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Critical Essay by Lawrence Jay Dessner
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 their ground. From the first, a symptom of critical unease, caused by the story's inconsistent allegiance to the conventions, or clichés, of literary genre, has been a concern for its apparent or potential sentimentality: "There is a sentimentality to these tales [in The Magic Barrel], as well as a condescending cuteness which mars them seriously … Except for their settings … they might have been published in one of the women's magazines, so sentimental, so treacle-laden are they. In short, they are emotional clichés" [Richard Shickel, "Decline of the Short Story," The Progressive (1958)].
This is the extreme position, but even his admirers have felt that Malamud was playing dangerously close to the edge of bathos: "He is saved [from sentimentality] … by a certain irreducible sourness in most of his characters and by the intransigence of the circumstances he has created" [Henry Popkin, "Jewish Stories," Kenyon Review (1958)]. And again: "One reason why I salute Mr. Malamud is that in The Magic Barrel he keeps right off the hokum-schmokum, I-should-drop-dead folksy kind of Jewish story for which, I am sure, we would have been all too pathetically grateful" [Keith Waterhouse, "New Short Stories," New Statesman (1960)]. Despite the story's recalling, if avoiding, the genre of the "hokum-schmokum," Alfred Kazin thought it a "little masterpiece," although he noted a limit in Malamud's range because of the extremes to which he seemed forced to go "to outwit his own possible sentimentality" [Contemporaries: From the 19th Century to the Present, 1982]. The Spectator's [Ronald Bryden] found that Malamud skirted sentimentality, that seductive patch of quicksand often lurking in the "slightly hackneyed field of New York Jewish humor." He "has a trick," wrote this critic, "of leading his simple O. Henry anecdotes to suddenly complex, reverberant endings."
The complex ending of "The Magic Barrel," in particular, has become a focus of debate. It presents us with Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student whose pursuit of a bride acceptable to a congregation precipitates a crisis of confidence and then a passionate desire for a young woman whose father had disowned her because of her sins. "A wild one—wild without shame…. Like an animal. Like a dog," is the way the distraught father, Pinye Salzman, the matchmaker, describes her. When "The Magic Barrel" reaches its conclusion, the rabbi-to-be approaches the girl in the character of her suitor, while her father, who had at Leo's desperate urging brought the two together, "chanted prayers for the dead." Like the conventional prostitute, "Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking," but she is wearing white as well as red and Leo "pictured in her his own redemption." As if in celebration of their nuptials, "Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky." This ending has raised more questions than it has settled and it has not, as endings often do, answered questions that had arisen earlier: Did the matchmaker manipulate Leo so as to cause or prompt him to fall in love with Stella? Is he using Leo to get his despised daughter off his hands or does he believe in the possibility of her salvation, and of Leo's, through hers? What is the moral of the piece, its tone and intention? What is the author's attitude to his story, which is to say, what is its genre?
To these and related questions a disconcertingly wide variety of answers have been offered. Some readers, seeming to be making a virtue of necessity, evidently believe "that to reduce the story to specific meaning is to do the author an injustice" [Richard Reynolds, "'The Magic Barrel,'" Studies in Short Fiction (1973)]. On the other hand, a critic insists that those who find the story ambiguous are also those who "actually believe that breaking all the rules and sleeping with a prostitute is a maturational experience" [Bates Hoffer, "The Magic in Malamud's Barrel," Linguistics in Literature (1977)]. It is evidently possible to admire the story greatly without understanding the motivations of one of its central characters and so without understanding its narrator's moral attitude toward the story as a whole. A critic argues that "'The Magic Barrel' is not only the finest piece in the collection … it is perhaps one of the finest stories of recent years." Yet, this critic goes on to say that "it is impossible to tell for whom Pinye chants—for himself and his guilt,… for Finkle's past or Finkle's future, or for all these reasons…. What better reason to chant when to win means to lose" [Sidney Richman, "The Stories," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, 1970]. The story's reputed sentimentality, its "effort to induce an emotional response disproportionate to the situation, and thus to substitute heightened and generally unthinking feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgment," may have spread to the critic who reached this conclusion: "The reader is left with the illogical, vaguely unsettling but deeply moving impression that Pinye's mourning chant somehow captures the pain, suffering, and loneliness of life while also welcoming the possibility of spiritual growth" [Sheldon Hershinow, Bernard Malamud, 1980].
