Study Guide

The Natural Poverty

By Bernard Malamud

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[Sam] made for the club car. It was semi-officially out of bounds for coach travelers but Sam had told the passenger agent last night that he had a nephew riding on a sleeper, and the passenger agent had mentioned to the conductor not to bother him. (1.83)

Poverty usually creates some serious class divisions. Modes of transportation, with their different classes, are a great place to see how this works out in everyday life (remember Titanic?). Sam finds a way to get around the limitations, but he has to humiliate himself a little bit to do so.

"No place to go," Roy said.

"Whyn't you get a room?

"Ain't got what it takes." (2.123-25)

When Roy begins his job with the Knights, he has basically nothing. He had a few debts, so his bonus went straight to paying them off, and he must depend on the kindness of Pop to find a place to stay. Roy seems to take it for granted that he won't have money. It is what it is. Once he gets a little more savvy, he asks the Judge for a raise.

If she would go out with him he would give her a good time at the night clubs and musical shows. But to do that and buy her some decent presents a guy needed cash, and on the meager three thousand he got he had beans—barely enough to pay his hotel bill. (4.27)

Roy wants a girl like Memo, who's not a cheap date, and so his measly paycheck really bothers him. Notice that he feels almost like he needs to buy her affection, but he can barely even take care of himself on his salary. This passage hints at what's to come, the lengths Roy will go to in order to get that cash.

"'The love of money is the root of all evil,'" intoned the Judge.

"I do not love it, Judge. I have not been near enough to it to build up any affection to speak of." (4.44-45)

The Judge gives Roy some sort of cynical advice, given that he himself is a money-lover, but Roy counters with a great comeback. He explains that his whole life has been lived in poverty, and so he has never even had the chance to love money. Of course, Roy eventually develops a desperate wish for money. And the Judge is right—it leads him to evil stuff.

At the entrance to the Pot of Fire a beggar accosted them.

"Jesus," Max said, "can't I ever get rid of you?"

"Go to hell."

The beggar was hurt. "You'll get yours," he said. (4.125-31)

This scene shows how complicated the whole class division thing is. Roy doesn't have enough money to pay his bills, but he's got the right friends and he's a pro ball player, so he has some status in society. The beggar is poor and has no connections, so he's really out of luck. Who hasn't felt guilty walking past a homeless person on the way into a restaurant? Max. He's got nothing but contempt for the guy.

"I will bet I can guess by one buck either way how much you have got on you now," Gus said.

"You're on." Roy's voice was husky.

Gus covered his good eye and pretended he was a mind reader trying to fathom the number. His glass eye stared unblinking.

"Ten bucks," he announced. (4.238-41)

Poor Roy. If only Gus were right and he did have ten bucks. He's only got nine. The problem here is that Gus is playing his guessing game in front of Max and Memo. Roy's trying to impress them, so the nine dollars he's got on him are humiliating, especially when compared to the way Gus throws money around.

"Sure is some snack," Roy marveled. "You must've hocked your fur coat."

"Gus chipped in," Memo said absently.

He was immediately annoyed. "Is that ape coming up here?"

She looked hurt. "Don't call him dirty names. He is a fine, generous guy." (8.108-11)

Roy's poverty leads to some ugly envy when he sees what others are able to spend. He refers to Memo "hocking" her fur coat, which means taking it to a pawn shop and using it as collateral on a loan. The fact that she didn't make any sacrifice, but rather that Gus was the one who paid the bill, really bugs Roy. He could never afford such a feast.

But supposing he could collect around twenty-five G's—could that amount, to begin with, satisfy a girl like Memo if she married him? (9.33)

Roy's laid up in the hospital, facing the possibility of never being able to play baseball again. He thought he was poor when he was playing, but if he can't even pick up the bat next season he'll really know what poverty means. And that poverty looks even bleaker when he thinks about Memo's requirements for a relationship, which are pretty steep. Lying in bed, Roy has time to think about ways to get that money. That line of thinking isn't leading anywhere good.

"There is one thing you have to understand, Roy, and then maybe you won't want me. That is that I am afraid to be poor." (9.49)

At least she tells it like it is. Memo knows that her greed is unattractive, and recognizes that Roy might not like her anymore if she tells him about it. But her greed, just like Roy's ambition, is based on fear. Give the girl credit for being honest about what it will take for Roy to get her into a relationship.

He had to be married and have the dough, both before next spring—in case he never did get to play. He thought of other means to earn some money fast—selling the story of his life to the papers, barnstorming a bit this fall and winter, not too strenuously. But neither of these things added up to much—not twenty-five grand. (9.73)

Lying in the hospital, Roy realizes his time is up in baseball, which really makes obsess about ways to get money to marry Memo. His get-rich-quick plans, like selling out to the tabloids or "barnstorming," which means appearing all around the countryside, making speeches or doing demonstrations, are probably really not all that lucrative. He seems to be trapped and will eventually resort to desperate measures.

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