The Magic Barrel | Charles E. May

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
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Charles E. May

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 been said to fluctuate uncertainly between realism and allegory and to combine the energy of a fairy tale with the tones of a depression tract, the story also illustrates a basic critical problem in the discrimination of narrative forms.

For example, Earl H. Rovit says [in "The Jewish Literary Tradition," in Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field's 1970 Bernard Malamud and the Critics] that although Malamud's manner is often that of the traditional teller of tales, his poetic and symbolic technique is quite contemporary. The dramatic action of "The Magic Barrel," says Rovit, leads the characters into conflict between the orthodox and the "new" values of Jewish behavior in modern America and fixes that conflict poetically in a final ambiguity: "It is in this sense—a sense in which aesthetic form resolves unresolvable dramatic conflicts—that Malamud departs drastically from the tradition of the Yiddish tale and confronts the demands of modern fictional form."

Many critics have commented on the mysterious tableau-like ending of "The Magic Barrel," noting how what might have been sordid is transformed into something romantic and magical in which the two characters no longer exist as real people but as the essence of lovers in a fairytale world of pure emblems. Mark Goldman argues [in "Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics] that rather than being a realistic dramatic conflict between opposing external forces, the story is a comic fantasy and the conclusion is a "consciously ironic parable" in which 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."

The basic issue these comments on the story raise is whether the reader is to approach "The Magic Barrel" with the generic expectations that it is a realistic fiction, dramatizing a conflict between "real people," which is then left in an ironic tension; or to approach it as a parable in the older ballad or fairy-tale sense, in which the characters are symbols of psychic states. If the reader approaches the story with the generic expectations that it is both types of fiction at once, the further problem is to determine how the various and sometimes contradictory elements of the two different narrative forms are to be discriminated.

As a specific form of prose fiction, "The Magic Barrel" is a monostory, just as the monodrama is a specific form of drama. With the exception of Leo Finkle, all the other characters are stylized figures that expand into psychological archetypes. Although the story opens in a fairy-tale manner—"Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student"—it soon moves to a realistic level with the young rabbinical student's practical need for a bride. However, it soon becomes clear that a suitable bride who might enable Finkle to win a congregation is not what Finkle really needs at all; rather he needs something on a deeper level that he has yet to discover consciously. As soon as Finkle summons the matchmaker Pinye Salzman, and he suddenly appears one night "out of the dark fourth-floor hallway of the graystone rooming house where Finkle lived," the story moves out of the real world into the interior world of Leo's psyche. And in that world, as Jung points out [in Four Archetypes, 1969], reside the primordial images, the archetypes which may be manifested at moments when a new orientation and a new adaptation are necessary.

The nature of Finkle's unconscious need is made quite clear by the kind of primordial image he summons. Pinye Salzman, who has been "long in the business" and smells "frankly of fish," seems too extreme to be believed. And indeed he is, if perceived as a cynical Jewish con man who finally ends up being sold his own bill of goods. However, if understood as a mythic figure representative of desires within Finkle's own psyche, he can be seen as an archetypal structure that Jung says is of extreme antiquity—the Trickster who symbolizes the instinctual and irrational, driven by the basic needs of sex and hunger. Salzman's constant hunger for fish is a reflection of Finkle's own libido hunger for sexuality, but no matter how much Salzman eats he starves, becoming "transparent to the point of vanishing" until Finkle finally establishes the level of his real need and accepts the wholly sexual Stella. Salzman is the panderer of the primal, the shaman of the primitive female, his daughter, who is the divine whore, the polymorphous perverse primitive.