Crucial to the tonal ambiguity of the story's ending, and therefore to questions of its sentimentality, is the problem of Salzman's motivation. To some readers, this problem is without a solution: "The reader, like Leo, is left wondering whether Pinye is merely a clever con-man or a spiritual teacher" [Hershinow]. To others, the solution is quite clear: Salzman is an "imposter" "who has neither office nor magic barrel filled with dossiers of choice brides." His prayer for the dead "signifies that the rabbinical student is lost to the faith" [Jeffrey Helterman, Understanding Bernard Malamud, 1985]. Still others have found that Salzman's prayer mourns "the death of the old Leo who was incapable of love," and "celebrat[es] his birth into a new life." In this view, Salzman "engages in a ruse" to teach Leo that "love is existential" [Theodore Miller, "The Minister and the Whore," Studies in the Humanities (1972)]. But an equally confident reader speaks of "an ending of powerful affirmation [in which] the student, re-
The difficulties we have been reviewing arise not from any essential obscurity in the story, but from its author's and its narrators' unrelenting and exhilarating playfulness and from the failure on the part of critics to attend to that playfulness, to let themselves see that this serious story is awash in jokes about the literary genres to which "The Magic Barrel" belongs or alludes. (It may be too easy to forget that Matthew Arnold's own attack on the bleak, even dingy, tone of the middle-class heroes of Victorian Hebraic moral seriousness was itself often made with Hellenic sprightliness.) The literary games being so vigorously played on the field of "The Magic Barrel" are not ends in themselves but means of expressing the moral dichotomies which can be derived from the fundamentally contradictory meanings of the word "magic." The word refers equally well to the clever tricks of the stage magician as to the miracles performed by the God-obsessed prophet or by a supernatural power itself. The word invokes the actions of the trickster which are so complex as to appear, but only to appear, to be beyond rational, logical, explanation or cause as well as those God-like actions which are by definition uncaused, beyond the explanations of reason. By playing on this doubleness of meaning, "The Magic Barrel" asks about the kind of magic which is at work in the universe it imagines. Are the wonders of this universe explicable, subject to rational analysis, or are they beyond reason's power and understanding? That the story does not answer this question of questions does not mean that it is an ambiguous work. The story's point is that the universe the story imagines—a convenient stand-in for the one we inhabit—is ambiguous, indecipherable, suffused with uncertainty about its relationship, if any, to Deity, if any. This radical doubt is not presented as a cause for heavy-headed dismay. Here, as in much of Malamud's fiction, radical skepticism is not burdensome but a provocation to delight.
The joyful playfulness at the heart of "The Magic Barrel," thwarting and perplexing some of its best readers, is voiced through an incessant irony. Often obvious, often subtle, irony permeates "The Magic Barrel" as much as the shadow of sentimentality does. In suggesting now that its universe is mundane, now that it is miraculous, it takes away with one hand what it gives with the other while pretending, straight-faced, to be unaware of this duplicity. Or rather it pretends to pretend to be so unaware. It says things it only wishes to be true, unsaying them at the very instant of their utterance. Sentimentality is undercut by rude skepticism, faith by naturalistic doubt, but then that doubt is questioned by the manifestation of the supernatural, that skepticism by the advent, sentimental or otherwise, of hope.
The oscillation of the implied author's faith is constantly figured in his wavering loyalty to the conventions of literary genre, which in turn determines the narrator's style of self-presentation, the descriptions of natural phenomena, the problematic character of Pinye Salzman, and the basis of the obsession which so suddenly and insistently draws the rabbinical student to the prostitute.
The agent of the story's irony, the narrator, is himself a figure of irreducible contradiction. His speech, the essence of his action as narrator, is not that of a native speaker of English, at least as the story begins: "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 Yeshivah University." The inclusion of the definite article before the identifying name of the university marks the sentence off from the received standard English of educated discourse. Both "in the University" and "in University" have the flavor of the British upper classes. "At the University" and "at Yeshivah University" are unexceptional American idiomatic forms. Our narrator sidesteps these possibilities for a Yiddish-flavored alternative. And there is something elusively but surely not "right" either about "though crowded with books." We understand that the relative abundance of books is judged by our narrator to stand in a compensating relationship to the shortcomings of the apartment, and it is heartening to hear that commonplace in whatever dialect, but our narrator is imperfectly sensitive to the nuances of standard idiom. If we recast the phrase we hear that "In a small, almost meager room which was, however, crowded with books," while not without its awkwardness, is in its sound and syntax as surely native as the original version is not.
