The Magic Barrel | Brian Adler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 3,966 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Brian Adler

SOURCE: "Akedah and Community in 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 188-96.

In the essay below, Adler interprets the interaction between Salzman and Finkle as a father-son relationship that culminates in Finkle's reintegration into the Jewish community.

In the stories of Bernard Malamud, a father-and-son pairing typically exists, either symbolically, as in the case of "The Jewbird," in which the bird Schwartz is a symbolic father to the anti-Semitic Cohen, or literally, as in the case of Mendel and Isaac in "Idiots First." Although several critics have noticed the presence of father and son pairings in Malamud, identifying it as a "recurrent motif" and a "massive theme," the intricacies and ambivalences involved in the interaction between these fathers and sons have yet to be fully plumbed. This is especially true of "The Magic Barrel," perhaps Malamud's most celebrated short story and certainly, with its ending, one of his most perplexing.

Within this story, Finkle, the young rabbinical student, has become alienated from his community and also from himself in spite of (or perhaps because of) his rabbinical studies. His ostensible goal in "The Magic Barrel" is to find a wife so that his job search will go more easily. But as the story progresses, what becomes clear is that Finkle's real task involves reconnecting himself to his heart and reintegrating himself into the emotional and spiritual wellsprings of his community. In order to do this, Finkle must encounter Salzman, his symbolic, father, who will challenge the young man in problematic ways. The final scene of the story, with Salzman, "leaning against a wall, [chanting] prayers for the dead," signifies that Finkle has been returned to his community and has now begun the process of living fully within it.

To understand more clearly how the interaction between father and son foregrounds issues and concerns involving an individual's connection to his community, we must begin by examining what Ita Sheres calls [in "The Alienated Sufferer: Malamud's Novels from the Perspective of Old Testament and Jewish Mystical Thought," Studies in American Jewish Literature (1978)] "the first and main key to the understanding of Bernard Malamud's fiction." This is the Akedah (Hebrew for "binding"), which refers to God's commandment that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac in order to demonstrate his faith (Genesis 22:1-10). Certainly one of the most powerful father-and-son stories in our culture, the Akedah contains all of the essential Malamudian elements: imprisonment, obligation, conflict between father and son, faith, and liberation. For Sheres, the Akedah's significance comes from being predominately a story about "deliberate alienation," a theme obviously important in modern fiction. Although the story of Abraham and Isaac portrays the problematical and divisive elements in the relationship between father and son, the tale is ultimately concerned with integration; we are told that after Abraham has sacrificed the ram in Isaac's place, the two "arose and went together" down Mount Moriah, back to their camp (Gen. 22:19). While damage has been done to Isaac, on a certain level he has been brought to a fuller knowledge of what his father's God can demand of him, and he has come to see what his father might demand of him as well.

In this heightened moment of obligation, fear, and imminent death, the involvement of father and son leads to the recognition of something that transcends the pair, which demonstrates how the Akedah operates on a higher level, one with great significance for our discussion of "The Magic Barrel." Because Abraham is willing to do God's bidding, not only are Abraham and Isaac to be blessed, but, as God's angel tells Abraham, "in your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). Religiously speaking, the action of the Akedah has great significance; as Jonathan Magonet says [in "Abraham and God," Judaism (1984)], "What is at stake with the calling and testing of Abraham is no less than the survival and the future of humanity." Looked at in a broader context, the action of binding produces a radical change in the individual, somewhat at his immediate expense, but ultimately, for the welfare of the community and for the good of the individual subsumed by that community. Indeed, the significance of the Akedah is that it shows us action taken by an individual transcending the individual. Abraham's actions have meaning and significance beyond the limits of self; with Isaac's acceptance of the burdens of binding, the line of coherent transmission through time of crucial religious and cultural values is assured. The son's contact with the father acts as "the promise of renewal … for the family and the culture" [George Sebouhian, "From Abraham and Isaac to Bob Slocum and My Boy: Why Fathers Kill Their Sons," Twentieth Century Literature 27 (Spring 1981)], but only because the life-threatening situation brought upon the son by the father metamorphosizes into a declaration of continuity and life.

Ultimately, it is recognition of what Abraham the father does for the community that gives his behavior toward Isaac meaning. By acting as he does, Abraham demonstrates the importance of community and the necessity of preserving it. And within the Jewish context of the story, God makes it clear, by telling Abraham that His gift of the covenant will pass on to Isaac and his descendants, that the placing of value upon the community over the individual has been the right thing for Abraham to do. Perhaps damaged, certainly changed, Isaac, through his experience with the father, is now aware of what God may demand of His people. But rather than conveying complete alienation, the Akedah delivers two highly ambivalent messages about the process that binds individuals to each other and to greater ideals: first, fathers (and gods) can destroy, but they can also save; second, the binding of an in dividual to a community does not come without damage and tremendous change.

