I. Bernard Malamud Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) was born in Brooklyn, New York. From 1932 to 1936 he studied at the City College of New York, where he received his bachelor’s degree. From 1937 to 1938 he was a student at the Columbia University. In 1942 he received his Master’s degree. From 1940 to 1948 he taught evening classes at the Erasmus High School, the same High School he went to from 1928 to 1932.
In 1943 his first two short stories were published in Threshold and American Preface. He began to teach evening classes at Harlem Evening High School in 1848, before he started to teach at the Oregon State College, Corvallis, Oregon in 1949. 1950 was a highly successful year for Bernard Malamud. His stories appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Partisan Review and Commentary.
His first novel The Natural was published in 1952. Although this first novel is a fantasy about a start baseball player, most of his following writings are concerned with Jewish themes and reflect the sad, impoverish Brooklyn scenes of his own childhood.
His second novel The Fixer (1966), which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 is about the suffering of a Russian Jewish workman sentenced unjustly to prison.
Thus it is an allegory of the Holocaust. The Tenants (1971) deals with inner-city tension and demonstrates how human beings can come to an affirmative life through suffering. His last two novels are Dublin’s Lives (1979) and God’s Grace (1982). But Malamud isn’t only famous for his novels.
His short stories, which mix his compassion for Jewish life with subtle touches of wry humor, have earned him quite a lot of credit, too. These short stories have been collected in The Magic Barrel (1958), for which he received a National Book Award, Idiots First (1963) and Rembrant’s Hat (1971). He has also written a series of rather satirical stories about an rather unsuccessful Jewish artist, Fidelman, which were published in 1969.
Today, Malamud is widely regarded as a leader of the post-World War II Jewish literary renaissance. Although most of his stories are about Jews, he is less concerned with being Jewish as with being human. Most of his stories are about individuals struggling to survive and these people are mostly symbolized by poor Jews. 1 His writing is influenced by existentialism. “For the existentialists neither universal systems of moral order nor the influence of society and social custom can provide meaning for an individual’s life; each person must find meaning himself.” (Hershinow 13) But this can only be achieved through love and compassion, not through reason. “As a writer influenced by existentialism, Malamud demonstrates an implicit respect for self. His protagonists characteristically transcend the disorder that surrounds them, finding meaning in the power of love and moral commitment.” (Hershinow 13) As many of his short stories, “The Magic Barrel” deals with this problem, too.
Although Malamud has written quite a lot of short stories, by many “The Magic Barrel” (1952) is considered to be his master-piece. “The Magic Barrel” is written from a third person’s view. This narrator isn’t part of the story himself, nor do you have the feeling, that he knows more than the characters do. He never addresses the reader directly, so I think that it is fair to say, that we are dealing with a traditional narrator. But from the third part on, you get the feeling that the story is now being written out Leo point of view. Maybe its just the sympathy the writer has for Leo, but from that point on, only Leo emotions and reactions are described. The story itself is subdivided into five, chronologically ordered parts. The time covered in each part ranges from a few days (part one) to several weeks (part three). The first part of “The Magic Barrel” takes place in February. (“Although it was still February, winter was on its last legs,…” (p.2541)).
The last date given is March (“March came”(p.2548)). The rest of the story covers one or two weeks, but you can’t be absolutely sure about this, because no more exact dates are given. The last scene takes place in a spring night, so it might already be April. Nevertheless, it is obvious, that the story covers the time from the end of winter to the beginning of spring. This changing of the seasons is a very important symbol in “The Magic Barrel”, because not only nature finally awakes, but the same goes for Leo Finkle. The change he undergoes during these month will be analyzed more closely during the cause of this paper.
“The Magic Barrel” is the story of the young rabbinical student Leo Finkle who tries to find himself a wife, but because he can’t one for himself, he answers an ad in the Forward2, for a marriage broker, Pinye Salzman (“commercial cupid”). This marriage broker shows him pictures of more or less suitable women, but when he finally meets one, it end in disaster.
Despite the fact that Finkle doesn’t want to see Salzman anymore after this, Salzman leaves an envelope with pictures on Leo’s table and although he doesn’t want to open it, after about one month he can’t resist and starts to examine the photos. One of these photos grabs his attention, but Salzman refuses to introduce her to him. First of all, she is his daughter, Stella, and second, “she is a wild one – wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi.” (Barrel 2551) But in the end, Salzman gives in and in the last scene, Leo and Stella finally meet. The whole story covers about one and a half month in the life of Leo Finkle.
