This section contains 6,276 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
SOURCE: "The Magic in Malamud's Barrel," in Linguistics in Literature, Vol. 2, 1977, pp. 1-26.
In the following excerpt, Hoffer stresses the need to seriously consider the religious overtones and allusions of "The Magic Barrel," identifying parallels between the first five books of the Old Testament and the structure of the story and arguing that Finkle is a "sinner" rather than a hero.
No synopsis is a substitute for ["The Magic Barrel"]. One is given here in case you have not read the story for some time.
Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student, hears that he may have a chance at a better position if he is married. He approaches Salzman, a poverty-ridden matchmaker who smells of fish, who wears old clothes, and whose suggested brides are not shall we say big winners. After rejecting the few suggested by Salzman, Leo finds a picture in the file of a different girl and immediately falls in "love." The picture is of Salzman's daughter and the story does not make clear whether the picture is there by mistake (as Salzman says) or by design (as Leo suspects). It is clear that Salzman has indeed disowned his daughter who has gone completely bad. Leo demands to meet her, no matter what her background and condition. As the story closes, Leo is rushing toward her with a bouquet while she is standing under a streetlight dressed in red and white. The last paragraph then reads:
Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.
As common in Malamud's stories, the closing picture is ambiguous upon a superficial reading. Salzman is chanting for whom? His daughter? Leo? The current state of Judaism? Someone even suggested to me that Salzman is singing in happiness because he is a Jew who is about to get his daughter married!
One example of a previous interpretation of the story is given by Rovit [in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, 1970]:
The aesthetic form of the story—the precise evaluation of forces—is left to the reader….
In the best of his stories in The Magic Barrel, the same pattern of ultimate poetic resolution by metaphor is evident.
I assume that you will agree, after re-reading the quote, that Rovit does not provide an interpretation at all. In fact, he finds purposeful ambiguity, as evidenced by:
The dramatic action of the story attempts to lead the characters into a situation of conflict which is "resolved" by being fixed poetically in the final ambiguity of conflicting forces frozen and united in their very opposition. (Italics added)
In other words, the answer to the question "Who is he chanting for?" is "Who knows?". That answer is only sufficient if there is no evidence at all for an answer. That there is abundant evidence is made clear below.
Another example is from Rahv's Introduction to A Malamud Reader:
Of all Malamud's stories, surely the most masterful is "The Magic Barrel," perhaps the best story produced by an American writer in recent decades….
… Salzman contrives to leave one picture in Finkle's room by which his imagination is caught as in a trap…. When tracked down, he swears that he had inadvertently left the fatal picture in Finkle's room. "She's not for you. She is a wild one, wild, without shame … Like an animal, like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now … This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell." (Rahv then quotes the last two paragraphs of the story.)
Thus the rabbinical student who, as he confesses, had come to God not because he loved Him but precisely because he did not, attempts to find in the girl from whose picture "he had received, somehow, an impression of evil" the redemption his ambiguous nature demands. (Italics added)
Rahv, then, sees the basic ambiguity in Finkle and does not worry about Salzman.
But worry we must. Where Rahv assumes Salzman "contrives" to leave Stella's picture, others feel that Salzman tells the truth when he swears it was an accident. Assumptions and feelings will convince no one who does not agree with us. Therefore we must look for evidence in the story for support of one view or another. Let us, then, turn to independent but mutually supporting arguments, based on the story itself, for a non-ambiguous interpretation. We should only accept ambiguity after exhausting all procedures and even then realize that someone else may find the key to clear up the ambiguity….
We start by noting that Leo is a final year rabbinical student about to obtain a doctoral degree from Yeshiva, a highly prestigious university. As rabbi, as scholar deeply knowledgeable of the Pentateuch, the Law, he will be "master" and "teacher" of the Law to generations of Jewish children. We therefore begin our analysis of Leo by judging his thoughts, words and deeds in light of his vocation. Although we might go deeply into the Law—and the reader is encouraged to do so—in order to judge, here we will mainly use the "basic" part of the Law which most of us know, the Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy 5:6-21. (I use Monsignor Knox's translation for a variety of reasons. It is important to note that Catholics, Protestants and Jews often number the verses, and consequently the commandments, differently.) Surely we can expect a rabbi to support at least the fundamental parts of the law.
