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"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, ...

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"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.

Major Themes

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 Reception

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."

Principal Works

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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.

Sam Bluefarb (essay date May 1964)

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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: one candidate is five years older than the twenty-seven-year-old seminary graduate; another, though young, intelligent, even beautiful, turns out to be "a little lame on her right foot [as Pinye puts it] … but nobody notices on account she is so brilliant and also so beautiful." Another candidate, who almost turns out to be, perhaps, the most likely—she is only a mere two years older than Leo—has, herself, been completely ensnared by the broker's rapturous, though totally false, picture of the rabbi: Salzman has pictured Leo as a zealous servant of God, a prophet, even a saint. Needless to say, he is anything but. Could the small photograph that one day slips from Salzman's briefcase be another candidate? Leo is interested. But Salzman does his best to discourage him. The picture turns out to be that of Salzman's own daughter ("my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell!") who, so Salzman tells Leo, is "not a bride for a rabbi." But Leo insists, and Salzman finally, reluctantly, brings them together. What turns into a promise for Leo, becomes disaster for Salzman, who, at the moment of the meeting of the two, stands at a street corner not far from the trysting place, chanting prayers for the dead. Again, the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. Like Kessler [from Malamud's short story "The Mourners"], the marriage broker has his own "dead" to remember.

Pinye Salzman, dealer in abortive dreams, has not been able to anticipate such an outcome in his own most ardent dreams. The truth of course is that Pinye as marriage broker, though he deals in dreams—other people's dreams—is altogether too much a cynic, too calloused a character to believe in such dreams himself. In this sense Pinye is both cynic and innocent. That there can be love, Pinye acknowledges, even prates about—with his lips. But it is all he can do to keep from bursting into laughter when Leo talks of love. Of a relationship that goes any deeper than a marriage broker's briefcase, Salzman can have no comprehension, or even sympathy for. The irony of course is that the cynical, calloused marriage broker who deals in dreams isn't able to surmount, or rise above, his own level as a dealer, or better, a trafficker, in dreams. He may talk about the dream of love, the dream of marriage—the sales pitch, as it were, of his cynical view of life—but his course is that he can never really believe in them himself, can never believe in his own products, or believe that these mean any more to others than they mean to himself. And when his own profligate daughter—through an act of God? (there is always the suggestion of this possibility in Malamud's stories)—is drawn to a rabbi, involved in Pinye's own make-believe construct that turns into the real thing, the marriage broker can only begin at last to believe, or perhaps accept, the possibility that marriages may as often be made in hell as in heaven—even a marriage broker's briefcase "heaven." The salesman here, against his will, has been sold his own bill of goods. But with something more than the usual twist.

From Marriage Broker filled with the optimistic myth of hope, love and fulfillment as a sales pitch, Pinye Salzman becomes a creature of his own dark illumination. From Cynical Trader in Dreams, he has himself become the cracked vessel of his own broken dreams.

Mark Goldman (essay date Winter 1964–65)

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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 title [his novel A New Life], a new life. This is, of course, a classic mode in serious or tragic literature, from Oedipus to Heart of Darkness, where the spiritual or physical journey begins in innocence and ends in experience or tragic self-knowledge. The comic vision can employ the same device, where the modern anti-hero also moves from blind well-being to self-revelation and reality.

In "The Magic Barrel," Leo Finkle, a young rabbinical student about to be ordained, seeks a wife through the traditional office of a matchmaker. But the matchmaker, Pinye Salzman ("commercial cupid"), is in comic contrast to the proudly shy student. He is full of earthy humor and good sense, smells of smoked fish, has his office "in his socks," and brings the salesman's spirit to the serious question of matrimony. Salzman's hilarious description of his clients reflects Malamud's wonderful use of Yiddish speech rhythms, which he adapts for his own colloquial style.

"In what else will you be interested," Salzman went on, "if you not interested in this fine girl that she speaks four languages and has personally in the bank ten thousand dollars? Also her father guarantees further twelve thousand. Also she has a new car, wonderful clothes, talks on all subjects, and she will give you a first-class home and children. How near do we come in our life to paradise?"

But all the girls from Salzman's briefcase begin to look alike to Leo Finkle, "all past their prime, all starved behind hard bright smiles…. Life, despite their frantic yoo-hooings, had passed them by…." The truth begins to penetrate the academic pride of the young rabbi, as he realizes that his loveless fear of life, and not a pious sense of tradition, has led him to the matchmaker. He sees that he has lived without self-knowledge and that he has not really loved God because he has not loved man. Like Malamud's more purely comic figures, Leo Finkle must finally recognize the truth about himself, and therefore about the world. "The Magic Barrel" ends in fantasy, in a deliberately stagy scene under a lamppost, where Salzman's own daughter waits for the young rabbi—the fallen woman (in white, with red shoes, smoking a cigarette) finally chosen from the matchmaker's file, out of the depths of the denial of life and demand for penance and salvation that recalls the Biblical prophet Hosea and his God-sent wife and whore. This 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.

Lionel Trilling (essay date 1967)

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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, without past or future, unhampered by those inner conditions which we call personality. They transcend personality; they exist in their essence as lovers, as images of loving. And our sense of their transcendence is strengthened by those "violins and lit candles" that revolve in the sky, as if the rendezvous were taking place not in the ordinary world but in a world of emblems, of metaphors made actual.

This concluding scene is striking not only in itself but in the retroactive effect that it has upon the whole story. The anterior episodes take on new meaning when we perceive that they have issued in this moment, with its dignity of pictorial silence, its dream-like massiveness of significance. The absurd transaction between Salzman and Leo Finkle, Salzman's elaboration of deceit, the dismal comedy of Leo's walk on Riverside Drive with Lily Hirschorn, the odd speech, habits, and manners of the characters—all these sordid or funny actualities of life are transmuted by the rapturous intensity and the almost mystical abstractness of the climactic rendezvous.

The intense pictorial quality of this last scene is of course a reminiscence of the iconography of a particular painter. Whoever knows the work of Marc Chagall will recognize in "the violins and lit candles [that] revolved in the sky" a reference to the pictures of this modern master, in which fantasy suspends the laws that govern the behavior of solid bodies, giving to familiar objects—violins and candles are among his favorites—a magical and emblematic life of their own. Married love is one of Chagall's subjects; many of his paintings represent bride and bridegroom or husband and wife in a moment of confrontation at once rapturous and fearful. Even the kind of bouquet that Leo carries is characteristic of Chagall—James Johnson Sweeney, in his book about the artist, tells us that "flowers, especially mixed bouquets of tiny blossoms," held for Chagall a peculiar interest at one period of his life; they charmed him visually and also by the sentiments they implied.

The knowledge of Malamud's direct reference to Chagall is helpful in understanding the story. For Chagall is the great celebrator of the religious culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is this culture, now virtually gone, having been systematically destroyed by the Germans and Russians, that poor Salzman represents in a sad, attenuated, transplanted form, and that has put its mark on Leo, who regards it with ambivalence, and on Stella, who has rejected it. It was a culture based upon a devotion to strict religious observance, of which the highest expression was the study of God's Law contained in the Bible and in the vast body of commentary that had accumulated through the ages. Assiduity in study and distinction in learning made the ground not only of piety but of prestige—to rear a learned son or to acquire a learned son-in-law was the ambition of every family concerned with its social standing.

The American reader can comprehend something of the quality of this life by bringing to mind what he knows of the towns of Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. The two theocratic cultures were alike in the intensity of their faith, in the omnipresence of religion in daily life, in the pre-eminence given to intellectual activity both as an evidence of faith and as the source of authority and status—if one recalls the veneration given to Mr. Dimmesdale, the learned young minister of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, one has a fair notion of how the rabbi of an orthodox Jewish community was regarded. The two societies are also alike in the harsh and difficult view they took of life, in their belief that life is to be lived under the control of the sterner virtues. Neither can properly be called ascetic, for both—and perhaps especially the Jewish—held marriage in high esteem. But in both societies devotion to the Word of God implied a considerable denigration of the charms and graces of life and a strict limitation upon the passions.

The artist who portrays a culture of this kind will in all probability be concerned with the elements of feeling that it represses or denies; his partisanship will be with the graces of life and the passions of human desire. The Scarlet Letter is a case in point—Hawthorne directs all our sympathy to the doomed love of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne rather than to the Puritan godliness that chastises it. Chagall depicts with affectionate reverence the religious life he knew in his childhood in the little Russian city of Vitebsk, but his representation of love is marked not only by the joy that is natural to it but also by the joy of its liberation from the piety that had held it in check.

It is a great advantage to art to be able to assert its partisanship with passion as against piety and godliness; in the exercise of this preference the artist is necessarily dealing with a situation charged with high feelings. The passions of human desire probably gain in intensity, and they certainly gain in interest, when they meet with adversity. The love that proclaims itself in the face of strict prohibition has more significance for us than a love that is permitted and encouraged. And of the several kinds of illicitness in love, that which is prohibited by religion and called sin is likely to seem the most intense and interesting of all—it borrows something of the grandeur and absoluteness of the power that forbids it. The rapture of Leo's rendezvous with Stella is not merely that of a young man's erotic urgency. It has something of the ecstasy of religious crisis—Leo is experiencing the hope of what he calls his "redemption." His crisis is the more portentous because he believes that his redemption will come to him through sin.

For that Stella is sinful, that she is sin itself, is the judgment passed upon her by her father's tradition. Her father curses her, although he loves her, and he mourns her as dead because she is unchaste. He speaks of her as "wild," "without shame," "like an animal," even "like a dog." And the young man, bred to the old tradition, is no less ready to recognize her sinfulness, although his image of sin is not repellent but attractive: he eagerly anticipates Stella's appearance in a red dress, red being the color of an open and shameless avowal of sexuality. Red may be the color of sin in general, as when the prophet Isaiah says, "Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow," but more commonly it represents sexual sin in particular—one of the synonyms the dictionary gives for scarlet is whorish.

The reader, of course, is not under the necessity of believing that Stella is what her father makes her out to be—possibly her sexual life is marked merely by a freedom of the kind that now morality scarcely reproves. Her dress is in fact not red but white, the virginal color; only her shoes are red. And in her eyes, we are told, there is a "desperate innocence." We see her not as Sin but as what William Blake called Experience, by which he meant the moral state of those who have known the passions and have been marked, and beautified, by the pain which that knowledge inflicts. This is the condition to which Leo Finkle aspires and which he calls his redemption. His meeting is with life itself, and the moment of the encounter achieves an ultimate rapture because of the awareness it brings him, like an illumination, that the joy and pain he had longed to embrace, and had been willing to embrace as sin, need not be condemned.

Richard Reynolds (essay date Winter 1973)

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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 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.

Bates Hoffer (essay date 1977)

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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:

Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.

As common in Malamud's stories, the closing picture is ambiguous upon a superficial reading. Salzman is chanting for whom? His daughter? Leo? The current state of Judaism? Someone even suggested to me that Salzman is singing in happiness because he is a Jew who is about to get his daughter married!

One example of a previous interpretation of the story is given by Rovit [in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, 1970]:

The aesthetic form of the story—the precise evaluation of forces—is left to the reader….

In the best of his stories in The Magic Barrel, the same pattern of ultimate poetic resolution by metaphor is evident.

I assume that you will agree, after re-reading the quote, that Rovit does not provide an interpretation at all. In fact, he finds purposeful ambiguity, as evidenced by:

The dramatic action of the story attempts to lead the characters into a situation of conflict which is "resolved" by being fixed poetically in the final ambiguity of conflicting forces frozen and united in their very opposition. (Italics added)

In other words, the answer to the question "Who is he chanting for?" is "Who knows?". That answer is only sufficient if there is no evidence at all for an answer. That there is abundant evidence is made clear below.

Another example is from Rahv's Introduction to A Malamud Reader:

Of all Malamud's stories, surely the most masterful is "The Magic Barrel," perhaps the best story produced by an American writer in recent decades….

… Salzman contrives to leave one picture in Finkle's room by which his imagination is caught as in a trap…. When tracked down, he swears that he had inadvertently left the fatal picture in Finkle's room. "She's not for you. She is a wild one, wild, without shame … Like an animal, like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now … This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell." (Rahv then quotes the last two paragraphs of the story.)

Thus the rabbinical student who, as he confesses, had come to God not because he loved Him but precisely because he did not, attempts to find in the girl from whose picture "he had received, somehow, an impression of evil" the redemption his ambiguous nature demands. (Italics added)

Rahv, then, sees the basic ambiguity in Finkle and does not worry about Salzman.

But worry we must. Where Rahv assumes Salzman "contrives" to leave Stella's picture, others feel that Salzman tells the truth when he swears it was an accident. Assumptions and feelings will convince no one who does not agree with us. Therefore we must look for evidence in the story for support of one view or another. Let us, then, turn to independent but mutually supporting arguments, based on the story itself, for a non-ambiguous interpretation. We should only accept ambiguity after exhausting all procedures and even then realize that someone else may find the key to clear up the ambiguity….

We start by noting that Leo is a final year rabbinical student about to obtain a doctoral degree from Yeshiva, a highly prestigious university. As rabbi, as scholar deeply knowledgeable of the Pentateuch, the Law, he will be "master" and "teacher" of the Law to generations of Jewish children. We therefore begin our analysis of Leo by judging his thoughts, words and deeds in light of his vocation. Although we might go deeply into the Law—and the reader is encouraged to do so—in order to judge, here we will mainly use the "basic" part of the Law which most of us know, the Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy 5:6-21. (I use Monsignor Knox's translation for a variety of reasons. It is important to note that Catholics, Protestants and Jews often number the verses, and consequently the commandments, differently.) Surely we can expect a rabbi to support at least the fundamental parts of the law.

                       Deuteronomy 5

6 And thus he spoke: I am the Lord thy God, it was I who rescued thee from the land of Egypt, where thou

7 didst dwell in slavery. Thou shalt not defy me by

8 making other gods thy own. Thou shalt not carve thyself images, or fashion the likeness of anything in heaven above, or on earth, to bow down and

9 worship it. I, thy God, the Lord Almighty, am jealous in my love; be my enemy, and thy children, to the third and fourth generation, shall make amends;

10 love me, keep my commandments, and mercy shall be thine a thousand-fold. (Commandment 1)

11 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God lightly on thy lips; if a man uses that name lightly, he will not go unpunished. (2)

12 Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as

13 the Lord thy God has bidden thee. Six days for drudgery, for doing all the work thou hast to do;

14 when the seventh day come, it is a sabbath, a day of rest, consecrated to the Lord thy God.

