Roy Hobbs seems to come out of nowhere. He's from some unnamed rural town out west and hasn't been anywhere else except Boise and Portland. He's not the most sophisticated guy in the world. When he's on the train headed to try out for the Chicago Cubs, we learn that he doesn't know how to tip a waiter, order breakfast, or shave without gouging his face.
[…] he certainly hated to be left alone in a place like Chicago. Without Sam he'd feel shaky-kneed and unable to say or do simple things like ask for directions or know where to go once you had dropped a nickel into the subway. (1.35)
He definitely doesn't know how to talk to women and doesn't know danger when he sees it. When her first sees Harriet Bird on the train he's instantly attracted to her, but runs out of the dining car so she doesn't see how clueless he is about how to order breakfast. His naiveté seems obvious to everyone who meets him. People call him a rube, a haystack, a greenhorn, "alfalfa."
He's not in Chicago for more than a couple hours when he's shot. He didn't see it coming. He's just not made for the big city and its complexity. If we have any doubts that Malamud intended Roy to be a kind of mythic hero, think of this: when he's shot, it's with a silver bullet.
One interchange with Harriet says it all. She's free-associating to Roy about all the mythic images she has of him:
[looking at Roy] reviewing the inspiring sight (she said it was) of David jawboning the Goliath-Whammer, or was it Sir Percy lancing Sir Maldemer, or the first son (with a rock in his paw) ranged against the primitive papa?
Roy gulped. "My father? Well, maybe I did want to skull him sometimes."
[…] No that wasn't what she meant, Harriet said. Had he ever read Homer?
Try as he might, he could only think of four bases and not a book. His head spun at her allusions. He found her lingo strange with all the college stuff and hoped she would stop it because he wanted to talk about baseball. (1.238)
In the introduction to the 2003 printing of the book, writer Kevin Baker comments that Roy's bumbling naiveté is funny when Roy's young, but fifteen years later, it's tragic. When he arrives in New York at age 34, the city's still a bewildering place for Roy. He doesn't even notice that the Judge has cheated him out of part of his salary; Pop has to tell him. After his first day with the team,
When Pop came out in his street clothes […] he was startled to see Roy sitting there in the gloom, and asked what he was waiting for.
"No place to go," Roy said.
"Whyn't you get a room?"
"Ain't got what it takes." (2.122-125)
Pop has to loan Roy some money for a room because Roy wasn't savvy enough to ask for an advance on his pay. He could have been sitting there forever. Even after he becomes the team's star player and asks the Judge for a raise, he totally caves and walks out of the negotiations with the same crummy salary and a bill for a ruined uniform.
Even with women, Roy's still awkward and clueless. He can't recognize that Iris would be good for him. He can't see that Memo has no use for him unless he's rich. He never seems to learn how to manage in that cold and calculating world. He's a juicy target for the more worldly folks like Memo, Gus, and the Judge, who all take advantage of him.
On the baseball field, this naïve, clueless guy is in his element. The young kid on the train who doesn't know how to order breakfast turns into someone completely in control once he gets a bat in his hands. He strikes out the American League MVP who's been calling him a rube and a haystack; the backwoods boy turns into a boy wonder. In the confines of the baseball field, he's a genius. This is what he knows—it's really all he knows.
The shaky-kneed kid is confident and brash in the game of baseball, if not in the game of life. All his insecurity melts away. He tells Harriet,
"You have to have the right stuff to play good ball and I have it. I bet some day I'll break every record in the book for throwing and hitting." (1.245)
Even after years banging around the bush leagues, Roy's still confident when he finally gets to the majors. It's been a long road, but he's still got faith in his abilities.
"Try to protect your old age. It don't pay to waste what you earn."
To [Red's] surprise, Roy answered, "To hell with my old age. I will be in this game a long time."
Red rubbed his chin. "How are you so sure?"
"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."
Red's surprised to hear that kind of confidence from a rookie. But that's what motivates Roy. Despite his confidence, he's got that dark shadow of the past hanging over him and he's driven to make it this time.
