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The Natural: A Novel

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Lucy & Phyllis is a Certified B Corporation that meets the highest standards of social and eveironmental impact.

The classical novel (and basis for the acclaimed film starring Robert Redford) now in a new edition

Introduction by Kevin Baker

The Natural, Bernard Malamud's first novel, published in 1952, is also the first—and some would say still the best—novel ever written about baseball.

In it Malamud, usually appreciated for his unerring portrayals of postwar Jewish life, took on very different material—the story of a superbly gifted "natural" at play in the fields of the old daylight baseball era—and invested it with the hardscrabble poetry, at once grand and altogether believable, that runs through all his best work. Four decades later, Alfred Kazin's comment still holds true: "Malamud has done something which—now that he has done it!—looks as if we have been waiting for it all our lives. He has really raised the whole passion and craziness and fanaticism of baseball as a popular spectacle to its ordained place in mythology."

ISBN-13: 9780374502003

Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Publication Date: 07-07-2003

Pages: 256

Product Dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.69(d)

Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

Series: FSG Classics

Bernard Malamud (1914–86) wrote eight novels; he won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for The Fixer, and the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel. Born in Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont.

Reading Group Guide

This Teacher's Guide is divided primarily into two sections, which appear below.
The first, "Reading and Understanding the Novel," will help students with reading comprehension, conceptual appreciation, interpreting the narrative, grasping the book's contexts, and related matters. "Questions and Exercises for the Class,"
the second section, will enable students to think more broadly, creatively, or comparatively about The Natural—both as a group and individually. A brief supplementary section, "Suggestions for Further Reading," is offered in conclusion.
1. Explain why The Natural is divided into two sections ("Pre-Game" and "Batter
Up!"). What sets the two sections apart, and what has occurred between them?
2. What do we learn about Roy Hobbs in the book's opening pages? What is he carrying in his bassoon case? What do learn about Hobbs' past—his boyhood and background—over the course of the narrative? And what aspects of Hobbs remain mysterious throughout the book?
3. Why does Hobbs reject the locker-room lecture and accompanying hypnotism of Doc Knobb, the pop-psych guru who "pacifies" the New York Knights? How do the other Knights regard Doc Knobb? (p. 66)
4. When Hobbs replaces Bump Baily as the premier hitter for the Knights—if not in the entire league—some of his teammates start wondering (and, behind his back, talking) about "whether [Hobbs is] for the team or for himself." (p. 85)
Which is it, in your view? Is Hobbs ultimately playing for the Knights or himself?
Or does his allegiance change over the course of the book? Defend your answers by citing key passages from throughout the text.
5. Some time after Bump's accidental death while chasing a fly ball in the outfield,
Memo tells Hobbs that Bump "made you think you had been waiting for a thing to happen for a long time and then he made it happen." (p. 112) Could the same be said of Hobbs himself? If so, who might say it? And where else in the book do we see ballplayers rendered in a majestic, larger-than-life, or deity-like manner?
6. When Memo and Hobbs take a long night's drive out to Long Island in his new
Mercedes-Benz, Hobbs is at one point certain that they have hit a boy or his dog.
He wants to turn back and investigate. Memo, who is driving, refuses. But later
Hobbs thinks differently, as we read: "It did not appear that there ever was any kid in those woods, except in his mind." (p. 123) Is this boy-and-his-dog image merely a figment of Hobbs' imagination? Or is it real? Explain.
7. What link(s) do you recognize in Hobbs' disastrous hitting slump and his decision to visit Lola, the fortune teller in Jersey City? What does Lola predict for
Hobbs? Is she accurate? Also, what other baseball-oriented superstitions are depicted in The Natural? How do such rites and practices get started? Why do they remain popular?
8. On his first and only date with Iris, Hobbs tells her a secret. What is it? What does Iris mean when she says, shortly thereafter, that people have "two lives" to live?
(p. 152) Identify the "two lives" at the core of this narrative. Finally, why does
