Study Guide

The Natural Ambition

By Bernard Malamud

Ambition

"I bet some day I'll break every record in the book for throwing and hitting." (1.245)

Roy's talking to Harriet here, and we can see how full of hope he is at the beginning of the novel. Roy doesn't know that Harriet's looking for the right athlete to murder—one who will be the best ever. If he hadn't run his mouth off with his ambitions he might have dodged her silver bullet.

"Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game." (1.257)

Still chatting with Harriet, Roy is being pushed to articulate his ambitions. She asks him over and over what he's trying to accomplish in life and Roy doesn't even understand what she means; to him it's all baseball all the time.

She said sweetly, "Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?"

"That's right."

She pulled the trigger (thrum of bullfiddle). (1.348-50)

Harriet isn't quite convinced that Roy's a worthy target for her killing spree, but by his confirming his ambition to become the greatest in the game, he convinces her to pull the trigger. She's obsessed with eliminating the best.

"It wasn't for nothing it took me fifteen years to get here. I came for more than the ride and I will leave my mark around here." (2.191)

This line hints at just how much suffering and hard work Roy's endured in the past 15 years. It also shows how his hunger for success is even more desperate that when was a young guy on the train. Now that he's struggled to crawl back into the game, he's all the more determined to reach his goals.

Roy grew restless. "I figure forty-five thousand is a fair price for my work. That's only ten grand more than Bump was getting—and you can subtract off the three thousand in my contract now." (4.40)

Ambition comes with a price tag. As Roy goes through the season he goes from wanting to play to wanting to get rich off of playing. Remember that he's being paid less than $4000 for the season, so the $45,000 he´s asking for is more than ten times his current salary. It's not all about the money, though. It's about being rich enough to satisfy Memo.

"Maybe I might break my back while I am at it," Roy spoke into the microphone at home plate before a hushed sellout crowd jampacked into Knights Field, "but I will do my best—the best I am able—to be the greatest there ever was in the game." (5.1)

On "Roy Hobbs Day," a day that is set aside to honor the Knights' MVP, Roy's asked to make a speech. He points out that he expects things to be hard ("I might break my back"), but he thinks that the hard work will pay off. He doesn't want to just be a good or even great player. He wants to be the greatest there ever was.

When he had made his speech and retired to the dugout, after a quick unbelieving glance at the mountain of gifts they were unpacking for him, the fans sat back in frozen silence, some quickly crossing their fingers, some spitting over their left shoulders, onto the steps so they wouldn't get anyone wet, almost all hoping he had not jinxed himself forever by saying what he had said. "The best there ever was in the game" might tempt the wrath of some mighty powerful ghosts. (5.6)

The fans instinctively cringe when they hear Roy's plans to be the greatest. Call it a jinx, call it hubris, but there's something that makes them uncomfortable with Roy's speech. They're a suspicious bunch, and as we learn later, they have a reason to be. Malamud may have been trying to make a statement here about the dangers of overreaching, but for some reason Shmoop doesn't find this passage convincing. We think that fans would actually cheer their brains out if their favorite player said something like this.

Sometimes he wished he had no ambitions—often wondered where they had come from in his life, because he remembered how satisfied he had been as a youngster, and that with the little he had had—a dog, a stick, an aloneness he loved (which did not bleed him like his later loneliness), and he wished he could have lived longer in his boyhood. (5.12)

Roy instinctively feels the pressure of his ambitions and thinks of simpler times. There's not a lot of joy for him in being driven; it's a burden.

The sweat oozed out of him. "I wanted everything." His voice boomed out of the silence.

[…] If I had started out fifteen years ago like I tried to, I'da been the king of them all by now."

"The king of what?"

"The best in the game," he said impatiently.

She sighed deeply. "You're so good now."

"I'da been better. I'da broke every record there is."

[…] "Couldn't you be satisfied with just breaking a few?"

Her pinpricking was beginning to annoy him. "Not if I could break most of them," he insisted.

But I don't understand why you should make so much of that. Are your values so—" (7.72-84)

We can really see here how single-minded Roy's ambition is. Iris is baffled by his exclusive focus on baseball as the only measure of success. Roy's inability to achieve his ambitious goals is tearing him apart.

He tried to think of ways of investing twenty-five thousand—maybe in a restaurant or tavern—to build it up to fifty, and then somehow to double that. (9.33)

Well, even if he can't be the best player ever to wield a baseball bat, Roy seems to be addicted to ambitious thinking. He doesn't think about having enough money to be happy but rather on doubling and quadrupling twenty-five thousand, which is a lot of money now and was worth even more back in the 1950s. Knowing Roy up until this point, the reader knows that he's completely incapable of making this kind of financial magic.

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