Places: The Natural

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fable

Time of work: 1930’s-1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Natural, TheYork City. City in which Hobbs’s major league baseball team, the Knights, is based. Bernard Malamud’s mixture of affection for and displeasure with New York City is at the source of Hobbs’s experiences with the Knights. The energy, sophistication, variety, and ethnic diversity of the city form a fascinating background for the narrative, and Hobbs’s American heartland perspective makes him a somewhat daunted, but nonetheless fascinated, observer of the city’s allure and dangers.

Baseball stadium

Baseball stadium. Stadium in which the New York Knights play. Local landmarks, such as Grant’s Tomb, the Empire State Building, and the prominent Sardi’s supper club, project an aura of importance over the actions of the characters, but it is the Knights’ stadium–a simulacrum for society at large–that is the most significant setting in the book. There, Malamud presents the compelling diversity of urban life–casual spectators, rabid fans, gamblers, and bizarre and eccentric ticket-holders react to the games and the players with emotions running the gamut from adoration to contempt. The stadium is a kind of sacred ground, the rituals of the game akin to religious rites, the behavior of the crowd an expression of a shifting Zeitgeist that Malamud uses as a commentary on American life.

American heartland

American heartland. Broad, nonspecific region of the United States from which Hobbs comes; the term is more symbolic than tangible. Hobbs’s background and origins are vague, his roots somewhere in the Northwest, his years of travail in minor league baseball outposts described as places he has “bummed around in,” slop-joints, third-rate hotels, boxing gyms, and so on. When he arrives in Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs, he is astonished to see so many people living together in one place. His reaction to the size of the hotel he stays in is similar.

While the novel depicts the cities of baseball’s old National League circuit realistically, rural America is drawn with a blend of evocative naturalism and semimystical fabulism. Malamud’s purpose here is twofold. He is contrasting the redemptive powers of the natural world–particularly symbolized by Iris Lemon, whose name implies fertility and new growth–with the psychological ruin and decay of a blighted wasteland. In addition, Hobbs is troubled by dreams in which he is engulfed by the dark forces of a surreal landscape, lost in the wilderness or submerged in swirling waters. The shift between the relatively realistic and the fantastic enables Malamud to extend his narrative from strong social satire toward allegory and myth, and Hobbs’s rootlessness is made tangible by his inability to become comfortable in any of the book’s settings.

*Long Island

*Long Island. Island off the southeast coast of New York State where Hobbs spends time with his temptress, Memo Paris. As a corollary to the scenes in which Hobbs sinks into the mental turmoil occasioned by a sign or signal that reminds him of an incident of dismay in his past, he has several episodes of fear and uncertainty in which he is revisited by some of the demons inhabiting his subconscious. One of the most significant involves his sojourn with Memo, a woman he desires, at the ocean’s edge beyond the limits of New York City. This location, situated between the natural world and the edge of urban temptation, gives Malamud the opportunity to show how Hobbs is riven by positive and negative impulses–light and darkness; clear water and pollution; a straight road and a winding trail–features of the geophysical world aligned with memory and desire.

BibliographyAlter, Isaka. “The Good Man’s Dilemma: The Natural, The Assistant, and American Materialism.” In Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud. Edited by Joel Salzberg. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Focuses on the social criticism in Malamud’s fiction and how in The Natural, Roy chooses materialism over love and morality.Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. A highly readable guide for students and nonacademic readers about what Malamud expresses and the means by which it is conveyed. Chapter 2 discusses mythic dimensions, themes, and symbolism in The Natural.Hershinow, Sheldon. Bernard Malamud. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Chapter 2 offers an analysis of The Natural as depicting the plight of the mythic hero in the modern world.Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. Boston: Twayne, 1966. Chapter 3 provides an excellent, detailed analysis of The Natural as a novel of ideas laced with moral ambiguity and pessimism.Wasserman, Earl R. “The Natural: Malamud’s World Ceres.” In Bernard Malamud. Edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Renders a comprehensive analysis of how Malamud weaves historical episodes into an epic.
Categories: Places