The Magic Barrel Malamud, Bernard
"The Magic Barrel" Bernard Malamud
The following entry presents criticism on Malamud's short story "The Magic Barrel," which was first published in 1954 and later revised and included in The Magic Barrel (1958). See also Bernard Malamud Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 11, 18, 27.
The title story of Malamud's prizewinning first short story collection, "The Magic Barrel" is one of his most frequently discussed works of short fiction. Described by Sanford Pinsker as "quintessential Malamud—in form, content, and perhaps most of all, in moral vision," the story combines elements of realism and fantasy in an urban, Jewish setting and centers on the protagonist's struggle to break through the barriers of personal isolation. While Malamud's handling of such themes as love, community, redemption, and Jewish identity has been widely praised, he is also noted for his creative use of ambiguity. Consequently, "The Magic Barrel" has generated a wide array of interpretations.
Plot and Major Characters"The Magic Barrel" focuses on the interaction of two main characters: a young, unmarried rabbinical student named Leo Finkle and Pinye Salzman, a vulgar, yet colorful, marriage broker who smells distinctly of fish. At the story's outset, an acquaintance advises Finkle that it will be much easier for him to find a congregation after graduation if he is married. Having spent his life studying, Finkle has little experience in the area of romance and reluctantly decides to engage the services of Salzman. The marriage broker shows Finkle numerous pictures of potential brides from his "magic barrel" and comments on their qualities, particularly their ages, educational backgrounds, family connections, and the size of their dowries. Finkle, however, seems uninterested in Salzman's usual selling points and constructs flimsy excuses for rejecting many of the candidates. Salzman eventually convinces Finkle to meet a woman named Lily Hirschorn. During his traumatic encounter with Hirschorn, Finkle recognizes that his life has been emotionally empty and that he has lacked the passion to love either God or other humans. Finkle's discovery of a picture of Salzman's daughter, Stella, prompts him to act on his new self-knowledge. Distinctive from the women in the previous photographs, Stella appears to be someone who has lived and suffered deeply. Salzman refers to her as a fallen woman, stating that "she should burn in hell," and argues that the presence of her picture among the others was a mistake and that she is not the woman for Finkle. Finkle, however, remains strongly attracted to Stella and envisions an opportunity to "convert her to goodness, himself to God." The story's concluding tableau is highly ambiguous. It depicts Finkle running toward Stella, who is standing under a lamppost dressed in a white dress and red shoes, while Salzman stands next to a wall around the corner, chanting the kaddish, a prayer for the dead.
Like many of Malamud's short stories, "The Magic Barrel" is essentially a love story that incorporates themes of suffering and self-discovery. Finkle's search for a wife leads to his realization of his essentially dispassionate nature, and his love for Stella stems in part from his recognition of her suffering as a mark of having truly lived. The story also suggests the presence of the miraculous in everyday life. In the final tableau, for instance, violins and candles are said to be floating in the sky, and events in the story often suggest that Salzman possesses supernatural abilities. Such images and suggestions contrast with the story's surface of realistic detail and also further the theme of the rational versus the irrational. Finkle, for example, begins the story as a representative of reason but eventually falls in love with and seeks out Stella despite Salzman's logical arguments against such a match. Other events in the story focus on the theme of Jewish identity. Some critics argue that Finkle's relationship to Salzman strengthens his connections to the Jewish community, while others posit that his attraction to Stella signifies a break with Jewish values.
Critical reaction to "The Magic Barrel" has centered on the imagery of the story's concluding tableau and the ambiguity engendered by Salzman's prayers for the dead. As Lionel Trilling has remarked: "Much of the curious power and charm of 'The Magic Barrel' is surely to be accounted for by the extraordinary visual intensity of a single paragraph, the last but one, which describes the rendezvous of Leo Finkle and Stella Salzman." Nothing the story's ambiguity, critics argue that Salzman's prayers either signify Finkle's abandonment of the Jewish faith or celebrate the death of his old self and the beginning of his new life—one which will be enriched by the lessons that he has learned from Salzman. Commentators have addressed issues concerning the archetypal nature of the characters as well. Salzman, for example, has been linked to such mythical figures as Pan and the Trickster, while Stella has been described as a symbol of eroticism. Scholars have remarked favorably on Malamud's mixture of folk and realistic treatments of his subject matter and have proposed links between "The Magic Barrel" and the paintings of Marc Chagall. Commenting on the story's conclusion, Mark Goldman has remarked that the "last scene, like many of Malamud's sudden, summary endings, is a consciously ironic parable and not an escape from tragedy. All the complex meaning is fixed, flashed back upon the story itself in a kind of Joycean epiphany that runs counter to the neatly packaged endings of the naturalistic tale."