It is within this context of the Akedah that we must look at the relationship between Pinye Salzman and Leo Finkle. We shall see how Salzman functions as a symbolic father to the young Leo Finkle. Leo is trapped in the darkness and sterility of his loveless heart, a heart atrophied through years of neglect while he pursued his rabbinical degree. Salzman, "who had been long in the business" of life as well as marriage making, represents values of the heart, knowledge that Finkle does not yet have. The marriage broker gives Finkle the chance to come back to life. Through the ministrations of Salzman, Leo is able to burst the walls of his emotional prison, thrusting flowers in front of him into the fertile spring air, toward the waiting Stella. At the story's conclusion, Salzman produces the codifying sign of completion for the rabbinical student. Salzman's chanting of prayers for the dead indicates that a circle has been made complete, with life and death as necessary halves joined into a totality. Leo, through his encounter with his symbolic father, will be brought into the community from which he is, at the outset of the story, alienated.

Finkle begins his relationship with the father as a son who ambivalently calls upon the father for help. Nearing the end of one kind of life and about to begin another, Leo is undergoing a metamorphosis, caused by his imminent graduation and ordination in June. Accepting an acquaintance's advice, that Finkle "might find it easier to win a congregation if he were married," the student, "[a]fter two tormented days" decides to call in a marriage broker. He has no friends, no contacts with the world beyond his books. Certainly his torment is due in part to embarrassment at having a stranger enter into his private affairs, even though marriage brokers were and still are an accepted part of many Orthodox Jewish communities. That Finkle feels so uncomfortable about consulting a schaddhan, even though he admits knowing the "function of the marriage broker was ancient and honorable, highly approved in the Jewish community," is a sign of his alienation from that ethnic community. But his torment also indicates resentfulness that his isolated way of life must be disturbed. On a psychological level, Finkle is feeling the urges of new life, and he is afraid. He will have to open his life to influences he has until now ignored and repressed.

Leo must open himself to ideas of community, connection, and life. Opening is difficult to do when the emissary of these mysteries appears so objectionable to the student's sensibilities. Salzman carries note cards of his clients, which "he flipped through …, a gesture and sound that physically hurt Leo." Many readers note that Salzman, called by Malamud a "commercial cupid," goes about his business like a used-car salesman. Yet it is Leo who asks for pictures, the equivalent of kicking the tires before making a down payment. Salzman replies, "First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind promises." The theme of integration with the community is sounded, as well as the idea of covenant, and the attendant burdens that such "promises" might bring. The first three women Salzman suggests to Leo meet with rejection. A widow, age twenty-four. A woman too old, thirty-two. A nineteen-year-old with a lame foot. Each woman carries a blemish, a bruise given her by life, by straying too close to life's heat. Leo, because of his isolation, has remained unscathed, with no blemishes.

Salzman chides the student, saying he has "no experience" when it comes to choosing the best wife. He presses Leo to explain why, if age and virginity are factors important to him, he dismisses the nineteen-year-old. Leo blamed his rejection of the girl on, significantly, her father, who is a stomach specialist. He says, "I detest stomach specialists," hiding his distaste of the girl's lame foot, while revealing a truer reason for his rejection of her. The stomach, the gut, is the center of the fully lived life, the beginning of the bowels, where the gritty and unpleasant but absolutely necessary work of living is done. The expression "To have no guts" means to retreat from, not to ingest, experiences life has to offer.

Salzman, his fishy smell preceding him, is all about guts. His lesson to the young man is that life lacks the tidiness and neat resolution that young Finkle seeks. Salzman himself has been knocked around by life, signified by the fact that he is "missing a few teeth," and is wearing "an old hat, and an overcoat too short and tight for him." In this respect, the marriage broker stands in direct contrast to his client, whose "distinguished face …, long, severe scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, [and] sensitive yet ascetic lips" indicate a life lived under glass, away from the heat of life's fray. Salzman tells Finkle, "Love comes with the right person, not before." Although Leo initially rejects this advice, it is the key to his prison, handed him by his father, even while he rejects his father's other gifts. It is symbolically apt that at this first encounter with Salzman, the student watches as "the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie … penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself." Even though Leo rejects all of Salzman's women, a process of transformation has begun. The imagery of birth, of new life beginning, acts as a corollary to what is happening inside Leo. From contact with the father, Leo will soon enter a painful process whereby he reconceives himself, and in this sense facilitates his own birth.

