Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224

As Salzman is employed by Leo to procure a bride, so is he employed by the author as the vehicle through which Leo’s self-discovery is attained. A man of much depth and sorrow, Salzman conceals a pain so great that he rejects even the attentions of a religious man. However, it is only through Leo that he can hope to find peace of mind and a reunited family.

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Salzman is an unsuccessful man whose office, his wife tells Leo, is “in the air.” In immigrant English, Salzman explains his lack of success: “When I have two fine people that they would be wonderful to be married, I am so happy that I talk too much. . . . This is why Salzman is a poor man.” The compassion lacking in Leo is discovered in Salzman, whose greatest desire is to provide happiness.

References to Salzman’s ethereal and somewhat mystical qualities recur throughout the story. He appears and disappears in direct, yet unspoken, response to Leo’s needs; he is described as a “skeleton with haunted eyes,” his appearance often “haggard, and transparent to the point of vanishing,” whose magic barrel, Leo concludes, is probably “a figment of the imagination.” In this fusion of the down-to-earth and the otherworldly, the literal and the symbolic, the characterization of Salzman is representative of Bernard Malamud’s distinctive style.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ was first published by the Partisan Review in 1954 and reprinted as the title story in Malamud’s first volume of short fiction in 1958. The period between those two dates was an eventful time in American history. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court unanimously rejected the concept of segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which found that the practice of maintaining separate classrooms or separate schools for black and white students was unconstitutional.

In the same year Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate for having unjustly accused hundreds of Americans of being communists. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to successfully orbit the earth, sparking concern that the Soviets would take control of space.

While the text of ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is almost entirely free of topical or historical references that might allow readers to place the events of the story at a particular date, one detail establishes Leo’s encounter with Salzman as taking place roughly at the time of the story’s publication in the mid-fifties. Finkle is about to complete his six-year course of study to become a rabbi at New York City’s Yeshivah University. Yeshivah, in Hebrew, means a place of study. Yeshivah University is the oldest and most distinguished Jewish institution of higher learning in the United States. While its history goes back to 1886, the school was not named Yeshivah until 1945, when its charter was revised. At the end of the traditional six years of study to become a rabbi, then, Leo would probably be considering marriage sometime early in the 1950s.

By consulting a professional matchmaker to find a bride, Leo is acting more like his immigrant grandparents than an American Jew of the 1950s. In Yiddish, the secular language of many European and American Jewish communities, the word for ‘‘matchmaker’’ is shadchen (pronounced shod-hun). Before the seventeenth century, the shadchen was a highly respected person, responsible for the perpetuation of the Jewish people through arranged marriages. As European Jewish communities grew larger and as modern secular notions of romantic love became pervasive, professional matchmakers became less scrupulous in their dealings and were frequently the objects of satire and derision. Indeed a...

(The entire section contains 1747 words.)

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