Hobbs eventually dismiss his affection for Iris? Do you think his dismissal is fair,
given Hobbs' own age and background? Explain.
9. When Hobbs eventually regains his hitting ability, winning games for the
Knights anew and reviving their chances in the pennant race, we gain various insights into what Hobbs the slugger thinks and feels. We read, for example:
"Sometimes as he watched the ball soar, it seemed to him all circles, and he was mystified at his devotion to hacking at it, for he had never really liked the sight of a circle. They got you nowhere but back to the place where you were to begin with."
(p. 163) Looking at our protagonist in a more personal or philosophical way,
explain why Hobbs dislikes circles. Also, who or what causes him to start hitting again in the first place? (And if possible, explain how and why this happens.)
10. What is a "Rube Goldberg contraption"? (p. 170)
11. Just before the big game to decide the pennant, Hobbs, while still in the hospital, consents to the Judge's crooked proposition—he agrees to "sell out."
Explain how Hobbs arrives at this decision. Who is he thinking of when he does so?
What are his motives? Who, or what, is Hobbs ultimately selling out for? What are his reasons?
12. Early in the big game, while running out to his position in left field, Hobbs thinks of his relationship with Pop. We read: "It seemed to Roy he had known the old man all his life long." (p. 216) Reflect on the relationship that exists between
Roy Hobbs and his manager. What does each man need or want from the other?
And what does each give—or not give—to the other?
13. Later in the big game, the Pirates must send out a relief pitcher to finish off
Hobbs. We read of this reliever: "Few in the stands had heard of him, but before his long trek to the mound was finished his life was common knowledge." (p. 226)
What is implied by this exaggeration, especially the "common knowledge" claim?
Point out specific descriptions or remarks from other parts of The Natural in which
a man's talents for baseball and his very existence are blurred, deliberately confused,
intentionally switched, and so on. What commentary might author Bernard
Malamud be making here about the relationship existing between baseball and life itself?
14. Immediately after Hobbs' climactic strikeout, we read: "Bump's form glowed red on the wall." (p. 227) Why does Hobbs see this particular apparition at this particular moment?
15. What does Hobbs do with Wonderboy after the big game? And where does he do this? Explain his actions.
1. Consider these remarks from Kevin Baker's Introduction to The Natural: "Hobbs is one of the most thoroughly unsympathetic heroes in the history of American literature . . . One can feel little real pity for any character who has so assiduously shaped his own doom." (p. xii) Would you agree? Can, or should, we pity Roy
Hobbs? Also, earlier in his Introduction, Baker writes: "It is hard to find a truly likable character in the book." (p. ix) Do you agree with this assertion? Explain why or why not.
2. Elsewhere Baker notes that baseball "has always been an American simulacrum."
(p. ix) What is a "simulacrum"? Define and discuss this term—both generally and in terms of The Natural specifically.
3. Malamud's novel takes a sensitive and evocative approach to language in general and vernacular in particular. What did reading this book teach you about American jargon of the mid-20th century—particularly baseball slang? Define the following baseball terms and phrases: bingle, fungo, pepper (re: practice), southpaw, pill, stuff
(re: pitching), shagging flies, and, as used eponymously throughout, natural. What other ballpark-bred words can you name?
4. Hobbs is drawn to three women over the course of the novel: Harriet Bird,
Memo Paris, and Iris Lemon. Describe them. What does Hobbs find appealing about each of them? What, if anything, do these women have in common? Why is each attracted to him? What, in turn, does Hobbs see in them—that is,
individually and collectively?
5. How are the fans depicted in this novel? Look especially at those scenes where their dress, manner, habits, and general behavior are depicted. (pp. 70, 86-7, 206,
and elsewhere) And how does Hobbs regard the fans? Compare Hobbs' dealings with, say, Mike Barney to those he has with Otto Zipp. Finally, where does the word
fan come from? What exactly does it mean to be a fan of something?
6. Dreams play an important role in The Natural; we find many different dream descriptions throughout the book. Select a few of these passages, then discuss how each dream enhances, echoes, or otherwise enriches the book's larger narrative.
7. Compare and contrast how this novel depicts the urban and the rural, the experience of the city and that of the country. Which environment is seen more favorably, romantically, nostalgically? Which is seen more critically, harshly,
