The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Sam Bluefarb

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 787 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Sam Bluefarb

SOURCE: "The Scope of Caricature," in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 137-50.

Bluefarb is an English-born educator and critic. In the following excerpt from an essay that originally appeared in English Journal, he comments on Salzman's cynicism.

In "The Magic Barrel," the title story of [The Magic Barrel], the services of one Pinye Salzman, marriage broker, are enlisted by a young rabbinical student on the verge of ordination. A friend of the rabbi suggests that he will find it easier to acquire a congregation if he gets married. Knowing no likely candidates himself, Leo Finkle, the young rabbi, is forced to turn to the doubtful services of Pinye Salzman, whom he has discovered advertised in the back pages of the Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper.

The entire story is an almost stenographic record of the relationship that grows up between Leo and the marriage broker. Meanwhile, Salzman furnishes the rabbi with seemingly hundreds of likely—and unlikely—candidates: photographs, descriptions, specifications, glowing verbal pictures. But no matter how attractive they seem to be, either in personal qualities or in their ability to fit into the niche of a rebitzen, a rabbi's wife, upon further questioning on Leo's part, something invariably turns up to spoil the prospect: one candidate is five years older than the twenty-seven-year-old seminary graduate; another, though young, intelligent, even beautiful, turns out to be "a little lame on her right foot [as Pinye puts it] … but nobody notices on account she is so brilliant and also so beautiful." Another candidate, who almost turns out to be, perhaps, the most likely—she is only a mere two years older than Leo—has, herself, been completely ensnared by the broker's rapturous, though totally false, picture of the rabbi: Salzman has pictured Leo as a zealous servant of God, a prophet, even a saint. Needless to say, he is anything but. Could the small photograph that one day slips from Salzman's briefcase be another candidate? Leo is interested. But Salzman does his best to discourage him. The picture turns out to be that of Salzman's own daughter ("my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell!") who, so Salzman tells Leo, is "not a bride for a rabbi." But Leo insists, and Salzman finally, reluctantly, brings them together. What turns into a promise for Leo, becomes disaster for Salzman, who, at the moment of the meeting of the two, stands at a street corner not far from the trysting place, chanting prayers for the dead. Again, the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer. Like Kessler [from Malamud's short story "The Mourners"], the marriage broker has his own "dead" to remember.

Pinye Salzman, dealer in abortive dreams, has not been able to anticipate such an outcome in his own most ardent dreams. The truth of course is that Pinye as marriage broker, though he deals in dreams—other people's dreams—is altogether too much a cynic, too calloused a character to believe in such dreams himself. In this sense Pinye is both cynic and innocent. That there can be love, Pinye acknowledges, even prates about—with his lips. But it is all he can do to keep from bursting into laughter when Leo talks of love. Of a relationship that goes any deeper than a marriage broker's briefcase, Salzman can have no comprehension, or even sympathy for. The irony of course is that the cynical, calloused marriage broker who deals in dreams isn't able to surmount, or rise above, his own level as a dealer, or better, a trafficker, in dreams. He may talk about the dream of love, the dream of marriage—the sales pitch, as it were, of his cynical view of life—but his course is that he can never really believe in them himself, can never believe in his own products, or believe that these mean any more to others than they mean to himself. And when his own profligate daughter—through an act of God? (there is always the suggestion of this possibility in Malamud's stories)—is drawn to a rabbi, involved in Pinye's own make-believe construct that turns into the real thing, the marriage broker can only begin at last to believe, or perhaps accept, the possibility that marriages may as often be made in hell as in heaven—even a marriage broker's briefcase "heaven." The salesman here, against his will, has been sold his own bill of goods. But with something more than the usual twist.

From Marriage Broker filled with the optimistic myth of hope, love and fulfillment as a sales pitch, Pinye Salzman becomes a creature of his own dark illumination. From Cynical Trader in Dreams, he has himself become the cracked vessel of his own broken dreams.

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This section contains 787 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lionel Trilling