"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.
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 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."