Study Guide

The Natural Setting

By Bernard Malamud

Setting

Postwar New York City, in and around the Baseball Field

There aren't specific dates mentioned in the novel, but we know that it was published in 1952, and certain things like the "four burner electric range, deed to a lot in Florida, twelve pairs of monogrammed blue shorts, movie camera and projector, [and] Chris-Craft motor boat" (5.7) that Roy wins on Roy Hobbs Day tell us that we're plunked into mid-century USA.

The bulk of the novel takes place in New York City, home of the Knights and Roy Hobbs. We know that Roy came from somewhere else, but we don't know where except that is was pretty remote. After a one-night deadly visit to Chicago, Roy disappears for fifteen years and re-emerges in The Big Apple. We get a quick glimpse of Chicago from Roy's hotel window:

He stared down at the lit sprawl of Chicago, standing higher than he had ever been in his life except for a night or two on the mountain. (1.328)

Were guessing that the height Roy's thinking about refers more to how he's feeling about himself. Anyway, that's all we see of Chicago except for the inside of Harriet's hotel room.

On his first night in the New York City, Pop takes Roy to the hotel and this is what he sees from the cab window:

The sky over the Hudson was orange. Once Pop broke out of his reverie to point out Grant's Tomb. (2.133)

Pop's little interruption to describe the surroundings is typical of the way the novel deals with the setting. Every now and then the narrator will remember the team is in New York and throw in descriptions and landmarks, or mention a restaurant or "the Village," but there's not really a lot of description of the place. It can get pretty claustrophobic. The fact that Roy's in a city, when at the beginning of the novel we learn that the biggest town he's been to is Boise, Idaho, shows us how far removed this setting is from his origins. Even though most of the novel takes place in NYC, the place is still foreign to Roy.

Field of Dreams and Nightmares

This is a baseball novel, and so it's only natural that a whole lot of the action takes place on the field, in the dugout or locker room, or up in the Judge's box-seat tower. Roy's at home in the field. Malamud describes it in pastoral terms. At the end of the novel the baseball field, that beautiful, green pasture so vivid in the American imagination, is converted into a graveyard of sorts:

When it was night he dragged the two halves of the bat into left field, and with his jackknife cut a long rectangular slash into the turf and dug out the earth. With his hands he deepened the grave in the dry earth and packed the sides tight. He then placed the broken bat in it. [. . .] And this was the way he buried it, wishing it would take root and become a tree. (11.1)

Left field becomes a cemetery, an appropriate image for the death of Roy's American dream. The difficulties and ultimate defeat he faces in trying to reach his dream are common in literature from the postwar period in America. It was a hopeful and prosperous time for many Americans after the devastating WWII. So it's even more poignant to read about those folks who didn't quite achieve the dream. (Check out Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman for another example of the mid-century American dream denied.)