Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Malamud subtly builds his story toward the climax found in the final paragraphs. The fact that Harry Cohen’s mother is ill, yet living alone nearby, is mentioned in the first paragraph but allowed to remain in the background until the end of the story, when Harry attacks the bird the day after the death of his mother. Presumably Schwartz is at that point a symbol of the Jewish parent Harry has essentially ignored and allowed to die alone. By throwing the bird out the window, Harry is able to exorcise the guilt he may be feeling about his treatment of his mother.

Malamud uses dialogue to establish Schwartz’s Jewishness (“If you haven’t got matjes, I’ll take schmaltz”) and to make this talking bird seem perfectly human. The fact that Schwartz can read comic books, play dominoes, or coach Maurie on the violin seems quite plausible because of the bird’s conversational abilities. By the point in the story that Schwartz is being urged to take a bath, he seems simply to be one of the family, an elderly relative, and not a bird at all. His politeness (“Mr. Cohen, if you’ll pardon me”) only accentuates his human qualities. Conversely, Harry’s language, his profanity and his basic rudeness (“One false move and he’s out on his drumsticks”), underscores his own lack of humanity. There is no logical reason for his intense hatred of Schwartz, as there is no reason to call the bird names and swear at it the way he does. Schwartz, after all, brings much to Maurie’s life and asks only for a little food and warmth in return. It is through Harry’s anger and his begrudging attitude toward Schwartz that Malamud displays the real character of this Jewish salesperson, a man who has lost his heritage and ignored the cries for help of his own people.

In the final paragraphs of the story, the hints Malamud has been dropping fall into place. Edie Cohen realizes that although Schwartz told them he was fleeing from “Anti-Semeets,” his death was the result of an encounter with anti-Semites, the Cohen family itself. Edie and Maurie, the more sensitive members of this family, recognize and regret their failings; Harry Cohen presumably will never again recognize the lessons of his faith, whether they are delivered by humans or by birds with human souls.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud and the Critics. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

Nisly, L. Lamar. Impossible to Say: Representing Religious Mystery in Fiction by Malamud, Percy, Ozick, and O’Connor. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

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Sío-Castiñeira, Begoña. The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud: In Search of Jewish Post-immigrant Identity. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.