But no sooner have we adjusted our expectations to the peculiarities of this narrator's voice and to his chosen genre then both the dialect and the fairy tale ambience, the vagueness of placement in time and space—"Not long ago" is a variant of "Once upon a time," "in uptown New York" a version of "somewhere west of Laramie" or a seacoast in Bohemia—vanish without either warning or trace:
Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.
Vagueness has given way to exactness of reference—"six," "June," "two," "two"—and the narrator's language has become elegantly correct. We notice the gracefully rhythmic alliteration of: "advised by an acquaintance," and "after two tormented days of turning it over." There is the tactfully and delicately-expressed prudence and its correctly accompanying subjunctive: "he might find," "if he were married." The verb in "Win himself a congregation" is precisely the right one, not indeed as formal as our narrator himself might choose, too flippant in its metaphor's suggestion of play or deceit to suit Leo himself, but certainly the very one Leo's acquaintance, who is tacitly quoted here, found comfortably appropriate. Notice the dignity suggested by that "present" before "prospects," that insinuated assurance that we are among men of the world here, upper lips stiff, for whom even an emotional crisis will be taken in stride. True, Finkle is "tormented," but for two "days" instead of the expected "nights," and his "turning … over" occurs in the decorous safety of "his mind" rather than bodily on a bed of pain.
The narrator, that voice that effortlessly slides from the untutored dialect of the foreign born to the eloquent precision of the highly educated writer, will in due course be seen to be at his ease recording references to Salzman's colorful dialect and Yiddish ("Yiddishe kinder"), yet knowledgeable with regard to French tags ("au courant," "petite") and classical mythology ("a cloven-hoofed Pan"). The volatile instability of the narrator's identity is integral to the shifting of his story's genre from speech-oriented folk or fairy tale or parable of wisdom to highly literate, even bookish, modern skeptical realism. Playfully, as if to celebrate by making unmistakably obvious his own remarkable range of cultural reference and the story's dazzling inconsistencies, the narrator enters Leo's consciousness at a moment when the language and special knowledge of both Jewish and Christian orthodoxy are placed in ludicrous juxtaposition in a single consciousness: "He had lived without knowledge of himself, and never in the Five Books and all the Commentaries—mea culpa—had the truth been revealed to him."
Here and at other points in the story when what is at hand is not the abstract or symbolic pain of fairy tale but realism's implacable and concrete anguish, the narrator drops his Yiddish-flavored dialect and his playful use of the fairy tale's magical, that is, supernatural, conventions. But such reversions to sober seriousness of content and presentation are always short-lived, soon interrupted or concluded when the merciful spirit of play reasserts itself. In the midst of Leo's agony, for instance, the narrator refers to it with a folkloric, non-realistic image: "His beard darkened." The result of such narrative maneuvers is delighted surprise, comic relief, and a distancing reminder that Leo is nothing more than a character in what is not only a fiction but a fairy tale. Suddenly, he becomes a flat rather than a round character, and we may laugh at him and his plight, knowing that the genre of which we have just been reminded will not permit him to suffer too deeply, too long, or without due recompense.
The narrator's playfulness with the conventions of genre is not limited, however, to the psychological effect of transmuting the reader's pain to pleasure. His failures of consistency announce and enforce an agnostic's freedom from dogma, a joyously playful willingness not to know more about the moral universe but that it is eternally and provocatively not to be known.
The second paragraph of our story initiates what will become an elaborate play with the tantalizing but incomplete evidence of the metaphysical status of Pinye Salzman. He "appeared one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway." The aura of the supernatural that the title and opening words of "The Magic Barrel" have let out of the bag, as it were, tempts us to imagine the matchmaker literally "appearing," that is materializing out of spirit into the semblance of flesh, literally extruding himself "out" of the smoky gloom of the poorly lit hallway. Repeatedly, Salzman is said to "appear," "reappear," and "disappear" "as if on the wings of the wind." The cumulative suggestion is that he materializes rather than merely moves from place to place. Often his appearance comes at the most opportune time, as far as his prospects go of making a customer out of Leo. On one occasion, for instance, Leo dismisses Salzman in exasperation, but no sooner does Leo's anger leave him than "almost at once there came a knock on the door" and Salzman "was standing in the room." It is not clear whether Salzman walked into the room or beamed himself down in it.
