Study Guide

The Natural Birds

By Bernard Malamud

Birds

Everyone likes birds. They're cute, they can fly, they sing real pretty, they help you get ready for the Prince's ball. What's not to love? Well, in The Natural, just about everything. Maybe Malamud had some bad experiences with pigeons growing up in Brooklyn, we don't know. But birds are always bad news in this book.

Exhibit A: Death Itself in the person of Harriet Bird. She's a serial killer who preys on great athletes. She is obsessed with destroying talent and promise.

Human or animal, birds are usually very bad luck.

[…] Flores secretly touched his genitals whenever a bird flew over his head. (3.84)

Roy was rounding first when the ball plummeted like a dead bird into center field. (3.98)

One reporter wrote, "He can catch everything in creation," and Roy just about proved it. It happened that a woman who lived on the sixth floor in an apartment house overlooking the stadium was cleaning out her bird cage, […] when her canary flew out of the window and darted down across the field. Roy, who was waiting for the last out, saw something coming at him […] and leaping high, bagged it in his glove.

He got rid of the bloody mess in the clubhouse can. (3.117-3.118)

Yuck. It gets yuckier:

The hamburgers looked like six dead birds. He took up the first one and gobbled it down. It was warm but dry. No more dead birds, he thought… not without ketchup. (8.212)

Shmoop is trying to imagine a scenario in which hamburgers look like dead birds. We can't. Regardless, you get the idea. Birds are bad. But why? Here's our take on it.

Birds represent freedom, soaring, no limits, like "free as a bird." But the birds in the novel are either dead or dealing death. They're going nowhere. The poor little canary that finally escapes the cage and flies out the window doesn't fly over the rainbow—he gets crushed in Roy's glove. This is what happens to our deluded hero. He wants to fly but gets crushed by life and by his own overreaching. He's the opposite of free. We know that birds are small and fragile, so they're a great symbol of how easily hope can be destroyed and how hard it is to really break free of our pasts and ourselves.

Then again, maybe Malamud just didn't like birds.