Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662
Publishing ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ in 1954, Bernard Malamud was at the beginning of his career, and near the beginning of a brief and remarkable period in the history of Jewish-American writing. For perhaps a decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid- 1960s, the American literary imagination seemed to have been...
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Publishing ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ in 1954, Bernard Malamud was at the beginning of his career, and near the beginning of a brief and remarkable period in the history of Jewish-American writing. For perhaps a decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid- 1960s, the American literary imagination seemed to have been captured by a series of books by and about Jews. In 1953 Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March, a story of tragicomic misadventures set in Chicago’s Jewish immigrant milieu. In 1957 Malamud brought out his second novel, The Assistant, the tale of an impoverished Brooklyn grocer who becomes a kind of Jewish everyman. 1959 saw the literary debut of Philip Roth, whose Goodbye, Columbus was the account of a doomed love affair between two Jewish young people divided by social class.
Goodbye Columbus won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1960, as Bellow’s Augie March had done in 1954, and as Malamud’s collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, had in 1959. Equally distinguished Jewish-American writers— such as Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Chaim Potok—attracted attention on the literary scene during these years as well.
The novelists who made their reputations during this time didn’t always have Jewish concerns as the focus of their fiction. Still, for a decade or so, Malamud’s fiction seemed to be part of a movement of the American novel toward the lives and problems of Jews. Of course, Jewish-American fiction was not invented in the 1950s; novels by and about American Jews comprised a tradition of some significance and depth by the time Malamud began his career. In one important respect—in its theme of change and conflict between generations— Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is solidly embedded in the tradition of Jewish-American fiction.
The first important Jewish-American novel was Mary Antin’s The Promised Land of 1912. Born in Russian Poland, Antin immigrated to Boston as a child in 1894 and became a social worker in the immigrant neighborhoods of that city. The Promised Land is based on Antin’s own immigrant experience, contrasting the poverty and persecution of Jewish life in Eastern Europe with the freedom and economic opportunity available to immigrants in the United States.
The vision of America is not so happy, however, in The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan (1917). Cahan was a Russian immigrant who found success in America as an editor and journalist. (He edited the The Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish newspaper in which Leo Finkle reads Pinye Salzman’s ad.) Like his creator, David Levinsky encounters an America where opportunity is purchased at great sacrifice. As David rises in New York’s garment industry, his success costs him love and personal integrity. Most of all, David’s success results in his betrayal of those Jewish spiritual traditions that had sustained his ancestors in Russia. David ends the novel as a representative of an immigrant generation that has lost the integrity of its ancestors.
The theme of change and conflict among generations appears powerfully in Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel Bread Givers. Yezierska’s novel dramatizes the conflict between Sara Smolinsky, a lively young Jewish woman, and her dictatorial father, a Russian immigrant Rabbi. Rabbi Smolinsky has devoted his life to study of the Torah, and insists that his daughters work to support him as he continues his studies in America. Sara dreams of receiving a secular American education and becoming a teacher, but to do so she must defy the will of her father: ‘‘More and more I began to see that father, in his innocent craziness to hold up the Light of the Law to his children, was a tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia.’’ Sara eventually realizes her dream, becoming a teacher in the New York Public Schools, but only at the price of breaking off her relationship with her father. When the two reconcile at the end of the novel, it is because Sara has come to recognize that the drive and will that allowed her to finish her education came from her father.
As Leo Finkle and Pinye Salzman pursue each other through the pages of Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel,’’ the theme of generational conflict presents itself with rich ambivalence. It’s as clear from his profession—an arranger of marriages in the way traditional to nineteenth-century European Jewish communities—as it is from his Yiddish-inflected speech that Pinye Salzman is the story’s representative of an older generation of immigrant Jews. Leo Finkle, born in Cleveland and bearing a gentile given name, as clearly embodies a younger population— perhaps those second- or third-generation American Jews who came to maturity in the 1950s. What’s less clear, however, is with which of the two generations the story encourages us to empathize. Who has moral authority in the story, old Salzman or young Finkle?