The second part of the sentence which introduces Salzman reins us in. The man, if man he be, is "grasping a black, strapped portfolio that had been worn thin with use." His "overcoat [is] too short and tight for him." With this and what immediately follows, the spell of the folk or fairy tale is weakened. Salzman has become no more than a long-suffering, hard-working mortal. The narrator, expressing sympathy for his humble, arduous, and unremunerative calling, briefly drops down into the matchmaker's own dialect: "Salzman, who had been long in the business…." (Standard English for that would be, "Salzman, who had been in the business a long time….") His clothes are poor, he is missing some teeth, and he "smelled, frankly, of fish, which he loved to eat." But despite these unpromising attributes, Salzman still may be some sort of spirit, goblin, phantom, in deep disguise, for "his presence [as in the 'presence' of royalty, perhaps] was not displeasing [our narrator has resumed his impeccably correct British English with its habitual litotes], because of an amiable manner curiously contrasted with mournful eyes." Notice the elegant play of m's and c's in that phrase, and, on the vowel side, of the a's of "because of an amiable manner." Except for the missing teeth, Salzman's eyes are the first of his facial features to be noticed. (They will prove to be of primary importance before long.) Then comes his aesthete's "wisp of beard" and "bony fingers." Then the eyes again, "mild blue eyes [which] revealed a depth of sadness." And it is this "characteristic," the narrator tells us, which first appealed to Leo, putting him "a little at ease."
When the matchmaker and his client settle down to business, they do so "at a table near a window that overlooked the lamp-lit city." Like the opening words, "Not long ago," "lamp-lit" carries a hint of the days before electric light, of gas, even of oil. But, typically for this story, the question is complicated by the facts that the post which supports modern electric street lighting is still called a "lamppost" and modern electrical fixtures are commonly called "lamps." Suggestive as it may be, "the lamp-lit city" is not a reliable index to the story's historical period. Similarly, as suggestive as Salzman's eyes, beard, hands, and entrance may be, they tell us nothing for certain about his metaphysical status. And complementing and echoing these ambiguities is the narrator himself, about whose ethnic origins and loyalties, as expressed in his habits of speech, we will be in a state of bemused ignorance until it dawns upon us that he is himself a notable aspect of the comedy of ambiguity he is presenting to us.
Some will need only the next page or so before such dawning, for when the very sensitive Leo, distressed by Salzman's way of flipping through the cards on which his female offerings are described, looks away from him, "He now 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." This is the first of five scenes in "The Magic Barrel" which have reminded readers of the painter Marc Chagall. [In an endnote, Dessner states: "The others are: Salzman 'hiding … in a tree,… or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan,' 'a profusion of loaves of bread … flying like ducks over his head,' Leo's years of study seen as 'pages torn from a book, strewn over the city,' and' Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky.'"] Indeed, Chagall's paintings are known for the way figures, animate and inanimate, appear floating high in the sky. Both artists seem to use a similar method to testify to the presence of the supernatural in the realm of nature. As Sandy Cohen says [in Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love, 1974], "Chagall suspends the laws of physics to portray the parallels and the harmony between this world and the next—between the physical and the spiritual…." Unlike Chagall's paintings, however, Malamud's linear art permits him to have it more than one way. Not only do his enchanted skyscapes, unlike Chagall's, vanish as suddenly as they materialize, but they are embedded in the context of the story's characters and train of events. There is more than one way then to understand the significance of this and of the story's other instances of unusual objects floating in defiance of gravity. My analysis of this one should provide a pattern pertinent to those other scenes as well.
Clouds do indeed float in the sky, taking all sorts of shapes, including those reminiscent of the shapes of animals. The fastidious Leo, distressed by the way his search for a wife has led him into embarrassing and uncomfortably intimate discussions with the crude matchmaker, distressed too by his increasing awareness of his own ominous moral and even spiritual inadequacies, has turned away from Salzman. He "pretended not to see" Salzman flipping through his "much-handled" index cards on which are written the vital statistics of his marriage-minded offerings and instead "gazed steadfastly out the window." Faced for the first time with the practical aspects of courtship and with the probability of his own impending marriage, Leo's mind and heart are in a tumult. At this moment, the narrator reminds us that Leo's upheaval about love and sex involves the eternal cycle of natural rebirth: "Although it was still February, winter was on its last legs, signs of which he had for the first time in years begun to notice." Leo had told Salzman that he had for the past "six years devoted himself almost entirely to his studies" so that he knew little of "the company of women." But in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, so, like a patient being tested with Rorschach ink blots, Leo projects his immediate obsessions out onto the canvas of the sky and interprets one of the cloud shapes as a female doing what females as females do, laying an egg. The roughly egg-shaped moon passes behind the translucent clouds among which is one which roughly resembles and readily brings to Leo's recently sensitized mind the idea of a hen. This isn't simply fantasy or fairy tale in the manner of Chagall, an index to this world's essential spirituality; it is psychological realism in the manner of Freud. Indeed, before that hen gives birth, it is said to have been "penetrated." No wonder Leo watches "with half-open mouth" in awe and astonishment.
