The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Lionel Trilling

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
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Critical Essay by Lionel Trilling

SOURCE: "'The Magic Barrel': Bernard Malamud, 1914–," in his Prefaces to The Experience of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 170-74.

An esteemed American critic and literary historian, Trilling was also an essayist, editor, and novelist. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1967 in his The Experience of Literature as a preface to "The Magic Barrel," Trilling analyzes the symbolic meaning of the rendezvous between Finkle and Stella in the story.

Much of the curious power and charm of "The Magic Barrel" is surely to be accounted for by the extraordinary visual intensity of a single paragraph, the last but one, which describes the rendezvous of Leo Finkle and Stella Salzman. The glare of the street lamp under which Stella stands, her white dress and red shoes, and also the red dress and white shoes that Leo had expected her to wear (for this too is envisioned), the bouquet of violets and rosebuds that Leo carries as he runs toward her—these elements of light and color make a scene which is pictorial rather than (in the literal sense of the word) dramatic. Nothing is said by the lovers, the whole meaning of the moment lies in what is seen. Indeed, had a single word been uttered, the effect of the strange and touching tableau would have been much diminished. In their silence, the lovers exist only in the instant of their first sight of each other, without past or future, unhampered by those inner conditions which we call personality. They transcend personality; they exist in their essence as lovers, as images of loving. And our sense of their transcendence is strengthened by those "violins and lit candles" that revolve in the sky, as if the rendezvous were taking place not in the ordinary world but in a world of emblems, of metaphors made actual.

This concluding scene is striking not only in itself but in the retroactive effect that it has upon the whole story. The anterior episodes take on new meaning when we perceive that they have issued in this moment, with its dignity of pictorial silence, its dream-like massiveness of significance. The absurd transaction between Salzman and Leo Finkle, Salzman's elaboration of deceit, the dismal comedy of Leo's walk on Riverside Drive with Lily Hirschorn, the odd speech, habits, and manners of the characters—all these sordid or funny actualities of life are transmuted by the rapturous intensity and the almost mystical abstractness of the climactic rendezvous.

The intense pictorial quality of this last scene is of course a reminiscence of the iconography of a particular painter. Whoever knows the work of Marc Chagall will recognize in "the violins and lit candles [that] revolved in the sky" a reference to the pictures of this modern master, in which fantasy suspends the laws that govern the behavior of solid bodies, giving to familiar objects—violins and candles are among his favorites—a magical and emblematic life of their own. Married love is one of Chagall's subjects; many of his paintings represent bride and bridegroom or husband and wife in a moment of confrontation at once rapturous and fearful. Even the kind of bouquet that Leo carries is characteristic of Chagall—James Johnson Sweeney, in his book about the artist, tells us that "flowers, especially mixed bouquets of tiny blossoms," held for Chagall a peculiar interest at one period of his life; they charmed him visually and also by the sentiments they implied.

The knowledge of Malamud's direct reference to Chagall is helpful in understanding the story. For Chagall is the great celebrator of the religious culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is this culture, now virtually gone, having been systematically destroyed by the Germans and Russians, that poor Salzman represents in a sad, attenuated, transplanted form, and that has put its mark on Leo, who regards it with ambivalence, and on Stella, who has rejected it. It was a culture based upon a devotion to strict religious observance, of which the highest expression was the study of God's Law contained in the Bible and in the vast body of commentary that had accumulated through the ages. Assiduity in study and distinction in learning made the ground not only of piety but of prestige—to rear a learned son or to acquire a learned son-in-law was the ambition of every family concerned with its social standing.

The American reader can comprehend something of the quality of this life by bringing to mind what he knows of the towns of Puritan New England in the seventeenth century. The two theocratic cultures were alike in the intensity of their faith, in the omnipresence of religion in daily life, in the pre-eminence given to intellectual activity both as an evidence of faith and as the source of authority and status—if one recalls the veneration given to Mr. Dimmesdale, the learned young minister of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, one has a fair notion of how the rabbi of an orthodox Jewish community was regarded. The two societies are also alike in the harsh and difficult view they took of life, in their belief that life is to be lived under the control of the sterner virtues. Neither can properly be called ascetic, for both—and perhaps especially the Jewish—held marriage in high esteem. But in both societies devotion to the Word of God implied a considerable denigration of the charms and graces of life and a strict limitation upon the passions.

The artist who portrays a culture of this kind will in all probability be concerned with the elements of feeling that it represses or denies; his partisanship will be with the graces of life and the passions of human desire. The Scarlet Letter is a case in point—Hawthorne directs all our sympathy to the doomed love of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne rather than to the Puritan godliness that chastises it. Chagall depicts with affectionate reverence the religious life he knew in his childhood in the little Russian city of Vitebsk, but his representation of love is marked not only by the joy that is natural to it but also by the joy of its liberation from the piety that had held it in check.

It is a great advantage to art to be able to assert its partisanship with passion as against piety and godliness; in the exercise of this preference the artist is necessarily dealing with a situation charged with high feelings. The passions of human desire probably gain in intensity, and they certainly gain in interest, when they meet with adversity. The love that proclaims itself in the face of strict prohibition has more significance for us than a love that is permitted and encouraged. And of the several kinds of illicitness in love, that which is prohibited by religion and called sin is likely to seem the most intense and interesting of all—it borrows something of the grandeur and absoluteness of the power that forbids it. The rapture of Leo's rendezvous with Stella is not merely that of a young man's erotic urgency. It has something of the ecstasy of religious crisis—Leo is experiencing the hope of what he calls his "redemption." His crisis is the more portentous because he believes that his redemption will come to him through sin.

For that Stella is sinful, that she is sin itself, is the judgment passed upon her by her father's tradition. Her father curses her, although he loves her, and he mourns her as dead because she is unchaste. He speaks of her as "wild," "without shame," "like an animal," even "like a dog." And the young man, bred to the old tradition, is no less ready to recognize her sinfulness, although his image of sin is not repellent but attractive: he eagerly anticipates Stella's appearance in a red dress, red being the color of an open and shameless avowal of sexuality. Red may be the color of sin in general, as when the prophet Isaiah says, "Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow," but more commonly it represents sexual sin in particular—one of the synonyms the dictionary gives for scarlet is whorish.

The reader, of course, is not under the necessity of believing that Stella is what her father makes her out to be—possibly her sexual life is marked merely by a freedom of the kind that now morality scarcely reproves. Her dress is in fact not red but white, the virginal color; only her shoes are red. And in her eyes, we are told, there is a "desperate innocence." We see her 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, and beautified, by the pain which that knowledge inflicts. This is the condition to which Leo Finkle aspires and which he calls his redemption. His meeting is with life itself, and the moment of the encounter achieves an ultimate rapture because of the awareness it brings him, like an illumination, that the joy and pain he had longed to embrace, and had been willing to embrace as sin, need not be condemned.

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This section contains 1,521 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lionel Trilling