Style and Technique

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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.

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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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While the text of ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is almost entirely free of topical or historical references that might allow readers to place the events of the story at a particular date, one detail establishes Leo’s encounter with Salzman as taking place roughly at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 wealth...

(This entire section contains 554 words.)

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of humor at the expense of theshadchen developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; representative is the remark of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859–1916), who quipped that the shadchen was best defined as ‘‘a dealer in livestock.’’

Regardless, the shadchen tradition survived Jewish immigration to the United States. In his history of Jewish immigrant life on New York City’s lower east side, World of our Fathers, Irving Howe describes the typical shadchen as similar to Malamud’s Pinye Salzman: ‘‘Affecting an ecclesiastic bearing, the matchmaker wore a somber black suit with a half-frock effect, a silk yarmulke (skullcap), a full beard.’’ The matchmaker, according to Howe, ‘‘customarily received 5 percent of the dowry in addition to a flat fee, neither one nor both enough to make him rich.’’ Pinye Salzman is in many ways, then, a stereotypical figure who has stepped from the world of Jewish oral humor into the pages of Malamud’s story. Leo, in seeking the shadchen’s help in the 1950s, reveals himself not only as a formal, but as a very old fashioned young man.

Literary Style

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Point of View Point of view is a term that describes who tells a story, or through whose eyes we see the events of a narrative. The point of view in Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is third person limited. In the third person limited point of view, the narrator is not a character in the story, but someone outside of it who refers to the characters as ‘‘he,’’ ‘‘she,’’ and ‘‘they.’’ This outside narrator, however, is not omniscient, but is limited to the perceptions of one of the characters in the story. The narrator of the story views the events of the story through the eyes of Leo Finkle even though it is not Leo telling the story.

Symbolism Symbolism is a literary device that uses an action, a person, a thing, or an image to stand for something else. In Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ the coming of spring plays an important symbolic role. The story begins in February, ‘‘when winter was on its last legs,’’ and ends ‘‘one spring night’’ as Leo approaches Stella Salzman under a street lamp. The story’s progression from winter to spring is an effective symbol for the emotional rebirth that Leo undergoes as he struggles to grow as a human being.

Idiom Idiom may be defined as a specialized vocabulary used by a particular group, or a manner of expression peculiar to a given people. In other words, different groups of people speak in different ways. While the narrator and most of the characters in ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ speak standard English, Pinye Salzman, the matchmaker, speaks Yiddish. Written in Hebrew characters and based on the grammar of medieval German, Yiddish was the common language of many European Jewish communities. A Russian Jew at the turn of the century (Malamud’s father, for example) might read the Torah in Hebrew, speak to his gentile neighbors in Russian, and conduct the affairs of his business and household in Yiddish.

Since World War II, Yiddish has become less prevalent in Europe and in the immigrant Jewish communities of North America. In another generation, it may totally die out. Many of Malamud’s characters, however, still use the idiom. When Salzman asks Leo, ‘‘A glass tea you got, rabbi?’’; when he exclaims, ‘‘what can I say to somebody that he is not interested in school teachers?’’; and when he laments, ‘‘This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell,’’ the reader hears an idiomatic version of English seasoned with the cadences of Yiddish speech.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: Decades of immigration from Eastern and Western Europe have led to a considerable Jewish population in the United States. Strong and vibrant Jewish communities thrive in many American cities. Yet discrimination against the Jewish people exists.

1990s: Through intermarriage and assimilation, many people in the Jewish community believe that Jewish culture is endangered. Unfortunately, discrimination still exists in the United States, but many groups fight misinformation and discrimination against Jews.

1950s: The Jewish matchmaker, also known as the ‘‘shadchen,’’ performs a vital function within the community. Arranged marriage, although losing popularity among Jewish families, is still a viable option for young Jewish men and women of age.

1990s: Matchmaking is considered an antiquated tradition. It is mainly used in orthodox Jewish communities, as other networking opportunities allow Jewish men and women to meet and find possible marriage partners.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Antin, Mary. The Promised Land, first published 1912, reprinted, New York: Penguin, 1997.

Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky, first published 1917, reprinted, New York: Harper’s, 1960.

Cramer, Carmen. ‘‘The Americanization of Leo Finkle,’’ in Cyahoga Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 143–147.

Hoffer, Bates. ‘‘The Magic in Malamud’s Barrel,’’ in Linguistics in Literature, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1977, pp. 1–26.

Miller, Theodore C. ‘‘The Minister and the Whore: An Examination of Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Magic Barrel,’’’ in Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 3, 1972, pp. 43-4.

Reynolds, Richard. ‘‘‘The Magic Barrel’: Pinye Salzman’s Kadish,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 10, c. 1973, pp. 100–102.

Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud, Twayne, 1966.

Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers, first published 1925, reprinted, New York: Persea Books, 1975.

Further Reading Astro, Richard and Jackson Benson, eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, Oregon State University Press, 1977. Gives a comprehensive study of Malamud’s short and long fiction.

Field, Leslie A. and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice- Hall, 1974. Explores various aspects of Malamud’s work.

Meeter, Glenn. Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth: A Critical Essay, Eerdmans, 1968. Examines the two writers in the context of Jewish fiction.

Pinsker, Sanford. ‘‘The Achievement of Bernard Malamud,’’ in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 10, July, 1969, pp. 379-89. Provides an assessment of Malamud’s career.

Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud, Twayne, 1966. Gives a detailed survey of Malamud’s life and works.


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Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977.

Avery, Evelyn, ed. The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Bernard Malamud. New York: Chelsea House, 2000.

Davis, Philip. Experimental Essays on the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Malamud’s People. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud and the Critics. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

Nisly, L. Lamar. Impossible to Say: Representing Religious Mystery in Fiction by Malamud, Percy, Ozick, and O’Connor. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Ochshorn, Kathleen. The Heart’s Essential Landscape: Bernard Malamud’s Hero. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. Boston: Twayne, 1966.

Salzberg, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.

Sío-Castiñeira, Begoña. The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud: In Search of Jewish Post-immigrant Identity. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide