The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Richard Reynolds

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 927 words
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Critical Essay by Richard Reynolds

SOURCE: "'The Magic Barrel': Pinye Salzman's Kadish," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 100-02.

In the essay below, Reynolds comments on the meaning of the prayers for the dead that Salzman chants at the conclusion of "The Magic Barrel."

Published analyses of Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" praise the "richly ambiguous" conclusion. The consensus is that to reduce the story to specific meaning is to do the author an injustice. Perhaps, however, an interpretation may be sustained that points to a consistent moral thread.

Pinye Salzman is, as Professor Bellman suggests [in "Women, Children and Idiots First: The Transformation Psychology of Bernard Malamud," Critique (1965)], "almost supernatural." The title of the story supports that. What exactly is a magic barrel? Apparently Malamud did not have a specific analogue in mind, but the concept is quite clear; it is a barrel which produces surprises, usually inexhaustible quantities or unique qualities, or both. Plainly Salzman's briefcase is the magic barrel, providing first an endless number of possible brides for Leo Finkle, and then yielding, as if from a mysterious compartment, the special girl, Stella. There is thus an irreducible element of magic in the story; the narrative combines sheer fantasy with the idea that love and marriage are divinely supervised.

But Salzman also operates in the earthy sphere of gefilte fish, dingy tenements, and Broadway cafeterias. At this level, and at least in this one instance of Leo and Stella, Salzman is a superb manager, whose art is based on his understanding of Leo's character and situation. He gives Leo the chance to learn about himself by associating with people. The meeting with Lily Hirschorn brings Leo to the realization that "he had never loved anyone…. he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man." The supposedly accidental appearance of Stella's picture from the magic briefcase leads to Leo's eager pursuit of her and to Salzman's evasions and assertions of his daughter's wild life. "If you can love her, then you can love anybody," Salzman tells Leo, apparently with scorn, but knowing this is exactly the challenge Leo wants. The image Salzman has presented of Stella contrasts sharply with Leo's own life. She has dared, sinned, suffered. She is the prodigal daughter. Leo has gone from a sheltered home in Cleveland to six years of intensive study in a small room. "Put me in touch with her … Perhaps I can be of service," Leo says to Salzman. He has learned that he will not reach God through books, that he needs to involve himself with mankind, and that he and Stella can assist each other.

Sandy Cohen on the Kaddish and "the Magic Barrel":

The prayers Salzman chants are the Kaddish, the only "prayers for the dead" in Judaism. These are Aramaic, not Hebrew, prayers recited daily in the synagogue by mourners after the death of a close relative. The curious thing about the Kaddish is that nowhere is death mentioned. Instead they are praises to God. In fact, the word Kaddish comes from and Aramaic word meaning "Holy."

What Malamud depicts [in "The Magic Barrel"] is a Hasidic universe in which the physical world of man and the metaphysical world of God are one, where death is birth and prayers for the dead are praises to God for the new life gained and the old life continued.

Sandy Cohen, in Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love, Rodopi N. V., 1974.

Whether Stella is the fallen woman Salzman has suggested and Leo has visualized, is uncertain. She plays the part, standing by the lamp post smoking. But she waits for Leo "uneasily and shyly … her eyes … filled with desperate innocence." She is probably much less experienced than her father has indicated. That is of less importance than the revolution that Salzman has achieved in Leo's heart.

But what about the prayers for the dead, which Salzman is chanting at the end of the story? Does he do so because the meeting of Leo and Stella is a "disaster?" That hardly agrees with Leo's own notion that Salzman has been managing Leo's prospective marriage for some time. Is it [as Earl Rovit asks in his "Bernard Malamud and the Jewish Literary Tradition," Critique 6, No. 2] simply the matchmaker's "final dignified behavior," his part in the concluding tableau? Is it [as Sidney Richman asks in his 1966 Bernard Malamud] "impossible to tell for whom Pinye chants?" To decide, we must consider the nature of the Kadish, the prayers for the dead. [According to Meyer Waxman in A Handbook of Judaism, 1947:]

[The Kadish] is not primarily a prayer for the dead…. It is not known definitely when the Kadish became the special prayers for mourners, and various reasons are advanced for this appropriation. The real reason seems to be that the Kingdom of God is so closely associated in the entire Talmudic and Rabbinic literature with the Messianic times when resurrection will take place, that a plea for its realization was considered indirectly a plea for the resurrection of the departed.

No one would appreciate this better than Leo Finkle, after six years' study about to be ordained. If, as one may well suppose from the story, Leo knows where Salzman is and what he is doing—reciting the Kadish—then the matchmaker is playing his part to the end: he has specifically told Leo that he considers Stella dead; Leo and love are to effect her resurrection. The understanding and art of Salzman have brought about a prospect of happiness.

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This section contains 927 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Richard Reynolds
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Critical Essay by Richard Reynolds from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.