The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Theodore C. Miller

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
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Critical Essay by Theodore C. Miller

SOURCE: "The Minister and the Whore: An Examination of Bernard Malamud's 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 3, 1972, pp. 43-4.

Miller is an educator. In the following essay, he discusses Malamud's focus on love in "The Magic Barrel."

Although Bernard Malamud has colored his short story "The Magic Barrel" with the language and the manners of the Jewish ghetto, he also makes use of a cultural past that has a closer relationship to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Blaise Pascal than to Sholem Aleichem.

Malamud, of course, is using the same motif that Hawthorne mined in The Scarlet Letter—the love of the minister and the whore. Hawthorne's Dimmesdale, the man of God, was destroyed because he could not accept Hester and her emblem of sexual transgression. In Malamud's story too, Leo Finkle, the young rabbinical student, is at first repelled when he senses the sexual history of Stella, the matchmaker's daughter. Although he does not yet know specifically that she is a whore when he first sees her picture, his attraction is stifled, for "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." But Finkle, unlike Dimmesdale, comes to accept Stella for the reason that he accepts universal guilt. When Malamud adds that "[Finkle] shuddered, saying softly, it is thus with us all," Finkle is well on his way to becoming a Dimmesdale redeemed.

But Malamud's minister is ultimately quite different from Hawthorne's. For Leo Finkle does not fall in love primarily for a reason—but rather he loves for no reason at all. Malamud—who echoes Pascal in several other stories too—is suggesting that "Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point"—one must love even if all the evidence denies the emotion. Like Pascal, Malamud proposes that love is existential.

And if Salzman is Malamud's spokesman in the story, then he only appears to be the comic stereotype of the Jewish marriage broker. Although he has decided that his own daughter should be the bride of the young rabbinical student, he does not really believe in the matchmaker's ethic that love is the product of reason. Salzman is the sage who would initiate Leo Finkle into the existential nature of love—but that is a peculiarly difficult task since Finkle is the eminently rational young man committed to the life of reason. The student wants to marry for the solid cause that it will prove beneficial to his professional status. He has even turned to the rabbinate, not for love of God, but because he is interested in the Talmudic law—rules of reason. Therefore, in order to work his ends, Salzman must engage in a ruse—he initially enters into Finkle's system of thought, offering him several young women who should prove highly attractive according to all the rules of logic. One has a father, a physician, ready to give a handsome dowry; another has a regular teaching license—the reasons derive from the middle-class Jewish ethic.

But Finkle's rational world fails him, for despite all the logical good inherent in these young ladies, he cannot fall in love with them. Instead, he becomes filled only with existential despair as he realizes the emptiness of his life—and of his religious calling. Only after he has exploded Finkle's system can Salzman make sure that Finkle sees Stella's picture. But he must present her in a context so that it is absurd to marry her. And precisely because it is absurd, Finkle falls in love.

Several critics have accepted literally the description of Stella as a "carnal young lady" and a "girl of the streets."

And indeed within the text, she evokes "a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted"; Finkle has that "impression … of evil"; and Salzman, himself, describes his daughter as "a wild one—wild, without shame." But the accuracy of these characterizations is most ambiguous since they are all subject to double meanings. That Stella has been "used to the bone" may mean only that she has suffered. That she evokes "an impression … of evil" may be interpreted not in a sexual sense, but in Hawthorne's sense that all mean bear human guilt. And Salzman's own statement may be part of his ruse to complete Finkle's initiation—and bring him to the marriage altar with his daughter. Just as Salzman only pretends to be a comic marriage broker who offers young women for rational cause, he must also pretend that his daughter is a whore, a girl whom there is no reason to marry. Near the end of the story Finkle himself recognizes that Salzman has perhaps planned this outcome from their first encounter.

When Finkle finally encounters Stella, her purity is suggested by the whiteness of her dress and furthermore by the explicit statement that Finkle sees a look of "desperate innocence" in her eyes.

But more important, her innocence clarifies the puzzling ending when the reader is told that Salzman is chanting a prayer for the dead. In the orthodox Jewish ritual, a parent may in extreme cases enact the ritual of mourning for a child who has broken a primary taboo. If Stella is really a trollop, her father, considering her and the rabbinical student to be a most unfit couple, is rejecting them both through his prayer. But if Salzman has planned the whole episode, then the matchmaker through his kaddish is commemorating the death of the old Leo who was incapable of love. But he is also celebrating Leo's birth into a new life. Salzman's remark to Leo about Stella "if you can love her then you can love anybody" is ironically not a statement disparaging his daughter as a social outcast. Rather Salzman is suggesting that if Leo can love Stella, he has unlocked his heart to mankind and God. He will have learned that the barrel in which Salzman keeps his pictures is then indeed a magic barrel, for love is a magic that cannot be explained by the normal laws of logic.

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This section contains 1,009 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Theodore C. Miller