This comic, psychological interpretation of the episode, however, ignores the use of the moon in its ancient role in the iconography of love. It ignores the charming touch of the fairy-tale imagination which pictures "winter" as a worn-out old man "on his last legs," and it ignores that conventional association of romance which requires the progress of the seasons of correspond to the progress of the protagonist. The peak of Leo's sexual expressiveness will occur, of course, at the end of the story on a "spring night." The glowing February moon, like the entire skyscape, is not only symbolic. Both "round" and "white," as our narrator describes it, the moon is an index to Leo's susceptibility to feminine voluptuousness.
This discussion of the play of genres would not be complete without our noting that here, as repeatedly in "The Magic Barrel," the psychological drama of the young male's belated entrance into social, sexual, and ethical maturity appropriates the conventions, not of dramatic realism, but of farce. Take for instance Leo's repeatedly embarrassing encounters with his landlady. Her love-obsessed boarder, who has just walked out of a cafeteria without paying, fails to recognize her as she saunters past him in the street. When Leo, "sensing his own disagreeableness," apologizes to her for this and other lapses, he does so so "abjectly" that the poor woman "ran away from him." This slap-stick sequence is a parody of Leo's serious problems. He has a lot to learn about women and about himself. But serious as his plight presents itself to him, its farcical elements and the narrator's handling of the telling of it assures the reader, for the moment at least, that a happy ending rather than a life in therapy, or with a wife in therapy, or some even worse fate will be Leo's portion. Later, when Leo is faced with the most difficult crisis life has thus far offered him, he "hurried up to bed and hid under the covers." In farce such behavior assures escaping the worst. Here, at an early stage of his search for a wife, staring out the window at those remarkable clouds, Leo is presented as the conventionally comic, sexcrazed adolescent. He is sweating in anguish behind as dignified a front as he can manage, and we are all amused. The more he suffers, the more we laugh.
Between the story's conventional situation of the sexually innocent male's confrontation with the experienced female and the narrator's agile, tongue-in-cheek transformations of both the story's genre and the narrator's tone and manner, the story hovers at the edge of hilarity. At the same time, the pathos of Leo's plight and the implicit promise of his escape from it hover at the edge of sentimentality. And yet also at the same time, the "shame and fear" that "possessed" Leo when he told Lily H., one of Salzman's prospects, "that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not," that "he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man," have the seriousness and dignity associated with tragedy. And yet at this moment, when his "terrifying insight" "brought him to the point of panic" and Leo "covered his face with his hands and cried," Malamud's complex and ironic juggling of generic conventions dissolves the boundaries between fairy tale, moral fable, psychological realism, sentimental hokum, and farce.
In the midst of Leo's absorption with the hen in the sky, the narrator wipes away the trace of a smile that was making itself more and more discernible and replaces it with a poker player's face from which issue these sober tones:
Salzman, though pretending through eyeglasses he had just slipped on, to be engaged in scanning the writing on the cards, stole occasional glances at the young man's distinguished face, noting with pleasure the long, severe scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain, almost a hollow quality of the dark cheeks. He gazed around at shelves upon shelves of books and let out a soft, contented sigh.
Where has our overage trouble-prone comic adolescent gone? Where our narrator's accent and fairy-tale practices? And perhaps the most arresting questions arise here: is Pinye Salzman, who speaks of his eligible women as merchandise and lies freely both to them and to Leo, merely the insensitive, materialistic matchmaker he appears to be? Is his sigh the traditional humble Jew's appreciation of learning or the greedy tradesman's gloating over his prey? Or, in keeping with fairy-tale convention and with the suggestions of supernatural powers that often accompany him, is Salzman some sort of ministering angel or fairy godfather, chuckling to himself about his projected course of action, his strategy for redeeming the strayed man of God? Or is Salzman closer to the Satanic model, leading Leo to destruction either for the ordinary devilish reasons or merely in hopes of saving, or at least providing for, his own daughter? Much of the story is concerned with the oxymoronic and impenetrable epithet the narrator applies to Salzman in passing, "commercial cupid," businessman divinity.