That day, all work shall be at an end, for thee and for every son and daughter of thine, thy servants and serving-women, thy ass, too, and thy ox, and all thy beasts, and the aliens that live within thy city walls. It must bring rest to thy men-servants and thy maid-servants,

15 as to thyself. Remember that thou too wast a slave in Egypt; what constraining force the Lord used, what a display he made of his power, to rescue thee; and now he will have thee keep this day of rest. (3)

16 Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God has bidden thee; so shalt thou live long to enjoy the land which the Lord thy God means to give thee. (4)

17 Thou shalt do no murder. (5)

18 Thou shalt not commit adultery. (6)

19 Thou shalt not steal. (7)

20 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (8)

21 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. (9)

Thou shalt not set thy heart upon thy neighbour's house or lands, his servants or handmaids, an ox or ass or anything that is his. (10)

The first three commandments pertain to God and the next seven to man. As we go through the story and compare Leo's behavior against the standards of the law, recall that the first three were summarized by Christ with the phrase from Deuteronomy 6:5, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole strength," and the last seven from Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self; thy Lord is his." Note, then, that love of God is the focus of all.

So now we look to Leo. Instead of observing the Sabbath, he goes out on a date with Lily. On the date he mentions the name of God in ordinary conversation…. And on the date he says he "came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not." Poof! The first three commandments disappear, not broken but evaporated! We begin to suspect we are not here reading of a dedicated religious leader.

Before turning to the other commandments, let us pause and look closely at the definition of love in the Law and compare it with Leo's version. In commandment number one we find that love of God includes keeping the commandments: "If you love Me, keep My commandments." "Love", then, is a commitment of the will to behave in a certain manner. It might be helpful to use an example here. In the commandment against adultery, the word "adultery" itself refers to an "adulteration" of the love of God by an illicit love of someone or something. Thus fornication or sex outside marriage, and adultery, or illicit sex when married, are both adulterations of the Divine love. Human love is a reflection of Divine love and, therefore, true love is always within the limits of the Divine will expressed in the commandments and elsewhere. Yet when we turn to Leo's version of love, we find that he has decided to throw away the divine definition:

Love, I have said to myself, should be a byproduct of living and worship rather than its own end. Yet for myself I find it necessary to establish the level of my need and fulfill it.

He changes "love" to "need" and seeks not God's will but his own: "my" need, he says. Recall here that Leo's great "love" for Stella all comes from a cheap picture. He has not yet met her or seen her in the story. "Who can love from a picture?" Salzman asks. "If you can love her, then you can love anybody." Then Leo confirms what we have suspected, that he has thoroughly confused "love" with sex, desires, needs and etc. "Just her I want," he murmurs. This bastion of Judaism has spent almost seven years in rabbinical preparation and still has the understanding of "love" of a sex-starved sophomore. There is no evidence in the story of any commitment to his religion or his vocation, no evidence of any real practice of his faith or any real knowledge of it. We find that his study has not been rewarding. You can find, if you look, the several other places which indicate that Leo is not what you would call your model rabbi.

Let us go on to the other commandments. Numbers 6 and 9 deal with sex. There is evidence that Leo does not understand the morality of sex at all. When he goes out with Lily, he thinks he sees Salzman as a "cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties" throwing flowers in their way. Note the pagan image for marriage. When he first thinks of using a matchmaker, he looks out the window and

observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself.

My judgement is that Leo is thinking primarily of the physical part of the marriage, to put it diplomatically. The last example here occurs when he discovers Stella's picture. You should re-read the whole paragraph …, but in case you do not have a copy handy, here are some critical lines:

It was not, he affirmed, that she had an extraordinary beauty—no, though her face was attractive enough; it was that something about her moved him. Feature for feature, even some of the ladies of the photographs could do better; but 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: it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes, and from the way the light enclosed and shone from her, and within her, opening realms of possibility: this was her own. Her he desired. His head ached and eyes narrowed with the intensity of his gazing, 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. He shuddered, saying softly, it is thus with us all.

"Her he desired." He senses she is "evil" and shudders with excitement. Here at the 3/4 point of the story, the climax, he makes his decision to possess the evil. His desire must be attained. That she is evil is clarified by Salzman as he and Leo talk:

"She is not for you. She is a wild one—wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi."

"What do you mean wild?"

"Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now."

"In God's name, what do you mean?"

"Her I can't introduce to you," Salzman cried.

"Why are you so excited?"

"Why, he asks," Salzman said, bursting into tears. "This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell."

Ultimately, Leo chooses the wild animal, the dog, the disinherited Stella "dead" in sin. We can only conclude, following this line of reasoning, that eventually Leo consciously chooses evil and turns his back on God Whom he said he did not love anyhow. Leo is not, to put it mildly, thoroughly dedicated to the Law.

The other commandments are broken or ignored in less powerful ways. For example, Leo breaks the one against stealing when he refuses to give Salzman's picture of Stella back. The commandment against greed, avarice and envy of other's goods may be involved in the reason why Leo approached the matchmaker in the first place. Quite simply he wanted to "win" a better congregation. By which might be meant a bigger or more affluent one. The commandment against lying is broken when Leo turns down the lame girl; he tells Salzman, "because I hate stomach specialists," the profession of her father. The one against honoring mother and father is ignored when he decides to avoid the matchmaking institution. [At one point] he couples that institution with the honoring of his father and his mother. Indeed the only Commandment he does not overtly break is the one against murder—and my judgement is that he does indeed "murder" his own soul by choosing evil.

With all this evidence that Leo is precisely the worst possible rabbi—we have not time to note the other rules and laws he breaks—we must conclude that Leo is not a positive picture of a modern rabbi. He may be a picture of some modern rabbi, but Malamud does not give us a positive picture. Leo may even be a picture of one type of rabbi graduating today, one pursuing a "thrust for life" (to use Rahv's phrase) which is actually a grasp of spiritual death. At the story's close, Salzman is around the corner chanting prayers for the dead, which refers to Leo and Stella and their offspring to the third and fourth generation and to that part of Judaism which has a Leo, a great "lion" of God, as its master and teacher….

There is a richer and deeper analysis of "The Magic Barrel" which carries us across the sweep of Jewish history and takes us into the heart of the Pentateuch itself. For a few moments forget all you have read above and read this subsection independently.

In much great literature there is an underlying structure which borrows from religious and/or literary structure. James Joyce builds his Portrait on Dante's Inferno, Greene builds End of the Affair on John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul, Faulkner builds The Sound and the Fury on the New Testament through Revelations. Examples abound in any good survey of Western literature. To posit such a structure for "The Magic Barrel" is to suggest that some of the story's power derives from its allegorical structure.

The underlying structure begins to take shape when you see that the story is in five parts and that Leo has been studying the Pentateuch, the five parts of the Torah. Here is a brief version of each book …:

GENESIS: "In the beginning" the focal point is the fall of Adam which begins the redemption story.

EXODUS: "The going out" has Moses as the central figure. The deliverance by means of crossing the Red Sea is referred to throughout the Bible. The wandering in the desert and the manna from heaven are major points.

LEVITICUS: "The Levites" or Israelite priesthood discusses the ministry of the Levitical priesthood. This highly legalistic book demands perfect obedience and sets up the rites of the Day of Atonement in precise detail. Obedience will bring redemption.

NUMBERS: "In the wilderness" the Israelites are given final preparation for their entrance into the Promised Land. Numbers stresses that disobedience receives its due reward, but repentance results in pardon and restoration.

DEUTERONOMY: The "second law" describes the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses will not be allowed to enter because of a sin. Moses exhorts the people to follow the law and describes the results of a lack of obedience. The concluding part is an added section on the death of Moses.

Before starting the broad outlines of the parallels between the Pentateuch and "The Magic Barrel", recall the simple point that allegories as defined in Linguistics in Literature are parallel structures. The story is divided into five sections overtly, that is, by spaces on the page.

"In the beginning" of the story Leo has his sexual image fantasy about the moon while Salzman is there talking about women.

In part two, parallel to Exodus or "the going out", he literally "goes out" with Lily. We notice the mention of his walking cane even as Moses carried a staff. This section contains an image that is extremely hard to explain except by reference to Exodus. The winged loaves of bread that Leo sees at the end of the story make perfect sense if we accept a parallel to the "bread from heaven" or manna which occurs in Exodus. The manna came down from heaven as if frost or snow in Exodus and of course just after the loaves of bread fly high overhead it snows in part two. Note also that part two ends with Leo still "out."

In part three Leo spends much time thinking of the priesthood (Leviticus), his reasons for his decisions, and so on. Leo seeks redemption for self in the sense of establishing the level of his need. The redemptive picture given by Salzman is the choice of good or evil, that is, he tells Leo that Leo should not choose Stella, "she should burn in hell."

In part four, parallel to Numbers in which the methods and choices in the redemption story become clear, Salzman offers Leo yet one more chance to avoid evil. "Who can love from a picture?… If you can love her, then you can love anybody."

Finally, again only in the broadest terms, in part five Leo rushes towards his self-defined "promised land," Stella. Parallel to the funeral prayer for Moses, who could not enter the Promised Land, the section which concludes Deuteronomy, we find the prayers for the dead concluding this part.

Now let us pause for a while and reflect. The analysis above accounts for a whole potful of seeming aberrations in the story, for several occurrences which cannot be explained in an internally consistent way by any other analysis: loaves of bread flying overhead; a matchmaker who "appears" out of thin air, who is "transparent," almost "vanishing"; the prayers for the dead when no one is dead and so on. If, however, we had only the above parallels few would bother searching for the more particular parts of the parallel structure. Here I will give one extended parallel and drop a few hints for parallels you can have fun finding for yourself.

Let's look for a moment at the choice which Leo faces, Lily or Stella, coupled with a central choice which the priest has in Leviticus. In making an offering to God, the priest must choose only a clean animal, never an unclean. He must be able to distinguish them. We note here that the girl proposed by Salzman is named "Lily," surely a symbolic name for purity. The priest must also do something to the clean animal or the offering is not valid. That something is that it must be salted. Here we notice that Salzman (which means "salt-man") has disinherited his impure daughter. She is not only "unclean" but unsalted. Thus we find that the names of Lily and Salzman are perfectly suited to the parallel structure.

Let's go a little more deeply into Leviticus. Aaron's two sons mentioned in chapter 10 decide to honor the Lord more than their orders require by moving closer to the holiest place. They decided to do more; that is, they think they are choosing good when they decide to do it their own way. They are then consumed by fire from the Lord. Leo, too, wants to decide for himself and he decides Salzman's daughter is "good" despite all evidence to the contrary (100% of it). Now if I had written "The Magic Barrel" and had set up the parallel to this point, I would look for a girl's name which suggests purity or whiteness but which also suggests the fire which consumes her ("she should burn in hell") and will, by extension, consume Leo. In fact, "Stella" does the job to perfection since it means "star."…

There are several other parallels you could track down. Part two ought to have a body of water (i.e. "Red Sea"). It does. Leo ought to have other parallels to Moses. He does. There ought to be more examples of law and tradition breaking, since Leo is the great Law-Breaker rather than a Moses or Law-Giver. There are. Since Salzman appears and disappears on "wings of the wind" and has a relative who has fallen and burns in hell, it shouldn't be too difficult to relate them to the redemption story. (If you will permit me—if she indeed is burning, it is interesting to note that when Leo first sees her she is standing "by the lamp post, smoking.")…

One last line of analysis must be given here to show clearly that what Leo thinks is a "redemption" process is precisely the opposite. We look at Leo at the end of each section and find how he had "entangled himself" to such an extent that he became suspicious of "Salzman's machinations." He acted "frenziedly" in his craving for Stella, was "afflicted" with a "tormenting suspicion" and finally had "prayers for the dead" prayed for him. Leo looked upon evil, decided it was good, and ran to greet it with flowers outthrust.

I do not see how anyone could find the story "ambiguous" with respect to Leo's decision.

The analysis presented above uses a great deal of direct textual evidence (such as breaking of various rules) to show that Leo is the opposite of a high-level rabbi and it uses direct textual evidence for parallels between the story and the Pentateuch, that which Leo studied for years and that which he would be expected to teach as a rabbi. In the latter interpretation, Leo becomes the great Law-Breaker as contrasted to the author and "hero" of the Pentateuch, the Law-Giver, Moses. Leo seeks not the Promised Land offered by God, but the promised land of his own desires, union with a prostitute whom he does not even know, save from a cheap picture. Leo breaks God's laws, the Mosaic law, the natural law, the standards appropriate to a rabbinical student and to a Jew in general; he breaks the traditions of his religion, his race, his ancestors, his parents; he breaks the rules of common courtesy and kindness. He seeks that which makes him shudder, a picture of evil which he decides will become his good. From direct textual evidence, Leo is perhaps the greatest loser in the history of literature since Lucifer's Fall….

You may disagree with the last sentence, but the point there was exaggerated for a particular reason. Over and over again the commenters on this story project Leo as a winner, as someone who has "matured" and seeks his redemption. Pinye Salzman is even seen as a "criminal." How can anyone hold the idea that Leo is somehow "maturing" by choosing a hooker? Here I would like to attempt an answer, not by quoting endlessly, but by commenting on the type of criticism involved. Let us therefore begin by presenting a case for Leo as the good guy.

As we read "The Magic Barrel" we note that Leo is suspicious that Pinye arranged for him to find Stella's picture and that the whole story was staged. Leo is presented pictures of older or crippled girls so that Stella will seem better. Stella is condemned so as to make her more attractive to Leo. Pinye is a poor, undignified representative of the old, repressive system which must be broken through for true maturation to take place. (Maturation, in this interpretation, consists of doing exactly what one wants to do.) Leo runs toward his redemption to the tune of violins.

What precisely is it that is the key to the two polar opposite—and hence ambiguous?—interpretations? Clearly it is the interpretation of the role of the matchmaker. Is Leo right in his suspicion that the whole affair was staged or is Pinye right in denying any duplicity? If you side with Leo, then everything Pinye says is suspect because after all lying is breaking a commandment. If you side with the matchmaker, then you see Leo as having a guilty conscience, one that turns Pinye into a Pan or a liar or a fraud. How do we resolve the issue? We look closely at the story for evidence that one is presented as a positive character and the other as negative. Only if the evidence is mixed can we accurately say the story is "ambiguous." A close analysis shows Leo to be the consummate loser. The only evidence for Pinye as wrong comes from Leo's thoughts. No, Leo as hero simply will not hold up if you use the evidence of the story itself.

OK, you ask, but aren't we back where we started? How can someone cling to the view that Leo is the good guy? The answer is rather harsh, but I think the harshness is fully justified. My judgement, after some years of studying the issue, is that those critics actually believe that breaking all the rules and sleeping with a prostitute is a maturational experience…. Those critics must actually believe that "adult" movies are indeed adult, rather than mere adolescent sex fantasies. I am convinced that they believe that breaking God's law, dropping religious beliefs, and doing anything your little ole heart desires are the marks of maturation. They aren't, in the abstract, but the issue raised by their misunderstanding is a serious one. Let us spend a few lines on it. Leo may represent the "mature" modern rabbi who abandons his entire background and perhaps he may in a more general sense represent the Jew who has nothing of Jewishness left except his race. Certainly that interpretation fits with other Malamud Jews, especially Henry Levin (of "The Lady of the Lake") who changes his name to Henry R. Freeman and heads for Europe to escape and denies his Jewishness to one and all. But there is more to it than that, simply because Leo's story is more than abandoning his past values. Leo actually decides to treat what is shudderingly evil as a positive good through which to achieve redemption. The critics and commenters who find Leo a "model" for our youth must have absorbed the same reversal of values, which reversal after all so pervades American society. Leo, then, may also represent all of us who are faced with the profoundly spiritual question: which value system do I choose? We know Leo's choice and have clear and direct textual evidence that he chose wrong. The evidence from the story is clear, but we have come to the point in literary criticism where we may ignore the text, ignore the structure of the story, ignore anything that clashes with the interpretation we want to make. We have come to the point where the choosing of evil is considered a positive good—just as Leo considered it.

