Bernard Malamud Malamud, Bernard - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Bernard Malamud 1914-1986

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Malamud's works from 1975 through 1999. See also Bernard Malamud Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 27.

Malamud is considered one of the most prominent figures in Jewish-American literature. His stories and novels, in which reality and fantasy are frequently interlaced, have been called parables, myths, and allegories and often illustrate the importance of moral obligation. Although he draws upon his Jewish heritage to address the themes of sin, suffering, and redemption, Malamud emphasizes human contact and compassion over orthodox religious dogma. Malamud's characters, while often awkward and isolated from society, evoke both pity and humor through their attempts at survival and salvation.

Biographical Information

Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 26, 1914 to Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents, whom he described as gentle, honest, kindly people, were not highly educated and knew very little about literature or the arts. Malamud recalled, “There were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall.” Malamud attended high school in Brooklyn and received his bachelor's degree from the City College of New York in 1936. After graduation, he worked in a factory and as a clerk at the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. Although he wrote in his spare time, Malamud did not begin writing seriously until the advent of World War II and the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust. At that time, he questioned his religious identity and started reading about Jewish tradition and history. He explained, “I was concerned with what Jews stood for, with their getting down to the bare bones of things. I was concerned with their ethnicality—how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living.” In 1949 he began teaching at Oregon State University; he left this post in 1961 to teach creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont. He remained there until shortly before his death in 1986.

Major Works

Malamud's first novel, The Natural (1952), is one of his most symbolic works. While the novel ostensibly traces the life of Roy Hobbs, an American baseball player, the work has underlying mythic elements and explores such themes as initiation and isolation. For instance, some reviewers cite evidence of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail; others apply T. S. Eliot's Wasteland myth in their analyses. The Natural also anticipates what would become Malamud's predominant narrative focus: a suffering protagonist struggling to reconcile moral dilemmas, to act according to what is right, and to accept the complexities and hardships of existence. Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), portrays the life of Morris Bober, a Jewish immigrant who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he is struggling to survive financially, Bober hires a cynical anti-Semitic youth, Frank Alpine, after learning that the man is homeless and on the verge of starvation. Through this contact Frank learns to find grace and dignity in his own identity. Described as a naturalistic fable, this novel affirms the redemptive value of maintaining faith in the goodness of the human soul. Malamud's first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958), received the National Book Award in 1959. As in The Assistant, most of the stories in this collection depict the search for hope and meaning within the grim entrapment of poor urban settings and were influenced by Yiddish folktales and Hasidic traditions. Many of Malamud's best-known short stories, including “The Last Mohican,” “Angel Levine,” and “Idiots First,” were republished in The Stories of Bernard Malamud in 1983. A New Life (1961), one of Malamud's most realistic novels, is based in part on Malamud's teaching career at Oregon State University. This work focuses on an ex-alcoholic Jew from New York City who, in order to escape his reputation as a drunkard, becomes a professor at an agricultural and technical college in the Pacific Northwest. Interweaving the protagonist's quest for significance and self-respect with a satiric mockery of academia, Malamud explores the destructive nature of idealism, how love can lead to deception, and the pain of loneliness. The Fixer (1966), is considered one of Malamud's most powerful works. The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the National Book Award, the narrative is derived from the historical account of Mendel Beiliss, a Russian Jew who was accused of murdering a Christian child. Drawing upon Eastern European Jewish mysticism, The Fixer turns this terrifying story of torture and humiliation into a parable of human triumph. With The Tenants (1971), Malamud returned to a New York City setting, where the theme of self-exploration is developed through the contrast between two writers, one Jewish and the other black, struggling to survive in an urban ghetto. Within the context of their confrontations about artistic standards, Malamud also explored how race informs cultural identity, the purpose of literature, and the conflict between art and life. Malamud further addressed the nature of literature and the role of the artist in Dubin's Lives (1979). In this work the protagonist, William Dubin, attempts to create a sense of worth for himself, both as a man and as a writer. A biographer who escapes into his work to avoid the reality of his life, Dubin bumbles through comically disastrous attempts at love and passion in an effort to find self-fulfillment. Malamud's next novel, God's Grace (1982), differs from his earlier works in scope and presentation of subject matter. Set in the near future immediately after a nuclear disaster that leaves only one human being alive, God's Grace explores the darkness of human morality, the nature of God, and the vanity and destruction associated with contemporary life.