But lets start at the beginning. The first sentence does not only describe the setting and the main character, Leo Finkle, but it also introduces the main topic and tone. “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 Yeshiva University.” It is obvious, that this is a variation on “Once upon an time…”. But who is this Leo Finkle? After six years of studying at the Yeshiva University3 in New York, he is going to be ordained in June. He has spent most of these years for his studies. Actually, as Sandy Cohen puts it, “he has sacrificed too much of life for his studies” (Cohen 89). His eyes have become “heavy with learning” (Barrel 2542) and for these six years, he has led an ascetic life, with almost no social contacts, except for his parents (Barrel 2541).
Leo is not the typical rabbinical student. He even seems to question why he has become one. He doesn’t consider himself to be a talented religious person and he says that he came to God not because he loved him, but because he did not love him. He may have been interested passionately in Jewish law since childhood, nonetheless, he is godless. “Finkle knows the word but not the spirit” (Richmann 119). But why does he actually call in the marriage broker. At first it is not because he is desperately looking for love, but because he “had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married” (Barrel 2541). This is definitely not the most romantic reason for looking for a wife.
Maybe therefore he keeps this reason for himself and he doesn’t even tell Salzman about it. Nevertheless, Salzman senses “a sort of apology” (Barrel 2541) when Finkle tell him his reasons for calling in his help and later on in the text, after Salzman has shown him his last picture, Leo says: “But don’t you think this girl believes in love?” (Barrel 2543) The real reason for finding a wife is just mentioned once, but it plays an important role, because you have to keep in mind, that until he has met the first prospect, this is his main motivation. As Sheldon J. Hershinow says: “A fear of life and love, not a pious sense of tradition has led Leo to the old matchmaker” (Hershinow 130). It is not until the disaster with the first prospect that “he gradually realized – with an emptiness that seized him with six hands – that he had called in the marriage broker to find a wife, because he was incapable of doing it himself” (Barrel 2547). This point definitely marks the most tragic moment in the story, because he realizes, what he truly is: “unloved and loveless” (Barrel 2547). He couldn’t love God, because he couldn’t love man.
The marriage broker, Pine Salzmann, is an interesting character, too. Smelling of his favorite food, fish, and wearing an old hat and an overcoat that doesn’t really fit him, “he appeared one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway of the graystone rooming house where Finkle lived…” (Barrel 2541). This first appearance makes him look like a mystic person, maybe sent by god, but the rather comic description Malamud gives of him levels this out completely. Especially his eyes seem to be very remarkable. Although Finkle doesn’t really approve the rest of Salzman’s outer appearance, his “mild blue eyes … put Leo a little at ease” (Barrel 2541). It is interesting to see, that all the appearances Salzman makes are unexpected. The times he comes to Finkle’s room, he appears out of nowhere, once they meet unexpectedly in a cafeteria and even when Finkle comes to his office to see him, Salzman isn’t there, but when Finkle returns home, Salzman is already waiting there for him. He always appears when Leo needs him and he seems to have almost magical powers. He travels “as if on the wings of the wind” (Barrel 2548) and his wife says that his office is “in the air” (Barrel 2550). So I would agree with Kathleen G. Osbourn who says that he might be an angle.
Of course, these descriptions are part of the whole comic tone of the story, as it is already apparent in the first, “fairy-taleish” sentence. For years, he hasn’t been proud of his job anymore, but “later, however, he experienced a glow of pride in his work” (Barrel 2541). In the same sentence it is said that he “heartily approved of Finkle. “It is hard to tell when he approved of Finkle and when his pride returned, but from their second meeting on, their relationship begins to grow, so this could be the moment. The second impression you get from Salzman is that of a typical salesman. After he has carefully selected six women out of his “much-handled card” (Barrel 2541), he tries to “sell” them like you would expect from somebody who sells used cars and Salzman’s “high-pressure sales techniques” (Hershinow 129) are quite comical. Once, he doesn’t tell Leo about a lame leg and another time he gives Leo a wrong age and he only tells him about the good sides of marrying that particular woman. These good sides are interesting, too. The money the father promises, a new dodge car, being “well-Americanized”, the languages they speak etc. They are all “wonderful opportunity(s)” (Barrel 2542). But Leo isn’t really impressed at all. Yet, in the end, Salzman manages to talk Leo into meeting the High school teacher Lily H. As I have already said, this meeting ends in a complete disaster.
