When Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ first appeared in Partisan Review in 1954, it provided a colorful glimpse into the world of American Jews. Fours years later, after his second novel, The Assistant, had been enthusiastically received, Malamud reprinted ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ as the title story in a collection of his short fiction. The collection sold well, and was praised by reviewers for its honesty, irony, and acute perception of the moral dilemmas of American Jews. It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1959.
Between the publication of the collection in 1958 and his death in 1986, Bernard Malamud became one of America’s most respected writers of fiction, publishing six more novels and numerous collections of short fiction. Malamud’s writing has been the subject of critical debate for three decades. Writing in 1966, Sidney Richman examines the emotional sterility of the protagonist Leo Finkle. According to Richman, ‘‘. . . Finkle knows the word but not the spirit; and he makes it clear that in a secret part of his heart he knows it.’’
Theodore C. Miller, in 1972, compares ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, pointing out that both stories explore ‘‘the love of the minister and the whore.’’ Unlike Hawthorne’s minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, however, Malamud’s rabbinical student, Finkle, ‘‘comes to accept Stella for the reason that he accepts universal guilt.’’ Miller also contends that Salzman has arranged the love affair between Leo and Stella because he wishes ‘‘to initiate Leo Finkle into the existential nature of love.’’ When at the end of the story Salzman says Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, he is ‘‘commemorating the death of the old Leo who was incapable of love. But he is also celebrating Leo’s birth into a new life.’’
Both Richard Reynolds and Bates Hoffer offer interpretations of ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ based on specific Jewish religious traditions. Reynolds’s focus is on the role of Kaddish, maintaining that Salzman hopes that Leo will bring Stella, ‘‘the prodigal daughter,’’ back to a moral life. In that case, reciting the Kaddish is particularly appropriate given the ancient prayer’s emphasis on resurrection. Hoffer compares the five-part structure of the story to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, the sacred text of Judaism) and claims that Leo has broken a majority of the ten commandments.
Finally Carmen Cramer maintains that Leo’s story is a journey of emotional maturity. Rather, ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ chronicles the rabbinical student’s ‘‘Americanization,’’ his gradual assimilation into American culture. Cramer asserts that Finkle ‘‘possesses few of the typical American traits— decisiveness, emotionality, action-orientation—but he melts into the American pot by the end of Bernard Malamud’s polished piece of writing. . . .’’