Before stating the final conclusion about "The Magic Barrel", comments on general Malamud criticism are in order….

Sidney Richman's Bernard Malamud (1966) is the first I want to treat because it exemplifies a point. Although it was designed to be a novel by novel and story by story analysis, its first chapter concerns Malamud as Jew and as Jewish writer and the tradition of Jewish writing. That narrowing of perspective is always suspect, since after all a Jew can (and has) written books set in other religions and cultures. A reader should not don his Jewish glasses to view a work until after all other analytical tools have been used and not even then unless it is warranted. Richman himself notes that Malamud's first novel, The Natural, contains not a single "Jew or a mention of one." He then proceeds to view the novel through his Jewish glasses anyhow. (Now if I were going to force a Jewish interpretation, I'd note that Roy, which means King, is discovered by Samuel, conquers a giant (Whammer = Goliath) in a field, carries a music box (= lyre), and in general tie in Roy to David in "Samuel" or "Kings" in the Bible. However, I would start from the fact that Malamud mentions David just after Roy conquers Whammer and would not start with Malamud's Jewishness.) The Jewish vision is important of course in the overtly Jewish stories in The Magic Barrel, The Assistant, The Fixer and so on. The point here is a simple one and all too often overlooked, and the point is that each story and novel ought to be taken on its own first and the various views of it should be dictated by what is found, not what is preconceived.

There are several valid literary criticism approaches which can and should be used for each work. We can show where a work fits into intellectual history in general and into literary history in particular, with special reference to its place in the author's literary production and its comparison to its contemporaries. We can show the sociological setting of the work or that in which the author lived. We can study the psychology of the work, either the author's vision or the make-up and motivation of the characters. We can assign the work a taxonomy of literary labels, from either classical literary criticism or modern versions, labels such as prose narrative fiction and so on. Notice that these four general areas are primarily concerned with assigning the work its appropriate niche in an intellectual frame of reference. This assignment is necessary. Yet what is missing in this work is what this journal [Linguistics in Literature] is primarily concerned with, the process of investigating the integration of form and content of a work, the process of investigating a work to explore fully what is contained in it. Where either approaches find ambiguity, such as two possible basic interpretations of "The Magic Barrel," yet the [Linguistics in Literature] approach supports only one, then that one is the preferred interpretation because it is supported by the convergence of more than one critical approach. We are not here dealing with math where there is a definite answer or set of answers which cannot be doubted, but that does not mean that any critical interpretation is as good as any other. When two or more critics converge on an interpretation from different directions using independent arguments, then that interpretation is certainly preferable to others.

Let us, then, turn to another book of criticism and see the types of critical approaches used. We turn to Bernard Malamud edited by the Fields (1975). This excellent volume contains a variety of approaches, including a significant interview with Malamud himself. One quote relative to the Richman discussion above came in response to the question:

Would you reject the term Jewish-American writer categorically?

Malamud. The term is schematic and reductive. If the scholar needs the term he can have it, but it won't be doing him any good if he limits his interpretation of a writer to fit a label he applies.

There are articles dealing with the Jewish movement, thus placing Malamud in intellectual history and within a sociological frame. The one on his ironic heroes is within our general definition of taxonomic criticism. Articles on Malamud's boyhood, growth and development as teacher and writer are within the definition of psychological approaches given above. The book is not designed to give exhaustive treatment to each story; rather it tends to show repeated character types and motifs. The introduction shows the schlemiel in Malamud from Roy of The Natural, Frank Alpine of The Assistant, Yakov Bok of The Fixer, Harry Lesser of The Tenants, to especially Arther Fidelman in Pictures of Fidelman. With Richman's, the book is one of the several basic books in Malamud criticism.

The most recent collection is The Fiction of Bernard Malamud edited by Benson and Astro (1976). As in the Field's book, the articles cover well the first four broad areas of criticism. Hassan sets Malamud's fiction within contemporary literary history. Field deals with the relevance of the Jewish issue to Malamud's fiction, and thereby deals with its place in intellectual and literary history as well as in a sociological setting. Handy's article on a "quest for existence" and Siegel's on Malamud's "painful view of self" are excellent examples of the psychological approach as understood herein. Fiedler's article is subtitled "An essay in genre criticism" and is clearly within a modernized version of classical criticism. As in the Field book, what is missing is the careful treatment of each story in its own terms. The few passing comments in the Benson and Astro book to "The Magic Barrel" are not capable of being grouped into a single interpretive picture, but some do relate to the interpretation given earlier in this paper. For example:

Malamud's track record suggests that anyone who falls in love with a picture, who thinks he will redeem a prostitute, and who rushes forward to begin the job with "violins and lit candles" on the brain, is in for a few small surprises.

And …

Unhappy Leo Finkle derives solace from the thought "that he was a Jew and a Jew suffered." The Jew, in Leo's parochial view, thus becomes a paradigm of Everyman, in that all men suffer.

There is in the last two books no extended analysis of the story and we must return to Richman.

Richman treats "The Magic Barrel" in relatively long analysis…. He treats it as "the story of love and maturation of a young rabbinical student." He treats Pinye as "half criminal, half messenger of God," although he gives no evidence at all for the first half, and in fact further prejudices us by introducing Pinye as "reeking of fish." (If it is criminal to be so poor as to afford only cheap fish, the jails are going to be bursting soon.) When Leo and Lily talk and Lily asks of Leo's love of God, Richman reads her questions as Pinye's attempts at ritual indoctrination. You will pardon me, I hope, if I find it difficult to see how Lily's "How was it that you came to your calling?" is a ritual indoctrination by Pinye who wasn't even there. Richman concludes that Leo is right, that his redemption involves choosing that from which "he had received an impression, somehow, of evil." Based on those premises, it is no wonder that Richman concludes that the ending of the story is "ambiguous." (There's that word again.) He further concludes that "Leo has graduated into saint and rabbi!" Isn't that really incredible when you see it in bare outline? Leo has graduated into saint, not just rabbi, by running towards a hooker he doesn't even know! I honestly hope you have, as I do, higher expectations of rabbis, to say nothing of the theological problems involved in getting into heaven with a hooker on your arm. No, as an analysis of the integration of form and content, Richman's will not suffice. The story is far too good to be seen as an ambiguous and confusing story of a mixed-up rabbinical student. Let's close … with a single paragraph summation.

"The Magic Barrel" is a great short story. Its power is evident whether you seek a deeper level of meaning or not. It is anthologized widely and discussed by thousands of people every year. Analyses of it are still appearing. The point of this article is that Malamud has constructed his story of the student of the Pentateuch on the structural framework of the Pentateuch and that any interpretation which fails to take into account this integration of content and form is deficient. The conclusion of this analysis is that Malamud as master craftsman and Malamud as artist of vision has created for us a powerful short story which will stand the test of time as a classic of our century.

Laura Krugman Ray (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2357

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 Barrel," to Charles Dickens' mid-Victorian masterpiece, Great Expectations. On the surface these works have little in common: one is a condensed and elliptical short story about a rabbinical student's search for a suitable wife, the other a complex and leisurely novel about British class structure and the psycho-sexual consequences of new definitions of gentility. Yet Malamud has transformed Dickens' distinctly British novel into his own world and idiom, his own themes and techniques. Selecting among the resources of Great Expectations, Malamud settles on the novel's central pattern of delusion, crisis, and regeneration, bringing his hero, like Pip, through a series of trials to a comparable resting place, union with a woman herself refined by suffering; and he follows as well Dickens' mix of folklore materials with psychological and sociological realism to create a fiction that speaks simultaneously of its own local setting and of its larger context, the upper west side of Manhattan and the landscape of the human heart.

Although they inhabit radically different social worlds, both Leo Finkle and Pip are heroes of romantic expectations. When Leo, an isolated rabbinical student, calls in a marriage broker to find him a bride, his motives are apparently professional—he has been told that he will find a congregation more easily if he is married—but actually deeply emotional. He rejects in succession all of Salzman's candidates because they are in one way or another imperfect: one is a widow; another is thirty-two; a third, though young and pretty, is lame. Leo is troubled by the failure of reality to produce his imagined bride, and in this respect he resembles Pip, who is consistently troubled by the discrepancy between his fantasies of gentility and his actual apprenticeship to the blacksmith Joe. Pip too rejects a proferred bride, Biddy, because she is not sufficiently ladylike and elegant, in effect because she does not conform to the standards set by Estella. Both heroes fancy themselves unflawed and therefore justified in rejecting flawed women; both are destined to learn otherwise, to recognize fully their own imperfections.

The agents of these belated self-discoveries are again remarkably similar figures, the matchmaker Salzman and the convict Magwitch. Malamud and Dickens both use folklore materials in creating these characters; both men are physically repulsive to the fastidious heroes, yet also spiritually instructive; both have a talent for materializing unexpectedly and unsought (Magwitch returns to England when Pip has outwardly become a gentleman, Salzman returns to Leo's room when the student has regained his poise after an unsettling date with one of Salzman's clients). And both have beautiful daughters who will eventually be courted by Leo and Pip in defiance of their own earlier prescriptions. It is this triangular configuration of father, daughter, and suitor, itself a familiar fairy tale pattern, that most clearly ties "The Magic Barrel" to Great Expectations.

[In "Fire, Hand, and Gate: Dickens' Great Expectations," Kenyon Review (1962)] Harry Stone has written of Dickens' use of fairy tale and mythic materials that "through such suprarealistic counterpoint the artist's fabling and concentrating mind is also to impose order upon the petty welter of everyday experience." From this ordering of the commonplace by means of the fantastic, Dickens illumines the most complex emotions in his treatment of Pip's psychological development. Malamud undertakes a similar project on a smaller scale—he gives us only a few months in Leo's life—but he follows Dickens in making the initiatory ritual of courtship into a psychological ritual of despair and rebirth through which human imperfection furnishes access to humanity.

Both works, then, combine folklore elements with more naturalistic treatments of setting and character, producing realistic fiction modified by suggestions of another order of human experience. The young Pip believes Magwitch's boasts of controlling a vicious young man with "'a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver'"; the convict seems to the boy an emanation of the primal landscape, emerging as he does from the mud and water of the marshes, and an element of local mythology, a reincarnation of the pirate hanged long ago on a nearby gibbet. Magwitch's power later turns out to be natural rather than supernatural when he reaches Pip's 'heart' through generosity and pathos and prepares him for Estella. Salzman, too, is credited by Leo with magical power when, on a walk with one of the matchmaker's clients, he senses Salzman "hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street …; or perhaps [as] a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them." Again, the union Salzman actually presides over at the story's end is a naturalized version of Leo's fantasy, and the matchmaker's power is shown to be a deeply human one.

At the center of Malamud's adaptation of Dickens is the shift from an ideal of social gentility to one of spiritual distinction, a shift from the outward values of nineteenth century British culture to the inward values of contemporary Jewish-American life, which nonetheless leaves intact the capacity for self-delusion and corruption. Thus, in each work the mentor admires in the young hero precisely the quality of which he is himself undeservedly vain. Magwitch takes a creator's pride in Pip's gentility: "'Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman of you! It's me wot has done it!'" But neither creator nor created yet understands that Pip is in fact just a snob, a gentleman only in the externals that Magwitch's money can buy. And Pip becomes 'gentle' only when he comes to love and value Magwitch, to plan his escape, to sit by him at his trial, and to keep watch at his deathbed. Salzman sees in Leo a most perfect specimen of another order, a learned and exalted young man whom he takes pride in addressing as 'rabbi,' a title as yet unearned. When Leo realizes that Salzman has presented him to a prospective bride as "'A sort of semimystical Wonder Rabbi,'" he too is brought to understand that he is unfit for his calling, "'that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.'" Gentleman or snob, wonder rabbi or loveless ascetic: each young man is carried to the point of self-recognition, to the awareness that he is just himself an imposter who cannot withstand self-scrutiny. Just as Pip becomes a gentleman by accepting his responsibility for a man who has loved him, so Leo comes to understand his rabbinical role when he pleads with Salzman for the chance to meet Stella: "'Put me in touch with her, Salzman,' Leo said humbly. 'Perhaps I can be of service.'" For each hero, the fulfillment of his goal is achieved ironically through the exchange of its external for its radical meaning: Pip is gentle when no longer an affluent young blade and Leo a spiritual leader when no longer a likely candidate for a desirable congregation.

And since novel and short story are both tales, the heroes are matched with two unexpectedly flawed heroines. Estella and Stella share more than the obvious duplication of their names. Both are stars, beacons which signal the spiritual progress of their lovers; but more importantly both are women of sexual experience and even sexual abuse—Estella has been brutalized by her husband, and Stella has presumably lived as a prostitute. The plots of novel and story show the hero possessed by his vision of an ideal woman: for Pip the ideal is represented by the young Estella, before he understands her emotional deficiency, while for Leo the ideal is a fabrication of his own, unacknowledged and so unchallenged. But just as Pip learns through Magwitch, that in pursuing his star he has been guilty of selfishness and ingratitude toward the other members of his community, so Leo learns through Salzman that he is unfit to minister to the needs of a congregation or to court a wife.

The crisis for Pip comes with a fever; in his delirium he imagines a desperate loss of identity, recalling later

That I had a fever and was avoided, that I suffered greatly, that I often lost my reason, that the time seemed interminable, that I confounded impossible existences with my own identity.

The fantasy anticipates the actual transformation which follows, when Pip returns Joe's love and abandons his gentleman's career in favor of ordinary labor as Herbert's clerk. Leo experiences a comparable period of despondency and self-doubt when his identity as a learned and godly rabbinical student seems endangered:

The week that followed was the worst of his life. He did not eat and lost weight. His beard darkened and grew ragged. He stopped attending seminars and almost never opened a book. He seriously considered leaving the Yeshivah, although he was deeply troubled at the thought of the loss of all his years of study—saw them like pages torn from a book, strewn over the city—and at the devastating effect of the decision upon his parents.

For Leo too a real transformation succeeds the fantasy. He decides first to find love for himself, then to accept Salzman's help, and finally to offer his own help toward Stella's reclamation. Malamud makes Leo's transformation explicit by altering his hero's appearance: "Salzman looked up at first without recognizing him. Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom." For Pip the process is attenuated by absence from England for eleven years. But for both heroes the change is preparatory to a muted love scene of ambiguous import.