It is tempting to read the story as favoring youth, especially in light of the emotional transformation that Leo Finkle undergoes. Leo enters the story as a cold and passionless young man. He requires a bride not because he is in love, but because he is about to be ordained as a rabbi and believes that he will find a congregation more readily if he is married. Leo praises Salzman’s profession with chilly formalism; the matchmaker, he says, makes ‘‘practical the necessary without hindering joy.’’ After his date with Lily Hirschorn, Leo comes to recognize and deplore his own passionlessness. Prompted by the matchmaker, Lily had expected Finkle to be a man of great human and spiritual fervor. Leo disappoints her, of course, and sees ‘‘himself for the first time as he truly was— unloved and loveless.’’
In the aftermath of this revelation, Leo appears to change. He tells the matchmaker, ‘‘I now admit the necessity of premarital love. That is, I want to be in love with the one I marry.’’ Salzman’s reply to this declaration seems to identify the matchmaker with the older generation: ‘‘‘Love?’ said Salzman, astounded. After a moment he remarked, ‘For us, our love is our life, not for the ladies. In the ghetto they—.’’’ (Finkle interrupts here with more about his new resolve to find love on his own.) In his fragmentary response Salzman seems to say that for the older generation—those who had lived in the Jewish ghettoes of Europe—romantic love was a frivolous luxury. Survival was what mattered (‘‘our life’’), not ‘‘the ladies.’’ With that remark, Salzman appears to inhabit a past whose dangers are no longer real to any but himself.
Finkle’s transformation is complete when he falls in love with the photograph of Salzman’s daughter, Stella, left accidentally among pictures of the matchmaker’s other clients. Loving this fallen woman, and loving her only on the basis of her photograph, is just the passionate leap of faith of which Leo has been previously incapable. His eyes now ‘‘weighted with wisdom,’’ Leo has learned at last the redemptive nature of passion.
Old Salzman, however, is more inflexibly than ever rooted in tradition. He considers his daughter dead because of her mysterious sin, and even Finkle’s newfound passion for her can’t restore Stella to the living in her father’s eyes. In the story’s mysterious final section, Finkle rushes to Stella with a bouquet of flowers while: ‘‘Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.’’
If we interpret Salzman’s Kaddish—the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead—as being for his daughter, then as representative of the older generation Salzman is so committed to tradition that he sees only death where life had just begun. Consequently, Finkle’s transformed character would suggest that, unlike their ancestors, the younger generation is open to passion, to change, and to new beginnings exempt from the influence of tradition.
One problem with this interpretation is that the story more than once suggests that Finkle’s sudden passion for Stella might not have been an accident, that it might have been planned by the wily Salzman. Finkle suspects that the old man is capable of intrigue. As he walks with Lily Hirschorn, Finkle senses Salzman ‘‘to be somewhere around, hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street, flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror. . . .’’ Just before the story’s conclusion, when Salzman has finally agreed to let Finkle meet Stella, Leo is suddenly ‘‘afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way.’’ If Leo’s meeting with Stella is part of the matchmaker’s plan, then we would have to attribute to him, and to the older generation he represents, a knowledge of human frailty and passion superior to that of the formalistic rabbinical student.
What, then, do we make of the Salzman’s saying Kaddish at the story’s conclusion? If his plan has been all along to educate Leo in the necessity of passion, then it would be inconsistent with that plan for Salzman to mourn just when he has succeeded in bringing the lovers together. Critic Theodore C. Miller has suggested a persuasive way out of this dilemma: ‘‘. . . if Salzman has planned the whole episode, then the matchmaker through his Kaddish 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.’’ Viewed in this way, the matchmaker’s prayer of mourning celebrates the success of his plan for Leo and Stella, the ‘‘Yiddishekinder’’ (Jewish children).
Because Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is a work of art and not a sociological study of intergenerational relations, it must remain a matter of interpretation whether the story privileges the older or younger generation. Because its central interpretive question involves this judgment between two generations, however, ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is a story solidly grounded in the tradition of Jewish-American fiction.
