The Natural Essay, Research Paper
The role of symbolism in Bernard Malamud s The Natural is important in helping the reader understand the theme and meaning of the novel as well as the time period in which it took place. Malamud s use of symbolism defines the character of Roy Hobbs and shows how the events occurring around him affected his decisions and, eventually, his career.
Symbolism in The Natural takes the form of characters, such as women who strongly influenced Roy; historical events, such as the infamous 1919 World Series scandal; and even Greek and Roman mythology. All forms of symbolism used by Malamud are woven into the life and career of Roy Hobbs.
As a first example, women have a tremendous influence on Roy s actions and feelings. One of the more influential symbols in the book, women tend to control what Roy does. The first woman Roy falls for is Harriet Bird whom he meets on a train on his way to Chicago to try out for the Chicago Cubs. Roy is extremely attracted to her, but a major league ballplayer on the train named Whammer Wambold has already caught her eye. Roy becomes jealous and begins to do things to try to get her attention. At a stop in the route, the passengers get off for a break and go to a local carnival where Roy and the big leaguer clash in a contest of talent, a David-and-Goliath-type confrontation (Solotaroff 9). Roy strikes out the batter with three blistering pitches, each of which make Harriet pay more and more attention to him. As they arrive in Chicago, Harriet stays at the hotel at which Roy has booked a room. She gives him a call and provocatively invites him to her room. Succumbing to her invitation, and making his way to her room, he enters and sees her wearing nothing but a silk nightgown. After a short conversation, she pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the stomach. His desperate attitude leads him to be seduced by her, ending his bid to make the Chicago Cubs.
The character of Harriet Bird serves as an ancestor-figure to Iris Lemon and Memo Paris (Helterman 25). In a way, Iris and Memo are symbolic descendants of Harriet because they, too, have so much influence on Roy. Memo, however, closely resembles Harriet in personality. Both of the women are very attracted to two separate major league ball players, Memo having a relationship with Roy s teammmate Bump Bailey, and Harriet being attracted to Whammer Wabold on the train. Both also seem to want to cause Roy harm, doing what they can to stand in the way of his eventual stardom.
The two truly opposite personalities created by Malamud are Memo and Iris (27). Physically, Memo is first shown wearing a black dress and has red hair; Iris is shown wearing a red dress with a white rose attached and has black hair. Mentally, Memo tends to use her memory to live in the past, relating everything to her deceased lover, Bump. On the other hand, Iris uses substance to live, describing her life with actions and words rather than by memories. Malamud creates these two characters to force Roy to choose his fate. For his own benefit and well being, Roy should choose Iris and stay away from Memo. Memo s attractiveness and seductiveness, however, keeps Roy from making the right decision.
Another form of symbolism that influences Roy s decision not to stay with Iris is that he sees himself becoming a father figure of sorts to Iris unborn baby, just as Pop Fisher is a father figure to him (31). Iris, who is 33 years of age at the time of her liaisons with Roy, is pregnant out of wedlock. While Roy and Iris make love on the beach, she mutters to him, I forgot to tell you I am a grandmother (Malamud 148). Although he tends not to show that the comment bothered him at the time, it sticks in the back of his head and is one of the reasons he does not end up with Iris. Roy does not want to be a father figure to Iris baby like his manager, Pop Fisher, was to him. Pop s misfortunes during his long life made Roy think about what might happen to him if he would be together with Iris when her bay was born. Fearing that his life would be ruined if he had to take care of a child, Roy makes his choice and decides not to continue having relations with Iris.
A second example of symbolism is Major League Baseball history and how it plays a big part in the development of both the characters and the story line. Baseball is America s pastime and Malamud created this book to be a part of the true American grain (Abramson 22). The path which Roy s career follows portrays both Eddie Waitkus and Babe Ruth s careers. Eddie Waitkus, over his eleven-year career played for the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies twice, and the Baltimore Orioles. In 1949, while playing for the Phillies, he was lured into a hotel room by a crazed female sports fan (Wasserman 48). Subsequently, he was shot in the stomach, ending his season. In The Natural, the same happens to Roy. Harriet seduces him and shoots him in the stomach, inflicting an injury so serious as to cause Roy to miss fifteen years of his career. After those 15 years on a personal disabled list, Roy returns to baseball to become a contemporary hero, transforming himself into a slugger rather than being a pitcher. Babe Ruth himself made this great transformation over his career (48). Ruth pitched for 10 of his 22 years in baseball compiling a 94-46 record. However, over the beginning years of his career, he realized his real strengths were his offensive skills and he became the incredible legend known to all today.
Pop s blunder mirrors Chuck Hostetler s fall in the 45 series that cost his team a game (47). Wile playing for the Detroit Tigers in 1945, Hostetler cost his team a World Series victory when he slipped, tripped, and fell rounding third base on his attempt to score. Pop s blunder is exactly what happened to Hostetler. When Pop Fisher was a player, he made the same mistake in the regular season, costing his team the pennant, while Hostetler s fall did not affect the Tiger s championship hopes.
Roy s agreement with Judge Banner to throw the final game symbolizes the infamous scandal in the 1919 World Series involving Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Chicago Black Sox. In what is possibly the most famous of all sports scandals, multiple players from the Black Sox took part in throwing or fixing the series. By doing so, they received handsome amounts of cash from bookies and other influential individuals in society. Roy does the same thing in the novel, except, in his case, it is the owner of his own team who wants him to throw the final regular season game that would determine which team would go to the postseason. Roy accepts monetary bribes from Judge Banner and strikes out every time he comes to bat that game.