Roy's pretty tight-lipped about his past; he sure doesn't want people to know about the incident with Harriet Bird, especially Max Mercy, the sportswriter who loves to dig up dirt about the players. All he'll say when questioned about where he's been is that he got sidetracked, he's been around. A conversation Roy has with Memo later in the novel is the source of almost all the information we have abut Roy's family background:
Memo was interested. "Weren't you brought up in an orphan's home, Roy?"
"I went there after grandma died."
"Didn't you ever live with your mother?'
"He was suddenly thoughtful. "Seven years."
"What was she like? Do you remember?"
"A whore. She spoiled my old man's life. He was a good guy but died young." (8.143-48)
From this delightful little snippet we find out that Roy had a troubled childhood, being passed between relatives and finally ending up in an orphanage. Later, he recalls a memory of his mother drowning the family cat, and how the cat fought and clawed her in an attempt to survive. That tells us something about how Roy sees his own attempt to survive his family. It also explains a lot about Roy and women. He tends to attract the bad ones: one shoots him, the other one rejects him because he's poor, and the third one is nice to him but he can't deal with it.
Eventually, Max Mercy gets to the bottom of things and publishes a photo of Roy lying on the ground after being shot by Harriet Bird. The mystery unravels at the same time that Roy's career ends in disgrace. Is Malamud trying to tell us something about the danger of secrets?
Today, Roy would have probably sold his story to People and he'd be seen as a hero for overcoming adversity.
Along with Roy's ambition for baseball glory comes a healthy appetite for money, even if he doesn't have any. He's always poor, and he's always sick of being poor, but even as the star of a winning team he can't seem to dig himself out of the hole.
Roy's ambition is what makes him want to be great. However, it's also what lets him fall into temptation in the end and lose everything. Check out this conversation with Memo:
In a cracked voice he said, "Just marry me."
[…] She came to him, her white hands clasped, her wet eyelids like sparkling flowers. "There's one thing you have to understand, Roy, and then maybe you won't want me. That is that I am afraid to be poor." (9.46-49)
After he hears this, Roy starts reassuring Memo that he's got big plans for investing and getting rich. She's not convinced (she knows he has zero experience with business or money). So she coyly brings up the possibility of fixing games:
"It's something about the playoff—I don't know."
"They want me to drop it?"
She didn't answer.
"No," he said out loud.
She shrugged. "I told them you wouldn't."
She was thin and haggard-looking. Her shoulders dropped, her hands were bloodless. To refuse her just about broke his heart. (9.88-93)
These two conversations tell us a lot about Roy and his greed. He's not like Memo. Roy's not afraid of being poor; he's always been poor. What he's greedy for is her. In the end, he doesn't agree to drop the game just for the money. He does it because he thinks that with the money she'll finally agree to be with him.
Why is Roy so determined to land Memo? One reason's kind of obvious: he's lusting after her like crazy. His accidental lovemaking episode with her made him desperate for more. Lust is what got him in trouble with Harriet Bird, too.
But the other reason's much sadder. We already know he's lacked motherly figures in his childhood; he hates his mom and lost his grandmother. He barely mentions them, but when he does it just seems so tragic. So here he is, a grown man, looking for someone to shower him with maternal love. He has fantasies of marrying Memo.
His heart ached the way he yearned for her (sometimes seeing her in a house they had ought, with a redheaded baby on her lap, and himself going fishing in a way that made it satisfying to fish, knowing that everything was all right behind him, and the home-cooked meal would be hot and plentiful, and the kid would carry the name of Roy Hobbs into generations his old man would never know. (8.77)
"Fantasy" is the operative word here, and Roy knows it.