In the original ending of Great Expectations, Dickens allowed Pip and Estella to meet by chance in the streets of London, exchange kind words, and go their separate ways. The revised version, however, brings the lovers together in the ruined garden of Miss Havisham's house on a December evening. Estella appears, "the freshness of her beauty" gone, but in its place "the saddened softened light of the once proud eyes." The meeting recalls to Pip his vigil at Magwitch's deathbed, when he told the convict that his daughter "'is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!'" And the novel now ends with a striking tableau:

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Compare this evocation of a chastened hero, a heroine no longer virginal, and her dead father whose unspoken presence seems to sanctify the union, with the conclusion of Malamud's story. Leo meets Stella under a corner lamppost:

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 outthrust.

Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.

The ruined garden and the New York street corner are realistic settings with powerful overtones: the garden is clearly Edenic, the corner a traditional haunt of prostitutes. Both suggest that the women who inhabit them have known evil and suffered from it but are now, in Malamud's phrase, "opening realms of possibility." And with radically altered expectations, the heroes salute these women through gestures of courtship; Pip extends his hand, Leo his flowers, in token of a proferred self. Salzman's Kadish may well be, as Richard Reynolds argues [in "'The Magic Barrel': Pinye Salzman's Kadish," Studies in Short Fiction (1973)], a prayer for resurrection rather than a lament, but in any case his presence, like Pip's memory of the dying Magwitch, invokes the triangle of father, daughter, lover at a moment when the couple might seem more appropriately left alone. Dickens and Malamud, however, insist on the father's role as parent, matchmaker, teacher. Themselves defeated and pathetic figures, these shabby tricksters nonetheless carry the important message that to be used is also to be humanized, to suffer is also to love.

Great Expectations and "The Magic Barrel" are stories of despair and regeneration. Through a period of suffering and crisis, induced by a quasi-magical mentor, a young man learns to accept his own imperfect nature and to value the imperfections of others; the sign of his redemption is a union, however tenuous, with a woman of equal imperfection and need. Malamud has found in Dickens' inexhaustible novel the materials for his own muted yet resonant fiction. Working in the reduced scale of the short story, selecting among and refashioning the resources of Great Expectations, Malamud creates an authentically Jewish-American fable through which he, like Dickens, instructs us that love comes not to the virtuous but to the vulnerable as a reward for revised expectations.

Michael L. Storey (essay date Spring 1981)

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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 the bony remains of a fish" and at other times moving about "as if on the wings of the wind." Furthermore, his intentions are unclear in assisting the protagonist, sixth-year rabbinical student Leo Finkle, who has hired Salzman to find him a bride. In question is whether or not Salzman secretly intends for Leo to marry Stella, the marriage broker's daughter. When Leo asks to meet Stella, after finding her snapshot in a packet of photographs of clientele Salzman has left with Leo, Salzman claims that it was accidental that the snapshot was among the photographs, and he refuses to introduce Leo to the profligate Stella. The vehemence of his refusal and his respect for rabbis convince the reader that Salzman has no intentions of bringing the two together. But just when they seem clear, Salzman's intentions are made ambiguous by the fact that Leo, after forcing Salzman to arrange the meeting with Stella, is "afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way." It just might be, the reader feels, that Salzman has artfully arranged the salvation of his daughter through love and marriage with a rabbi.

I believe that Salzman has intended all along to unite Leo and Stella and that Malamud makes this clear through a virtually unnoticed analogy of Salzman and Pan, the goat-god. This analogy also resolves the seemingly contradictory elements—the earthy and the magical—in Salzman's character because, as a god, Pan possesses the magical characteristics assigned to Salzman, and his half-goat, half-man form gives him that earthiness which Salzman displays.

A direct allusion to Pan is made only once in the story. When Leo is out walking one afternoon with Lily Hirschorn, one of Salzman's clients, he senses that Salzman is around, "perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union." That Malamud intends this to be a key allusion in the conception of Salzman's character is suggested by several other, less explicit parallels he draws between Salzman and Pan.

Salzman's physical characteristics—"his wisp of beard, his bony fingers" his "skeleton with haunted eyes"—resemble at least one artistic depiction of Pan: the fourth-century, B.C., engraved bronze mirror "Aphrodite and Pan Playing Five-Stones." His ravenous appetite, gluttonous habits, and fishy smell also give Salzman the suggestion of a goat. In addition, Salzman imitates Pan's habit of suddenly appearing and disappearing. Salzman first appears to Leo "one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway." Later, he disappears "as if on the wings of the wind." When Leo goes to Salzman's apartment to question him about the picture of Stella, Salzman's wife tells Leo that Salzman's office is "In the air" and that it is difficult to keep track of the marriage broker: "Every time he thinks a new thought he runs to a different place." Near the end of the story, Malamud describes Salzman as "transparent to the point of vanishing." Salzman's occupation of marriage broker gives him still another likeness to Pan, who is traditionally associated with amorousness and fertility.

Another important parallel between Salzman and Pan is created through the depiction of Stella, Salzman's daughter. Pan's daughter is Iynx, who was transformed into a bird by Heré for attempting to charm Zeus sexually. She is considered symbolic of "restless, passionate love." Stella is also depicted as restless, passionate love. Salzman describes her as "a wild one—wild, without shame," and when we see her in the final scene she is standing "by the lamp post, smoking," dressed all in white, except for red shoes, colors traditionally associated with love and passion. Stella's name, Latin for star, also hints at her nature, for stars are popularly associated with love, passion, and restlessness (as in "wandering star"). When Leo first sees Stella's picture, it both moves and frightens him because he recognizes that Stella has experienced passion, perhaps of an evil kind, and is capable of love.

The most significant parallel between Salzman and Pan in terms of ascertaining Salzman's intentions is revealed in the effect that Salzman has on Leo. Pan is traditionally credited with bringing both nightmares and panic (to which he lends his name) to humans. Also, in much twentieth-century literature, such as the stories of Forster and Lawrence, Pan-figures have the power of bringing characters into contact with reality. Throughout "The Magic Barrel" Salzman produces these same effects on Leo.

The day after his initial meeting with Salzman, which ends with Leo dismissing the marriage broker, Leo finds himself figuratively in Pan's woods and literally in a state of confusion bordering on panic: "All day he ran around in the woods—missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand."

That evening just as Leo is able to regain "sufficient calm" and "peace," Salzman unexpectedly arrives to convince him to meet Lily Hirschorn. It is this meeting, during which Leo envisions Salzman as Pan, which has the effect of bringing Leo into contact with reality and to the state of panic. When Lily presses upon Leo questions about his relationship to God ("'When," she asked in a trembly voice, 'did you become enamored of God?',") he realizes what Salzman has done:

Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her—no relation to the living or dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness.

It is the traditional method of the Jewish marriage broker to exaggerate the qualities of both parties in order to increase the chances of a match, but here Salzman's exaggerations have the effect, not of bringing Leo and Lily together, but of bringing Leo to a sense of reality and a state of panic. Shortly after this walk with Lily, Leo realizes that

Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing—to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. It seemed to Leo that his whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless. This bitter but somehow not fully unexpected revelation brought him to a point of panic (my italics).

While Lily's questions are the immediate cause of Leo's new sense of reality and state of panic, it is Salzman who is responsible for Lily's questions and is therefore the real cause of Leo's present state.

Later, Leo experiences nightmares, also traditionally credited to Pan. These occur when Leo attempts to forget Stella after Salzman has refused to arrange a meeting: "Leo hurried up to bed and hid under the covers. Under the covers he thought his life through. Although he soon fell asleep he could not sleep her out of his mind. He woke, beating his breast."

Panic, nightmares, "days of torment," and the realization of what his life is really like convince Leo "to convert [Stella] to goodness, himself to God." It is significant that this conviction is accompanied by physical changes in Leo which give him a resemblance to Pan-Salzman: "Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom."

This transformation in Leo seems to indicate that Salzman's plan has not been designed entirely for the benefit of Stella, that he is concerned with Leo's salvation as well. Salzman has thrust Leo into a meeting with Lily in order to expose to Leo his own specious life. Until Leo is aware that he has pursued the spiritual at the expense of the earthly and that the spiritual will come only through the earthly, he is unable to choose the right bride. Hence Salzman cannot lead him directly to Stella but must first take him to a new sense of reality made vivid in a state of panic. Once Leo has faced the stark facts of his life, he is ready for marriage with the right woman—not Lily, the ascetic, of whom the goat-god would hardly approve, but Stella, daughter of the goat-god, whose passionate nature is the perfect complement to Leo's ascetic nature.

Carmen Cramer (essay date Fall 1983)

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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 specifications" in order to "better the bargain." Such ritual is not a part of the American myth, which has as its center a virtual lack of history and tradition.

The marriage broker is an element in a tradition that is not American. Even Leo realizes the un-American tone of matchmaking when he inquires about one of Salzman's clients: "'I don't understand why an American girl her age should go to a marriage broker.'" Salzman is part of a profession that existed long before Jamestown, so, properly, that profession has established procedures, ritualized and orderly, to accomplish the "bargain" in an unemotional way. The "bargain" represents, of course, a concept quite foreign in the 1940's when Malamud created the story, even though it was still respected in ethnic communities: the concept of wife-ownership, the dowry being the transfer fee, love being a potential possibility after marriage.

Leo requests the old-world tradition because his is an old-world personality. His "severe scholar's nose" and "ascetic lips" illustrate an inactive life. He studied "without time for a social life" even in the midst of that all-American place, New York City. No women, no laughter, no dancing, drinking or theater-going accompanied his life. Even Malamud's style at the first of the story reinforces Leo's lack of action; the verbs indicate that, at most, Leo's eyes can move: "the student pretended not to see," "Leo's eyes fell upon the cards," "Leo gazed up." Generally, Leo merely observes and thinks: "Leo reflected," "He had thought it best," "turning it over in his mind," "But Leo was troubled." The young student does not act, does not take matters into his own hands to accomplish things, a typical American trait, mythologized from colonial times on.

Likewise, he lacks decisiveness, another American characteristic. Leo Finkle wants someone else to act and to decide for him—not a reflection of the American independent streak—rather than to experiment and experience on his own: "he thought it the better part of trial and error—of embarrassing fumbling—to call in an experienced person to advise him…." Leo gets upset "from Salzman's failure to produce a suitable bride for him." It is not his own failure but the matchmaker's failure which bothers Leo because he takes no responsibility for action or decision upon himself.

Leo's lack of initiative parallels his lack of emotion—at least emotions other than embarrassment and uncertainty. His first exposure to matchmaking disconcerts him; "By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts." Peace, calm, control are the traits Leo desires instead of the Huck Finn/Horatio Alger upheavals of an active "American" life in which confidence, anger, and excitement prevail.

Leo's old-world traits make him incapable of finding, pursuing, or captivating an American woman. However, the development in the story is the development of Leo's American personality that finally enables him to love Stella. Malamud parallels this development with the coming of spring and warmth, symbols of fertility and freshness long associated with the new world.

Leo's first change is toward emotionality. Showing emotion may not be a signal of maturity, but it certainly is an element in the typical American personality which is characteristically youthful and exaggerated; consider Ben Franklin, General Custer, and Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The change begins after Leo's epiphany about his own religion: he "found himself possessed by shame and fear. 'I think,' he said in a strained manner, that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.'" Leo sees his own lack of emotion, and his heart begins to pump out feelings from that moment. Subsequently, Leo "was infuriated … and swore," his "anger rose," looking at Stella's photograph he "let out a cry," and seeing Salzman after his discovery of Stella, "Leo was astounded and overjoyed." Malamud writes at this point in language emphasizing the feelings which are surging out of the "new" Leo, a Leo who has "discard[ed] his dark spectacles," letting himself out and the world in.

As emotion comes to Leo, so does a new sense of independent action. The feelings serve as motivation for the young man who is discovering an American identity. His new perspective causes him to think that "love would now come to him and a bride to that love. And for this sanctified seeking who needed a Salzman?" He avoids looking in Salzman's packet of pictures, until weeks later, displaying his new energy and action, "With a sudden relentless gesture he tore it open." As his emotion about Stella increases, so does his bent toward action: "Leo rushed downstairs," "Leo … gave chase and cornered the marriage broker…. Leo, forgetting himself, seized the matchmaker by his tight coat and shook him frenziedly," and at the end as he meets Stella, "Leo ran forward with flowers out-thrust." Like any Pequod captain, Leo is actively pursuing his desires.

Leo would never have known his desires if his Americanization had not included for him a change toward decisiveness. Even after his emotions begin churning, Leo still "did not know where to turn." However, the fixation of his emotions on Stella moves him to decision: "Her he desired." Once his mind is made up, more decisions come to Leo: "He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God." The young man becomes forceful with his convictions, but with a new humility, the humility of a Shane or a Daniel Boone: "'Put me in touch with her, Salzman…. Perhaps I can be of service.'" Such decisiveness about a woman known only from a photograph is perhaps the decision of a stubborn child, but also it is one signal of an American personality, that personality deciding that it can do anything, then proceeding to do it.

Leo's conversion to American traditions reveals itself through his newly developed emotionality, action, and decisiveness. These traits are fostered, obviously, by self-awareness, suffering and love; a woman is the catalyst for each of these. In a very short space, Malamud allows Leo to see himself through Lily Hirschorn and Stella Salzman. Lily forces him to look inward, shockingly to find his lack of love, and Stella allows him to face human suffering, both hers and his, therefore letting him learn love.

Through this conversion, Leo demonstrates one of the American paradoxes: E Pluribus Unum. The rabbinical student has long been alone. However, to be American he must be independent, which ironically occurs only after close association with people. He must know others to be himself; he must be part of society to be himself; Leo must love one other person to love humanity. With this balance of the one and the many, Leo's decisions, actions, and emotions are fully American. Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" is surprisingly similar to "the melting pot," brewing up new commitments in Leo Finkle, the American.

Charles E. May (essay date Spring 1986)

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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 in a final ambiguity: "It is in this sense—a sense in which aesthetic form resolves unresolvable dramatic conflicts—that Malamud departs drastically from the tradition of the Yiddish tale and confronts the demands of modern fictional form."

Many critics have commented on the mysterious tableau-like ending of "The Magic Barrel," noting how what might have been sordid is transformed into something romantic and magical in which the two characters no longer exist as real people but as the essence of lovers in a fairytale world of pure emblems. Mark Goldman argues [in "Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics] that rather than being a realistic dramatic conflict between opposing external forces, the story is a comic fantasy and the conclusion is a "consciously ironic parable" in which 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 basic issue these comments on the story raise is whether the reader is to approach "The Magic Barrel" with the generic expectations that it is a realistic fiction, dramatizing a conflict between "real people," which is then left in an ironic tension; or to approach it as a parable in the older ballad or fairy-tale sense, in which the characters are symbols of psychic states. If the reader approaches the story with the generic expectations that it is both types of fiction at once, the further problem is to determine how the various and sometimes contradictory elements of the two different narrative forms are to be discriminated.