Avid to meet the girl whose photograph has so appealed to him, Leo travels by subway to Salzman's Bronx address but finds him not at home. His wife says that his office is "in the air," an allusion to the Yiddish tradition of the luftmensch, as well as yet another suggestion of Salzman's supernatural status. [In an endnote, Dessner comments on the definition of luftmensch: "Literally, a man of the air. In The Joys of Yiddish (1968), Leo Rosten's definitions include 'an impractical fellow, but optimistic,' and 'One without an occupation, who lives or works ad libitum.' Rosten captures the spirit of the type by recalling Israel Zangwill's fictional luftmensch whose business cards read 'Dentist and Restaurateur.'"] Leo returns directly to his apartment and is "astounded" to find the matchmaker there waiting for him. Since Leo travelled by subway, it does not seem possible that, short of flying, Salzman could have reached Leo's apartment ahead of him unless Salzman had started for his apartment before Leo had left word for him and that explanation, which would involve a remarkable coincidence or Salzman's ability to know what Leo was thinking, seems equally improbable. Leo's question, "How did you get here before me?" confronts Salzman with the issue of his essential nature, but Salzman parries Leo's question by an answer of enigmatic curtness, "I rushed." It is a stylistic hallmark of the story that Salzman, Leo, and the narrator are capable of similarly terse and abrupt comic deflections. When Lily H. learns that Leo is not "enamored of God" in the way she had hoped, the narrator sums up her disappointment—and undercuts the pathos of it—by the comic, summary sentence, rhyming, balanced in structure, and intricately alliterative, "Lily wilted." When Leo catches Salzman in his salesman's exuberance representing one of his clients to be "Age twenty-nine," three years younger than she had earlier been said to be, it is Leo's turn for the memorably terse, comic rejoinder, "Reduced from thirty-two?" It is as if Leo, Salzman, and the narrator, despite their great differences in role and in manner, were co-conspirators in the story's generation of comic ambiguities. After Salzman's explanation which explains nothing, Leo lets the matter drop, joining the conspiracy not to pursue the question of Salzman's nature to a conclusion.
Another question with far-reaching ramifications for our understanding of Salzman and the story is that of the "magic" barrel itself. Boasting to Leo about the large number of his clients, Salzman says his drawers are filled with index cards and so "I keep them now in a barrel." Whether or not Pinye Salzman literally possesses such a barrel—"magic" or otherwise—we are, however, debarred from knowing. One would think that the barrel is merely Salzman's metaphor, and Leo, seeing no sign of it in Salzman's apartment, tells himself that it is "probably also a figment of the imagination." But Malamud doesn't even let this detail escape his veil of ambiguity. The narrator tells us that a curtain divided Salzman's one-room apartment and that the curtain was "half-open." Leo's search then was necessarily limited. We have been at this impasse before, but perhaps we can move past it by considering the nature and result of Salzman's ministrations, whether plotted or inadvertent, that is, Leo's sudden yet lasting infatuation, if the word does not prejudge the analysis, with Stella. What can we make of that infatuation?
As with other aspects of "The Magic Barrel," analysis of its central event, Leo's sudden, strong attraction to Stella, leads toward contradictory results and these in turn toward differing ideas of the story's overall tendency. In fact, the nature of Leo's reaction to the snapshot of Salzman's daughter is the story's determining question. Salzman may be nothing more than a shallow and greedy salesman, a cynical peddler of damaged and discounted goods, and yet the world in which he plies his trade may be thought to be redeemed by Leo's response to his daughter's photograph: "He gazed at it a moment and let out a cry." Considerations of career, propriety, and self, are cast aside in an instant:
Her face deeply moved him. Why, he could not at first say. It gave him the impression of youth—spring flowers, yet age—a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted; this came from the eyes, which were hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange. He had a vivid impression that he had met her before, but try as he might he could not place her…. It was not, he affirmed, that she had an extraordinary beauty—no, though her face was attractive enough; it was that something about her moved him. Feature for feature, even some of the ladies of the photographs could do better; but she leaped forth to his heart—had lived, or wanted to—more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived—had somehow deeply suffered; it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes…. Her he desired. His head ached and eyes narrowed with the intensity of his gazing, then as if an obscure fog had blown up in the mind, he experienced fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil.
