The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Natural | Themes



All of the characters in The Natural are driven by a deep desire to obtain something—fame, wealth, or victory—and these ambitions affect their morality. The destructiveness of ambition is seen most clearly in Roy's quest to become "the greatest there ever was in the game." To the emotionally immature Roy, being "the best" means breaking the most records, making the most money, and having the most superficially beautiful life. To create the illusion of greatness Roy seeks fame, wealth, and sex as status symbols rather than actually honing his craft, working hard, and serving his fans as well as his ego. Being driven by superficial ambitions causes Roy to chase after "bad balls" that, as Pop predicted, can "sometimes [cause] harmful mistakes." Indeed, Roy chooses Memo over Iris and agrees to fix the final pennant game in exchange for a big payout, two decisions that cause serious harm.

Secondary characters are also driven by their ambitions, many of which mirror Roy's own deep desires: Memo, Gus, and the judge are all driven by their ambition for money, which turn them all into cruel, calculating people who don't care about the emotional pain they cause others. Bump is driven by ego, which prevents him from taking the game seriously until he stands to lose his standing as top player. Playing competitively, Bump accidentally dies. The only characters motivated by happiness are Pop and Iris, who both end up losing in the end, which gives The Natural a depressing tone.

Power of Women

Women in the novel are presented as either saviors or destroyers with the ability to bring happiness or misery. There are three female characters in the novel (four if you count Roy's mother, who receives peripheral mention only as a negative force in Roy's life), and each has strong influence on Roy's life. Memo is presented as a fully destructive character, while Iris is presented as fully good. These characters are continually contrasted, physically and emotionally. Memo has red hair and wears a black dress, while Iris has black hair and wears a red dress. Memo is thin, Iris is "heavy." Memo has a "sick breast" that cannot be touched or offer nourishment, while Iris, a grandmother in her 30s, has ample breasts and nursed her daughter although it wasn't common practice at the time. The novel makes clear that should Roy choose Memo he will be destroyed, and should he choose Iris he will be fulfilled. Harriet Bird, the third female character, represents both sides of the dichotomy. Like a sphinx, she presents Roy with a moral quandary—is there more to life than greatness?—and his answer dictates his fate. Answer correctly and he lives; answer incorrectly and he is shot. Emotionally immature, Roy answers incorrectly and is shot, losing his opportunity for his first professional tryout. The fact that he does not learn from this experience in his 15 years away from the game condemns him to make the same mistake again by choosing Memo over Iris.

Tragic Flaw

Roy struggles to be a hero, not realizing that his desire for success and women is destroying him. His ego—his unyielding lust for fame—proves to be his biggest flaw. Because he cannot overcome this flaw, his story becomes a tragedy. Roy's ego is first shown during his interaction with Harriet in Pre-Game. When Harriet asks Roy what he wants from life, he answers simply, "to be the best in the game." Harriet presses on, asking him whether that's "all" he wants, and when he cannot think of anything better, she shoots him. The message here is clear. Roy's ego led to his attack. Had he answered differently, chances are he would have made it to his tryout.

Roy doesn't learn the lesson of his attack, however, and continues to be driven by ego for the remainder of the novel. On Roy Hobbs Day, he tells the shocked crowd that he will do his best to be "the greatest there ever was in the game." To be the "greatest" Roy thinks he must break the most records, have the most fans, date the most beautiful woman. His ego drives him to make poor choices, like chase Memo, abandon his fans, and throw the final pennant game. On his date with Iris, she says, "We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live after that." Because Roy doesn't learn from the mistakes of his past, as in his interaction with Harriet, he is doomed to continue suffering. When the novel comes to a close, Roy realizes his mistake in throwing the game, but he still cannot put aside his ego: "Only a homer, with himself scoring the winning run, would truly redeem him." Of course, Roy strikes out and the game is lost. Because of Roy's ego, the novel is a tragedy, and his story will remain one until he learns to overcome his tragic flaw.

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