As a specific form of prose fiction, "The Magic Barrel" is a monostory, just as the monodrama is a specific form of drama. With the exception of Leo Finkle, all the other characters are stylized figures that expand into psychological archetypes. Although the story opens in a fairy-tale manner—"Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student"—it soon moves to a realistic level with the young rabbinical student's practical need for a bride. However, it soon becomes clear that a suitable bride who might enable Finkle to win a congregation is not what Finkle really needs at all; rather he needs something on a deeper level that he has yet to discover consciously. As soon as Finkle summons the matchmaker Pinye Salzman, and he suddenly appears one night "out of the dark fourth-floor hallway of the graystone rooming house where Finkle lived," the story moves out of the real world into the interior world of Leo's psyche. And in that world, as Jung points out [in Four Archetypes, 1969], reside the primordial images, the archetypes which may be manifested at moments when a new orientation and a new adaptation are necessary.

The nature of Finkle's unconscious need is made quite clear by the kind of primordial image he summons. Pinye Salzman, who has been "long in the business" and smells "frankly of fish," seems too extreme to be believed. And indeed he is, if perceived as a cynical Jewish con man who finally ends up being sold his own bill of goods. However, if understood as a mythic figure representative of desires within Finkle's own psyche, he can be seen as an archetypal structure that Jung says is of extreme antiquity—the Trickster who symbolizes the instinctual and irrational, driven by the basic needs of sex and hunger. Salzman's constant hunger for fish is a reflection of Finkle's own libido hunger for sexuality, but no matter how much Salzman eats he starves, becoming "transparent to the point of vanishing" until Finkle finally establishes the level of his real need and accepts the wholly sexual Stella. Salzman is the panderer of the primal, the shaman of the primitive female, his daughter, who is the divine whore, the polymorphous perverse primitive.

As the details of Finkle's particular desires for a wife should indicate, the primordial object sought for here is the magic of eroticism which, as is usual in the fairy tale, is sublimated. Stella is surely the essence of love as Eros, that archetypal female figure which Jung describes as anima. That the picture of Stella makes Finkle think of youth and age at the same time, that she looks as though she has deeply suffered yet as though she is evil (in an earlier version of the story Malamud used the word "filth" here instead of "evil"), makes clear that Stella is the primordial anima figure who represents the transcendence of sexuality, the desire and the fear man has of woman. As the conclusion of the story emphasizes, she represents a new life or a rebirth for Finkle, but one that can only follow the death of the old self; it is Finkle that Salzman chants for. As Simone de Beauvoir has pointed out [in The Second Sex, 1974], what man cherishes and detests in woman is the fixed image of his animal destiny. "Woman condemns man to finitude, but she also enables him to exceed his own limits; and hence comes the equivocal magic with which she is endued."

Finkle's initial impression of Salzman is, as is typical of such mana characters, an ambivalent one. Although Salzman has an amiable manner, he has mournful eyes, and he fluctuates throughout between animation and sad repose. Finkle, having devoted himself to his studies for six years, has had no time for a social life and "the company of young women." Apologizing to Salzman for having called in a matchmaker, Finkle says he thought "it the better part of trial and error—of embarrassing fumbling—to call in an experienced person to advise him on these matters." Since "these matters" have to do with the company of young women, more and more Finkle's embarrassment seems to stem from his calling in Salzman to be a pimp for him. This is confirmed when it is established that Finkle is not interested in the attributes of Salzman's clients most typical of the marriage broker, nor in their social status, nor in the amount of dowry the father will supply; rather he is interested in pictures. He wants to know what they look like, how old they are, and whether they are pretty or not. Finkle's real concern is with a young, beautiful virgin. He insists that she be untouched, unspoiled, physically perfect. Finkle wants love and sex, but he wants it to be clean and pure. His embarrassment at Salzman's appearance is obvious. The sound and gesture the cards make as Salzman flips through them "physically hurt Leo" because they reduce his desire to what it really is.

What Finkle truly desires, although it disgusts him, has the genital smell of fish, connected here with turning over cards, which smack of the pornographic deck. The cards come from Salzman's barrel, and the barrel is magic because it is an image of the vaginal barrel itself, and it is inexhaustible. What Finkle must accept is what Henry Miller asserts in The World of Sex: "To enter life by way of the vagina is as good a way as any. If you enter deep enough, remain long enough, you will find what you seek. But you've got to enter with heart and soul—and check your belongings outside."

Because he has been summoned from Finkle's own primal need, Salzman "knows" what his function is, but he plays an elaborate game to test Finkle's consciously-felt reasons for his desire for a bride. When, in the end, Salzman finally relents and grants Stella to him, Finkle correctly has a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way. For when Salzman first sits with Finkle, as he pretends to look through the cards, he is really "noting with pleasure the long, severe, scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain almost hollow quality of the dark cheeks. He gazed around at shelves upon shelves of books and let out a soft, contented sigh." The dichotomy of Finkle's books and Salzman's magic barrel suggests the Schopenhauer antithesis between the brain and the sexual organs: that is, "detachment" from life, which is thought, and "attachment" to life, which is suffering and death.

When Leo tells Salzman that none of his three clients suit him and Salzman asks "What then suits you?" Leo lets it pass "because he could give only a confused answer." Truly, Leo does not know the answer. What would really suit him is something of which he has no actual experience. This is why he has called in the marriage broker in the first place. Leo says he is not interested in widows or schoolteachers, to which Salzman exclaims, "Yiddishe kinder, what can I say to somebody that he is not interested in high school teachers? So what then you are interested?" This is, of course, the central question of the story which previous readers, failing to appreciate its hybrid narrative form, have not adequately answered.

The discrepancy between what Lily Hirschorn expects of Leo and what Leo himself wants of a woman is made clear during their walk together, for Leo's mind is on Salzman who

he uneasily sensed to be somewhere around, hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street, flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union, though there was of course still none.

Leo's vision of a Pan-Salzman and the fertility of union here echoes a vision Finkle has had earlier when Salzman first came to his room when he "observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself." The image is, of course, sexual, suggesting the imagery of sharp-pointed stars in Steinbeck's "Chrysanthemums" as well as the traditional female sexuality of the moon in myth, used in specific detail in Lawrence's "The Woman Who Rode Away."

Leo's despair during the week that follows, the worst week of his life, is the result of his realization that he has "involved himself with Salzman without a true knowledge of his own intent." His terrifying insight is that he called in Salzman because he was not capable of finding a bride for himself—an incapability related to his realization that except for his parents, he had "never loved anybody." It now seems to Leo that his "whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless." The problem here is, as it is throughout the story, that the two kinds of love—divine love and erotic love—are confused in Leo's mind. He never truly disentangles them. At least he never admits his true intent in seeking a bride; he still tries to insist that it is a "sanctified seeking." And although he uses language unconsciously suggesting sexuality when Salzman comes again—"To be frank, I now admit the necessity of premarital love"—he still has failed to "establish the level of his need."

Finkle's discovery of what he really wants, although he still cannot articulate it nor even admit it consciously, occurs when he sees the picture of Stella in the briefcase that stinks of fish. Although after looking at all the pictures he says there is "not a true personality in the lot," it is clear that personality is not what he desires. His first view of Stella, who embodies flesh, regardless of all the chivalric overtones of her name, causes him to cry out in final recognition. His feeling that the eyes are familiar, aside from the mythic connotations of confronting the mysterious stranger who is at the same time familiar, also suggests that Stella is Salzman as well; both are embodiments of primal sexuality which, even as it suggests spring flowers and youth, also implies wastedness and age. Finkle's desire for Stella as well as his fear of her is man's simultaneous archetypal desire and fear of woman which de Beauvoir and others have noted.

When Leo runs to Salzman's house, the fact that he could have sworn he had seen Salzman's wife before simply indicates that she too is Salzman. This similarity and the magic barrel itself, which Leo cannot see in the tenement, he dismisses as figments of his imagination. But they are as real as his previous visions of Salzman's unseen machinations that surround him. For the only reality in the story is the reality of Finkle's need to fall from his books into life. Salzman's refusal to grant Leo Stella, his insistence that it was an accident that the picture was in the briefcase, are all part of Salzman's plan to make Leo himself establish the level of his own need. Leo must be made to admit that he desires what Stella represents. "She is not for you. She is a wild one—wild, without shame. This not a bride for rabbi…. Like an animal…. Like a dog."

Leo hides under the covers and prays to be rid of Stella. But he actually prays that his prayers to be rid of her are not answered. His final rationalization for his physical desire for her is only that—a rationalization: "He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. The idea alternately nauseated and exalted him." The tableau or coda of the story sums up and, as Earl Rovit has suggested, resolves the conflict the only way it can be resolved—through metaphor. The elements of the scene—the spring night, Leo carrying a bouquet of violets and rosebuds, Stella smoking under a street lamp, not quite in the red dress and white shoes of the prostitute, her eyes filled with desperate innocence—combine again divine with erotic love. Leo sees in her his redemption from law and from thought and his fall into lawlessness and feeling. Truly Salzman, always smelling of fish, the sexual smell of the genitals, the smell of man's origin in the sea, makes his chant to the dead for Leo Finkle, but it is a death essential to Leo's life.

One must enter the narrative world of "The Magic Barrel" in the same way that Leo Finkle is finally willing to accept Stella, the way one enters into sexuality—by giving up one's perceptual hold on the usual world of objects and allowing oneself to be carried away. Both Finkle and the reader must relinquish the false boundary between inside and outside, subject and object, real and imaginary. For what is outside Finkle is only the objectification of what is inside. What Salzman and Stella are as objects, they are as the real and only "subject" of the story: Finkle's own objectified desire. The real and the imaginary have no boundaries in "The Magic Barrel," for in that barrel, which is both sex and art at once, one confronts the primal and fearful desire of loss of self and complete union with the other.

Lawrence Jay Dessner (essay date Spring 1988)

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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 of bathos: "He is saved [from sentimentality] … by a certain irreducible sourness in most of his characters and by the intransigence of the circumstances he has created" [Henry Popkin, "Jewish Stories," Kenyon Review (1958)]. And again: "One reason why I salute Mr. Malamud is that in The Magic Barrel he keeps right off the hokum-schmokum, I-should-drop-dead folksy kind of Jewish story for which, I am sure, we would have been all too pathetically grateful" [Keith Waterhouse, "New Short Stories," New Statesman (1960)]. Despite the story's recalling, if avoiding, the genre of the "hokum-schmokum," Alfred Kazin thought it a "little masterpiece," although he noted a limit in Malamud's range because of the extremes to which he seemed forced to go "to outwit his own possible sentimentality" [Contemporaries: From the 19th Century to the Present, 1982]. The Spectator's [Ronald Bryden] found that Malamud skirted sentimentality, that seductive patch of quicksand often lurking in the "slightly hackneyed field of New York Jewish humor." He "has a trick," wrote this critic, "of leading his simple O. Henry anecdotes to suddenly complex, reverberant endings."

The complex ending of "The Magic Barrel," in particular, has become a focus of debate. It presents us with Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student whose pursuit of a bride acceptable to a congregation precipitates a crisis of confidence and then a passionate desire for a young woman whose father had disowned her because of her sins. "A wild one—wild without shame…. Like an animal. Like a dog," is the way the distraught father, Pinye Salzman, the matchmaker, describes her. When "The Magic Barrel" reaches its conclusion, the rabbi-to-be approaches the girl in the character of her suitor, while her father, who had at Leo's desperate urging brought the two together, "chanted prayers for the dead." Like the conventional prostitute, "Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking," but she is wearing white as well as red and Leo "pictured in her his own redemption." As if in celebration of their nuptials, "Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky." This ending has raised more questions than it has settled and it has not, as endings often do, answered questions that had arisen earlier: Did the matchmaker manipulate Leo so as to cause or prompt him to fall in love with Stella? Is he using Leo to get his despised daughter off his hands or does he believe in the possibility of her salvation, and of Leo's, through hers? What is the moral of the piece, its tone and intention? What is the author's attitude to his story, which is to say, what is its genre?

To these and related questions a disconcertingly wide variety of answers have been offered. Some readers, seeming to be making a virtue of necessity, evidently believe "that to reduce the story to specific meaning is to do the author an injustice" [Richard Reynolds, "'The Magic Barrel,'" Studies in Short Fiction (1973)]. On the other hand, a critic insists that those who find the story ambiguous are also those who "actually believe that breaking all the rules and sleeping with a prostitute is a maturational experience" [Bates Hoffer, "The Magic in Malamud's Barrel," Linguistics in Literature (1977)]. It is evidently possible to admire the story greatly without understanding the motivations of one of its central characters and so without understanding its narrator's moral attitude toward the story as a whole. A critic argues that "'The Magic Barrel' is not only the finest piece in the collection … it is perhaps one of the finest stories of recent years." Yet, this critic goes on to say that "it is impossible to tell for whom Pinye chants—for himself and his guilt,… for Finkle's past or Finkle's future, or for all these reasons…. What better reason to chant when to win means to lose" [Sidney Richman, "The Stories," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, 1970]. The story's reputed sentimentality, its "effort to induce an emotional response disproportionate to the situation, and thus to substitute heightened and generally unthinking feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgment," may have spread to the critic who reached this conclusion: "The reader is left with the illogical, vaguely unsettling but deeply moving impression that Pinye's mourning chant somehow captures the pain, suffering, and loneliness of life while also welcoming the possibility of spiritual growth" [Sheldon Hershinow, Bernard Malamud, 1980].

Crucial to the tonal ambiguity of the story's ending, and therefore to questions of its sentimentality, is the problem of Salzman's motivation. To some readers, this problem is without a solution: "The reader, like Leo, is left wondering whether Pinye is merely a clever con-man or a spiritual teacher" [Hershinow]. To others, the solution is quite clear: Salzman is an "imposter" "who has neither office nor magic barrel filled with dossiers of choice brides." His prayer for the dead "signifies that the rabbinical student is lost to the faith" [Jeffrey Helterman, Understanding Bernard Malamud, 1985]. Still others have found that Salzman's prayer mourns "the death of the old Leo who was incapable of love," and "celebrat[es] his birth into a new life." In this view, Salzman "engages in a ruse" to teach Leo that "love is existential" [Theodore Miller, "The Minister and the Whore," Studies in the Humanities (1972)]. But an equally confident reader speaks of "an ending of powerful affirmation [in which] the student, re-jecting all of Salzman's goods, fastens upon the broker's own daughter, a girl who is clearly marked as bad luck" [Charles Alva Hoyt, "The New Romanticism," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics]. The implication here is that Salzman sought unsuccessfully to lure Leo into an unexceptional but morally deleterious match with one of his aging or otherwise poorly qualified clients. Leo's preference for the tainted daughter affirms then the Nietzschean virtues of the self-destructive personality. Elsewhere, evidence that would dissolve the story's seeming "paradox" has been found in parallels of varying explicitness between Salzman and the goat-god Pan, and there is a critic who concludes that Malamud's ending is "a kind of Joycean epiphany" which makes the story "a consciously ironic parable and not an escape from tragedy" [Mark Goldman, "Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics].

