The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Natural | Pre-Game | Summary

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Malamud divides the novel into two named sections, Pre-Game and Batter Up! In this study guide, the longer of the two sections, Batter Up!, has been further divided into parts for the purpose of close analysis.

Summary

Roy Hobbs, an aspiring professional baseball player, rides a train to Chicago with baseball scout Sam Simpson to try out for the Cubs. The opening scene is disorienting, almost hallucinogenic, as Roy stares out the window and considers where he came from. When dawn breaks, a nervous Roy picks up the trusty bassoon case in which he keeps his bat and hurries through the train to where Sam sleeps in a seat of the passenger coach. Roy struggles to know how to behave on the long journey, particularly with the porter, Eddie. While Roy waits for Sam to rouse, Eddie appears with a pair of trick dice and asks Roy to throw them. Realizing they are "bewitched," Roy responds, "I don't crave any outside assistance in games of chance." Through the window, Roy watches a beautiful woman named Harriet Bird board the train. He is immediately smitten with her. Eddie helps the woman with her bags, but she refuses to hand over her hatbox. On the train she excitedly thinks she recognizes Roy, but "her expression change[s] instantly to one of boredom" when she realizes she doesn't. He tries to impress Harriet by buying her lunch, even though he has no money.

The narrator switches perspective to Sam dreaming about discovering amazing young baseball players in a pasture in Middle America. When he approaches, however, the players scatter, leaving Sam clinging to a giant that never stops running. Waking with a sob, Sam collects his belongings and sneaks into a passenger car to take a shower, but a trainman kicks him out. He moseys into the breakfast car to read the paper. The front-page story is about a manhunt for a beautiful young woman who has shot two promising athletes. Two men lean over and try to read the story over Sam's shoulder. He recognizes one as the Whammer, the most successful baseball player in the game, and Max Mercy, a sports journalist. Excitedly, Sam tells the men about Roy and his promising future, although neither is impressed. Sam races to find Roy and drags him back to the breakfast car. Roy only becomes interested in talking to the Whammer when he sees the Whammer's interest in Harriet Bird. Max and the Whammer rudely dismiss Sam and Roy to play cards.

Roy continues to watch the Whammer seducing Harriet and it infuriates him, as he continues to fume from the rude dismissal earlier that afternoon. Suddenly the train breaks down and passengers are permitted to leave while the engine is checked. Most passengers, including Sam and Roy, visit a nearby carnival, where Roy wins many prizes. When they bump into Max and the Whammer, an emboldened Sam bets the Whammer $10 that Roy can strike him out. They all—including Max and Harriet— head down to a nearby sandlot where a crowd quickly forms. Sam stuffs a washboard down his shirt and squats behind the plate as catcher. When Roy throws his first pitch he shocks everyone, especially the Whammer, with its speed and precision. It's a strike. The second pitch is just the same. The crowd falls silent as Roy winds up for his third pitch, which "slither[s] at the batter like a meteor" and smashes hard into the washboard under Sam's shirt. Sam swears only the wind has been knocked out of him, but there is no time to check the injury as all the passengers rush back to reboard the train. At dinner that evening Roy brags to Harriet, "I bet someday I'll break every record in the book for throwing and hitting," which delights Harriet. She presses her body against him and he awkwardly tries to grope her.

Meanwhile, Max hounds Sam for details about Roy's background. Sam doesn't know the answers but gives an entertaining interview. Shortly after, a harried porter rushes to tell Roy that Sam has collapsed from his injuries. The train stops to pick up a local doctor, who insists that Sam be taken to the hospital immediately, although it is clearly too late to save him. Sam dies, leaving Roy bereft. He finds a room at a local hotel and is surprised to receive a call from Harriet, who is staying in the same hotel. He hurries to her room for a drink, but she greets him with a drawn gun. She demands to know whether Roy "will be the best there ever was in the game." When Roy agrees, she shoots him in the stomach.

Analysis

Malamud uses mythological allusion—story characteristics such as characters, themes, and plot lines that indirectly reference ancient myths—throughout The Natural. The strongest allusions are to the story of Perceval and the Fisher King and the genre of vegetative myths, both of which can be seen in this section. In many ancient myths, including the story of Perceval, ordinary men are reborn as heroes. This is also true of Roy: he passes through a dark tunnel toward a bright light while looking through a "berth" window, and when they reach the other side, Roy feels "a splurge of freedom." As a teenager escaping his hometown for the first time, Roy feels disoriented and vulnerable on the packed train. He does not have a watch and does not know how to act in his new surroundings. This section describes his rebirth into the novel's hero, leaving behind his past and embracing his new future. This section also provides insight into the genre of vegetative myths, which are stories based on the seasons. Like the harvest, a new hero rises up in spring and dies off in autumn. The cyclical nature of sports heroism is certainly evident in Roy's ability to strike out the Whammer. When he does, the Whammer is described as "an old man." In the novel the Whammer is not heard from again, suggesting his fall from superiority as Roy's star falters before it rises later.

The opening section also introduces an important symbol, birds, as an omen of bad luck. Throughout the novel Malamud repeatedly uses birds and bird references to warn Roy, and the reader, that trouble lies ahead. Harriet Bird, who shoots Roy at the end of the chapter, best illustrates this symbolism. Roy also refers to his mother as "that bird," although the reader doesn't yet know how she traumatized Roy during his childhood. Similarly, when Roy strikes out the Whammer, his first pitch is described as having a "bird-form" with "white flapping wings," an omen of Sam's impending death. Sam's death from his injuries further references Arthurian legend, as the newly born hero, Roy, must leave his parental figure, Sam, behind to make his quest alone.

In many critical assessments of The Natural, Harriet has been simply described as a temptress, much the same as Memo later in the novel. While the novel presents two clear female archetypes, Memo as the temptress and Iris as the nurturing earth mother, Harriet is somewhere in between. Her motivation for stalking and shooting sports stars in unclear, but in light of the novel's overall themes, her motivation likely ties to the definition of heroes. Sports stars such as the Whammer were considered modern-day heroes. Harriet sees these stars as ego-driven dolts more concerned with building their personal fame than fulfilling the noble role of heroes: uplifting the people. Harriet asks Roy twice what he wants from his life, and her "troubled" and "sad" eyes reveal her disappointment in his answer, which is to be the best the game has ever seen. Baseball, as life, is a team sport in which personal egos have little place.

Roy remains resolute in his motivation to prove himself the best. He does not want help from anyone or anything, particularly anything magical or superstitious, as seen in his reaction to the weighted dice Eddie shows him: "I don't crave any outside assistance in games of chance." Yet Roy relies completely on his magical bat, Wonderboy, so much so that he refuses to use any other bat, even during his slump. This confused response further characterizes Roy as young, naïve, and confused about his role. He will continue to grapple with his understanding of self throughout the novel.

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