Critical Reception

Malamud's place as a major American novelist is secure by the accounts of most critics, though most place him with Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow as a Jewish-American novelist. Largely considered one of the foremost writers of moral fiction, Malamud is also considered a writer in the tradition of Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. Despite the preponderance of Jewish characters and subject matter in Malamud's works, critics argue that his stories extend far beyond Jewish literature.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Natural (novel) 1952

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 (novel and short stories) 1989

Bernard Malamud and Leslie and Joyce Field (interview date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malamud, Bernard, and Leslie Field and Joyce Field. “An Interview with Bernard Malamud.” In Conversations with Bernard Malamud, edited by Lawrence M. Lasher, pp. 35-46. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

[In the following interview, conducted through an exchange of letters in 1973 and originally published in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays in 1975, Malamud discusses specific aspects of his writing, divorced from any biographical influence.]

The following commentary and summary from an exchange of letters between Mr. Malamud and the interviewers from May 11, 1973 to August 2, 1973 reveal the nature and scope of...

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Jackson J. Benson (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benson, Jackson J. “An Introduction: Bernard Malamud and the Haunting of America.” In The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, edited by Richard Astro and Jackson J. Benson, pp. 13-41. Corvallis, Oreg.: Oregon State University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Benson argues that Malamud is a traditional American writer.]


Oregon in April is a big country of wet, green valleys and snow-laden mountains. As an event, this conference should have been a Western. The participants are all professionals, hired guns brought in from out of the East, Midwest, and California via United Airlines and Hertz, for the shootout at...

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Irving Malin (essay date fall 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. “Portrait of the Artist in Slapstick: Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman.Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing 24, no. 1 (fall 1980): 121-38.

[In the following essay, Malin suggests autobiographical elements in Pictures of Fidelman that allow Malamud to explore his role as an artist.]

Although many critics have written about Bernard Malamud as an American-Jewish author—I plead guilty to this kind of grouping—they have not seen that he is also concerned in his fiction with the relationship of art and life. In the recent Dubin's Lives we have, for example, the double meaning of “lives”; the...

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Iska Alter (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alter, Iska. “The Natural, The Assistant, and American Materialism.” In The Good Man's Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud, pp. 1-26. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1981.

[In the following essay, Alter examines the “democratic dilemma” in Malamud's fiction.]

In the explosion of Jewish-American fiction that has characterized this country's literary history since the Second World War, Bernard Malamud's work retains a certain singularity in both subject matter and form. Without the exuberant self-promotion of Norman Mailer, the black and bitter humor of Joseph Heller, the increasing self-absorption of Philip Roth, or, more...

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Iska Alter (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alter, Iska. “The Fixer, The Tenants, and the Historical Perspective.” In The Good Man Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud, pp. 154-73. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1981.

[In the following essay, Alter explores differences in Malamud's interpretation of historical significance in The Fixer, which Alter categorizes as a novel of “Jewish historicism,” and The Tenants, which he calls a “work of a disillusioned American idealist.”]

From the mythic transliteration of baseball history in The Natural to the adaptation of the Beiliss case that forms the basis of The Fixer to the angry eschatology of...

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Dorothy Seidman Bilik (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bilik, Dorothy Seidman. “Malamud's Secular Saints and Comic Jobs.” In Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish American Fiction, pp. 53-80. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Bilik explores the ways in which Malamud diverges from the conventions of the majority of post-Holocaust Jewish fiction.]

No contemporary American writer has written about immigrants and survivors more frequently or more imaginatively than has Bernard Malamud. His fictional world is peopled with Diasporans of all kinds but, unlike Cahan's assimilated Levinsky, Malamud's characters embody significant fragments of the...