6 And thus he spoke: I am the Lord thy God, it was I who rescued thee from the land of Egypt, where thou
7 didst dwell in slavery. Thou shalt not defy me by
8 making other gods thy own. Thou shalt not carve thyself images, or fashion the likeness of anything in heaven above, or on earth, to bow down and
9 worship it. I, thy God, the Lord Almighty, am jealous in my love; be my enemy, and thy children, to the third and fourth generation, shall make amends;
10 love me, keep my commandments, and mercy shall be thine a thousand-fold. (Commandment 1)
11 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God lightly on thy lips; if a man uses that name lightly, he will not go unpunished. (2)
12 Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as
13 the Lord thy God has bidden thee. Six days for drudgery, for doing all the work thou hast to do;
14 when the seventh day come, it is a sabbath, a day of rest, consecrated to the Lord thy God.
That day, all work shall be at an end, for thee and for every son and daughter of thine, thy servants and serving-women, thy ass, too, and thy ox, and all thy beasts, and the aliens that live within thy city walls. It must bring rest to thy men-servants and thy maid-servants,
15 as to thyself. Remember that thou too wast a slave in Egypt; what constraining force the Lord used, what a display he made of his power, to rescue thee; and now he will have thee keep this day of rest. (3)
16 Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God has bidden thee; so shalt thou live long to enjoy the land which the Lord thy God means to give thee. (4)
17 Thou shalt do no murder. (5)
18 Thou shalt not commit adultery. (6)
19 Thou shalt not steal. (7)
20 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (8)
21 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. (9)
Thou shalt not set thy heart upon thy neighbour's house or lands, his servants or handmaids, an ox or ass or anything that is his. (10)
The first three commandments pertain to God and the next seven to man. As we go through the story and compare Leo's behavior against the standards of the law, recall that the first three were summarized by Christ with the phrase from Deuteronomy 6:5, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with the love of thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole strength," and the last seven from Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self; thy Lord is his." Note, then, that love of God is the focus of all.
So now we look to Leo. Instead of observing the Sabbath, he goes out on a date with Lily. On the date he mentions the name of God in ordinary conversation…. And on the date he says he "came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not." Poof! The first three commandments disappear, not broken but evaporated! We begin to suspect we are not here reading of a dedicated religious leader.
Before turning to the other commandments, let us pause and look closely at the definition of love in the Law and compare it with Leo's version. In commandment number one we find that love of God includes keeping the commandments: "If you love Me, keep My commandments." "Love", then, is a commitment of the will to behave in a certain manner. It might be helpful to use an example here. In the commandment against adultery, the word "adultery" itself refers to an "adulteration" of the love of God by an illicit love of someone or something. Thus fornication or sex outside marriage, and adultery, or illicit sex when married, are both adulterations of the Divine love. Human love is a reflection of Divine love and, therefore, true love is always within the limits of the Divine will expressed in the commandments and elsewhere. Yet when we turn to Leo's version of love, we find that he has decided to throw away the divine definition:
Love, I have said to myself, should be a byproduct of living and worship rather than its own end. Yet for myself I find it necessary to establish the level of my need and fulfill it.
He changes "love" to "need" and seeks not God's will but his own: "my" need, he says. Recall here that Leo's great "love" for Stella all comes from a cheap picture. He has not yet met her or seen her in the story. "Who can love from a picture?" Salzman asks. "If you can love her, then you can love anybody." Then Leo confirms what we have suspected, that he has thoroughly confused "love" with sex, desires, needs and etc. "Just her I want," he murmurs. This bastion of Judaism has spent almost seven years in rabbinical preparation and still has the understanding of "love" of a sex-starved sophomore. There is no evidence in the story of any commitment to his religion or his vocation, no evidence of any real practice of his faith or any real knowledge of it. We find that his study has not been rewarding. You can find, if you look, the several other places which indicate that Leo is not what you would call your model rabbi.
