, is ruthless in his pursuit of Roy's past, offering the athlete no "mercy" from his investigation. Similarly, Judge Goodwill Banner has nothing but ill intent, not goodwill, for his star player. Other character names hint at the novel's mythical roots: Iris Lemon and Youngberry, for example, conjure images of lush spring gardens, which support their roles as a vegetative goddess and god, respectively. Pop Fisher references the Fisher King, as well as the father-son relationship he has with Roy, and Harriet Bird references the novel's use of birds as omens for bad luck. Finally, Roy Hobbs's first name comes from the French word for king, roi, evoking the quest myth.

In Batter Up!, Part 8 of The Natural what does Memo's appearance at the hospital suggest about her character?

When in the hospital to mend his exploded stomach, Roy considers his relationships with both Iris and Memo, although only Memo visits him while he recovers. Memo arrives looking disheveled and dirty: "she appeared worn out now ... her hair was lusterless and not well kept." Just as sporting success fuels Roy, romantic conquests fuel Memo, as she searches constantly for wealthy men to support her. When her dreams are threatened, she ails, much like Roy during his slump and Pop when the team struggles. If Iris represents the vegetative goddess bringing spring and new life, Memo represents the autumn, when everything dries up and dies, symbolized in her funerary clothes and autumnal gift: "the flowers and red autumn leaves in the vase," characterize her in much the same way as the "black dress she had worn all week."

How does Judge Banner manipulate Roy in The Natural?

Malamud writes Judge Banner as entirely evil, without redeeming qualities. Perhaps because of his highly successful judicial career, characters close to the judge seemingly respect and trust him. He lives in a "crooked, dark tower" and manipulates everyone around him to make a buck. He uses Roy's innate respect to manipulate him out of a raise, speaking in riddles and platitudes he knows the country bumpkin won't understand or contradict, yet which turn out to offer poignant omens: "He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent." Later the judge twists the same words of warning into further manipulation by suggesting that without making money quickly, or giving into his appetites, Roy will lose the thing he cares about most: Memo. "You may lose Miss Paris to someone else if you are not careful," he is told. This manipulative threat ultimately leads Roy to take the bait and throw the game.

In what ways does the ending of The Natural compare and contrast with the ending of the film version?

In the novel Roy's character does not find redemption in the end. However, if Roy hit a home run and won the game, his character would be redeemed. He would become a sports hero in every way, winning records, earning the pennant, uniting the fans, and becoming a role model for his unborn son. This ending is so compelling, it was chosen for the film version of The Natural. After his game-winning home run, the film cuts to Roy a few years later, playing baseball with his son, as his wife (Iris) looks on with a smile. By giving Roy the final homer in the film version, the director elevates Roy's character from the tragic hero who never realizes his natural talent to a true sports hero who has earned his personal redemption.

How are children portrayed in Malamud's The Natural?

The Natural mentions children numerous times. The injured boy Roy thinks they ran over, the sick boy whose father asks Roy to hit the home run for, and the crying boy who realizes Roy threw the game are three examples. In each of these instances children are portrayed negatively, as either injured, sick, or distraught. Roy himself has no desire to have children despite his obsession with legacy. He finds the thought of Iris's daughter and grandchild unsettling, and fails to redeem himself for his unborn son. The negative portrayal of children and Roy's relationship with them suggests Roy's downfall: there will be no future generation. Even when Roy imagines himself happily living with a child, he acknowledges that the daydream of a happy family, particularly with Memo, would be impossible.

What is the meaning of Roy's recurring dream in the Pre-Game section of The Natural?

In the Pre-Game section of The Natural, Roy recounts images from his reoccurring dream, in which he "stand[s] at night in a strange field with a golden baseball in his palm." The baseball "[grows] heavier as he sweat[s] to settle whether to hold on or fling it away." This dream creates clear foreshadowing to Roy's crisis of conscience at the end of the novel when he deliberates whether to embrace the "golden baseball" of pennant success, or "fling it away" by throwing the final pennant game. In the dream, by the time Roy makes his decision, "it [is] too heavy to lift or let fall," suggesting that it is too late to make a decision. Similarly, by the time he decides to actually play the final game rather than throw it, he has little chance for redemption; the damage has already been done.

What significance do trains hold in Malamud's The Natural?

Recurring train imagery appears in the opening and closing of The Natural. Roy starts his journey on a train that takes him from his country-bumpkin past to his dreams as a Major League Baseball player. Two events defer the journey, however, and change Roy's destination: Sam's death delays the journey, and the shooting changes Roy's destination, sending him to New York rather than Chicago. When train imagery appears elsewhere in the novel, it suggests that Roy's dream of sports superstardom can be delayed or changed. While on a date with Iris, for example, Roy thinks he hears a train whistle while talking about Memo. He "heard a train hoot and went freezing cold," reminding readers that Memo threatens to defer his dream. Similarly, after throwing the final game, Roy feels "the insides of himself beginning to take off (chug chug choo choo)" as his unsportsmanlike decision irrevocably alters his final destination.

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