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The Natural

Raw athletic talent, a nearly-fatal gunshot wound, and an obsession with a woman that won't love him back—meet Roy Hoss, the protagonist in the 1952 baseball novel The Natural. Bernard Malamud's (1914-1986) debut novel, The Natural, centers around Roy's remarkable return to baseball after his career was squandered over a decade before. Even at 34 years old, Roy quickly becomes the star of his professional baseball team. But can he contend with his own ego and the shady side characters who want to capitalize off both his failure and his success? The Natural explores themes like fate, ambition, and fatal flaws, while also being one of American literature's most famous baseball stories.

The Natural Summary

Roy Hoss is a small-town baseball player who finally has the chance to make a name for himself when he is scouted for the Chicago Cubs. En route to the team tryouts, scout Sam Simpson sets up a competition between Roy and "the Whammer," a pro-baseball hitter who is also on the Chicago-bound train. Sam bets Roy can strike the Whammer out, hoping to catch the attention of prominent sports writer Max Mercy. Roy wins the bet but inadvertently hits Sam in the chest. Sam dies that night from the damage to his chest, but before he passes, he gives Roy money for a hotel in Chicago so Roy can still make tryouts.

Roy's success against the Whammer catches the attention of Harriet Bird, a mysterious woman on the train. When he gets to his hotel in Chicago, Roy gets a phone call from Harriet inviting him to her hotel room. Unbeknownst to Roy, Harriet has been randomly killing famous athletes. She shoots Roy in the stomach after he boasts about how successful he will be this season.

Roy would have never been Harriet's target if he hadn't agreed to the challenge with the Whammer or boasted about his talent in her hotel room. Harriet, therefore, symbolizes the danger of unchecked ambition.

The Natural, Woman holding a gun, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 Roy's baseball career is sidetracked after he is shot and nearly killed by Harriet.

The novel flashes forward 15 years, and a 34-year-old Roy has risen out of obscurity as the New York Knights' newest rookie. The Knights have been on a losing streak, and the team's manager, Pop Fisher, thinks the owner is purposefully throwing the season by signing a contract with a player so old. Pops is skeptical of Roy's abilities and benches him for weeks. In the meantime, Roy becomes enamored with Pop's niece, Memo Paris. Unfortunately, she's cold, distant, and already dating the team's star player, Bump Baily.

When Roy gets a chance to bat, he immediately astonishes Pops, the Knights, and fans alike by smashing the cover off the baseball and hitting a triple. Roy enters into a rivalry with Bump, only worsened by Roy's attraction to Memo. One day, while trying to outplay Roy, Bump smashes his head on the wall in the outfield and later dies. Roy permanently takes Bump's spot on the team and continues chasing after Memo.

The Natural, Baseball player swings at pitch, StudySmarter

Fig. 2 As an older athlete, Roy shocks everyone by being a "natural" at pro baseball.

With his instant success on the field, Roy finally catches the attention of Max Mercy. Max is suspicious of Roy's unknown past. Max doesn't remember the night on the Chicago train but feels as though he knows Roy somehow. Max takes Roy out for drinks, and they run into Memo and Gus Sands, a bookie who has made himself incredibly wealthy through dubious means.

Meanwhile, Roy has asks the team's owner, Judge Banner, for a raise. The Judge refuses, and fans are angry when they hear how badly the star player is being treated. They throw "Roy's Day," gifting Roy money, gifts, and a sports car. But Roy cares more about impressing Memo, despite Pop's warnings that she's bad luck, and takes her out on a date in his new car. The date ends horribly and leads Roy into a hitting slump.

What are your initial thoughts on Memo's character? What might she represent in the novel?

Nothing can get Roy out of his slump until he notices a beautiful woman cheering for him in the crowd. After the game, he tracks the mysterious woman down and discovers her name is Iris Lemon. Iris and Roy date, and he enters a 17-game winning streak. They have sex, but Roy ends things with Iris after learning she is a grandmother at 33. He goes back to obsessing over Memo, who is suddenly interested in him following his success.

Memo throws a massive banquet right before the night of an important game. She promises to have sex with Roy after the banquet, but he overeats and ends up in the hospital. In the hospital, Memo refuses to marry Roy unless he becomes extremely wealthy. She reveals that Gus and the Judge want to pay him off to throw the next day's game. Roy initially refuses but is soon approached by Judge Banner. The Judge offers Roy $35,000 if he throws the game for the Knights. Wishing to marry Memo, Roy agrees.

The Natural, Pile of money, StudySmarter

Fig 3. Roy agrees to cheat so he can make enough money to marry Memo.

On the day of the big game, Roy initially plays poorly. He changes his mind about throwing the game mid-way through and tries to hit a foul ball at a heckling fan. He doesn't notice that Iris is in the stands, and she gets hit with the ball. When she is rushed off to the hospital, she tells Roy she is pregnant with his baby. Roy decides to win the game so he can get a better contract and support his family with Iris, but he ultimately strikes out and loses the game for the Knights anyway. Max writes an article accusing Roy of purposefully throwing the game, and Roy realizes that his baseball career is likely over.