Source: Benjamin Goluboff, ‘‘Overview of ‘The Magic Barrel,’’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1883
The impact of ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is, inexplicable— certainly as inexplicable, and for much the same reasons, as The Assistant. The story of the love and maturation of a young rabbinical student, it conspires like the author’s second novel in a boundary world which pulsates now with the bright energy of a fairy tale, now with something of the somber tones of a depression tract. Both qualities are immediately apparent in the opening: ‘‘Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University.’’
The key to Leo Finkle’s rebirth, however, lies not alone in the protagonist, a poor and lonely student hurrying after six years of study toward his June ordination. A Frankie Alpine in a black fedora, Leo unites myth and anti-myth in his own person. Passionately interested in Jewish law since childhood, Leo is nonetheless Godless. Bound in his deceit, he throbs through the torment that washes over Malamud’s love-hungry and God-hungry young Jews. Like Fidelman on Giotto, Finkle knows the word but not the spirit; and he makes it clear in every gesture that in a secret part of his heart he knows it.
But Leo Finkle’s heart is too secretive, and his salvation depends upon another who can test all there is of humanity in the student. The ‘‘other’’ does not arrive, however, until the last page; in her place there comes a marriage broker whom Leo has summoned when he learns that a wife will help him win a congregation. But from the moment Pinye Salzman materializes, the student is on the way. For, reeking of fish and business, the broker seems only another Susskind. Half criminal, half messenger of God, Salzman whips from his battered portfolio a select group of feminine portraits, for ‘‘is every girl good for a new rabbi?’’
As Pinye exalts his merchandise, however, Leo persists in positing reservations; and they are not alone a matter of distrusting Salzman’s grossness (indeed, he seems too gross to be believed). When Pinye plays his trump card: ‘‘Ruth K., Nineteen years, Honor student. Father offers thirteen thousand cash to the right bridegroom,’’ Leo, sick of the whole business, gives himself away: ‘‘But don’t you think this young girl believes in love?’’
Dismissing Pinye, Leo slides into misery; but the misery is only the signal of breaking ice. Trying to analyze his reactions, he wonders if perhaps ‘‘he did not, in essence, care for the matchmaking institution?’’ From this thought, slightly heretical, he flees throughout the day; and it is only at nightfall, when he draws out his books, that he finds any peace. But Pinye, like a haggard ghost—and he grows more desperate-looking with each meeting— is soon at the door, his presence thrusting Leo out of his books and threadbare composure. Bearing the vitae of Lily Hirschorn, high-school teacher and linguist, young (twenty-nine instead of the thirtytwo of the night before), Pinye dispels Leo’s lack of interest with a mournful imprecation: ‘‘Yiddishe kinder, what can I say to somebody that he is not interested in high school teachers?’’
Despite the retiring young scholar’s hesitancy, a meeting is arranged; and one Saturday afternoon he strides along Riverside Drive with Lily Hirschorn, oldish but pretty, hanging to his arm. From the beginning, however, Leo senses the presence of Pinye, somewhere in the background, perhaps ‘‘flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties.’’
But if Pinye is directing the proceedings, he is after more than a quick profit; for about the walk there is strong suggestion of ritual indoctrination, a testing by question and answer that suddenly exposes Leo. Lily, having been primed by Salzman into the belief that Leo Finkle is the true anointed of God (or is Lily another Iris?) addresses herself as if to a holy image: ‘‘How was it that you came to your calling?’’ When Leo, after some trepidation, replies, ‘‘I was always interested in the Law,’’ Lily’s questions soar: ‘‘When did you become enamored of God?’’ In mingled rage at Pinye and himself, Leo finds himself speaking with shattering honesty: ‘‘I am not a talented religious person. I think that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.’’
After the smoke-screen of hatred for Pinye dissipates, there is a long week of ‘‘unaccountable despair’’ in which Leo’s beard grows ragged and his books meaningless. Feeding on his confession to Lily, which had revealed ‘‘to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God,’’ Leo bounds to further revelations. He realized that, ‘‘apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone.’’ Then, with a quick jolt, the two ragged ends of his lovelessness fuse: ‘‘Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.’’
