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Early one morning, nineteen-year-old Roy Hobbs is riding a train to Chicago, where he is to try out for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Roy is young and naïve, having been plucked from the country by Sam Simpson, a baseball scout. Roy's incredible pitching arm amazed Sam.
Roy is nervous on the train. He is unsure how to behave, how much to tip the porter, and generally makes a fool of himself. He carries his special bat, Wonderboy, in a bassoon case wherever he goes. He locates Sam sleeping on a seat, but decides not to wake him. As Roy talks to the porter, the train comes to a stop. A beautiful girl, Harriet Bird, gets on the train, carrying a black hatbox. Roy is immediately taken with the girl, but he is too shy to make a real move yet.
Roy goes to breakfast, where he tries to strike up a conversation with the girl, to no avail. Meanwhile, Sam wakes up and heads for the bar. On a newspaper is a screaming headline about a dead Olympic athlete, killed just hours after a football star. Sam recognizes one of the men discussing the headline as Max Mercy, a famous sports journalist. The other man is known as the Whammer, the leading hitter in the American League. Sam boasts about Roy's skill to Mercy, who is relatively uninterested. Meanwhile, the Whammer is fairly successful in his attempts to hit on Harriet, which angers Roy.
The train makes a sudden stop, apparently for some sort of medical emergency. The men and Harriet get out and discover a carnival nearby. Roy shows off his prowess in a pitching game, while the Whammer impresses Harriet at the batting cage. Finally, Sam Simpson bets the Whammer that Roy can strike him out. Roy does so, in three pitches, rendering the Whammer into "an old man." The last strike hits Sam fairly hard in the stomach, causing internal bleeding that Sam does not yet feel or notice.
The train takes off again, with Harriet now hanging on Roy. She has a long conversation with him, asking about his plans. He tells her he wants to be the best in the game, to break all the records. She asks him, "is that all?" and he does not know how to respond. Roy makes a move on Harriet, and she does not resist. Roy, however, is quickly sidetracked, as Sam suddenly becomes very sick. Within a few hours, Sam is dead, and Roy is left on his own in Chicago. At the hotel, Harriet calls Roy to her room. As he enters, Wonderboy in hand, she draws a pistol on him. She asks him if he will be the best in the game, and when he says yes, she shoots him in the stomach.
The Natural is packed with mythological themes and imagery, which begin piling up almost immediately. Roy, riding on a train within a dark, womblike tunnel, is in the midst of his primordial birth as a hero—a person with amazing natural abilities and a chance to do great things for the world. Sam is Roy's guide, his father figure; perhaps more important, the Whammer is Roy's predecessor. In the novel, the star baseball players—the Whammer, Bump Baily, and Roy—are not simply good ballplayers; they are mythological heroes. More specifically, they are symbols of ancient vegetative myths involving fertility gods.
These vegetative myths, which are prominent in the mythologies of many early cultures, describe a cycle of birth and death based on the seasons. Birth occurs in spring, when plants come back to life and animals return from hibernation; summer is the height of this life, and then fall begins the process of dying. Winter, when the land is cold and dark and lifeless, represents death. Early cultures paid close attention to this cycle, and their myths were often based on the seasons. Thus, the gods (or more often goddesses, such as the earth-mother Gaia) were born in spring, then became old and perished by late fall, only to be reborn or replaced in the following spring. Malamud was familiar with these myths and their relationship to Arthurian legends, particularly the story of Perceval and the Fisher King. Several literary critics, such as Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance, have argued that vegetative myths serve as a basis for many mythological tales, even Arthurian ones. Malamud read Weston's book prior to writing The Natural. In this chapter, the Whammer is the "dying" hero. It is spring, and a new god must replace the Whammer. This hero- god is Roy, who not only strikes out the Whammer and renders him into an "old man," but also symbolically cuts himself free from his "father" by accidentally causing Sam's death.
Many other significant metaphors and themes arise in this first section of the novel. Harriet Bird's last name is significant; indeed, the entire novel is filled with bird imagery, which is common in all of Malamud's novels. For Roy, the word "bird" is synonymous with "woman" and perhaps even "whore," though he does not make this connection in the case of Harriet. Nonetheless, birds are often a foreshadowing of danger to Roy, but he never heeds this. He quickly falls for Harriet, the girl who seems interested in him only for his prowess and skill. Roy sees a pair of legs and breasts, a face that is "a little drawn and pale," and knows only that he wants her. He is completely out of his element when she tries to engage him in conversation, and it is here that Roy makes his greatest mistake. When Harriet asks him "Is that all?", Roy is undergoing the Hero's Test—the same test that Sir Percival fails when, in a slight reversal, he fails to ask the Fisher King the meaning of his Grail vision. Because Roy is unable to understand baseball and his role in the sport—beyond setting records and making money—he fails his test. Harriet tries to make Roy understand what she means, but she is unable; Roy, therefore, remains ignorant that his life could have any meaning beyond his own desires. He wants money, fame, and women, and to play baseball; but only this last one has any real relevance to his role as a "vegetative hero." If Roy simply played the game well and upheld the moral values required of a hero—and, more importantly, if he accepted suffering as a necessary aspect of life—then his success would be unmatched. However, mired as he is in his real-world dreams of ambition, wealth, and power, Roy has already set himself on a path to failure. Harriet is aware of this potential failure; by shooting Roy, she only hastens what she believes is inevitable. Some critics have said that Harriet and Memo are both examples of the "destructive seductress," but Harriet is not really so simple. Harriet displays aspects of both Memo and Iris Lemon; the implication is that, if Roy were able to answer Harriet's question properly, she would not shoot him. Even if Roy had simply answered "I don't know" when asked if he would be the best in the game, he might have had a chance. It is his arrogance and self-centeredness that causes his suffering—an idea that is common in Malamud's works.