Salzman’s language is also worth a notion. Malamud makes extensive use of Yiddish speech rhythms, by which he creates Salzman’s own colloquial style.4This special kind of language add up to the already quite comical appearance of Pinye Salzman. On one hand, you could say that Salzman tries to sell these women like a normal product, but on they other hand, you could say that he tries to make them better than they are, because that’s really what he sees in people: just the good things. The narrator says that Salzman looked, “as if he had steadfastly waited that week at Miss Lily Hischorn’s side for a telephone call that never came” (Barrel 2547).
Of course you can’t be sure about this, but I wouldn’t say that it is impossible, because Salzman’s relationship with his clients seems to be a very close one. Maybe that’s why he is so shocked when the meeting with Lily end in a fiasco. This shock is made transparent through the physical state Salzman is in. “A skeleton with haunted eyes”, looking with “the picture of frustrated expectancy” and “casually coughing” (Barrel 2547). His health seems to be closely connected to the success he has and this must mean that he is very taken up with his job, because otherwise it wouldn’t affect him in this way. When Leo and Salzman first meet, it is apparent, that Leo feels very uncomfortable. Leo doesn’t offer Salzman anything to drink or eat, as you could have expected5 and it seems as if Leo gets more and more irritated during this first meeting with Salzman. Food seems to be the main motif that illustrates the relationship between the two main characters.
The second time Salzman comes, he asks for “a sliced tomato” because, as he says, he must come back to his strength (Barrel 2544). But Leo can’t give him one. After finishing his meal, Salzman ask for a cup of tea that Leo brewed “conscience-stricken” (Barrel 2544) and it is not after drinking this tea, “served with a chunk of lemon and two cubes of lump sugar, delighting Salzman” (Barrel 2546) that the marriage broker’s “strength and good spirits were restored”. Salzman has provoked Leo to show some warmth and hospitality. The last time Salzman and Leo meet in Leo’s apartment, Leo fixes tea and a sardine sandwich for Salzman (Barrel 2550) without Salzman even asking for it. By this motif, Malamud shows that the relationship between the two men has steadily grown. This is not the only time Salzman’s health is put to a test.
Salzman left an envelope of pictures after he visited Leo subsequent to the fiasco with Lily Hirschorn. Leo refuses to open it, but after about one month, he can’t resist. “With a sudden relentless gesture he tore it open.” (Barrel 2549) Leo had made “plans for a more active social life” (Barrel 2548), but either he didn’t put his plans into action or they didn’t work out the way he wanted. “The days went by and no social life to speak of developed with a member of the opposite sex…” (Barrel 2548). Leo told Salzman that he wasn’t interested in an arranged marriage anymore and wanted to find love for himself. Why then did he open the envelope? Perhaps he wasn’t so sure about what he had said anymore, or maybe he discovered that he wasn’t able to find love for himself, or perhaps he remembered Salzman’s words: “If you want love, this I can find for you also” (Barrel 2548). Whatever it was, the manila packet must have been prepared by Salzman in advance.
I guess that he already sensed what would happen. Why else would he have prepared this special envelope. This would consolidate the possibility to see Salzman as a kind of guardian angle. Whatever his reason may have been, at first he is disappointed about the six photographs he finds in the envelope. To Leo all the women look like being “past their prime, all starved behind bright smiles, not a true personality in the lot. Life … had passed them by” (Barrel 2549) and that’s exactly what Leo isn’t looking for. He tries not to let life pass him by. That’s why he puts the pictures back into the envelope, just to discover another picture in it. It’s the picture of Salzman’s daughter, Stella, but Leo doesn’t know that yet. It is the picture of a girl “whose face reflects youth and age, a face that seems familiar to him” (Ochshorn 92). He is deeply moved by it. Especially they eyes have a remarkable effect on him. This is not the first time that eyes are mentioned in the story.
When Leo meets Salzman’s wife, her eyes will look familiar to him, too. In the last part of the story, Leo will see, that Stella’s eyes are “clearly her father’s”(Barrel 2552). Stella has, at least in Leo’s imagination, everything he is looking for. It isn’t her beauty, which isn’t extraordinary, but “it was something about her…” (Barrel 2549). Leo has the feeling that she had lived, “maybe regretted how she had lived – had somehow deeply suffered …”(Barrel 2549). At this moment, Leo doesn’t know how right he is. For the first time, he physically takes action himself. He “rushed downstairs”, “ran up” again, “hurried to the subway station” and he “bolted out” of the train when he pulled into the station (Barrel 2549/2550). But when he has to find out that Salzman isn’t at home, he falls into his old procedure again. “he walked downstairs, depressed” (Barrel 2550).