The initial shock is expressed in a wordless "cry." Then Leo, by instinct as well as training an inveterate analyst, seeks an explanation for what has happened to him. He identifies as possible causes the paradox of Stella's aura which combines both youth and age and the paradox of strangeness and familiarity. He assures himself that his experience is not one of mere sexual arousal: Stella is not "an extraordinary beauty." He returns to his initial formulation, the combination of youth and age, innocence and experience, attraction and repulsion. Then Leo drops his inconclusive and half-hearted analysis. Readers of "The Magic Barrel," however, will want to stay with the analysis longer in hopes that doing so will clarify the story's ambiguities of genre and intention.
Leo himself seems to think that Stella's having "deeply suffered" is paramount. He speaks repeatedly of being "of service" to her and of finding "redemption" in so doing. We recall his earlier self-diagnosis and understand that Leo hopes to love God better through loving mankind better. That Stella has made herself ineligible for ordinary love only raises the stakes toward Dostoevskian heights.
Leo is unaware of the farcical and sentimental aspects of his program and not concerned to try to understand the genesis of his sudden passion for Stella which engendered this drama, or melodrama, of redemption through suffering. Having fallen in love, he knows what he wants to do about it but has no interest in discovering why and how his passion was aroused. Indeed, his offering no explanation of that allows the implication that there is no explanation, that his falling in love, in that it passeth understanding, was an intrusion of the irrational, that is, of the uncaused, into an otherwise rational universe. This is an essentially religious, albeit unorthodox view, at least as consonant with Christianity as with some forms of contemporary Judaism. Not through reason and a knowledge of "the Five Books and all the Commentaries," but through the magical allure of Salzman's fallen daughter, has Leo learned to serve his fellow mortals and so come, as Lily put it, "to be enamored of God."
This interpretation of the events is so lacking in Malamud's usual playfulness and yet so mined with submerged ironies that one is tempted to say that only a Leo could believe it. Unlike Leo, readers of the story are not likely to forget the other possibilities that Leo himself had repeatedly raised. Soon after being smitten by Stella, he obtains her father's agreement to arrange a meeting with her and is then "afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way." This is a resurgence of earlier fears that he was being manipulated by Salzman, even that Salzman had supernatural means of doing so. In the aftermath of his troubling meeting with Lily, "he would not put past Salzman's machinations" the fact that "it snowed." For Salzman to have planned Leo's falling in love with Stella, Salzman would have had to slip her picture in with the others left with Leo.
But this would only insure Leo's seeing the photograph. To insure Leo's falling in love because of it would require Salzman to have and to employ superhuman powers. The idea that Leo's love for Stella was beyond reason meshes with the story's fairy-tale ambience, with its surrealistic skyscapes, and with those miraculous aspects of Salzman's powers. The happy coherence of these motifs and the overall interpretation they point to is undercut, however, by the equally coherent view that whatever magic we find in "The Magic Barrel" is of the sleight-of-hand variety, the gods having departed. In this view, Leo's distress about his sexual and theological identity is nothing more than a mask for what is biological and psychological, another rather elementary instance, like the "penetrated" hen in the clouds, of Freudian sublimation. Since he is by training a man of the cloth, his choice of explication and justification of the events is made for him. The theme of redemption through a fallen woman is a fanciful piece of self-deception, a mere conventional cover for what is apparent to all disinterested—and thoroughly amused—observers. Leo has hidden his sexual passions under a cloak of mystery and charity and the old chestnut about the prostitute with a heart of gold: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" How effectively that conventional question preempts inquiry about the nice boy's motives for being in the same place!
The cynical view that love can be understood as an expression of rational functioning of biological and psychological mechanisms gains support by a discovery Leo himself makes. At the critical instant of the critical moment, with Stella before him in her ambiguously suggestive red and white, Leo has an insight that resolves his conflict and sends him forth "with flowers out thrust" and which cues another celebration, or psychological projection, in the heavens: "Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky." Leo hesitates no longer: "He pictured, in her, his own redemption." The critical discovery that comes to Leo at this moment is that Stella's eyes, "filled with desperate innocence," "were clearly her father's." No wonder he was so intrigued when he first saw her picture. Her eyes were both "hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange." The mystery of Leo's fascination with Stella is then no mystery at all, not the consequence of a manifestation of spiritual or supernatural "magic" in the mundane world. What has happened has been the result of the biological probability that Stella's eyes would resemble her father's.
