Malamud's Unnatural The Natural

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Author: Ellen Pifer
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,725 words

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[(essay date fall 1988) In the following essay, Pifer discusses Malamud's use of artificial, highly stylized narrative devices in The Natural.]

In The Natural, a host of literary devices draws attention to the "unnatural" landscape, the deliberate design, of Malamud's first novel. Most discussions of the novel have focused not on these devices, however, but on the ancient lore of Arthurian romance, particularly the myths of the Grail Knight and the Fisher King. As critics have pointed out, the novel's ample allusions to the grail legend underline its mythic theme: a hero's quest, ordeal, and ultimate redemption.1 While the significance of this traditional material can hardly be overlooked, preoccupation with the novel's mythic elements has led critics to overlook some of the most telling, and original, effects of its narrative structure. A network of seemingly magical events, interlocking images, linguistic motifs, and self-conscious narrative devices distances the reader from the novel's setting and characters. Yet these stylized effects do not simply foster a sense of fantastic "nonreality" or "unreality," as is generally assumed.2 To the contrary, Malamud employs the devices of literary artifice to dramatize the inexorable conditions of human existence--calling attention to the operation of moral law in human character and fate.

In the famous "Custom-House" chapter of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne employs a simile drawn from nature to illustrate how a novelist may deliberately create unnatural effects in order to convey his unique "truth." Hawthorne's specific account of this fictional process has particular relevance for Malamud's methods. The writer's "imaginative faculty," says Hawthorne, operates like "moonlight in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet" that all objects in the room are "spiritualized by the unusual light," investing all with "strangeness and remoteness." Transformed by imagination, the "familiar room" becomes "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other" (38-39).

The landscape of The Natural, although the novel was published a century after Hawthorne's, constitutes just such a "neutral territory"--a realm existing "somewhere between" the world of fact and that of dream. Here "the Actual and the Imaginary" meet, as authorial imagination transforms the daylight world of midcentury America into the moonlit "territory" of art.3 The novel opens, appropriately enough, on a scene drenched in evocative moonlight. The protagonist, Roy Hobbs, sits at a train window gazing out at the "moon-hazed Western hills." As he observes the passing landscape, Roy suddenly sees a "bone-white farmhouse ... alone in untold miles of moonlight, and before it this white-faced, long-boned boy [who] whipped with train-whistle yowl a glowing ball to someone hidden under a dark oak."

That this "long-boned boy" and the "bone-white farmhouse" emanate from Roy's imagination and memory, rather than the external landscape, is both suggested and deliberately left ambiguous: "Roy shut his eyes to the sight because if it wasn't real it was a way he sometimes had of observing himself, just as in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420047444