Salzman leaves, and Finkle feels "only relief" at his departure. But, like a good salesman, Salzman returns the next evening. Leo is "disturbed to see him again, yet unwilling to ask the man to leave." Finkle's ambivalence is due to what the marriage broker represents: life in all its teeming, disturbing vibrancy and in its sense of obligation to others. But Salzman is a type of character in Malamud's fiction who "fastens to the tormented [protagonist] like a spiritual cannibal and does not release his hold until the younger man submits to the terrors of rebirth." Salzman is persistent, and finally induces Leo to meet a woman, Lily, who, as her name implies, holds the promise of spring and regenerative growth for Leo, if he will only connect with her.

Meeting with Lily, Leo discovers something else entirely—his long lost self. He sees deeply into himself, learning a humbling and painful truth about his motivations and capacities. Goaded by Lily's questions (which Leo suspects she was coached in by Salzman), Leo reveals to her what is for him a startling truth: "I think I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not." For the prospective rabbi, this revelation, confessed "more to himself than" to Lily, magnifies the task of finding a wife (and hence a congregation), but it also clarifies it. Salzman's statement that love would come only with the right person applies, Leo now sees, to his relationship with God. Leo now knows that "he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man." He realizes that his ties to his community have been tenuous at best. The student now understands the task he had set for himself is greater than he had initially thought: "He had involved himself with Salzman without true knowledge of his intent."

Through his contact with Salzman, Leo has learned more about himself than he has derived from a lifetime of studying sacred Jewish texts: "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." Ironically, the texts that contain revealed truths of doctrine cannot help the rabbinical student find his heart or his way back to his community. His years of study, away from humanity, have done nothing but distance him from the people his rabbinical degree is meant to serve. But the truth beyond the books has begun to reveal itself, and this process whereby an individual is made a healthy and fully functioning member of his community can be, as Isaac learns during the Akedah, a painful process. Leo now enters "the worst week of his life," and "the thought of continuing [in his search for a wife] afflicted him with anxiety and heartburn." For the first time in "The Magic Barrel" a reference is made to Leo's heart and indirectly, to his guts, where heartburn originates. That he is afflicted (a word with biblical connotations) with heartburn suggests the pain of birth, of coming alive, of being bound to a community structure greater than himself.

At this point Malamud makes it clear that Leo is now bound to the father figure, for when Leo decides that he can, by himself, continue his search for a wife, "the marriage broker, a skeleton with haunted eyes, returned that very night." Leo has learned something about his connections to God and humanity on a vertical axis, that is, realizing that his relationship with people affects his relationship with God. His lessons are not finished, however; he must now learn to extend this discovery to the horizontal axis by relating to human beings as they are. When Leo makes it clear to Salzman that he now believes in the "necessity of premarital love," the marriage broker says, "Listen, rabbi, if you want love, this I can find for you also." The broker takes out a packet of pictures and leaves. The sheer physicality of the pictures as opposed to the abstractions of words that Salzman used earlier ("First comes family"), signifies that Leo is ready for the next lesson in love and commitment to his community.

But time passes, and only after weeks does Leo, now "with a heavy heart," turn to the packet of pictures. He finds Stella's picture. Gazing on it, Leo "experiences fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil." Leo senses that this person is the only one "who could understand him and help him seek whatever he was seeking;" she "leaped forth to his heart." [In his 1979 Prefaces to The Experiences of Literature] Lionel Trilling speaks of Stella "not as sin but as what William Blake called Experience, by which he meant the moral state of those who have known the passions and have been marked." Stella contains within her a totality of experiences, a wholeness that may be liberating but is certainly threatening. That she can be to her father "my baby,… she should burn in hell" indicates a completed form, extending from innocence to extreme knowledge of the world, knowledge that extends beyond Salzman himself. Leo's impression of evil in Stella indicates that she is the antithesis of everything Leo has been, the opposite of Leo's orderly, quiet, scholarly world. She is the world of possibly painful and threatening commitment that Leo has until now kept out of his life. Just as Isaac was led up to the extreme edge of the world, the mountain top of Mount Moriah in order to have forged the bond between his line and his community, so Leo will, in a sense, be bound upon the altar of Stella in order to achieve integration with his community. For the young rabbinical student, Stella will be [according to Trilling] his encounter with "life itself." That Finkle is "afflicted by a tormented suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way" suggests that the father knowingly leads the son to his meeting with that which transcends them both.

