Study Guide

The Natural Fate and Free Will

By Bernard Malamud

Fate and Free Will

"After a while people no longer recognized him, except on the ball field, yet though the kidding died down, Pop was a marked man." (2.182)

Fisher's Flop, a mistake Pop made as a young man that cost his team the World Series, is an error that Pop can never shake off. Being a "marked man" means that he will never escape that terrible day, and also that other people know about it, as if "loser" is tattooed on his forehead. That history makes it hard for Pop to believe that he will ever be a winner.

[. . .H]e was tensed and sweating and groaned aloud why did it have to be me? what did I do to deserve it? seeing himself again walking down the long, lonely corridor, carrying the bassoon case, the knock, (less and more than human) with the shiny pistol, and him, cut down in the very flower of his youth, lying in a red pool of his own blood. (2.195)

That question "why did it have to be me? what did I do to deserve it?" drives Roy crazy, because it really isn't his fault that a psycho came after him. How could he have known that Harriet was a killer? That sort of randomness makes it easier for Roy to believe that it's his destiny to fail. The novel's all about his struggle to escape that destiny.

"I mistrust a bad ball hitter. [. . .] They sometimes make some harmful mistakes." (3.113-15)

Pop's assessment of Roy as a "natural" who swings at anything, even bad pitches, is sort of fateful in the context of the novel. When he says that sometimes bad ball hitters make harmful mistakes, we can guess that Roy is probably fated to make some harmful mistakes, like getting tangled up with Memo and taking the Judge's money to throw the game, for example.

It wasn't, he thought, that he was afraid to tell her what had happened to him that first time [. . .], but about the miserable years after that, when everything, everything he tried somehow went to pot as if that was its destiny in the first place, a thing he couldn't understand. (5.47)

Wow, talk about bleak! Roy is talking to Memo here, and we find out what his big problem is with people finding out about his being shot by Harriet. It isn't the shooting itself, but its consequences. It seems like Harriet somehow found a way to change Roy's destiny, so that after the shooting he couldn't make anything work out like he wanted it to.

"What I started to say," he went on, "is that although she is not really a bad person, yet she is unlucky and always has been and I think that there is some kind of whammy in her that carries her luck to other people." (5.123)

Pop seems to think that Memo (kind of like Harriet Bird) has some sort of magical power to change other people's luck. Pop calls it a "whammy," a spell, but he really just means some negativity that brings down the people around her.

He laughed harshly. "I sure met some honeys in my time. They burned me good."

"Why do you pick that type?"

"It's like they say—they picked me. It's the breaks." (7.105-07)

Roy and Iris are talking about his woman troubles, which he chalks up to bad luck. Iris hits the nail on the head, though, asking why he picks the kind that will get him into trouble. But Roy is unable to see his own role in making his life, and still believes that he is fated to suffer. Do you think some people are just magnets for bad-news people? Can you imagine some behaviors or traits that might make this happen?

"He was just unlucky," Pop said, "and there wasn't a thing anybody could do to take the whammy off of him and change his hard luck. You know, Roy, I been lately thinking that a whole lot of people are like him, and for one reason or the other their lives will go the same way all the time, without them getting what they want, no matter what. I for one." (10.22)

Another uplifting pep talk from Pop. We're sure this isn't exactly what Roy wants to hear, given that he's trying to turn things around in his career. Pop seems to think that some people are just destined to have bad luck, and there's nothing they can do about it. The worst part is, he thinks he's one of those people. So why does he keep coaching? He must think something might change for the better, right?

He threw—a bad ball—but the batter leaped at it.

He struck out with a roar. (10.153-54)

Remember way back when Pop said that bad ball hitters can make some harmful mistakes? Well, here we have it. Roy has the chance to save the game, and his own honor, by hitting a homer in the championship game. But his old problem, swinging at everything, comes back to bite him. If he had let it go it would have been a ball and he would have had another chance, but he's lost the game. We really can't blame Roy for wanting to go for it. He's tired of waiting.

He thought, I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again. (11.23)

It seems that Roy finally figured something out through his tragic defeat. He realizes that he was supposed to learn something from all of his suffering, and that since he didn't he just repeats the patterns of the past. Do you think he's talking about baseball or women?