Let us go on to the other commandments. Numbers 6 and 9 deal with sex. There is evidence that Leo does not understand the morality of sex at all. When he goes out with Lily, he thinks he sees Salzman as a "cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties" throwing flowers in their way. Note the pagan image for marriage. When he first thinks of using a matchmaker, he looks out the window and
observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself.
My judgement is that Leo is thinking primarily of the physical part of the marriage, to put it diplomatically. The last example here occurs when he discovers Stella's picture. You should re-read the whole paragraph …, but in case you do not have a copy handy, here are some critical lines:
It was not, he affirmed, that she had an extraordinary beauty—no, though her face was attractive enough; it was that something about her moved him. Feature for feature, even some of the ladies of the photographs could do better; but she leaped forth to his heart—had lived, or wanted to—more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived—had somehow deeply suffered: it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes, and from the way the light enclosed and shone from her, and within her, opening realms of possibility: this was her own. Her he desired. His head ached and eyes narrowed with the intensity of his gazing, 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. He shuddered, saying softly, it is thus with us all.
"Her he desired." He senses she is "evil" and shudders with excitement. Here at the 3/4 point of the story, the climax, he makes his decision to possess the evil. His desire must be attained. That she is evil is clarified by Salzman as he and Leo talk:
"She is not for you. She is a wild one—wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi."
"What do you mean wild?"
"Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now."
"In God's name, what do you mean?"
"Her I can't introduce to you," Salzman cried.
"Why are you so excited?"
"Why, he asks," Salzman said, bursting into tears. "This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell."
Ultimately, Leo chooses the wild animal, the dog, the disinherited Stella "dead" in sin. We can only conclude, following this line of reasoning, that eventually Leo consciously chooses evil and turns his back on God Whom he said he did not love anyhow. Leo is not, to put it mildly, thoroughly dedicated to the Law.
The other commandments are broken or ignored in less powerful ways. For example, Leo breaks the one against stealing when he refuses to give Salzman's picture of Stella back. The commandment against greed, avarice and envy of other's goods may be involved in the reason why Leo approached the matchmaker in the first place. Quite simply he wanted to "win" a better congregation. By which might be meant a bigger or more affluent one. The commandment against lying is broken when Leo turns down the lame girl; he tells Salzman, "because I hate stomach specialists," the profession of her father. The one against honoring mother and father is ignored when he decides to avoid the matchmaking institution. [At one point] he couples that institution with the honoring of his father and his mother. Indeed the only Commandment he does not overtly break is the one against murder—and my judgement is that he does indeed "murder" his own soul by choosing evil.
With all this evidence that Leo is precisely the worst possible rabbi—we have not time to note the other rules and laws he breaks—we must conclude that Leo is not a positive picture of a modern rabbi. He may be a picture of some modern rabbi, but Malamud does not give us a positive picture. Leo may even be a picture of one type of rabbi graduating today, one pursuing a "thrust for life" (to use Rahv's phrase) which is actually a grasp of spiritual death. At the story's close, Salzman is around the corner chanting prayers for the dead, which refers to Leo and Stella and their offspring to the third and fourth generation and to that part of Judaism which has a Leo, a great "lion" of God, as its master and teacher….
There is a richer and deeper analysis of "The Magic Barrel" which carries us across the sweep of Jewish history and takes us into the heart of the Pentateuch itself. For a few moments forget all you have read above and read this subsection independently.
In much great literature there is an underlying structure which borrows from religious and/or literary structure. James Joyce builds his Portrait on Dante's Inferno, Greene builds End of the Affair on John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul, Faulkner builds The Sound and the Fury on the New Testament through Revelations. Examples abound in any good survey of Western literature. To posit such a structure for "The Magic Barrel" is to suggest that some of the story's power derives from its allegorical structure.
The underlying structure begins to take shape when you see that the story is in five parts and that Leo has been studying the Pentateuch, the five parts of the Torah. Here is a brief version of each book …:
GENESIS: "In the beginning" the focal point is the fall of Adam which begins the redemption story.