Made desperate by the unexpected image of himself, Leo contemplates leaving Yeshivah. ‘‘He had lived without knowledge of himself, and never in the Five Books and all the Commentaries—mea culpa—had the truth been revealed to him.’’ The knowledge sends Leo scurrying into near hysteria, a state disagreeable and pleasurable at the same time, and then into a long swoon, a kind of moral waystation from which he ‘‘drew the consolation that he was a Jew and that a Jew suffered.’’ The revelation, needless to say, represents a turning; and when Salzman returns—at precisely this moment—he must listen to a new Leo: ‘‘I want to be in love with the one I marry. I find it necessary to establish the level of my need and fulfill it.’’ Discharged, Salzman disappears ‘‘as if on the wings of the wind’’; but he leaves behind a manila packet.
The pattern of pursuit which dominates the first half of ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ parallels also the early sections of ‘‘The Last Mohican’’; moreover, like Fidelman’s in the Italian story, Leo Finkle’s redemption involves the reversal of the pattern, the quest of the once despised. Coincident with the arrival of March and the turning toward spring, Finkle remains closeted in his room, gloomy over the frustrations of his hopes for a better life; and so, finally, he is drawn to open the manila packet which had all the while been gathering dust. Within he finds more photographs, but all seem versions of Lily Hirschorn. But, as the scholar puts them back, he discovers another snapshot, small and cheap, which without preliminaries evokes a shout of love. Staring back at him is a composite of every heroine Malamud has yet written about, from Iris Lemon and Harriet Bird through Pauline Gilley and Helen Bober. In shreds of images, some mythic, some terrifyingly real, the face closes, like fate itself, over Leo’s heart:
spring flowers, yet age—a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted; this came from the eyes, which were hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange. He had a vivid impression that he had met her before, but try as he might he could not place her although he could almost recall her name, as if he had read it in her own handwriting. . . . something about her moved him she leaped forth to his heart—had lived, or wanted to—more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived—had somehow deeply suffered. Her he desired he experienced fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil.
Dashing into the streets, Leo rushes off in pursuit of Pinye Salzman, only to discover from his wife (and ‘‘He could have sworn he had seen her, too, before but knew it was an illusion’’), that the matchmaker was nowhere about, that he ‘‘lived in the air.’’ ‘‘Go home,’’ she suggests, ‘‘he will find you.’’ When the student returns to his flat, Salzman, standing at the door, asks, ‘‘You found somebody you like?’’ Without hesitation, Finkle extends the snapshot. But for his eager love the student must submit to the final horror. With a groan, Pinye tells him ‘‘this is not a bride for a rabbi. She is a wild one—wild, without shame.’’ When Finkle presses Salzman for a clearer answer, the old man dissolves in tears: ‘‘This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell.’’
Under the covers of his bed, a makeshift chapel perilous, Leo, beating his breast, undergoes the climactic test. ‘‘Through days of torment he endlessly struggled not to love her; fearing success he escaped it. He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. The idea alternately nauseated and exalted him.’’ Though brief, the ordeal finally draws Leo from bed with a long ‘‘pointed beard’’ and ‘‘eyes weighted with wisdom.’’ A mixture now of lover and father, he meets Salzman again (and the marriage broker seems unaccountably young) and, despite Salzman’s pleas to desist, a meeting is arranged.
The rendezvous, held on a spring night, is Malamud at his ambiguous best. With flowers in hand, Leo finds Stella standing in the age-old posture of the prostitute, under a lamp post smoking: ‘‘She waited uneasily and shyly. From afar he saw that her eyes—clearly her father’s—were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption. Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky. Leo ran forward with flowers outstretched.’’
This paragraph, however, is the penultimate one: as if the mixture of goddess and prostitute, the promise of hope through a future of willfully chosen agony, were not sufficiently confusing, Malamud allows the final paragraph to focus on Pinye, who, leaning upon a wall around the corner, ‘‘chanted prayers for the dead.’’ It is impossible to tell for whom Pinye chants—for himself and his guilt (for even Leo had finally suspected ‘‘that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way’’), for Finkle’s past or Finkle’s future, or for all these reasons. In some ways, the last alternative—that Salzman chants for everything—seems only proper; for if Leo has graduated into saint and rabbi, it is only by succumbing to the terrors which the role prescribes. What better reason to chant when to win means to lose?