The Natural (novel) 1952
∗"The Magic Barrel" (short story) 1954; published in the journal Partisan Review
The Assistant (novel) 1957
The Magic Barrel (short stories) 1958
A New Life (novel) 1961
Idiots First (short stories) 1963
The Fixer (novel) 1966
Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (short stories) 1969
The Tenants (novel) 1971
Rembrandt's Hat (short stories) 1973
Dubin's Lives (novel) 1979
God's Grace (novel) 1982
The Stories of Bernard Malamud (short stories) 1983
The People, and Uncollected Short Stories (unfinished novel and short stories) 1989
∗The revised version of this story is contained in The Magic Barrel.
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SOURCE: "The Scope of Caricature," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 137-50.
[Bluefarb is an English-born educator and critic. In the following excerpt from an essay that originally appeared in English Journal, he comments on Salzman's cynicism.]
In "The Magic Barrel," the title story of [The Magic Barrel], the services of one Pinye Salzman, marriage broker, are enlisted by a young rabbinical student on the verge of ordination. A friend of the rabbi suggests that he will find it easier to acquire a congregation if he gets married. Knowing no likely candidates himself, Leo Finkle, the young rabbi, is forced to turn to the doubtful services of Pinye Salzman, whom he has discovered advertised in the back pages of the Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper.
The entire story is an almost stenographic record of the relationship that grows up between Leo and the marriage broker. Meanwhile, Salzman furnishes the rabbi with seemingly hundreds of likely—and unlikely—candidates: photographs, descriptions, specifications, glowing verbal pictures. But no matter how attractive they seem to be, either in personal qualities or in their ability to fit into the niche of a rebitzen, a rabbi's wife, upon further questioning on Leo's part, something invariably turns up to spoil the prospect:...
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SOURCE: "Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 151-70.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in Critique, Goldman interprets "The Magic Barrel" as a fantastical parable centering on Finkle's journey of self-discovery.]
[In several of his tales] Malamud deliberately avoids a realistic social setting for the comic parable or fantasy leading to the moment of self-recognition and reality. Thus, in two stories from The Magic Barrel, the title story and "Angel Levine," Malamud uses fantasy as a controlling frame for his mixture of the comic and the serious. The two symbolic characters, Salzman and Levine, matchmaker and Negro-Jewish angel, serve also as comic archetypes or subconscious doubles, those other-selves familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, and other masters of the modern psyche. This motif of the other- and anti-self is a key to Malamud's comic purpose and the theme of identity. Denial of self, for Malamud, is the demon of unreality, and his heroes suffer the temporary pain and defeat that leads to a comic peripety and recognition of the reality by which they must live. Malamud also creates comic complexity by using the quest motif, where his characters go on a journey in search of experience, romance, or in the words of his latest...
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SOURCE: "'The Magic Barrel': Bernard Malamud, 1914–," in his Prefaces to The Experience of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 170-74.
[An esteemed American critic and literary historian, Trilling was also an essayist, editor, and novelist. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1967 in his The Experience of Literature as a preface to "The Magic Barrel," Trilling analyzes the symbolic meaning of the rendezvous between Finkle and Stella in the story.]
Much of the curious power and charm of "The Magic Barrel" is surely to be accounted for by the extraordinary visual intensity of a single paragraph, the last but one, which describes the rendezvous of Leo Finkle and Stella Salzman. The glare of the street lamp under which Stella stands, her white dress and red shoes, and also the red dress and white shoes that Leo had expected her to wear (for this too is envisioned), the bouquet of violets and rosebuds that Leo carries as he runs toward her—these elements of light and color make a scene which is pictorial rather than (in the literal sense of the word) dramatic. Nothing is said by the lovers, the whole meaning of the moment lies in what is seen. Indeed, had a single word been uttered, the effect of the strange and touching tableau would have been much diminished. In their silence, the lovers exist only in the instant of their first sight of each other,...
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SOURCE: "The Minister and the Whore: An Examination of Bernard Malamud's 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 3, 1972, pp. 43-4.
[Miller is an educator. In the following essay, he discusses Malamud's focus on love in "The Magic Barrel."]
Although Bernard Malamud has colored his short story "The Magic Barrel" with the language and the manners of the Jewish ghetto, he also makes use of a cultural past that has a closer relationship to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Blaise Pascal than to Sholem Aleichem.
Malamud, of course, is using the same motif that Hawthorne mined in The Scarlet Letter—the love of the minister and the whore. Hawthorne's Dimmesdale, the man of God, was destroyed because he could not accept Hester and her emblem of sexual transgression. In Malamud's story too, Leo Finkle, the young rabbinical student, is at first repelled when he senses the sexual history of Stella, the matchmaker's daughter. Although he does not yet know specifically that she is a whore when he first sees her picture, his attraction is stifled, for "then as if an obscure fog had blown up in the mind he experienced fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil." But Finkle, unlike Dimmesdale, comes to accept Stella for the reason that he accepts universal guilt. When Malamud adds that "[Finkle] shuddered, saying softly, it is thus with us all," Finkle...
