The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Mark Goldman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 683 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mark Goldman

SOURCE: "Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 151-70.

In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in Critique, Goldman interprets "The Magic Barrel" as a fantastical parable centering on Finkle's journey of self-discovery.

[In several of his tales] Malamud deliberately avoids a realistic social setting for the comic parable or fantasy leading to the moment of self-recognition and reality. Thus, in two stories from The Magic Barrel, the title story and "Angel Levine," Malamud uses fantasy as a controlling frame for his mixture of the comic and the serious. The two symbolic characters, Salzman and Levine, matchmaker and Negro-Jewish angel, serve also as comic archetypes or subconscious doubles, those other-selves familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, and other masters of the modern psyche. This motif of the other- and anti-self is a key to Malamud's comic purpose and the theme of identity. Denial of self, for Malamud, is the demon of unreality, and his heroes suffer the temporary pain and defeat that leads to a comic peripety and recognition of the reality by which they must live. Malamud also creates comic complexity by using the quest motif, where his characters go on a journey in search of experience, romance, or in the words of his latest title [his novel A New Life], a new life. This is, of course, a classic mode in serious or tragic literature, from Oedipus to Heart of Darkness, where the spiritual or physical journey begins in innocence and ends in experience or tragic self-knowledge. The comic vision can employ the same device, where the modern anti-hero also moves from blind well-being to self-revelation and reality.

In "The Magic Barrel," Leo Finkle, a young rabbinical student about to be ordained, seeks a wife through the traditional office of a matchmaker. But the matchmaker, Pinye Salzman ("commercial cupid"), is in comic contrast to the proudly shy student. He is full of earthy humor and good sense, smells of smoked fish, has his office "in his socks," and brings the salesman's spirit to the serious question of matrimony. Salzman's hilarious description of his clients reflects Malamud's wonderful use of Yiddish speech rhythms, which he adapts for his own colloquial style.

"In what else will you be interested," Salzman went on, "if you not interested in this fine girl that she speaks four languages and has personally in the bank ten thousand dollars? Also her father guarantees further twelve thousand. Also she has a new car, wonderful clothes, talks on all subjects, and she will give you a first-class home and children. How near do we come in our life to paradise?"

But all the girls from Salzman's briefcase begin to look alike to Leo Finkle, "all past their prime, all starved behind hard bright smiles…. Life, despite their frantic yoo-hooings, had passed them by…." The truth begins to penetrate the academic pride of the young rabbi, as he realizes that his loveless fear of life, and not a pious sense of tradition, has led him to the matchmaker. He sees that he has lived without self-knowledge and that he has not really loved God because he has not loved man. Like Malamud's more purely comic figures, Leo Finkle must finally recognize the truth about himself, and therefore about the world. "The Magic Barrel" ends in fantasy, in a deliberately stagy scene under a lamppost, where Salzman's own daughter waits for the young rabbi—the fallen woman (in white, with red shoes, smoking a cigarette) finally chosen from the matchmaker's file, out of the depths of the denial of life and demand for penance and salvation that recalls the Biblical prophet Hosea and his God-sent wife and whore. This last scene, like many of Malamud's sudden, summary endings, is a consciously ironic parable and not an escape from tragedy. 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.

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This section contains 683 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mark Goldman