But such confusions, as demonstrated in The Assistant, are the only possible vehicles for Malamud’s faith. If the ironies undercutting the story preserve it from a kind of mythic schmaltz, the myth preserves the story from the irony. The same strange tension is surely in the characters—in the infested goddesses, like Stella, who can only be redeemed by the hero as victim, and in those unstable ministers of God, now devils and now angels, the Pinye Salzmans and the Shimon Susskinds. In that inexplicable and indeterminate character, they signal, as Alfred Kazin has said, ‘‘the unforeseen possibilities of the human—when everything seems dead set against it.’’ One finishes ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ as one finishes The Assistant—not with the exaltation of witnessing miracles, but with the more durable satisfaction of witnessing possibilities.
Source: Sidney Richman, ‘‘The Stories,’’ in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1979, pp. 305–31.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
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 operates in the earthy sphere of gefilte fish, dingy tenements, and Broadway cafeterias. At this level, and at least in this one instance of Leo and Stella, Salzman is a superb manager, whose art is based on his understanding of Leo’s character and situation. He gives Leo the chance to learn about himself by associating with people. The meeting with Lily Hirschorn brings Leo to the realization that ‘‘he had never loved anyone. . . . he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.’’ The supposedly accidental appearance of Stella’s picture from the magic briefcase leads to Leo’s eager pursuit of her and to Salzman’s evasions and assertions of his daughter’s wild life. ‘‘If you can love her, then you can love anybody,’’ Salzman tells Leo, apparently with scorn, but knowing this is exactly the challenge Leo wants. The image Salzman has presented of Stella contrasts sharply with Leo’s own life. She has dared, sinned, suffered. She is the prodigal daughter. Leo has gone from a sheltered home in Cleveland to six years of intensive study in a small room. ‘‘Put me in touch with her . . . Perhaps I can be of service,’’ Leo says to Salzman. He has learned that he will not reach God through books, that he needs to involve himself with mankind, and that he and Stella can assist each other.
Whether Stella is the fallen woman Salzman has suggested and Leo has visualized, is uncertain. She plays the part, standing by the lamp post smoking.
But she waits for Leo ‘‘uneasily and shyly . . . her eyes . . . filled with desperate innocence.’’ She is probably much less experienced than her father has indicated. That is of less importance than the revolution that Salzman has achieved in Leo’s heart. But what about the prayers for the dead, which Salzman is chanting at the end of the story? Does he do so because the meeting of Leo and Stella is a ‘‘disaster?’’ That hardly agrees with Leo’s own notion that Salzman has been managing Leo’s prospective marriage for some time. Is it [as Earl Rovit asks in his ‘‘Bernard Malamud and the Jewish Literary Tradition,’’ Critique 6, No. 2] simply the matchmaker’s ‘‘final dignified behavior,’’ his part in the concluding tableau? Is it [as Sidney Richman asks in his 1966 Bernard Malamud] ‘‘impossible to tell for whom Pinye chants?’’ To decide, we must consider the nature of the Kadish, the prayers for the dead. [According to Meyer Waxman in A Handbook of Judaism, 1947:]
[The Kadish] is not primarily a prayer for the dead. . . . It is not known definitely when the Kadish became the special prayers for mourners, and various reasons are advanced for this appropriation. The real reason seems to be that the Kingdom of God is so closely associated in the entire Talmudic and Rabbinic literature with the Messianic times when resurrection will take place, that a plea for its realization was considered indirectly a plea for the resurrection of the departed.
No one would appreciate this better than Leo Finkle, after six years’ study about to be ordained. If, as one may well suppose from the story, Leo knows where Salzman is and what he is doing— reciting the Kadish—then the matchmaker is playing his part to the end: he has specifically told Leo that he considers Stella dead; Leo and love are to effect her resurrection. The understanding and art of Salzman have brought about a prospect of happiness.