Malamud's narrator has been reminding us of Salzman's eyes and of Leo's responsiveness to them from the very beginning. However crass Salzman's behavior, those "mournful" eyes are more than compensation to Leo. They "revealed a depth of sadness"; they are "melancholy eyes" and "haunted eyes." Leo's sense that Stella has suffered, "been used to the bone, wasted," and been sanctified by that suffering, "came from the eyes." One could say that Leo is responding to more than the unaccountable familiarity of the eyes in Stella's picture, that he senses in them her father's sensitivity to and experience of redemptive suffering.
Malamud's text also sanctions a comic complication of this already deeply ironic interpretation. Leo's discovery of Stella's resemblance to her father, as it happens, is not his first such discovery of her inherited traits. Having fallen in love with Stella through her photograph, Leo rushes to Salzman's apartment. After all, her picture was among those Salzman left for him. His first response to the "thin, gray-haired woman, in felt slippers" who opens the door is this: "He could have sworn he had seen her, too, before but knew it was an illusion." Even though Leo says this resemblance is "an illusion," readers need not be misled by this ironic narrative ruse into believing that Stella resembles her father but not her mother. While alert readers of "The Magic Barrel" sense that the link between Stella and her mother will involve a link between Stella and her father, Leo himself is unaware of this so that we have the delicious dramatic irony of his continuing to run "around in the woods."
In the end, despite his daring decision to pursue it differently, love has come to Leo Finkle after all in the time-honored way both Salzman and Leo's tradition recommend, "as a by-product of living and worship." His intercourse with Salzman, his exposure to the matchmaker's vivacious energy, his "amiable manner," and his notably solemn eyes have produced, as a by-product, the rabbinical student's infatuation with the older man. This "love" makes itself known to us, but surely not to Leo, in the younger man's adoption of the older's mannerisms of speech and salient characteristics of appearance. Leo thinks he loves Stella, but when he finds Salzman in a cafeteria. "Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom." He has become a novice in the service of Pinye Salzman. His speech, too, formally so impeccably "Americanized" (Salzman's word in boasting about Lily's qualifications), now sounds like this: "It is not impossible," and "Just her I want." Of course Leo cannot marry Salzman, who among other things is already married, nor can he admit to himself his predilection. Fortunately, fortuitously, Stella comes along. Leo transfers his passion to her, concocts, subconsciously, his highly acceptable if sentimental rationale for his unusual marital choice, and down comes the curtain on the play. It has been a fairy tale, or a farce, except we have been deeply touched by the characters as individuals and by the seriousness of their plights. It has been a work of psychological realism, except that the tongue in cheek has too prominently bulged. It has been a moral fable, except for the indeterminacy of its moral grounds and for the inconsistency of its generic conventions. Whatever Salzman's magic is, Malamud's art is much more than what is implied by "a trick," or even a bag of tricks. Now, a barrel? That's another story altogether.
Malamud on Chagallean Imagery in His Fiction:
It's true that I did make use of what might be called Chagallean imagery in "The Magic Barrel." I did so intentionally in that story, but I've not done it again in any other piece of fiction, and I feel that some critics make too much of Chagall as an image maker in my work. Chagall, as a painter, doesn't mean as much to me as Matisse, for instance. Painting helps me to see with greater clarity the multifarious world and to depict it simply.
Bernard Malamud with Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, in their "An Interview with Bernard Malamud," in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, Prentice-Hall, 1975.
"Leaning against a wall," which cannot but allude to the ancient wailing wall in the old city of Jerusalem, "Salzman chanted prayers for the dead." It is reasonable to expect that a story that offers and then undercuts diverse interpretations about so much should encourage conflicting views about all its parts. But the only "dead" person in "The Magic Barrel" is, or was, Stella. "This is why to me she is dead now," cried her father, grieving over her moral failure, her fate worse than death. (As if to clarify the matter, Malamud added "to me" after the Partisan Review publication.) Stella's father, seeing his daughter on the road to salvation, or on the road to easy street, or at last off his hands and off his mind, or even about to make a connection with the rabbinical student for whom he himself harbors warm feelings, prays. The Jewish prayers for the dead, the Kaddish, do not mention death. "They are praises to God." However Pinye Salzman understands the event, he has good reason to praise God in thanksgiving. In whatever diverse ways we choose to read its genres, to play the game of "The Magic Barrel," or by extension to accept our endlessly enigmatic universe, we may all join in its praise.
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