The difficulties we have been reviewing arise not from any essential obscurity in the story, but from its author's and its narrators' unrelenting and exhilarating playfulness and from the failure on the part of critics to attend to that playfulness, to let themselves see that this serious story is awash in jokes about the literary genres to which "The Magic Barrel" belongs or alludes. (It may be too easy to forget that Matthew Arnold's own attack on the bleak, even dingy, tone of the middle-class heroes of Victorian Hebraic moral seriousness was itself often made with Hellenic sprightliness.) The literary games being so vigorously played on the field of "The Magic Barrel" are not ends in themselves but means of expressing the moral dichotomies which can be derived from the fundamentally contradictory meanings of the word "magic." The word refers equally well to the clever tricks of the stage magician as to the miracles performed by the God-obsessed prophet or by a supernatural power itself. The word invokes the actions of the trickster which are so complex as to appear, but only to appear, to be beyond rational, logical, explanation or cause as well as those God-like actions which are by definition uncaused, beyond the explanations of reason. By playing on this doubleness of meaning, "The Magic Barrel" asks about the kind of magic which is at work in the universe it imagines. Are the wonders of this universe explicable, subject to rational analysis, or are they beyond reason's power and understanding? That the story does not answer this question of questions does not mean that it is an ambiguous work. The story's point is that the universe the story imagines—a convenient stand-in for the one we inhabit—is ambiguous, indecipherable, suffused with uncertainty about its relationship, if any, to Deity, if any. This radical doubt is not presented as a cause for heavy-headed dismay. Here, as in much of Malamud's fiction, radical skepticism is not burdensome but a provocation to delight.

The joyful playfulness at the heart of "The Magic Barrel," thwarting and perplexing some of its best readers, is voiced through an incessant irony. Often obvious, often subtle, irony permeates "The Magic Barrel" as much as the shadow of sentimentality does. In suggesting now that its universe is mundane, now that it is miraculous, it takes away with one hand what it gives with the other while pretending, straight-faced, to be unaware of this duplicity. Or rather it pretends to pretend to be so unaware. It says things it only wishes to be true, unsaying them at the very instant of their utterance. Sentimentality is undercut by rude skepticism, faith by naturalistic doubt, but then that doubt is questioned by the manifestation of the supernatural, that skepticism by the advent, sentimental or otherwise, of hope.

The oscillation of the implied author's faith is constantly figured in his wavering loyalty to the conventions of literary genre, which in turn determines the narrator's style of self-presentation, the descriptions of natural phenomena, the problematic character of Pinye Salzman, and the basis of the obsession which so suddenly and insistently draws the rabbinical student to the prostitute.

The agent of the story's irony, the narrator, is himself a figure of irreducible contradiction. His speech, the essence of his action as narrator, is not that of a native speaker of English, at least as the story begins: "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 inclusion of the definite article before the identifying name of the university marks the sentence off from the received standard English of educated discourse. Both "in the University" and "in University" have the flavor of the British upper classes. "At the University" and "at Yeshivah University" are unexceptional American idiomatic forms. Our narrator sidesteps these possibilities for a Yiddish-flavored alternative. And there is something elusively but surely not "right" either about "though crowded with books." We understand that the relative abundance of books is judged by our narrator to stand in a compensating relationship to the shortcomings of the apartment, and it is heartening to hear that commonplace in whatever dialect, but our narrator is imperfectly sensitive to the nuances of standard idiom. If we recast the phrase we hear that "In a small, almost meager room which was, however, crowded with books," while not without its awkwardness, is in its sound and syntax as surely native as the original version is not.

But no sooner have we adjusted our expectations to the peculiarities of this narrator's voice and to his chosen genre then both the dialect and the fairy tale ambience, the vagueness of placement in time and space—"Not long ago" is a variant of "Once upon a time," "in uptown New York" a version of "somewhere west of Laramie" or a seacoast in Bohemia—vanish without either warning or trace:

Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.

Vagueness has given way to exactness of reference—"six," "June," "two," "two"—and the narrator's language has become elegantly correct. We notice the gracefully rhythmic alliteration of: "advised by an acquaintance," and "after two tormented days of turning it over." There is the tactfully and delicately-expressed prudence and its correctly accompanying subjunctive: "he might find," "if he were married." The verb in "Win himself a congregation" is precisely the right one, not indeed as formal as our narrator himself might choose, too flippant in its metaphor's suggestion of play or deceit to suit Leo himself, but certainly the very one Leo's acquaintance, who is tacitly quoted here, found comfortably appropriate. Notice the dignity suggested by that "present" before "prospects," that insinuated assurance that we are among men of the world here, upper lips stiff, for whom even an emotional crisis will be taken in stride. True, Finkle is "tormented," but for two "days" instead of the expected "nights," and his "turning … over" occurs in the decorous safety of "his mind" rather than bodily on a bed of pain.

The narrator, that voice that effortlessly slides from the untutored dialect of the foreign born to the eloquent precision of the highly educated writer, will in due course be seen to be at his ease recording references to Salzman's colorful dialect and Yiddish ("Yiddishe kinder"), yet knowledgeable with regard to French tags ("au courant," "petite") and classical mythology ("a cloven-hoofed Pan"). The volatile instability of the narrator's identity is integral to the shifting of his story's genre from speech-oriented folk or fairy tale or parable of wisdom to highly literate, even bookish, modern skeptical realism. Playfully, as if to celebrate by making unmistakably obvious his own remarkable range of cultural reference and the story's dazzling inconsistencies, the narrator enters Leo's consciousness at a moment when the language and special knowledge of both Jewish and Christian orthodoxy are placed in ludicrous juxtaposition in a single consciousness: "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."

Here and at other points in the story when what is at hand is not the abstract or symbolic pain of fairy tale but realism's implacable and concrete anguish, the narrator drops his Yiddish-flavored dialect and his playful use of the fairy tale's magical, that is, supernatural, conventions. But such reversions to sober seriousness of content and presentation are always short-lived, soon interrupted or concluded when the merciful spirit of play reasserts itself. In the midst of Leo's agony, for instance, the narrator refers to it with a folkloric, non-realistic image: "His beard darkened." The result of such narrative maneuvers is delighted surprise, comic relief, and a distancing reminder that Leo is nothing more than a character in what is not only a fiction but a fairy tale. Suddenly, he becomes a flat rather than a round character, and we may laugh at him and his plight, knowing that the genre of which we have just been reminded will not permit him to suffer too deeply, too long, or without due recompense.

The narrator's playfulness with the conventions of genre is not limited, however, to the psychological effect of transmuting the reader's pain to pleasure. His failures of consistency announce and enforce an agnostic's freedom from dogma, a joyously playful willingness not to know more about the moral universe but that it is eternally and provocatively not to be known.

The second paragraph of our story initiates what will become an elaborate play with the tantalizing but incomplete evidence of the metaphysical status of Pinye Salzman. He "appeared one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway." The aura of the supernatural that the title and opening words of "The Magic Barrel" have let out of the bag, as it were, tempts us to imagine the matchmaker literally "appearing," that is materializing out of spirit into the semblance of flesh, literally extruding himself "out" of the smoky gloom of the poorly lit hallway. Repeatedly, Salzman is said to "appear," "reappear," and "disappear" "as if on the wings of the wind." The cumulative suggestion is that he materializes rather than merely moves from place to place. Often his appearance comes at the most opportune time, as far as his prospects go of making a customer out of Leo. On one occasion, for instance, Leo dismisses Salzman in exasperation, but no sooner does Leo's anger leave him than "almost at once there came a knock on the door" and Salzman "was standing in the room." It is not clear whether Salzman walked into the room or beamed himself down in it.

The second part of the sentence which introduces Salzman reins us in. The man, if man he be, is "grasping a black, strapped portfolio that had been worn thin with use." His "overcoat [is] too short and tight for him." With this and what immediately follows, the spell of the folk or fairy tale is weakened. Salzman has become no more than a long-suffering, hard-working mortal. The narrator, expressing sympathy for his humble, arduous, and unremunerative calling, briefly drops down into the matchmaker's own dialect: "Salzman, who had been long in the business…." (Standard English for that would be, "Salzman, who had been in the business a long time….") His clothes are poor, he is missing some teeth, and he "smelled, frankly, of fish, which he loved to eat." But despite these unpromising attributes, Salzman still may be some sort of spirit, goblin, phantom, in deep disguise, for "his presence [as in the 'presence' of royalty, perhaps] was not displeasing [our narrator has resumed his impeccably correct British English with its habitual litotes], because of an amiable manner curiously contrasted with mournful eyes." Notice the elegant play of m's and c's in that phrase, and, on the vowel side, of the a's of "because of an amiable manner." Except for the missing teeth, Salzman's eyes are the first of his facial features to be noticed. (They will prove to be of primary importance before long.) Then comes his aesthete's "wisp of beard" and "bony fingers." Then the eyes again, "mild blue eyes [which] revealed a depth of sadness." And it is this "characteristic," the narrator tells us, which first appealed to Leo, putting him "a little at ease."

When the matchmaker and his client settle down to business, they do so "at a table near a window that overlooked the lamp-lit city." Like the opening words, "Not long ago," "lamp-lit" carries a hint of the days before electric light, of gas, even of oil. But, typically for this story, the question is complicated by the facts that the post which supports modern electric street lighting is still called a "lamppost" and modern electrical fixtures are commonly called "lamps." Suggestive as it may be, "the lamp-lit city" is not a reliable index to the story's historical period. Similarly, as suggestive as Salzman's eyes, beard, hands, and entrance may be, they tell us nothing for certain about his metaphysical status. And complementing and echoing these ambiguities is the narrator himself, about whose ethnic origins and loyalties, as expressed in his habits of speech, we will be in a state of bemused ignorance until it dawns upon us that he is himself a notable aspect of the comedy of ambiguity he is presenting to us.

Some will need only the next page or so before such dawning, for when the very sensitive Leo, distressed by Salzman's way of flipping through the cards on which his female offerings are described, looks away from him, "He now observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself." This is the first of five scenes in "The Magic Barrel" which have reminded readers of the painter Marc Chagall. [In an endnote, Dessner states: "The others are: Salzman 'hiding … in a tree,… or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan,' 'a profusion of loaves of bread … flying like ducks over his head,' Leo's years of study seen as 'pages torn from a book, strewn over the city,' and' Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky.'"] Indeed, Chagall's paintings are known for the way figures, animate and inanimate, appear floating high in the sky. Both artists seem to use a similar method to testify to the presence of the supernatural in the realm of nature. As Sandy Cohen says [in Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love, 1974], "Chagall suspends the laws of physics to portray the parallels and the harmony between this world and the next—between the physical and the spiritual…." Unlike Chagall's paintings, however, Malamud's linear art permits him to have it more than one way. Not only do his enchanted skyscapes, unlike Chagall's, vanish as suddenly as they materialize, but they are embedded in the context of the story's characters and train of events. There is more than one way then to understand the significance of this and of the story's other instances of unusual objects floating in defiance of gravity. My analysis of this one should provide a pattern pertinent to those other scenes as well.

Clouds do indeed float in the sky, taking all sorts of shapes, including those reminiscent of the shapes of animals. The fastidious Leo, distressed by the way his search for a wife has led him into embarrassing and uncomfortably intimate discussions with the crude matchmaker, distressed too by his increasing awareness of his own ominous moral and even spiritual inadequacies, has turned away from Salzman. He "pretended not to see" Salzman flipping through his "much-handled" index cards on which are written the vital statistics of his marriage-minded offerings and instead "gazed steadfastly out the window." Faced for the first time with the practical aspects of courtship and with the probability of his own impending marriage, Leo's mind and heart are in a tumult. At this moment, the narrator reminds us that Leo's upheaval about love and sex involves the eternal cycle of natural rebirth: "Although it was still February, winter was on its last legs, signs of which he had for the first time in years begun to notice." Leo had told Salzman that he had for the past "six years devoted himself almost entirely to his studies" so that he knew little of "the company of women." But in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, so, like a patient being tested with Rorschach ink blots, Leo projects his immediate obsessions out onto the canvas of the sky and interprets one of the cloud shapes as a female doing what females as females do, laying an egg. The roughly egg-shaped moon passes behind the translucent clouds among which is one which roughly resembles and readily brings to Leo's recently sensitized mind the idea of a hen. This isn't simply fantasy or fairy tale in the manner of Chagall, an index to this world's essential spirituality; it is psychological realism in the manner of Freud. Indeed, before that hen gives birth, it is said to have been "penetrated." No wonder Leo watches "with half-open mouth" in awe and astonishment.

This comic, psychological interpretation of the episode, however, ignores the use of the moon in its ancient role in the iconography of love. It ignores the charming touch of the fairy-tale imagination which pictures "winter" as a worn-out old man "on his last legs," and it ignores that conventional association of romance which requires the progress of the seasons of correspond to the progress of the protagonist. The peak of Leo's sexual expressiveness will occur, of course, at the end of the story on a "spring night." The glowing February moon, like the entire skyscape, is not only symbolic. Both "round" and "white," as our narrator describes it, the moon is an index to Leo's susceptibility to feminine voluptuousness.

This discussion of the play of genres would not be complete without our noting that here, as repeatedly in "The Magic Barrel," the psychological drama of the young male's belated entrance into social, sexual, and ethical maturity appropriates the conventions, not of dramatic realism, but of farce. Take for instance Leo's repeatedly embarrassing encounters with his landlady. Her love-obsessed boarder, who has just walked out of a cafeteria without paying, fails to recognize her as she saunters past him in the street. When Leo, "sensing his own disagreeableness," apologizes to her for this and other lapses, he does so so "abjectly" that the poor woman "ran away from him." This slap-stick sequence is a parody of Leo's serious problems. He has a lot to learn about women and about himself. But serious as his plight presents itself to him, its farcical elements and the narrator's handling of the telling of it assures the reader, for the moment at least, that a happy ending rather than a life in therapy, or with a wife in therapy, or some even worse fate will be Leo's portion. Later, when Leo is faced with the most difficult crisis life has thus far offered him, he "hurried up to bed and hid under the covers." In farce such behavior assures escaping the worst. Here, at an early stage of his search for a wife, staring out the window at those remarkable clouds, Leo is presented as the conventionally comic, sexcrazed adolescent. He is sweating in anguish behind as dignified a front as he can manage, and we are all amused. The more he suffers, the more we laugh.

Between the story's conventional situation of the sexually innocent male's confrontation with the experienced female and the narrator's agile, tongue-in-cheek transformations of both the story's genre and the narrator's tone and manner, the story hovers at the edge of hilarity. At the same time, the pathos of Leo's plight and the implicit promise of his escape from it hover at the edge of sentimentality. And yet also at the same time, the "shame and fear" that "possessed" Leo when he told Lily H., one of Salzman's prospects, "that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not," that "he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man," have the seriousness and dignity associated with tragedy. And yet at this moment, when his "terrifying insight" "brought him to the point of panic" and Leo "covered his face with his hands and cried," Malamud's complex and ironic juggling of generic conventions dissolves the boundaries between fairy tale, moral fable, psychological realism, sentimental hokum, and farce.

In the midst of Leo's absorption with the hen in the sky, the narrator wipes away the trace of a smile that was making itself more and more discernible and replaces it with a poker player's face from which issue these sober tones:

Salzman, though pretending through eyeglasses he had just slipped on, to be engaged in scanning the writing on the cards, stole occasional glances at the young man's distinguished face, noting with pleasure the long, severe scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain, almost a hollow quality of the dark cheeks. He gazed around at shelves upon shelves of books and let out a soft, contented sigh.