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SOURCE: "'The Magic Barrel': Pinye Salzman's Kadish," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 100-02.
[In the essay below, Reynolds comments on the meaning of the prayers for the dead that Salzman chants at the conclusion of "The Magic Barrel."]
Published analyses of Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" praise the "richly ambiguous" conclusion. The consensus is that to reduce the story to specific meaning is to do the author an injustice. Perhaps, however, an interpretation may be sustained that points to a consistent moral thread.
Pinye Salzman is, as Professor Bellman suggests [in "Women, Children and Idiots First: The Transformation Psychology of Bernard Malamud," Critique (1965)], "almost supernatural." The title of the story supports that. What exactly is a magic barrel? Apparently Malamud did not have a specific analogue in mind, but the concept is quite clear; it is a barrel which produces surprises, usually inexhaustible quantities or unique qualities, or both. Plainly Salzman's briefcase is the magic barrel, providing first an endless number of possible brides for Leo Finkle, and then yielding, as if from a mysterious compartment, the special girl, Stella. There is thus an irreducible element of magic in the story; the narrative combines sheer fantasy with the idea that love and marriage are divinely supervised.
But Salzman also...
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SOURCE: "The Magic in Malamud's Barrel," in Linguistics in Literature, Vol. 2, 1977, pp. 1-26.
[In the following excerpt, Hoffer stresses the need to seriously consider the religious overtones and allusions of "The Magic Barrel," identifying parallels between the first five books of the Old Testament and the structure of the story and arguing that Finkle is a "sinner" rather than a hero.]
No synopsis is a substitute for ["The Magic Barrel"]. One is given here in case you have not read the story for some time.
Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student, hears that he may have a chance at a better position if he is married. He approaches Salzman, a poverty-ridden matchmaker who smells of fish, who wears old clothes, and whose suggested brides are not shall we say big winners. After rejecting the few suggested by Salzman, Leo finds a picture in the file of a different girl and immediately falls in "love." The picture is of Salzman's daughter and the story does not make clear whether the picture is there by mistake (as Salzman says) or by design (as Leo suspects). It is clear that Salzman has indeed disowned his daughter who has gone completely bad. Leo demands to meet her, no matter what her background and condition. As the story closes, Leo is rushing toward her with a bouquet while she is standing under a streetlight dressed in red and white. The last paragraph then reads:
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SOURCE: "Dickens and 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 4, 1978, pp. 35-40.
[In the essay below, Ray discusses parallels between "The Magic Barrel" and Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations (1861).]
As Sheldon Grebstein has noted in "Bernard Malamud and the Jewish Movement" [in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1975], Malamud is "the heir to rich Jewish traditions, and worthy heir that he is, he remakes them his way and reinvigorates them." One of Malamud's methods of reinvigoration is the conversion of major texts from other literary traditions to the dimensions of his own Jewish-American fiction. That Malamud has learned from and modified such Yiddish authors as Sholom Aleichem and I. B. Singer is generally accepted. Critics of his work have also agreed that Malamud has learned as well from the traditions of American, British, and continental literature. And Malamud himself, in one of his infrequent interviews, has fed the fire of literary historical speculation by alluding to Shakespeare, Stendhal, and Kafka and remarking simply that "I am influenced by literature" ["An Interview with Bernard Malamud" in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1975].
A particularly striking instance of such influence and adaptation is provided by the relationship of one of Malamud's finest short stories, "The Magic...
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SOURCE: "Pinye Salzman, Pan, and 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 180-83.
[In the essay below, Storey notes parallels between Salzman and Pan, the half-goat, half-human god of Greek mythology.]
Pinye Salzman, the marriage broker in Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," presents a paradox to the reader. He is seen as both earthy and magical: at times "sucking...
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SOURCE: "The Americanization of Leo Finkle," in Cuyahoga Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 143-47.
[In the following essay, Cramer interprets "The Magic Barrel" as the story of Finkle's conversion from Jewish to American traditions.]
The old world tone of Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" belies the action of the story. In various terms, it is usually considered an initiation story which also presents mystical elements of Jewish culture, a typical "Jewish comedy." However, the action of the story actually follows the Americanization, not the maturation, of a young man. Leo Finkle, although from Cleveland and living in New York City, represents the "ancient and honorable … Jewish community." He possesses few of the typical American traits—decisiveness, emotionality, actionorientation—but he melts into the American pot by the end of Bernard Malamud's polished piece of writing, "The Magic Barrel."