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Chiara Briganti (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Briganti, Chiara. “Mirrors, Windows and Peeping Toms: Women as the Object of Voyeuristic Scrutiny in Bernard Malamud's A New Life and Dubin's Lives.1Studies in American Jewish Literature 3 (1983): 151-65.

[In the following essay, Briganti contends that women in Malamud's fiction generally exist only to provide the momentum or impetus for the male characters to reach self-knowledge.]

It is generally acknowledged that it is through the abandonment of egocentrism that the protagonists of Malamud's novels arrive at self-definition. Any attempt to escape reality is doomed to failure and solipsism, and the individual who conjures up his...

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Barbara Koenig Quart (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Quart, Barbara Koenig. “Women in Bernard Malamud's Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 3 (1983): 138-50.

[In the following essay, Quart discusses Malamud's technique of keeping his female characters at a distance—both physically and emotionally—from his male characters.]

Bernard Malamud's central characters are deeply isolated men. From Morris Bober and Frank Alpine incarcerated in the grocery in Malamud's early and best novel The Assistant, through S. Levin, eastern Jew confronting the West, and Yakov Bok among the gentiles, to the elderly Dubin in the snowy Vermont of Malamud's most recent novel, they suffer intensely and alone. You...

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Ellen Pifer (essay date fall 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pifer, Ellen. “Malamud's Unnatural The Natural.Studies in American Jewish Fiction 7, no. 2 (fall 1988): 138-52.

[In the following essay, Pifer discusses Malamud's use of artificial, highly stylized narrative devices in The Natural.]

In The Natural, a host of literary devices draws attention to the “unnatural” landscape, the deliberate design, of Malamud's first novel. Most discussions of the novel have focused not on these devices, however, but on the ancient lore of Arthurian romance, particularly the myths of the Grail Knight and the Fisher King. As critics have pointed out, the novel's ample allusions to the grail legend underline its...

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Arvindra Sant (essay date fall 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sant, Arvindra. “Surrealism and the Struggle for Identity in The Fixer.Studies in American Jewish Literature 7, no. 2 (fall 1988): 177-88.

[In the following essay, Sant explains the significance of Malamud's use of fantasy and the surreal in his protagonist's imprisonment and eventual physical and emotional freedom.]

“I thought that if I could make the fantasy world real, then I could make Yakov's world real.”

—Bernard Malamud in an interview

The alienated self, cut off from society and even from itself, is nowhere more powerfully portrayed than in Bernard Malamud's...

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James M. Mellard (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mellard, James M. “Academia and the Wasteland: Bernard Malamud's A New Life and His Views of the University.” In The American Writer and the University, edited by Ben Siegel, pp. 54-67. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Mellard argues that A New Life is both an academic novel and a pastoral.]

Bernard Malamud's A New Life (1961) has been labeled many things—a Western and a “travesty western,” a proletarian and a frontier novel.1 It may be read as any one of these types. Still, each reading has to be perceived through the frame provided by the book's most dominant generic...

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Irving H. Buchen (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Buchen, Irving H. “Malamud's Italian Progress: Art and Bisexuality.” Modern Language Studies 20, no. 2 (spring 1990): 64-78.

[In the following essay, Buchen explores the relationship in Pictures of Fidelman between life as an artist and the protagonist's final embrace of bisexuality.]

Every experience that is not converted into a voluptuous one is a failure.

—E. H. Cioran. Precis de Decomposition (1949)

Pictures of Fidelman begins in Rome, moves north to Milano, makes a temporary stop in Naples, and concludes in Venice. In the process Fidelman spiritually travels...

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Victoria Aarons (essay date spring 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aarons, Victoria. “‘In Defense of the Human’: Compassion and Redemption in Malamud's Short Fiction.” Studies in American Fiction 20, no. 1 (spring 1992): 57-73.

[In the following essay, Aarons explores elements of Jewish ethics of compassion in Malamud's short stories.]

“You bastard, don't you understand what it means human?” With this challenge, Malamud's desperate character Mendel, in “Idiots First,” demands from Ginzburg, the anthropomorphized figure of death, a commitment to compassion and pity.1 Mendel's defiance of death's merciless indifference reaffirms rachmones, the Yiddish term for compassion, a fundamental concern...