The Natural Characters

The novel follows Roy Hobbs as he interacts with other characters, including love interests (Memo Paris and Iris Lemon), members of the baseball world (Pop Fisher, Bump Baily, and Sam Simpson), and outsiders who want to use him (Max Mercy, Gus Sands, and Harriet Bird).

Roy Hobbs

The novel's central protagonist, Roy Hobbs has a deep love for baseball, but outside obstacles and his own ego often curb his success. On his way to his first big break, 19-year-old Roy is shot and nearly killed. He finally enters the baseball world over ten years later and shocks everyone with his raw talent. Despite his athletic abilities, Roy is limited by his ego and tendency to get distracted. He obsesses over Memo and endangers his career by agreeing to throw an important game for money.

Max Mercy

A sports journalist with a penchant for ruining players' lives, Max Mercy attempts to ruin Roy's career. Max cares more about revealing ugly secrets about the players than covering the actual sport. He tries to dig up dirt on Roy when Roy becomes a prominent player for the Knights. At the end of the novel, Max publishes an article accusing Roy of cheating. If the rumor is found to be true, Roy's career is over.

What is ironic about Max's last name being "Mercy"? What does that add to the novel?

Memo Paris

Roy's indifferent love interest, Memo Paris is only interested in Roy when he starts doing well and has to opportunity to become wealthy. She resents him for her boyfriend's death after Bump Baily dies trying to outdo Roy.

Iris Lemon

A passionate baseball fan, Iris Lemon becomes romantically involved with Roy after watching him play. Roy ends things when he learns she is a young grandmother, but he wants to make things work when he discovers she is pregnant with his child.

The Natural, Silhouette of pregnant woman, StudySmarter

Fig. 4 Roy distances himself from Iris until he discovers she's pregnant.

Gus Sands

A seedy bookie, Gus Sands has made a fortune through illegal betting. He and the Judge often work together and want to pay Roy off to throw a pivotal game.

Judge Banner

The wealthy owner of the New York Knights, Judge Banner cares more about making money than his team's success. He often bets against his own team and offers Roy $35,000 to throw the team's most important game.

Pop Fisher

The team's manager, Pop Fisher is initially skeptical about Roy but comes to like him. All Pop wants is for the Knights to win, and he warns Roy about Memo being bad news.

Sam Simpson

A Chicago Cubs talent scout, Sam Simpson is the first person to notice Roy's potential. Sam has ruined his own career through alcohol abuse, but he acts like a father figure to Roy and wants him to succeed.

Bump Baily

The star of the Knights before Roy joins the team and Memo's boyfriend, Bump Baily is an arrogant jokester. He doesn't take the game seriously until Roy's talent threatens his position on the team. Bump dies after hitting a wall while trying to outplay Roy.

Can you think of any significance to Bump Baily's name?

Harriet Bird

A mysterious, crazy woman, Harriet Bird finds joy in murdering talented athletes. She shoots Roy after meeting him on the train to tryouts.

The Natural Analysis

On the surface level, The Natural appears to be a baseball story with an unfortunate ending. But it was actually inspired by true events and ancient mythology.

Eddie Waitkus was a professional baseball player for the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, and Baltimore Orioles. He started playing Major League Baseball in 1941 when he became a star for the Chicago Cubs. Only eight years into his career, an obsessed fan-turned-stalker invited Waitkus into her hotel room, claiming to be someone from his high school, and shot him. Waitkus nearly died and was unable to return to the field until the 1950 season. Billy Jurges, a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, also suffered from gunshot wounds after being shot by one of his romantic partners in 1932.

These real-life events likely informed the basis of Roy's remarkable career, but the legend of the Holy Grail inspired the themes and minor characters of the novel. The concept of the Holy Grail first appears in a written text in Chrétien de Troyes's romance narrative Perceval, the Story of the Grail, written in the late 12th century. Like The Natural, the tale features a heroic underdog, who earns respect against great odds, a quest that is ultimately unachievable, and a turn from selfishness to empathy for others.

In this original story, Perceval is an underdog born and raised apart from cultured society. He decides he wants to be a knight but has to prove himself to King Arthur. Perceval turns out to be a good fighter and is mentored by the renowned Knight Gornemant. Gornemant teaches Perceval not to ask questions or talk too much.

This proves to be a flaw when Perceval encounters the Fisher King. Unbeknownst to Perceval, the Fisher King is wounded, and his lands are in ruin. The king will only be healed if a hero (Perceval) completes a task. At the Fisher King's castle, Perceval watches a procession of valuable objects, including the Holy Grail. But he doesn't ask questions because of his teaching. In the morning, Perceval wakes up alone. He encounters a singular girl, who condemns him for not asking about the grail as that would have saved the Fisher King's people.

The Natural Themes

Two main themes in The Natural are ambition vs. fate and the inability to overcome a fatal flaw.