Where has our overage trouble-prone comic adolescent gone? Where our narrator's accent and fairy-tale practices? And perhaps the most arresting questions arise here: is Pinye Salzman, who speaks of his eligible women as merchandise and lies freely both to them and to Leo, merely the insensitive, materialistic matchmaker he appears to be? Is his sigh the traditional humble Jew's appreciation of learning or the greedy tradesman's gloating over his prey? Or, in keeping with fairy-tale convention and with the suggestions of supernatural powers that often accompany him, is Salzman some sort of ministering angel or fairy godfather, chuckling to himself about his projected course of action, his strategy for redeeming the strayed man of God? Or is Salzman closer to the Satanic model, leading Leo to destruction either for the ordinary devilish reasons or merely in hopes of saving, or at least providing for, his own daughter? Much of the story is concerned with the oxymoronic and impenetrable epithet the narrator applies to Salzman in passing, "commercial cupid," businessman divinity.

Avid to meet the girl whose photograph has so appealed to him, Leo travels by subway to Salzman's Bronx address but finds him not at home. His wife says that his office is "in the air," an allusion to the Yiddish tradition of the luftmensch, as well as yet another suggestion of Salzman's supernatural status. [In an endnote, Dessner comments on the definition of luftmensch: "Literally, a man of the air. In The Joys of Yiddish (1968), Leo Rosten's definitions include 'an impractical fellow, but optimistic,' and 'One without an occupation, who lives or works ad libitum.' Rosten captures the spirit of the type by recalling Israel Zangwill's fictional luftmensch whose business cards read 'Dentist and Restaurateur.'"] Leo returns directly to his apartment and is "astounded" to find the matchmaker there waiting for him. Since Leo travelled by subway, it does not seem possible that, short of flying, Salzman could have reached Leo's apartment ahead of him unless Salzman had started for his apartment before Leo had left word for him and that explanation, which would involve a remarkable coincidence or Salzman's ability to know what Leo was thinking, seems equally improbable. Leo's question, "How did you get here before me?" confronts Salzman with the issue of his essential nature, but Salzman parries Leo's question by an answer of enigmatic curtness, "I rushed." It is a stylistic hallmark of the story that Salzman, Leo, and the narrator are capable of similarly terse and abrupt comic deflections. When Lily H. learns that Leo is not "enamored of God" in the way she had hoped, the narrator sums up her disappointment—and undercuts the pathos of it—by the comic, summary sentence, rhyming, balanced in structure, and intricately alliterative, "Lily wilted." When Leo catches Salzman in his salesman's exuberance representing one of his clients to be "Age twenty-nine," three years younger than she had earlier been said to be, it is Leo's turn for the memorably terse, comic rejoinder, "Reduced from thirty-two?" It is as if Leo, Salzman, and the narrator, despite their great differences in role and in manner, were co-conspirators in the story's generation of comic ambiguities. After Salzman's explanation which explains nothing, Leo lets the matter drop, joining the conspiracy not to pursue the question of Salzman's nature to a conclusion.

Another question with far-reaching ramifications for our understanding of Salzman and the story is that of the "magic" barrel itself. Boasting to Leo about the large number of his clients, Salzman says his drawers are filled with index cards and so "I keep them now in a barrel." Whether or not Pinye Salzman literally possesses such a barrel—"magic" or otherwise—we are, however, debarred from knowing. One would think that the barrel is merely Salzman's metaphor, and Leo, seeing no sign of it in Salzman's apartment, tells himself that it is "probably also a figment of the imagination." But Malamud doesn't even let this detail escape his veil of ambiguity. The narrator tells us that a curtain divided Salzman's one-room apartment and that the curtain was "half-open." Leo's search then was necessarily limited. We have been at this impasse before, but perhaps we can move past it by considering the nature and result of Salzman's ministrations, whether plotted or inadvertent, that is, Leo's sudden yet lasting infatuation, if the word does not prejudge the analysis, with Stella. What can we make of that infatuation?

As with other aspects of "The Magic Barrel," analysis of its central event, Leo's sudden, strong attraction to Stella, leads toward contradictory results and these in turn toward differing ideas of the story's overall tendency. In fact, the nature of Leo's reaction to the snapshot of Salzman's daughter is the story's determining question. Salzman may be nothing more than a shallow and greedy salesman, a cynical peddler of damaged and discounted goods, and yet the world in which he plies his trade may be thought to be redeemed by Leo's response to his daughter's photograph: "He gazed at it a moment and let out a cry." Considerations of career, propriety, and self, are cast aside in an instant:

Her face deeply moved him. Why, he could not at first say. It gave him the impression of youth—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…. It was not, he affirmed, that she had an extraordinary beauty—no, though her face was attractive enough; it was that something about her moved him. Feature for feature, even some of the ladies of the photographs could do better; but 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; it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes…. Her he desired. His head ached and eyes narrowed with the intensity of his gazing, 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.

The initial shock is expressed in a wordless "cry." Then Leo, by instinct as well as training an inveterate analyst, seeks an explanation for what has happened to him. He identifies as possible causes the paradox of Stella's aura which combines both youth and age and the paradox of strangeness and familiarity. He assures himself that his experience is not one of mere sexual arousal: Stella is not "an extraordinary beauty." He returns to his initial formulation, the combination of youth and age, innocence and experience, attraction and repulsion. Then Leo drops his inconclusive and half-hearted analysis. Readers of "The Magic Barrel," however, will want to stay with the analysis longer in hopes that doing so will clarify the story's ambiguities of genre and intention.

Leo himself seems to think that Stella's having "deeply suffered" is paramount. He speaks repeatedly of being "of service" to her and of finding "redemption" in so doing. We recall his earlier self-diagnosis and understand that Leo hopes to love God better through loving mankind better. That Stella has made herself ineligible for ordinary love only raises the stakes toward Dostoevskian heights.

Leo is unaware of the farcical and sentimental aspects of his program and not concerned to try to understand the genesis of his sudden passion for Stella which engendered this drama, or melodrama, of redemption through suffering. Having fallen in love, he knows what he wants to do about it but has no interest in discovering why and how his passion was aroused. Indeed, his offering no explanation of that allows the implication that there is no explanation, that his falling in love, in that it passeth understanding, was an intrusion of the irrational, that is, of the uncaused, into an otherwise rational universe. This is an essentially religious, albeit unorthodox view, at least as consonant with Christianity as with some forms of contemporary Judaism. Not through reason and a knowledge of "the Five Books and all the Commentaries," but through the magical allure of Salzman's fallen daughter, has Leo learned to serve his fellow mortals and so come, as Lily put it, "to be enamored of God."

This interpretation of the events is so lacking in Malamud's usual playfulness and yet so mined with submerged ironies that one is tempted to say that only a Leo could believe it. Unlike Leo, readers of the story are not likely to forget the other possibilities that Leo himself had repeatedly raised. Soon after being smitten by Stella, he obtains her father's agreement to arrange a meeting with her and is then "afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way." This is a resurgence of earlier fears that he was being manipulated by Salzman, even that Salzman had supernatural means of doing so. In the aftermath of his troubling meeting with Lily, "he would not put past Salzman's machinations" the fact that "it snowed." For Salzman to have planned Leo's falling in love with Stella, Salzman would have had to slip her picture in with the others left with Leo.

But this would only insure Leo's seeing the photograph. To insure Leo's falling in love because of it would require Salzman to have and to employ superhuman powers. The idea that Leo's love for Stella was beyond reason meshes with the story's fairy-tale ambience, with its surrealistic skyscapes, and with those miraculous aspects of Salzman's powers. The happy coherence of these motifs and the overall interpretation they point to is undercut, however, by the equally coherent view that whatever magic we find in "The Magic Barrel" is of the sleight-of-hand variety, the gods having departed. In this view, Leo's distress about his sexual and theological identity is nothing more than a mask for what is biological and psychological, another rather elementary instance, like the "penetrated" hen in the clouds, of Freudian sublimation. Since he is by training a man of the cloth, his choice of explication and justification of the events is made for him. The theme of redemption through a fallen woman is a fanciful piece of self-deception, a mere conventional cover for what is apparent to all disinterested—and thoroughly amused—observers. Leo has hidden his sexual passions under a cloak of mystery and charity and the old chestnut about the prostitute with a heart of gold: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" How effectively that conventional question preempts inquiry about the nice boy's motives for being in the same place!

The cynical view that love can be understood as an expression of rational functioning of biological and psychological mechanisms gains support by a discovery Leo himself makes. At the critical instant of the critical moment, with Stella before him in her ambiguously suggestive red and white, Leo has an insight that resolves his conflict and sends him forth "with flowers out thrust" and which cues another celebration, or psychological projection, in the heavens: "Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky." Leo hesitates no longer: "He pictured, in her, his own redemption." The critical discovery that comes to Leo at this moment is that Stella's eyes, "filled with desperate innocence," "were clearly her father's." No wonder he was so intrigued when he first saw her picture. Her eyes were both "hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange." The mystery of Leo's fascination with Stella is then no mystery at all, not the consequence of a manifestation of spiritual or supernatural "magic" in the mundane world. What has happened has been the result of the biological probability that Stella's eyes would resemble her father's.

Malamud's narrator has been reminding us of Salzman's eyes and of Leo's responsiveness to them from the very beginning. However crass Salzman's behavior, those "mournful" eyes are more than compensation to Leo. They "revealed a depth of sadness"; they are "melancholy eyes" and "haunted eyes." Leo's sense that Stella has suffered, "been used to the bone, wasted," and been sanctified by that suffering, "came from the eyes." One could say that Leo is responding to more than the unaccountable familiarity of the eyes in Stella's picture, that he senses in them her father's sensitivity to and experience of redemptive suffering.

Malamud's text also sanctions a comic complication of this already deeply ironic interpretation. Leo's discovery of Stella's resemblance to her father, as it happens, is not his first such discovery of her inherited traits. Having fallen in love with Stella through her photograph, Leo rushes to Salzman's apartment. After all, her picture was among those Salzman left for him. His first response to the "thin, gray-haired woman, in felt slippers" who opens the door is this: "He could have sworn he had seen her, too, before but knew it was an illusion." Even though Leo says this resemblance is "an illusion," readers need not be misled by this ironic narrative ruse into believing that Stella resembles her father but not her mother. While alert readers of "The Magic Barrel" sense that the link between Stella and her mother will involve a link between Stella and her father, Leo himself is unaware of this so that we have the delicious dramatic irony of his continuing to run "around in the woods."

In the end, despite his daring decision to pursue it differently, love has come to Leo Finkle after all in the time-honored way both Salzman and Leo's tradition recommend, "as a by-product of living and worship." His intercourse with Salzman, his exposure to the matchmaker's vivacious energy, his "amiable manner," and his notably solemn eyes have produced, as a by-product, the rabbinical student's infatuation with the older man. This "love" makes itself known to us, but surely not to Leo, in the younger man's adoption of the older's mannerisms of speech and salient characteristics of appearance. Leo thinks he loves Stella, but when he finds Salzman in a cafeteria. "Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom." He has become a novice in the service of Pinye Salzman. His speech, too, formally so impeccably "Americanized" (Salzman's word in boasting about Lily's qualifications), now sounds like this: "It is not impossible," and "Just her I want." Of course Leo cannot marry Salzman, who among other things is already married, nor can he admit to himself his predilection. Fortunately, fortuitously, Stella comes along. Leo transfers his passion to her, concocts, subconsciously, his highly acceptable if sentimental rationale for his unusual marital choice, and down comes the curtain on the play. It has been a fairy tale, or a farce, except we have been deeply touched by the characters as individuals and by the seriousness of their plights. It has been a work of psychological realism, except that the tongue in cheek has too prominently bulged. It has been a moral fable, except for the indeterminacy of its moral grounds and for the inconsistency of its generic conventions. Whatever Salzman's magic is, Malamud's art is much more than what is implied by "a trick," or even a bag of tricks. Now, a barrel? That's another story altogether.

"Leaning against a wall," which cannot but allude to the ancient wailing wall in the old city of Jerusalem, "Salzman chanted prayers for the dead." It is reasonable to expect that a story that offers and then undercuts diverse interpretations about so much should encourage conflicting views about all its parts. But the only "dead" person in "The Magic Barrel" is, or was, Stella. "This is why to me she is dead now," cried her father, grieving over her moral failure, her fate worse than death. (As if to clarify the matter, Malamud added "to me" after the Partisan Review publication.) Stella's father, seeing his daughter on the road to salvation, or on the road to easy street, or at last off his hands and off his mind, or even about to make a connection with the rabbinical student for whom he himself harbors warm feelings, prays. The Jewish prayers for the dead, the Kaddish, do not mention death. "They are praises to God." However Pinye Salzman understands the event, he has good reason to praise God in thanksgiving. In whatever diverse ways we choose to read its genres, to play the game of "The Magic Barrel," or by extension to accept our endlessly enigmatic universe, we may all join in its praise.

Brian Adler (essay date Fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3981

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 himself to his heart and reintegrating himself into the emotional and spiritual wellsprings of his community. In order to do this, Finkle must encounter Salzman, his symbolic, father, who will challenge the young man in problematic ways. The final scene of the story, with Salzman, "leaning against a wall, [chanting] prayers for the dead," signifies that Finkle has been returned to his community and has now begun the process of living fully within it.

To understand more clearly how the interaction between father and son foregrounds issues and concerns involving an individual's connection to his community, we must begin by examining what Ita Sheres calls [in "The Alienated Sufferer: Malamud's Novels from the Perspective of Old Testament and Jewish Mystical Thought," Studies in American Jewish Literature (1978)] "the first and main key to the understanding of Bernard Malamud's fiction." This is the Akedah (Hebrew for "binding"), which refers to God's commandment that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac in order to demonstrate his faith (Genesis 22:1-10). Certainly one of the most powerful father-and-son stories in our culture, the Akedah contains all of the essential Malamudian elements: imprisonment, obligation, conflict between father and son, faith, and liberation. For Sheres, the Akedah's significance comes from being predominately a story about "deliberate alienation," a theme obviously important in modern fiction. Although the story of Abraham and Isaac portrays the problematical and divisive elements in the relationship between father and son, the tale is ultimately concerned with integration; we are told that after Abraham has sacrificed the ram in Isaac's place, the two "arose and went together" down Mount Moriah, back to their camp (Gen. 22:19). While damage has been done to Isaac, on a certain level he has been brought to a fuller knowledge of what his father's God can demand of him, and he has come to see what his father might demand of him as well.