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Sharon Deykin Baris (essay date spring 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Baris, Sharon Deykin. “Intertextuality and Reader Responsibility: Living On in Malamud's ‘The Mourners.’” Studies in American Jewish Literature 11, no. 1 (spring 1992): 45-61.

[In the following essay, Baris discusses the ways in which “The Mourners” highlights collective responsibility in the plight of others.]

The purpose of the writer … is to keep civilization alive … My premise is that we will live on.


And to go write-on-living? If that were possible, would the writer have to be dead already, or be living on?


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Edward A. Abramson (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abramson, Edward A. “The Assistant.” In Bernard Malamud Revisited, pp. 25-42. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Abramson discusses major themes and motifs in The Assistant, particularly asceticism and imprisonment, and the contrast between Judaic ethics and American materialism.]


Although it is only Malamud's second novel, The Assistant moves far beyond The Natural in skillfulness and, unlike the earlier novel, contains a strong Jewish theme. Throughout the tale, he uses the image of the Jew and the ethics of Judaism as a standard of behavior. As we have...

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Edward A. Abramson (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abramson, Edward A. “The Tenants.” In Bernard Malamud Revisited, pp. 90-100. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Abramson addresses Malamud's treatment of the tension between Jews and African Americans in The Tenants.]


When Malamud was asked why he wrote The Tenants, he answered, “Jews and blacks, the period of the troubles in New York City, the teachers strike, the rise of black activism, the mix-up of cause and effect. I thought I'd say a word” (Stern, 61). As A New Life discussed aspects of McCarthyism and The Fixer focused on a particular period in the...

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Peter C. Brown (essay date spring 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Peter C. “Negative Capability and the Mystery of Hope in Malamud's ‘The First Seven Years.’” Religion and Literature 29, no. 1 (spring 1997): 63-94.

[In the following essay, Brown explores Malamud's “radical dissent from contemporary despair” in “The First Seven Years.”]

“Negative capability” is the capacity to register a faithful incongruity or vital mystery. John Keats, who first identified this quality of literary sensibility for us, associated it with a kind of incongruous verisimilitude or self-effacing willingness to let be. In this, he seems to have assumed that “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” are our native...

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Andrew Furman (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Furman, Andrew. “Did Malamud's Jewish Vision Wane?” Yiddish 10, no. 4 (1997): 34-46.

[In the following essay, Furman reviews the apparent disparities between Malamud's early and later fiction.]

There are few writers more accommodating to both teacher and student than Bernard Malamud. This is not to say that Malamud's work lacks moral complexity or stylistic sophistication, but merely that Malamud scholars discerned, early on in the writer's career, what the essential Malamud was all about and were able to package this insight for students in a few pithy, easily digestible sentences. Malamud was the writer who touted regenerative suffering, the writer for...

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John A. Lauricella (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lauricella, John A. “‘Only Connect’: The Tragicomic Romance of Roy Hobbs.” In Homes Games: Essays on Baseball Fiction, pp. 143-60. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Lauricella considers The Natural as a composite of novel and romance with a “failed hero.”]

The romance, which deals with heroes, is intermediate between the novel, which deals with men, and the myth, which deals with gods.

—Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

Since its publication almost fifty years ago, Bernard Malamud's first novel has been the object of...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bluestone, Stephen. “God as Matchmaker: A Reading of Malamud's ‘The Magic Barrel.’” Critique 41, no. 4 (22 June 2000): 40-8.

Provides a mythical, Miltonian, reading of “The Magic Barrel.”

Chard-Hutchinson, Martine. “The Functions of Humor in Bernard Malamud's Fiction.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 4, no. 2 (1991): 177-87.

Establishes a distinction between humor and irony in Malamud's fiction.

Ross, Michael L. “Brief Roman Candles: Wharton, Huxley, and Malamud.” In Storied Cities: Literary Imaginings of Florence, Venice, and Rome, pp. 265-82....

(The entire section is 271 words.)