Ambition vs. Fate

Roy is a highly ambitious character whose talent and drive are curbed only by fate. At the start of the novel, Roy hopes to be one of the greatest baseball players in history. He works hard to make his dreams a reality, impressing Sam and earning himself a spot at the Chicago tryouts. His ambition leads him to take on the Whammer and even to brag to Harriet about his hopes for the future. It is fate that puts him in direct contact with both of these characters, ultimately leading to Roy being shot and halting his career.

The Natural, Pitcher holding two balls, StudySmarter

Fig. 5 Roy's ambition to be a great player can not overcome fate.

Even when Roy returns to the game 15 years later, he cannot escape fate. His desire to be a great athlete is once again dictated by the obstacles (namely people) fate puts in his way. Max digs up Roy's past, Memo distracts him, and the Judge entices him with an offer he can't refuse. Though Roy ultimately chooses to ignore these obstacles and focus on his career, it is too late. He fatefully loses the game, Max writes a disparaging story about him, and his ambition is once again squandered by his career ending before it has a chance to really begin.

Inability to Overcome a Fatal Flaw

At the novel's end, Roy is on the precipice of losing his career because he is unable to overcome his flaws. His fatal flaws are lust and pride. He is so distracted by winning Memo's attention and being the best that he allows himself to become distanced from his dreams and values. Roy's ego leads him to do reckless things, most notably taking a bribe to impress Memo at the expense of his reputation, career, and morals. In the end, he rejects Memo and his egotistical need to impress her, but it is too late. He cannot overcome his flaws, and his career is ruined because of it.

The Natural Quotes

Below are some of the most important quotes from The Natural.

Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground... Somebody then shouted it was raining cats and dogs... By the time Roy got in from second he was wading in water ankle deep." ("Batter Up")

Wonderboy is the only bat Roy will use after making it himself when he was a child. Wonderboy functions as a sort of Excalibur, elevating Roy to hero status and guiding him in "battles" against other teams. This quote also reveals how Roy is a mirror of Perceval. Not only does Roy bring success to the team, but he also physically revives the drought-stricken field (as Perceval was supposed to heal the Fisher King's lands). Roy brings prosperity and fertility to the team, reinvigorating their dying record.

(Iris:)"Experience makes good people better."

She was staring at the lake.

(Roy:) "How does it do that?"

"Through their suffering."

"I had enough of that," he said in disgust.

"We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness" ("Batter Up")

This quote reveals the division between Iris's worldview and Roy's. While she wants to grow from past mistakes and trauma, he views what he has endured as an unfair burden. This difference reemerges when Roy realizes Iris is a young grandmother and runs away. Iris wants to help Roy through life and build a relationship with him, while Roy is looking for immediate satisfaction and distraction. He chases after Memo because she offers him superficial pleasure, whereas Iris desires a real relationship full of love, happiness, and even the bad experiences that come with a shared life.

The Natural - Key Takeaways

  • The Natural was written by Bernard Malamud and published in 1952.
  • It is loosely based on the shooting of real-life baseball players and is influenced by mythology and traditions.
  • The main character, Roy Hobbs, is a talented athlete who is given a second chance at a baseball career after being shot when he was 19. Now 34, Roy is distracted by lust, money, and his ego.
  • Roy ultimately forfeits his career after accepting a bribe. He is defeated by his own ego.
  • The main themes are ambition vs. fate and the inability to overcome a fatal flaw.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Natural

Harriet Bird shoots Roy because she enjoys killing great athletes, and he brags he will be the best. 

Max Mercy writes an article accusing Roy of throwing the game for money. Roy is very upset and knows his career will be ruined if the public finds out it's true. 

Harriet symbolizes the danger of unchecked ambition. 

The main themes in The Natural are ambition vs. fate and the inability to overcome a fatal flaw.

The central character is the tragic hero Roy Hobbs. 

Final The Natural Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Natural

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Answer

Bernard Malamud

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When was The Natural published? 

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Answer

1952

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What sport does The Natural center around? 

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Answer

Baseball.

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Question

Who is "the natural" and the protagonist of the novel? 

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Answer

Roy Hobbs

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Question

What team's tryouts is Roy attending at the start of the novel? 

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Answer

Chicago Cubs.

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Question

Why doesn't Roy make it to tryouts? 

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Answer

He is shot by Harriet Bird

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Why does Harriet Bird shoot Roy? 

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Answer

She has an obsession with killing talented athletes.

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What team does Roy play for when he comes back to baseball? 

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Answer

New York Knights.

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Question

True or false: Roy is an immediate success and gets a spot on the team right away

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which female character is Roy obsessed with?

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Answer

Memo Paris

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Why does Roy end things with Iris? 

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Answer

She is a grandmother at 33

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Who offers Roy $35,000 to throw the baseball game?

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Answer

Judge Banner

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Who releases a news article that will likely ruin Roy's career? 

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Answer

Max Mercy.

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Question

What are the main themes in the novel? 

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Answer

Ambition vs. fate.

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Question

What is Roy's fatal flaw? 

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Answer

He is too easily distracted by his ego and lust 

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