(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark Goldman (essay date Winter 1964–65)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lionel Trilling (essay date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Reynolds (essay date Winter 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bates Hoffer (essay date 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Laura Krugman Ray (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Michael L. Storey (essay date Spring 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pinye Salzman, Pan, and 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 180-83.

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Carmen Cramer (essay date Fall 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles E. May (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence Jay Dessner (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brian Adler (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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...

(The entire section is 250 words.)