As the details of Finkle's particular desires for a wife should indicate, the primordial object sought for here is the magic of eroticism which, as is usual in the fairy tale, is sublimated. Stella is surely the essence of love as Eros, that archetypal female figure which Jung describes as anima. That the picture of Stella makes Finkle think of youth and age at the same time, that she looks as though she has deeply suffered yet as though she is evil (in an earlier version of the story Malamud used the word "filth" here instead of "evil"), makes clear that Stella is the primordial anima figure who represents the transcendence of sexuality, the desire and the fear man has of woman. As the conclusion of the story emphasizes, she represents a new life or a rebirth for Finkle, but one that can only follow the death of the old self; it is Finkle that Salzman chants for. As Simone de Beauvoir has pointed out [in The Second Sex, 1974], what man cherishes and detests in woman is the fixed image of his animal destiny. "Woman condemns man to finitude, but she also enables him to exceed his own limits; and hence comes the equivocal magic with which she is endued."

Finkle's initial impression of Salzman is, as is typical of such mana characters, an ambivalent one. Although Salzman has an amiable manner, he has mournful eyes, and he fluctuates throughout between animation and sad repose. Finkle, having devoted himself to his studies for six years, has had no time for a social life and "the company of young women." Apologizing to Salzman for having called in a matchmaker, Finkle says he thought "it the better part of trial and error—of embarrassing fumbling—to call in an experienced person to advise him on these matters." Since "these matters" have to do with the company of young women, more and more Finkle's embarrassment seems to stem from his calling in Salzman to be a pimp for him. This is confirmed when it is established that Finkle is not interested in the attributes of Salzman's clients most typical of the marriage broker, nor in their social status, nor in the amount of dowry the father will supply; rather he is interested in pictures. He wants to know what they look like, how old they are, and whether they are pretty or not. Finkle's real concern is with a young, beautiful virgin. He insists that she be untouched, unspoiled, physically perfect. Finkle wants love and sex, but he wants it to be clean and pure. His embarrassment at Salzman's appearance is obvious. The sound and gesture the cards make as Salzman flips through them "physically hurt Leo" because they reduce his desire to what it really is.

What Finkle truly desires, although it disgusts him, has the genital smell of fish, connected here with turning over cards, which smack of the pornographic deck. The cards come from Salzman's barrel, and the barrel is magic because it is an image of the vaginal barrel itself, and it is inexhaustible. What Finkle must accept is what Henry Miller asserts in The World of Sex: "To enter life by way of the vagina is as good a way as any. If you enter deep enough, remain long enough, you will find what you seek. But you've got to enter with heart and soul—and check your belongings outside."

Because he has been summoned from Finkle's own primal need, Salzman "knows" what his function is, but he plays an elaborate game to test Finkle's consciously-felt reasons for his desire for a bride. When, in the end, Salzman finally relents and grants Stella to him, Finkle correctly has a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way. For when Salzman first sits with Finkle, as he pretends to look through the cards, he is really "noting with pleasure the long, severe, scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain almost hollow quality of the dark cheeks. He gazed around at shelves upon shelves of books and let out a soft, contented sigh." The dichotomy of Finkle's books and Salzman's magic barrel suggests the Schopenhauer antithesis between the brain and the sexual organs: that is, "detachment" from life, which is thought, and "attachment" to life, which is suffering and death.

When Leo tells Salzman that none of his three clients suit him and Salzman asks "What then suits you?" Leo lets it pass "because he could give only a confused answer." Truly, Leo does not know the answer. What would really suit him is something of which he has no actual experience. This is why he has called in the marriage broker in the first place. Leo says he is not interested in widows or schoolteachers, to which Salzman exclaims, "Yiddishe kinder, what can I say to somebody that he is not interested in high school teachers? So what then you are interested?" This is, of course, the central question of the story which previous readers, failing to appreciate its hybrid narrative form, have not adequately answered.

The discrepancy between what Lily Hirschorn expects of Leo and what Leo himself wants of a woman is made clear during their walk together, for Leo's mind is on Salzman who

he uneasily sensed to be somewhere around, hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street, flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union, though there was of course still none.

Leo's vision of a Pan-Salzman and the fertility of union here echoes a vision Finkle has had earlier when Salzman first came to his room when he "observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself." The image is, of course, sexual, suggesting the imagery of sharp-pointed stars in Steinbeck's "Chrysanthemums" as well as the traditional female sexuality of the moon in myth, used in specific detail in Lawrence's "The Woman Who Rode Away."