Salzman is everything but delighted to see the picture of his daughter. “He turned ghastly and let out a groan” (Barrel 2550). “If Salzman is delighted at the prospect of a commission, he is horrified at his choice” Ben Siegel writes. (Critics 133) I’m not so sure about the commission. I don’t think that it is only the commission he is after, or even his main reason for doing his job. If it was just the profit he wanted, why should he react in such a strong way. When Leo asks him why he had lied to Lily Hirschorn, his “face went dead white” (Barrel 2548). That’s not the reaction you could expect from a hardened salesman, but the horror is out of question. For the first time, Salzman isn’t able to disappear when he tries to run away. Leo, fearing never to find love and Salzman become let themselves go. Leo even seizes Salzman.
Leo reaction is quite understandable, but why does Salzman react in such a strong way? The relation between Salzman and his daughter is a very complex one. Malamud gives several hints that in fact, she really is a whore. You can already see this from what Leo thinks of her when he sees her picture for the first time and that the photo is “a snapshot of the type taken by a machine for a quarter” could be interpreted as another hint, too. His description matches that of a whore quite well. She has lived, and maybe regretted the way she has lived. Especially the last part of the story leaves very little to imagine. Standing under a lamppost, smoking, and wearing white with red shoes she waits for him. Salzman, “the angle”, is definitely neither pleased with his daughter’s way of life nor with her behavior. “She is a wild one – wild, without shame” (Barrel 2551). he cries out. To him she is “like an animal”, “like a dog”. To him she is dead and “should burn in hell” (Barrel 2551). Why then does he put Leo in contact with his expelled daughter? Leo reckons that “Salzman has planned it all to happen this way.” (Barrel 2552) But are there really any hints that make this suspicion maintainable? One hint could be the photo itself. Why is it in the manila envelope? Was it really an accident?
According to Salzman’s reaction, it really was and there are no other hints that would guide the reader into thinking that Salzman has planned it all, except Leo’s notion. But Salzman is “an angel” and angels normally don’t make mistakes. Or maybe it is the fact that Salzman actually arranged a meeting. He could have resisted Leo’s force. Or maybe it was the humble way in which Leo asked him that made him change his mind. According to Kathleen G. Ochshorn’s opinion, Salzman had planned it all before. According to her, “Salzman is continually sizing up the rabbinical student in a way that suggests a prospective father-in-law: ‘he heartily approved of Finkle'” (Ochshorn 62).
She says that Salzman has given in, because of Leo stubbornness. But Mrs. Ochshorn doesn’t take Salzman’s reaction into consideration and “heartily approving” of someone does not absolutely refer to being his father-in-law. I couldn’t find any other hints that would underline this theory, but still it is valid nonetheless. But my guess would be, that hasn’t planned this to happen, but now, as it has happened, he arranges a meeting, because he considers this to b the best solution for Leo (and maybe also for his daughter). Leo has already undergone quite a change since he discovered Stella’s photo. He has tried to get rid of his feelings towards he. He prayed, but “his prayers remained unanswered” (Barrel 2551). But he never really intended to get rid of her, because, “fearing success” (Barrel 2551) he stopped and “concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God” (Barrel 2551).
The linguistic relationship between “goodness” and “goddess” doesn’t really need an explanation, but why does Leo want convert himself to God? Because he wants to change Stella? Or because God didn’t answer his prayers? This would mean that he has finally lost his trust in God now, but yet, on the outside he has finally become a rabbi: “Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom” (Barrel 2551). But the wisdom is not a rabbi’s wisdom and Salzman seems to notice this, because he calls him a “doctor” now (Barrel 2551). Kathleen G. Ochshorn even suggest that he “has become a bit of a devil.” (Ochshorn 63) The change on this level on the story is closely connected to the changing seasons. Spring is normally associated with hope and regeneration6. His despair and isolation occur in winter, but spring brings the possibility of a new life for Leo. “Leo’s painful self-insight amounts to the labor pains of his emotional rebirth” (Hershinow 130)
The meeting between Leo and Stella in arranged by letter, as was the first contact between Salzman and Leo, so this circle is closed. At a spring night, Stella is waiting under a lamp-post, smoking, wearing white with red shoes. This actually fits Leo expectations, “although in a troubled moment, he had imagined the dress red and only the shoes white” (Barrel 2552). So Leo really knew what he had to expect of her, but yet I don’t know if Leo really knew about Stella’s profession, nor am I sure if he knows it right now. But maybe this could be an overinterpretaion and it’s just the symbolic colors (red = sin and white = purity) that play a role here. At least these color tell Leo that it’s not to late for him to “convert her to goodness”. Wearing red with white would have meant that his mission had become more difficult.
