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The Natural



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About The Author

Bernard MalamudBernard Malamud

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.

photo: Copyright Seymour Linden

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Reading Group Gold

 

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?

P R E P A R I N G

T O R E A D

3

R E A D I N G A N D

U N D E R S T A N D I N G

T H E N O V E L

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

4

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?

5

Q U E S T I O N S A N D

E X E R C I S E S

F O R T H E C L A S S

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.

6

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.

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