Leo's despair during the week that follows, the worst week of his life, is the result of his realization that he has "involved himself with Salzman without a true knowledge of his own intent." His terrifying insight is that he called in Salzman because he was not capable of finding a bride for himself—an incapability related to his realization that except for his parents, he had "never loved anybody." It now seems to Leo that his "whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless." The problem here is, as it is throughout the story, that the two kinds of love—divine love and erotic love—are confused in Leo's mind. He never truly disentangles them. At least he never admits his true intent in seeking a bride; he still tries to insist that it is a "sanctified seeking." And although he uses language unconsciously suggesting sexuality when Salzman comes again—"To be frank, I now admit the necessity of premarital love"—he still has failed to "establish the level of his need."

Finkle's discovery of what he really wants, although he still cannot articulate it nor even admit it consciously, occurs when he sees the picture of Stella in the briefcase that stinks of fish. Although after looking at all the pictures he says there is "not a true personality in the lot," it is clear that personality is not what he desires. His first view of Stella, who embodies flesh, regardless of all the chivalric overtones of her name, causes him to cry out in final recognition. His feeling that the eyes are familiar, aside from the mythic connotations of confronting the mysterious stranger who is at the same time familiar, also suggests that Stella is Salzman as well; both are embodiments of primal sexuality which, even as it suggests spring flowers and youth, also implies wastedness and age. Finkle's desire for Stella as well as his fear of her is man's simultaneous archetypal desire and fear of woman which de Beauvoir and others have noted.

When Leo runs to Salzman's house, the fact that he could have sworn he had seen Salzman's wife before simply indicates that she too is Salzman. This similarity and the magic barrel itself, which Leo cannot see in the tenement, he dismisses as figments of his imagination. But they are as real as his previous visions of Salzman's unseen machinations that surround him. For the only reality in the story is the reality of Finkle's need to fall from his books into life. Salzman's refusal to grant Leo Stella, his insistence that it was an accident that the picture was in the briefcase, are all part of Salzman's plan to make Leo himself establish the level of his own need. Leo must be made to admit that he desires what Stella represents. "She is not for you. She is a wild one—wild, without shame. This not a bride for rabbi…. Like an animal…. Like a dog."

Leo hides under the covers and prays to be rid of Stella. But he actually prays that his prayers to be rid of her are not answered. His final rationalization for his physical desire for her is only that—a rationalization: "He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. The idea alternately nauseated and exalted him." The tableau or coda of the story sums up and, as Earl Rovit has suggested, resolves the conflict the only way it can be resolved—through metaphor. The elements of the scene—the spring night, Leo carrying a bouquet of violets and rosebuds, Stella smoking under a street lamp, not quite in the red dress and white shoes of the prostitute, her eyes filled with desperate innocence—combine again divine with erotic love. Leo sees in her his redemption from law and from thought and his fall into lawlessness and feeling. Truly Salzman, always smelling of fish, the sexual smell of the genitals, the smell of man's origin in the sea, makes his chant to the dead for Leo Finkle, but it is a death essential to Leo's life.

One must enter the narrative world of "The Magic Barrel" in the same way that Leo Finkle is finally willing to accept Stella, the way one enters into sexuality—by giving up one's perceptual hold on the usual world of objects and allowing oneself to be carried away. Both Finkle and the reader must relinquish the false boundary between inside and outside, subject and object, real and imaginary. For what is outside Finkle is only the objectification of what is inside. What Salzman and Stella are as objects, they are as the real and only "subject" of the story: Finkle's own objectified desire. The real and the imaginary have no boundaries in "The Magic Barrel," for in that barrel, which is both sex and art at once, one confronts the primal and fearful desire of loss of self and complete union with the other.

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This section contains 2,740 words
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Charles E. May from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.