In the penultimate paragraph of the story, Leo, by accepting Stella into his life and heart, is actually integrating the father into his psyche. Leo sees that Stella's "eyes—clearly her father's—were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption." By physically binding himself to the feminine aspect of the father, Leo lives through his own Akedah. He sees that being bound, having responsibility for another, will lead to love, and that this opening of heart will lead to what this rabbinical student wants most of all—a love of God that is best expressed, so the lesson of the biblical Akedah teaches, through the health and welfare of the community. After all, Leo studies to be a teacher (the meaning of the word rabbi); only through close connection to his religious community will Leo feel full emotional and professional contentment and commitment. This development is an ironic and affirming reversal of Leo's original prompting in searching for a wife; he had begun the quest coldly, out of professional concerns that a wife would improve his employment prospects. Like the fishermen mentioned by Thoreau in Walden, who went out to catch fish but ended by catching themselves, Leo casts himself as well as a wife.

In doing so, Leo also hooks himself into the community from which he had been estranged. Until his contact with Salzman and subsequent attachment to Stella, Leo's life was filled with "desolating loneliness." No friends, no social life, parents far removed and distant, and having to resort to the newspaper even to make contact with Salzman, Leo was the living embodiment of alienation, left untouched in a "meager room … crowded with books." At the end, with Leo rushing toward the waiting Stella through the charged and fertile Chagall-like atmosphere of "violins and lit candles" revolving in the air, the student's full-blooded return to life is all but palpable.

The conclusion of the story, one of the most enigmatic in a modern short story, provides the full measure of Leo's integration into the community: "Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead." Interpretations of the ending abound, but Robert Solotaroff's reading is closest to my own. [In his 1989 Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction he] says the scene indicates another world beyond the mundane, a world of: "Salzman the holy spirit, placed on earth to bring Leo Finkle from an arid knowledge of the law to the perception that he can fulfill the spirit of the law only by loving in this world." The important idea annunciated here is that love, commitment, and obligation must take place "in this world," that is, in a community. Salzman's chanting in particular the Jewish prayers for the dead, or the Kaddish, foregrounds this connection to community.

The Kaddish (Hebrew for "sanctification") is normally said by Jews to honor the memory of their departed family members. Jewish law states that a child must say Kaddish daily for eleven months after the death of a parent, but this obligatory duty expands when necessity dictates. Parents will say the prayer for their children, in-laws will say it for relatives by marriage, and all Jews are expected to say Kaddish for the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust. This observance is part of the law of the religious community, ordained by the rabbis for people within all Jewish communities to follow. Although known as the prayer for the dead, nowhere in the Kaddish is death or the dead mentioned. The prayer offers praises to God, acknowledging God as the supreme power of the universe. And in a remarkable parallel to the Akedah, Salzman, like Abraham, metaphysically absents himself from the scene at hand—he prays—establishing his orientation with the present moment on a vertical axis, allowing, as Abraham allowed, the scene involving his child to be controlled by a higher power. But much more is occurring here than the marriage broker absolving himself of responsibility.

Salzman's recitation of the prayer acts as a contextualization and a sign of fruition for Leo. As a good father must, Salzman is firmly embedding Finkle's actions into a meaning-filled context—in this case, a context informed by Jewish communal precepts. It is an indication that this scene of meeting between Leo and Stella is taking place within a community, within a context that makes complete sense only within a Jewish community. Salzman's chanting surrounds the meeting of the lovers, removing it from the tawdry and stark setting of a city street corner, and places it in the middle of a universe in which prayers for the dead to an ultimate father make sense. Beyond this point, of course, one cannot ignore the sobering effect prayers for the dead have on what might have been a purely joyous and probably melodramatic ending of two suitors meeting. The theme of death is indeed sounded, spilling over onto the lovers' meeting, but its presence in this context serves as an indication of completeness. We are led to believe that the incomplete form of Leo, initially alone and sterile in his study, will be completed through his union with Stella, and the couple will enter into a full life of community, one that involves life as well as death. Salzman's prayer indicates the return of a natural balance to the rabbinical student's life; for a rabbi, a leader of a spiritual community, the entire process of life and death must be accessible and experienced.

The expectations of success, of fertility, of the true magic within Salzman's magic barrel, only exist within the context of communal obligation whereby a person obligating himself to another makes sense. "The Magic Barrel" is about the fertility of connection, producing something of human warmth in a sterile modern world. Salzman's prayer humanizes and spiritualizes the setting in which the lovers join, while simultaneously darkening it. In such a highly charged setting, the kinds of expectations raised by an ambivalent action like the Akedah also make sense. Duty, obligation, and bonding of members to a community happen in "The Magic Barrel" only when the errant and isolated son works to take within himself aspects of the father that he had not previously thought necessary, thereby discovering himself and his connections to others.

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