Leo Finkle follows tradition well, that is, the tradition of the old world, at the beginning. As a rabbinical student, this young man understands adhering to law, to ritual, to custom; so, to pick a wife, Leo consults a marriage broker because "his own parents had been brought together by a matchmaker." Salzman, the marriage broker, is a man of "business" with a ritual, "'First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind promises.'" The ritual progresses toward "strict standards and...
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SOURCE: "Something Fishy in 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 93-8.
[An American educator and critic, May has written extensively on the history and theory of the short fiction genre. In the following essay, which focuses in part on the narrative form of "The Magic Barrel," he argues that Salzman and Stella represent archetypes of sexual desire and that the story concerns Finkle's acceptance of his sexuality.]
The title piece of Bernard Malamud's 1959 National Book Award winner, and his most famous story, has often been cited as typical of Malamud's basic narrative technique. However, since "The Magic Barrel" has been said to fluctuate uncertainly between realism and allegory and to combine the energy of a fairy tale with the tones of a depression tract, the story also illustrates a basic critical problem in the discrimination of narrative forms.
For example, Earl H. Rovit says [in "The Jewish Literary Tradition," in Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field's 1970 Bernard Malamud and the Critics] that although Malamud's manner is often that of the traditional teller of tales, his poetic and symbolic technique is quite contemporary. The dramatic action of "The Magic Barrel," says Rovit, leads the characters into conflict between the orthodox and the "new" values of Jewish behavior in modern America and fixes that conflict poetically...
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SOURCE: "The Playfulness of Bernard Malamud's 'The Magic Barrel'," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 87-101.
[In the following essay, Dessner discusses Malamud's self-conscious blending of fairy tale motifs and elements of realism in "The Magic Barrel" and the story's resultant ambiguity, irony, and playfulness.]
Although Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" has already been granted that intimation of immortality which derives from frequent reprinting in anthologies designed for college undergraduates and their mentors, criticism has yet to do the story the justice of explicating its ambiguities or attending to the ironic playfulness which is their ground. From the first, a symptom of critical unease, caused by the story's inconsistent allegiance to the conventions, or clichés, of literary genre, has been a concern for its apparent or potential sentimentality: "There is a sentimentality to these tales [in The Magic Barrel], as well as a condescending cuteness which mars them seriously … Except for their settings … they might have been published in one of the women's magazines, so sentimental, so treacle-laden are they. In short, they are emotional clichés" [Richard Shickel, "Decline of the Short Story," The Progressive (1958)].
This is the extreme position, but even his admirers have felt that Malamud was playing dangerously close to the edge...
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SOURCE: "Akedah and Community in 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 188-96.
[In the essay below, Adler interprets the interaction between Salzman and Finkle as a father-son relationship that culminates in Finkle's reintegration into the Jewish community.]
In the stories of Bernard Malamud, a father-and-son pairing typically exists, either symbolically, as in the case of "The Jewbird," in which the bird Schwartz is a symbolic father to the anti-Semitic Cohen, or literally, as in the case of Mendel and Isaac in "Idiots First." Although several critics have noticed the presence of father and son pairings in Malamud, identifying it as a "recurrent motif" and a "massive theme," the intricacies and ambivalences involved in the interaction between these fathers and sons have yet to be fully plumbed. This is especially true of "The Magic Barrel," perhaps Malamud's most celebrated short story and certainly, with its ending, one of his most perplexing.
Within this story, Finkle, the young rabbinical student, has become alienated from his community and also from himself in spite of (or perhaps because of) his rabbinical studies. His ostensible goal in "The Magic Barrel" is to find a wife so that his job search will go more easily. But as the story progresses, what becomes clear is that Finkle's real task involves reconnecting...
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Salzberg, Joel. Bernard Malamud: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, 211 p.
Annotated and chronological list of writings about Malamud from 1952 to 1983.
Astro, Richard, and Benson, Jackson J., eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977, 190 p.
Collection of essays containing a checklist to Malamud criticism. Several of the essays comment briefly on "The Magic Barrel."
Dessner, Lawrence. "Malamud's Revisions to 'The Magic Barrel.'" Critique XXX, No. 4 (Summer 1989): 252-60.
Documents and analyzes the revisions Malamud made to "The Magic Barrel" between its original publication in the Partisan Review in 1954 and its publication in the collection The Magic Barrel.
Richman, Sidney. "The Stories: VI 'The Last Mohican' and 'The Magic Barrel.'" In his Bernard Malamud, pp. 115-23. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.
Considers "The Magic Barrel" a story of Finkle's rebirth and notes the story's ambiguous, ironic, and mythic elements.
Solotaroff, Robert. "The Magic Barrel." In his Bernard...
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