Source: Richard Reynolds, ‘‘‘The Magic Barrel’: Pinye Salzman’s Kadish,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 100–02.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
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 is well on his way to becoming a Dimmesdale redeemed.
But Malamud’s minister is ultimately quite different from Hawthorne’s. For Leo Finkle does not fall in love primarily for a reason—but rather he loves for no reason at all. Malamud—who echoes Pascal in several other stories too—is suggesting that ‘‘Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point’’—one must love even if all the evidence denies the emotion. Like Pascal, Malamud proposes that love is existential.
And if Salzman is Malamud’s spokesman in the story, then he only appears to be the comic stereotype of the Jewish marriage broker. Although he has decided that his own daughter should be the bride of the young rabbinical student, he does not really believe in the matchmaker’s ethic that love is the product of reason. Salzman is the sage who would initiate Leo Finkle into the existential nature of love—but that is a peculiarly difficult task since Finkle is the eminently rational young man committed to the life of reason. The student wants to marry for the solid cause that it will prove beneficial to his professional status. He has even turned to the rabbinate, not for love of God, but because he is interested in the Talmudic law—rules of reason. Therefore, in order to work his ends, Salzman must engage in a ruse—he initially enters into Finkle’s system of thought, offering him several young women who should prove highly attractive according to all the rules of logic. One has a father, a physician, ready to give a handsome dowry; another has a regular teaching license—the reasons derive from the middle-class Jewish ethic.
But Finkle’s rational world fails him, for despite all the logical good inherent in these young ladies, he cannot fall in love with them. Instead, he becomes filled only with existential despair as he realizes the emptiness of his life—and of his religious calling. Only after he has exploded Finkle’s system can Salzman make sure that Finkle sees Stella’s picture. But he must present her in a context so that it is absurd to marry her. And precisely because it is absurd, Finkle falls in love.
Several critics have accepted literally the description of Stella as a ‘‘carnal young lady’’ and a ‘‘girl of the streets.’’ And indeed within the text, she evokes ‘‘a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted’’; Finkle has that ‘‘impression of evil’’; and Salzman, himself, describes his daughter as ‘‘a wild one—wild, without shame.’’ But the accuracy of these characterizations is most ambiguous since they are all subject to double meanings. That Stella has been ‘‘used to the bone’’ may mean only that she has suffered. That she evokes ‘‘an impression . . . of evil’’ may be interpreted not in a sexual sense, but in Hawthorne’s sense that all men bear human guilt. And Salzman’s own statement may be part of his ruse to complete Finkle’s initiation—and bring him to the marriage altar with his daughter. Just as Salzman only pretends to be a comic marriage broker who offers young women for rational cause, he must also pretend that his daughter is a whore, a girl whom there is no reason to marry. Near the end of the story Finkle himself recognizes that Salzman has perhaps planned this outcome from their first encounter.
When Finkle finally encounters Stella, her purity is suggested by the whiteness of her dress and furthermore by the explicit statement that Finkle sees a look of ‘‘desperate innocence’’ in her eyes.
But more important, her innocence clarifies the puzzling ending when the reader is told that Salzman is chanting a prayer for the dead. In the orthodox Jewish ritual, a parent may in extreme cases enact the ritual of mourning for a child who has broken a primary taboo. If Stella is really a trollop, her father, considering her and the rabbinical student to be a most unfit couple, is rejecting them both through his prayer. But if Salzman has planned the whole episode, then the matchmaker through his kaddish 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. Salzman’s remark to Leo about Stella ‘‘if you can love her then you can love anybody’’ is ironically not a statement disparaging his daughter as a social outcast. Rather Salzman is suggesting that if Leo can love Stella, he has unlocked his heart to mankind and God. He will have learned that the barrel in which Salzman keeps his pictures is then indeed a magic barrel, for love is a magic that cannot be explained by the normal laws of logic.
Source: Theodore C. Miller, ‘‘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.