Stella is described as “waiting uneasily and shyly”, with eyes “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” (Barrel 2552). All this innocence doesn’t really fit. Before, Stella was described a whore and at least in Salzman eyes, she is. Yet, under this lamppost, to Leo she is completely innocent. When Leo had met Lily Hirschorn, he had sensed Salzman’s presence and now Salzman is present, too. He is standing “around the corner,…, leaning against a wall, chant(ing) prayers for the dead” (Barrel 2552). There is just one “prayer for the dead” in Jewish liturgy: the Kaddish. The Kaddish is an Aramaic prayer that glorifies God and asks for the fast coming of his kingdom on earth. Originally it was only recited at the conclusion of rabbinical scriptural exposition, but today the prayer takes a variety of forms and serves several liturgical functions.
Five different forms of the Kaddish exist and one of them, is recited as part of the funeral service at the graveside and includes a petition for resurrection of the dead.7 This must be the prayer Salzman is praying. This is the most confusing point of the story, because the ending of the story varies with the question for whom Salzman is chanting. He could be praying “for himself and his guild” (Richman 122), because he had planned this to happen, as Sidney Richman (Richman 122) and Sam Bluefarb (Bluefarb 148) suggest as possible answers. Maybe he is praying for Leo, who is rushing headlong into disaster, or he is praying for his “dead” daughter. Ben Siegel says: “… what has died may be Salzman’s honesty, Leo’s innocence, or Stella’s guilty youth: all merit lamentation. What is clearer is Malamud’s reluctance to give up on anyone” (Siegel 133).
But you should keep in mind that the Kaddish that is prayed at the graveside also includes a petition for the resurrection of the dead, which puts this scene into a totally different light. So maybe Salzman isn’t praying for “the dead” at all. Maybe he is praying for his daughter’s resurrection, as Richard Reynolds suggests8. He could also pray for Leo, who has actually been resurrected. Or, as Sidney Richman reckons, he is chanting for all of this at once (Richman 122). I would say that there isn’t really a valid answer to this question. All of the suggested answers may be true, but, on the other hand, every one of them might be completely wrong, too. Many scholars, including Mark Goldman9, have seen a parallel between this last part of the story and the book Hosea, attributed to the 8th century BC prophet Hosea, in the Old Testament consisting of 14 chapters. The union, between God and Israel, formerly based on law, is envisioned by Hosea as a spiritual bond based on love.
Hosea (God) is a betrayed husband. The wife (Israel) is an adulteress. Both she and her offspring will be punished, but each time she errs, she will be redeemed, even bought back (chap. 3), because the love of her husband will always turn away his anger. The dominant tone, especially of the last 11 chapters, is one of impending doom.10 “God commanded Hosea to marry a whore, because ‘the land hath created a great whoredom, departing the Lord’ (Hosea 1:2)” (Ochshorn 62).
The Hosea story is an allegory for the relationship between God and the people of Israel, as “The Magic Barrel” is an allegory, too. The parallels between these two stories are obvious, but in “The Magic Barrel” nobody is commanded to do anything. Of course you could say that Salzman has arranged everything so neatly that commanding wasn’t a necessity, but I don’t think that the comparison between Salzman and God would work out. For the largest part the story is realistic, with some fantastic parts in it, but the last part is pure fantasy, with “violins and lit candles revolv(ing) in the sky” (Barrel 1552) and Salzman praying around the corner. During the whole story, Malamud is balancing between allegory and realism. The fantasy and the changing of seasons that form the frame for the story, which is filled by the realistic parts.11 Many important facts in the story are wrapped into fantastic images. For example Salzman’s health (“a skeleton with haunted eyes” (Barrel 2547)) or the “Violins and candles (that) revolved in the sky” (Barrel 2552). There are many comic elements in the story, too. The character of Salzman for example. Smelling of fish, extolling his clients like a used-cars-salesman and speaking in his Yiddishized English, he has quite a lot of comical potential.
Reaching the end of this paper, I would like to summarize the main facts. “The Magic Barrel”, a mixture between fantastic and realistic elements is the story of Leo Salzman’s maturation, his changing from student to rabbi, with the help of Pinye Salzman. He has to learn to “balance his life by adding sensual aspects and subtracting from its ascetic aspect” (Cohen 89) and in the end, he actually finds this balance. Yet, the end is open. We don’t know if Stella will react in the way Leo expects and we don’t know if a marriage between those two people will ever work, but we know that Leo has grown throughout the story and that there is no other way for him than this.
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