complexly? Refer to certain scenes or images to underscore your views.
8. As a class, explore the novel's portrayal of the elusive yet all-consuming power of ambition. We are often reminded that Hobbs is obsessed with rewriting professional baseball's record book, with "doing what I came here to do," with being "the best who ever played the game"—but why is Hobbs so driven? Why does his quest for greatness come off as aloof, greedy, cruel, or worse?
9. Why does Hobbs eat so much? Discuss and try to explain his appetite.
10. Daydreams about trains appear at many points in the novel, usually as the recurring reveries Hobbs keeps having. Even on the last page, the following locomotive imagery strikes Hobbs at the low conclusion of the narrative: "He felt the insides of him beginning to take off (chug chug choo choo . . .). Pretty soon they were in fast flight." (p.231) Identify other train-based visions had by Hobbs.
What do they signify or suggest to him? Explain this train metaphor—and what it means to Hobbs personally.
11. The Natural not only offers a detailed rendering of the world of baseball; it also illustrates the business aspect of professional sports. How is the relationship between pro sports and business characterized in these pages? What about the relationship between pro sports and gambling? Do you think that either of these relationships would be characterized differently if Malamud were composing his novel today? Explain your views.
12. Some critics have pointed out that The Natural reads like a modern-day morality play. (The morality play is a highly allegorical form of drama, created in medieval Europe, in which characters personifying good or evil struggle over possession of a person's soul.) Write a one-act morality play on a contemporary topic of your own devising, either by yourself or in collaboration with other students. Picking up on Malamud's example, try to frame issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and so forth within a current setting, popular arena, or familiar situation.
13. Discuss Malamud's novel as a work of magical realism. Are there any key scenes, events, or actions in The Natural that must be deemed magical or supernatural?
If so, identify them.
14. The character of Roy Hobbs—as well as, more broadly, The Natural itself—
can rightly be seen as a fictionalized composite of baseball history in the first half of the 20th century—the lore, legends, and giants of the game, all refashioned or rolled into a single creation. Write a short story or long poem in which, like
Malamud, you create a composite work based upon a historically fertile or legendary subject of your choosing. Upon completion, read your work aloud to your classmates.
15. Returning to Baker's Introduction, we find Hobbs likened to Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's epochal Death of a Salesman. (p. xii) Write a brief essay comparing (or contrasting) Roy Hobbs to another literary hero (or villain) of your choosing.
The following fiction and non-fiction works are recommended as follow-up books for those students who have expressed interest in, curiosity about, or appreciation for baseball on the printed page. There are countless books reflecting baseball's sturdy links to history, biography, literature, society, and/or culture; this is a select list aimed at accessibility and readability. For reasons of inclusiveness, a few nonbaseball books are also listed here; these can be likewise recommended with confidence to students who enjoyed The Natural.
Game Time: A Baseball Reader by Roger Angell; Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof; The Heart of the Order by Thomas Boswell;
A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo*; Babe: The Legend Comes To Life by
Robert W. Creamer; The Brothers K: A Novel by David James Duncan; Take Me
Out: A Play
by Richard Greenberg; Diz: The Story of Dizzy Dean and Baseball
During the Great Depression
by Robert Gregory; Summer of ‘49 and The Teammates
by David Halberstam; The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn; Shoeless Joe: A Novel by
W. P. Kinsella; You Know Me, Al: A Busher's Letters by Ring W. Lardner; Sandy
Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy
by Jane Leavy; A Whole New Ball Game: The Story of the
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League
by Sue Macy; The Assistant, The
Complete Stories, Dubin's Lives, The Fixer, God's Grace, The Magic Barrel, The People,
and The Tenants by Bernard Malamud; Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series
by Louis P. Masur; Stonewall's Gold: A Novel by Robert J. Mrazek*; Betsey Brown:
A Novel
by Ntozake Shange*; Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball by

Scott Simon; and Hoopla: A Novel by Harry Stein.