Bernard Malamud, 1952
We first meet our hero, Roy Hobbs, on the cusp of adulthood, staring at his reflection in a train window. He may be Narcissus gazing at himself in the pond—a self-love that can only bring disaster. Or perhaps the reflection mirrors back to him his own purity, which neither he nor the world will enable himself to live up to.
The train is carrying Roy to Chicago for tryouts with the Cubs. A raw, untested farm boy, he's in possession of a prodigious and as yet undiscovered talent. With him is a bat made by his own hands from an ash tree split by lightning—a modern-day Excalibur. We've crossed over into the realm of magic.
Over and over Roy announces his intention to be the best that has ever been—not the best he can be within himself nor the best he can be for others. It is a misguided quest, and therein lies Roy's downfall. There are women in this story, who both save and damn him. One punishes him for his hybris, one offers the path to temptation, and one the path to goodness.
Malamud provides little character development. Although his characters feel alive, they lean towards the one-dimensional with little, if any, probing of their inner states. That's because Malamud isn't interested in giving us a realistic novel: he's given us something much closer to allegory, where characters stand in for a particular human trait. The Natural has the feel of a moral fable. (See our LitCourse 9 on Symbolism.)
This book is certainly about baseball...but only on its surface. The author uses the sport as a vehicle to explore age-old questions of human endeavor, pride, greed, desire, and fate. It's a luscious work, truly deserving of the label "classic."
See our Reading Guide for The Natural.
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