In this heightened moment of obligation, fear, and imminent death, the involvement of father and son leads to the recognition of something that transcends the pair, which demonstrates how the Akedah operates on a higher level, one with great significance for our discussion of "The Magic Barrel." Because Abraham is willing to do God's bidding, not only are Abraham and Isaac to be blessed, but, as God's angel tells Abraham, "in your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). Religiously speaking, the action of the Akedah has great significance; as Jonathan Magonet says [in "Abraham and God," Judaism (1984)], "What is at stake with the calling and testing of Abraham is no less than the survival and the future of humanity." Looked at in a broader context, the action of binding produces a radical change in the individual, somewhat at his immediate expense, but ultimately, for the welfare of the community and for the good of the individual subsumed by that community. Indeed, the significance of the Akedah is that it shows us action taken by an individual transcending the individual. Abraham's actions have meaning and significance beyond the limits of self; with Isaac's acceptance of the burdens of binding, the line of coherent transmission through time of crucial religious and cultural values is assured. The son's contact with the father acts as "the promise of renewal … for the family and the culture" [George Sebouhian, "From Abraham and Isaac to Bob Slocum and My Boy: Why Fathers Kill Their Sons," Twentieth Century Literature 27 (Spring 1981)], but only because the life-threatening situation brought upon the son by the father metamorphosizes into a declaration of continuity and life.

Ultimately, it is recognition of what Abraham the father does for the community that gives his behavior toward Isaac meaning. By acting as he does, Abraham demonstrates the importance of community and the necessity of preserving it. And within the Jewish context of the story, God makes it clear, by telling Abraham that His gift of the covenant will pass on to Isaac and his descendants, that the placing of value upon the community over the individual has been the right thing for Abraham to do. Perhaps damaged, certainly changed, Isaac, through his experience with the father, is now aware of what God may demand of His people. But rather than conveying complete alienation, the Akedah delivers two highly ambivalent messages about the process that binds individuals to each other and to greater ideals: first, fathers (and gods) can destroy, but they can also save; second, the binding of an in dividual to a community does not come without damage and tremendous change.

It is within this context of the Akedah that we must look at the relationship between Pinye Salzman and Leo Finkle. We shall see how Salzman functions as a symbolic father to the young Leo Finkle. Leo is trapped in the darkness and sterility of his loveless heart, a heart atrophied through years of neglect while he pursued his rabbinical degree. Salzman, "who had been long in the business" of life as well as marriage making, represents values of the heart, knowledge that Finkle does not yet have. The marriage broker gives Finkle the chance to come back to life. Through the ministrations of Salzman, Leo is able to burst the walls of his emotional prison, thrusting flowers in front of him into the fertile spring air, toward the waiting Stella. At the story's conclusion, Salzman produces the codifying sign of completion for the rabbinical student. Salzman's chanting of prayers for the dead indicates that a circle has been made complete, with life and death as necessary halves joined into a totality. Leo, through his encounter with his symbolic father, will be brought into the community from which he is, at the outset of the story, alienated.

Finkle begins his relationship with the father as a son who ambivalently calls upon the father for help. Nearing the end of one kind of life and about to begin another, Leo is undergoing a metamorphosis, caused by his imminent graduation and ordination in June. Accepting an acquaintance's advice, that Finkle "might find it easier to win a congregation if he were married," the student, "[a]fter two tormented days" decides to call in a marriage broker. He has no friends, no contacts with the world beyond his books. Certainly his torment is due in part to embarrassment at having a stranger enter into his private affairs, even though marriage brokers were and still are an accepted part of many Orthodox Jewish communities. That Finkle feels so uncomfortable about consulting a schaddhan, even though he admits knowing the "function of the marriage broker was ancient and honorable, highly approved in the Jewish community," is a sign of his alienation from that ethnic community. But his torment also indicates resentfulness that his isolated way of life must be disturbed. On a psychological level, Finkle is feeling the urges of new life, and he is afraid. He will have to open his life to influences he has until now ignored and repressed.

Leo must open himself to ideas of community, connection, and life. Opening is difficult to do when the emissary of these mysteries appears so objectionable to the student's sensibilities. Salzman carries note cards of his clients, which "he flipped through …, a gesture and sound that physically hurt Leo." Many readers note that Salzman, called by Malamud a "commercial cupid," goes about his business like a used-car salesman. Yet it is Leo who asks for pictures, the equivalent of kicking the tires before making a down payment. Salzman replies, "First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind promises." The theme of integration with the community is sounded, as well as the idea of covenant, and the attendant burdens that such "promises" might bring. The first three women Salzman suggests to Leo meet with rejection. A widow, age twenty-four. A woman too old, thirty-two. A nineteen-year-old with a lame foot. Each woman carries a blemish, a bruise given her by life, by straying too close to life's heat. Leo, because of his isolation, has remained unscathed, with no blemishes.

Salzman chides the student, saying he has "no experience" when it comes to choosing the best wife. He presses Leo to explain why, if age and virginity are factors important to him, he dismisses the nineteen-year-old. Leo blamed his rejection of the girl on, significantly, her father, who is a stomach specialist. He says, "I detest stomach specialists," hiding his distaste of the girl's lame foot, while revealing a truer reason for his rejection of her. The stomach, the gut, is the center of the fully lived life, the beginning of the bowels, where the gritty and unpleasant but absolutely necessary work of living is done. The expression "To have no guts" means to retreat from, not to ingest, experiences life has to offer.

Salzman, his fishy smell preceding him, is all about guts. His lesson to the young man is that life lacks the tidiness and neat resolution that young Finkle seeks. Salzman himself has been knocked around by life, signified by the fact that he is "missing a few teeth," and is wearing "an old hat, and an overcoat too short and tight for him." In this respect, the marriage broker stands in direct contrast to his client, whose "distinguished face …, long, severe scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, [and] sensitive yet ascetic lips" indicate a life lived under glass, away from the heat of life's fray. Salzman tells Finkle, "Love comes with the right person, not before." Although Leo initially rejects this advice, it is the key to his prison, handed him by his father, even while he rejects his father's other gifts. It is symbolically apt that at this first encounter with Salzman, the student watches as "the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie … penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself." Even though Leo rejects all of Salzman's women, a process of transformation has begun. The imagery of birth, of new life beginning, acts as a corollary to what is happening inside Leo. From contact with the father, Leo will soon enter a painful process whereby he reconceives himself, and in this sense facilitates his own birth.

Salzman leaves, and Finkle feels "only relief" at his departure. But, like a good salesman, Salzman returns the next evening. Leo is "disturbed to see him again, yet unwilling to ask the man to leave." Finkle's ambivalence is due to what the marriage broker represents: life in all its teeming, disturbing vibrancy and in its sense of obligation to others. But Salzman is a type of character in Malamud's fiction who "fastens to the tormented [protagonist] like a spiritual cannibal and does not release his hold until the younger man submits to the terrors of rebirth." Salzman is persistent, and finally induces Leo to meet a woman, Lily, who, as her name implies, holds the promise of spring and regenerative growth for Leo, if he will only connect with her.

Meeting with Lily, Leo discovers something else entirely—his long lost self. He sees deeply into himself, learning a humbling and painful truth about his motivations and capacities. Goaded by Lily's questions (which Leo suspects she was coached in by Salzman), Leo reveals to her what is for him a startling truth: "I think I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not." For the prospective rabbi, this revelation, confessed "more to himself than" to Lily, magnifies the task of finding a wife (and hence a congregation), but it also clarifies it. Salzman's statement that love would come only with the right person applies, Leo now sees, to his relationship with God. Leo now knows that "he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man." He realizes that his ties to his community have been tenuous at best. The student now understands the task he had set for himself is greater than he had initially thought: "He had involved himself with Salzman without true knowledge of his intent."

Through his contact with Salzman, Leo has learned more about himself than he has derived from a lifetime of studying sacred Jewish texts: "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." Ironically, the texts that contain revealed truths of doctrine cannot help the rabbinical student find his heart or his way back to his community. His years of study, away from humanity, have done nothing but distance him from the people his rabbinical degree is meant to serve. But the truth beyond the books has begun to reveal itself, and this process whereby an individual is made a healthy and fully functioning member of his community can be, as Isaac learns during the Akedah, a painful process. Leo now enters "the worst week of his life," and "the thought of continuing [in his search for a wife] afflicted him with anxiety and heartburn." For the first time in "The Magic Barrel" a reference is made to Leo's heart and indirectly, to his guts, where heartburn originates. That he is afflicted (a word with biblical connotations) with heartburn suggests the pain of birth, of coming alive, of being bound to a community structure greater than himself.

At this point Malamud makes it clear that Leo is now bound to the father figure, for when Leo decides that he can, by himself, continue his search for a wife, "the marriage broker, a skeleton with haunted eyes, returned that very night." Leo has learned something about his connections to God and humanity on a vertical axis, that is, realizing that his relationship with people affects his relationship with God. His lessons are not finished, however; he must now learn to extend this discovery to the horizontal axis by relating to human beings as they are. When Leo makes it clear to Salzman that he now believes in the "necessity of premarital love," the marriage broker says, "Listen, rabbi, if you want love, this I can find for you also." The broker takes out a packet of pictures and leaves. The sheer physicality of the pictures as opposed to the abstractions of words that Salzman used earlier ("First comes family"), signifies that Leo is ready for the next lesson in love and commitment to his community.

But time passes, and only after weeks does Leo, now "with a heavy heart," turn to the packet of pictures. He finds Stella's picture. Gazing on it, Leo "experiences fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil." Leo senses that this person is the only one "who could understand him and help him seek whatever he was seeking;" she "leaped forth to his heart." [In his 1979 Prefaces to The Experiences of Literature] Lionel Trilling speaks of Stella "not as sin but as what William Blake called Experience, by which he meant the moral state of those who have known the passions and have been marked." Stella contains within her a totality of experiences, a wholeness that may be liberating but is certainly threatening. That she can be to her father "my baby,… she should burn in hell" indicates a completed form, extending from innocence to extreme knowledge of the world, knowledge that extends beyond Salzman himself. Leo's impression of evil in Stella indicates that she is the antithesis of everything Leo has been, the opposite of Leo's orderly, quiet, scholarly world. She is the world of possibly painful and threatening commitment that Leo has until now kept out of his life. Just as Isaac was led up to the extreme edge of the world, the mountain top of Mount Moriah in order to have forged the bond between his line and his community, so Leo will, in a sense, be bound upon the altar of Stella in order to achieve integration with his community. For the young rabbinical student, Stella will be [according to Trilling] his encounter with "life itself." That Finkle is "afflicted by a tormented suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way" suggests that the father knowingly leads the son to his meeting with that which transcends them both.

In the penultimate paragraph of the story, Leo, by accepting Stella into his life and heart, is actually integrating the father into his psyche. Leo sees that Stella's "eyes—clearly her father's—were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption." By physically binding himself to the feminine aspect of the father, Leo lives through his own Akedah. He sees that being bound, having responsibility for another, will lead to love, and that this opening of heart will lead to what this rabbinical student wants most of all—a love of God that is best expressed, so the lesson of the biblical Akedah teaches, through the health and welfare of the community. After all, Leo studies to be a teacher (the meaning of the word rabbi); only through close connection to his religious community will Leo feel full emotional and professional contentment and commitment. This development is an ironic and affirming reversal of Leo's original prompting in searching for a wife; he had begun the quest coldly, out of professional concerns that a wife would improve his employment prospects. Like the fishermen mentioned by Thoreau in Walden, who went out to catch fish but ended by catching themselves, Leo casts himself as well as a wife.

In doing so, Leo also hooks himself into the community from which he had been estranged. Until his contact with Salzman and subsequent attachment to Stella, Leo's life was filled with "desolating loneliness." No friends, no social life, parents far removed and distant, and having to resort to the newspaper even to make contact with Salzman, Leo was the living embodiment of alienation, left untouched in a "meager room … crowded with books." At the end, with Leo rushing toward the waiting Stella through the charged and fertile Chagall-like atmosphere of "violins and lit candles" revolving in the air, the student's full-blooded return to life is all but palpable.

The conclusion of the story, one of the most enigmatic in a modern short story, provides the full measure of Leo's integration into the community: "Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead." Interpretations of the ending abound, but Robert Solotaroff's reading is closest to my own. [In his 1989 Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction he] says the scene indicates another world beyond the mundane, a world of: "Salzman the holy spirit, placed on earth to bring Leo Finkle from an arid knowledge of the law to the perception that he can fulfill the spirit of the law only by loving in this world." The important idea annunciated here is that love, commitment, and obligation must take place "in this world," that is, in a community. Salzman's chanting in particular the Jewish prayers for the dead, or the Kaddish, foregrounds this connection to community.

The Kaddish (Hebrew for "sanctification") is normally said by Jews to honor the memory of their departed family members. Jewish law states that a child must say Kaddish daily for eleven months after the death of a parent, but this obligatory duty expands when necessity dictates. Parents will say the prayer for their children, in-laws will say it for relatives by marriage, and all Jews are expected to say Kaddish for the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust. This observance is part of the law of the religious community, ordained by the rabbis for people within all Jewish communities to follow. Although known as the prayer for the dead, nowhere in the Kaddish is death or the dead mentioned. The prayer offers praises to God, acknowledging God as the supreme power of the universe. And in a remarkable parallel to the Akedah, Salzman, like Abraham, metaphysically absents himself from the scene at hand—he prays—establishing his orientation with the present moment on a vertical axis, allowing, as Abraham allowed, the scene involving his child to be controlled by a higher power. But much more is occurring here than the marriage broker absolving himself of responsibility.

Salzman's recitation of the prayer acts as a contextualization and a sign of fruition for Leo. As a good father must, Salzman is firmly embedding Finkle's actions into a meaning-filled context—in this case, a context informed by Jewish communal precepts. It is an indication that this scene of meeting between Leo and Stella is taking place within a community, within a context that makes complete sense only within a Jewish community. Salzman's chanting surrounds the meeting of the lovers, removing it from the tawdry and stark setting of a city street corner, and places it in the middle of a universe in which prayers for the dead to an ultimate father make sense. Beyond this point, of course, one cannot ignore the sobering effect prayers for the dead have on what might have been a purely joyous and probably melodramatic ending of two suitors meeting. The theme of death is indeed sounded, spilling over onto the lovers' meeting, but its presence in this context serves as an indication of completeness. We are led to believe that the incomplete form of Leo, initially alone and sterile in his study, will be completed through his union with Stella, and the couple will enter into a full life of community, one that involves life as well as death. Salzman's prayer indicates the return of a natural balance to the rabbinical student's life; for a rabbi, a leader of a spiritual community, the entire process of life and death must be accessible and experienced.

The expectations of success, of fertility, of the true magic within Salzman's magic barrel, only exist within the context of communal obligation whereby a person obligating himself to another makes sense. "The Magic Barrel" is about the fertility of connection, producing something of human warmth in a sterile modern world. Salzman's prayer humanizes and spiritualizes the setting in which the lovers join, while simultaneously darkening it. In such a highly charged setting, the kinds of expectations raised by an ambivalent action like the Akedah also make sense. Duty, obligation, and bonding of members to a community happen in "The Magic Barrel" only when the errant and isolated son works to take within himself aspects of the father that he had not previously thought necessary, thereby discovering himself and his connections to others.

Further Reading

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Bibliography

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.

Criticism

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 Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 26-66. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Discusses the short story collection The Magic Barrel, commenting briefly on the title story.

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Essays and Criticism