It later struck him that the picture he had drawn of Memo sitting domestically home wasn't exactly the girl she was. The kind he had in mind, although it bothered him to admit it, was more like Iris seemed to be, only she didn't suit him. (8.78)
This doesn't stop him, though. The problem is, he's used to maternal figures letting him down; maybe that's why he chooses someone who seems to be incapable of loving him. Iris is the grownup woman in the novel, but Roy can't handle a relationship with a grownup. We all tend to repeat patterns in our family when we're choosing partners. Roy's no exception. In his case, he looks for people who make him suffer.
If that young Roy Hobbs from the train were to meet the old Roy who plays for the Knights, what do you think that encounter would look like? Would young Roy be thrilled that he made it to the big leagues? Disappointed in his future self? Disgusted by his choices? Thinking about the difference between the Roy we meet in the opening sentences and the Roy we close the book on can tell us a lot about this dynamic character. The way he changes will clue us in on what the novel's trying to tell us.
So let's start back in the old days on that train when Roy was just a fresh-faced kid full of hope. He's starting off on a journey, and he's very aware that things are going to be different from now on.
Yesterday he had come from somewhere, a place he knew was there, but today it had thinned away in space—how vast he could not have guessed—and he felt like he would never see it again. (1.134)
Roy's thinking about physical space, but we can understand this thought to be about Roy's whole life too. Roy used to know what his life was all about: who he was, where he came from, and what he was going to do. Now, though, the world is wide open to him; he might be a baseball star if he does well in his tryout. Even though that's exciting, it also scares him.
We see Roy's talent and his ambition in this first scene, too. In his showdown with the Whammer, we get into Roy's head just before he releases the third pitch.
Roy raised his leg. He smelled the Whammer's blood and wanted it, and through him the worm's he had with him, for the way he had insulted Sam. (1.218)
Roy's motivated by loyalty here, because he wants not just the Whammer's blood, but Max's too (that's the worm mentioned in the quote) as a way to get revenge for the way they treated his pal Sam. That's a far cry from the motivation that Roy feels towards the end of the novel, when he's willing to do something terrible just to win over Memo. This time he'll be totally letting down his mentor, Pops.
He's developed ambition as an adult, and as the novel goes on, Roy sees that this ambition's a curse; he's never satisfied. He thinks about his endless chase for Memo that's going nowhere.
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. (5.13)
Being alone by choice was better than being alone because the object of your desires didn't want you if you didn't have a pile of money.
The change in Roy's character, from young, hopeful, and confident to old and desperate is the arc of the whole novel. The "small-town boy makes good" story doesn't play out as we expect. He's supposed to come from nothing and end up rich and famous with the girl of his dreams, right?
Unfortunately, Roy's exposure to the big world of sex, fame, and money is something he just can't handle. His natural talent and promise as a ballplayer get buried by his personal failures, and he knows it. The terrible guilt he feels at the end of the novel are proof that he's ashamed of betraying his younger, innocent self. He's brought his failure on himself because of all his bad decisions and feels he hasn't learned a thing from all his struggles.
In fact, old Roy meets young Roy pretty often, mostly in dreams and nightmares. His encounter with Harriet caused flashbacks of the shooting, and when he's upset or anxious he tends to have bad dreams about it.
In the dark the bed was in motion, going round in wide, sweeping circles.[…] seeing himself again walking down the long, lonely corridor, carrying the bassoon case, the knock, the crazy Harriet […] with the shiny pistol, and him, cut down in the very flower of his youth, lying in a red pool of his own blood.
No, he cried, oh no, and lashed at his pillow, as he had a thousand times before. (2.196-196)
Roy also hears Sam's voice, warning him from the grave. Past and present is blurred at times in the story.
Malamud seems to be asking whether we can really escape the past. Roy came from nothing and ends up with nothing. He really wants to redeem himself but just can't seem to do the right thing. He's got a huge self-defeating streak, maybe because he never had anyone to teach him how to have healthy relationships or a decent self-image. So he's driven to do better but doesn't really have the tools to do that.
Maybe because of the lack of nurturing people in Roy's past, he's too easily influenced by the people around him who claim to have his best interests at heart but definitely don't. It's a cynical world. A cynical. world.