The parallel between the medieval tale of Percival and Roy s struggles is another important example of how symbolism is used in determining Roy s. The Holy Grail appears in the medieval romance of Percival. As a youth, Percival sets out to achieve knighthood at King Arthur’s court. On the way he reaches the castle of the Fisher King, a renowned angler. The Fisher King, Percival’s uncle, is keeper of the Holy Grail and of the spear that wounded Christ on the cross. Because of his sinful ways, the Fisher King is speechless upon confronting the sacred chalice. When Percival enters the castle he witnesses a procession in which the bleeding spear and the Holy Grail pass before the speechless king. Astonished, Percival fails to ask any questions concerning the strange pantomime, not knowing that if he had spoken, his uncle would have been healed. After many wanderings, Percival returns to the Grail castle, welds together a broken sword or, in another version, restores the power of speech to his uncle, and succeeds him as king (Encarta 98).
Roy s life is similar to Percival s in numerous ways. Roy begins his career at a young age, aspiring to become a major league baseball player and an eventual star. Like Roy, Percival wants to become someone of importance and goes to the King s court to be knighted.
Roy plays for Pop Fisher, his manager, after being out of baseball for a decade and a half. Pop is an unlucky man with many unfortunate things happening to him during his life. Roy is the character chosen by Malamud to lead Pop to happiness and joy by winning the pennant for him. Percival meets the Fisher King on his way to the King s court. The Fisher King s speech is impaired because of his possession of the Holy Grail and the spear that killed Christ. Percival, after many years, restores The Fisher King s speech and becomes King. Roy brings success to his New York Knights baseball team, and during their success, Pop s spirits are lifted and he becomes friendlier. These events are made to parallel each other; it is, therefore no coincidence, that the names parallel each other as well. As examples, Pop Fisher and the Fisher King, and Percival s desire to become a knight and Roy s play on a team called the Knights .
The meaning of a natural in the Middle Ages differs completely from the meaning of a natural in baseball terminology and, therefore, gives the title of the novel a double meaning. A natural in the Middle Ages meant that someone was an innocent fool. In baseball language, a natural is a player with outstanding natural talent and ability (Helterman 24). Roy is both a fool and a naturally talented player. His outstanding play in the field and at the plate did not overshadow his foolish behavior off the field. Roy is both a fool and a hero during the novel, just as Percival is in the medieval tale. Percival made a fool of himself trying to make sense of sophisticated ways (23). His complete misunderstanding of the events that occurred around him doomed him for years, and in Roy s case, doomed him for life.
A further example of symbolism in the novel is Malamud s use of birds to show Roy s fate, using the Greek and Roman phenomenon that birds can predict the future. From ancient mythology and society, both the Greeks and Romans looked to birds to see into the future. Whatever the birds hinted by their actions, the ancient societies planned the future in accordance with what the birds did. In The Natural, birds serve the same purpose.
Roy s best pitch looks like a bird in flight as it approaches and passes Wambold by, striking him out (26). As Roy winds up and pitches the ball to Whammer Wambold, Malamud describes the ball as a bird in mid-flight. This description means one of two things: either the bird, flying at high speed, symbolizes Roy s quick exit from baseball, or it symbolizes his eventual stardom in baseball by striking Wambold out.
Roy s talent is displayed when he catches a canary in his glove, thinking it was a fly ball hit with blistering speed (26). After catching the bird in his glove, he discovers to his repulsion that the canary is crushed inside of his glove with blood everywhere. The catching of the canary represents Roy s incredible talent as fielder. However, while showing his talent by catching the bird, the crushing of its body on impact symbolizes Roy s hard fall from baseball heroism at the end of the novel.
The hamburgers that spell out Roy s fate look to Roy like dead birds as they are served to him (26). As Roy sits down at a hotel restaurant in New York after partying with Memo on the concierge level of the hotel, he orders many hamburgers on buns. As they are served to him, they are described as looking like dead birds on bread. Although Roy sees the meat that way, his hunger overrides his conscience and he thinks nothing of the possibility of food poisoning. Roy winds up in the hospital that night with severe food poisoning and this begins his rapid decline from the high ranks of baseball. The death of a bird in Greek and Roman mythology meant something terrible would happen. In the novel, the meat that looks like dead birds spell the end of Roy Hobbs as an athlete.
Perhaps the least recognized symbol in The Natural is Roy s bat. The bat represents his manhood and displays his present feelings (27). During Roy s fantastic season after being in submission for fifteen years, he uses the name Wonderboy to describe his bat. The name, in a way, is also symbolic of Roy s talents. During Roy s incredible streak of offensive ability, Wonderboy seemed alive and living in his hands. However, during Roy s two-week slump in that same season, the bat tended to droop and drag across the dugout floor, not showing any signs of lifting its spirits or Roy out of his slump. This description of the bat is symbolic of Roy s attitude during different parts of his season, acting high and mighty during success and looking dreary and glum during his failures.
In conclusion, symbolism plays an extremely important role in Bernard Malamud s The Natural. In creating this masterpiece, Malamud relates his own life to that of Roy Hobbs, in part because they both got late starts in their respective careers (Solotaroff 6). On the surface, Roy, a baseball player, and Malamud, a writer, do not seem to have much in common. However, due to that commonality between the author and his character, much of the symbolism in The Natural is deep-seeded and is found by the reader upon reflection on the book. Therefore, understanding Malamud s use of symbolism is critical in understanding The Natural, its background, its times, and its meaning.
Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York:Twayne
Grail, Holy, Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. 1993-1997 Microsoft
Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia:University of South
Malamud, Bernard. The Natural. New York:Avon Books,1952.
Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston:Twayne
Wasserman, Earl R. The Natural: Malamud s World Ceres in Modern Critical Views:
Bernard Malamud. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:Chelsea House Publishers. 47-64