EXODUS: "The going out" has Moses as the central figure. The deliverance by means of crossing the Red Sea is referred to throughout the Bible. The wandering in the desert and the manna from heaven are major points.
LEVITICUS: "The Levites" or Israelite priesthood discusses the ministry of the Levitical priesthood. This highly legalistic book demands perfect obedience and sets up the rites of the Day of Atonement in precise detail. Obedience will bring redemption.
NUMBERS: "In the wilderness" the Israelites are given final preparation for their entrance into the Promised Land. Numbers stresses that disobedience receives its due reward, but repentance results in pardon and restoration.
DEUTERONOMY: The "second law" describes the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses will not be allowed to enter because of a sin. Moses exhorts the people to follow the law and describes the results of a lack of obedience. The concluding part is an added section on the death of Moses.
Before starting the broad outlines of the parallels between the Pentateuch and "The Magic Barrel", recall the simple point that allegories as defined in Linguistics in Literature are parallel structures. The story is divided into five sections overtly, that is, by spaces on the page.
"In the beginning" of the story Leo has his sexual image fantasy about the moon while Salzman is there talking about women.
In part two, parallel to Exodus or "the going out", he literally "goes out" with Lily. We notice the mention of his walking cane even as Moses carried a staff. This section contains an image that is extremely hard to explain except by reference to Exodus. The winged loaves of bread that Leo sees at the end of the story make perfect sense if we accept a parallel to the "bread from heaven" or manna which occurs in Exodus. The manna came down from heaven as if frost or snow in Exodus and of course just after the loaves of bread fly high overhead it snows in part two. Note also that part two ends with Leo still "out."
In part three Leo spends much time thinking of the priesthood (Leviticus), his reasons for his decisions, and so on. Leo seeks redemption for self in the sense of establishing the level of his need. The redemptive picture given by Salzman is the choice of good or evil, that is, he tells Leo that Leo should not choose Stella, "she should burn in hell."
In part four, parallel to Numbers in which the methods and choices in the redemption story become clear, Salzman offers Leo yet one more chance to avoid evil. "Who can love from a picture?… If you can love her, then you can love anybody."
Finally, again only in the broadest terms, in part five Leo rushes towards his self-defined "promised land," Stella. Parallel to the funeral prayer for Moses, who could not enter the Promised Land, the section which concludes Deuteronomy, we find the prayers for the dead concluding this part.
Now let us pause for a while and reflect. The analysis above accounts for a whole potful of seeming aberrations in the story, for several occurrences which cannot be explained in an internally consistent way by any other analysis: loaves of bread flying overhead; a matchmaker who "appears" out of thin air, who is "transparent," almost "vanishing"; the prayers for the dead when no one is dead and so on. If, however, we had only the above parallels few would bother searching for the more particular parts of the parallel structure. Here I will give one extended parallel and drop a few hints for parallels you can have fun finding for yourself.
Let's look for a moment at the choice which Leo faces, Lily or Stella, coupled with a central choice which the priest has in Leviticus. In making an offering to God, the priest must choose only a clean animal, never an unclean. He must be able to distinguish them. We note here that the girl proposed by Salzman is named "Lily," surely a symbolic name for purity. The priest must also do something to the clean animal or the offering is not valid. That something is that it must be salted. Here we notice that Salzman (which means "salt-man") has disinherited his impure daughter. She is not only "unclean" but unsalted. Thus we find that the names of Lily and Salzman are perfectly suited to the parallel structure.
Let's go a little more deeply into Leviticus. Aaron's two sons mentioned in chapter 10 decide to honor the Lord more than their orders require by moving closer to the holiest place. They decided to do more; that is, they think they are choosing good when they decide to do it their own way. They are then consumed by fire from the Lord. Leo, too, wants to decide for himself and he decides Salzman's daughter is "good" despite all evidence to the contrary (100% of it). Now if I had written "The Magic Barrel" and had set up the parallel to this point, I would look for a girl's name which suggests purity or whiteness but which also suggests the fire which consumes her ("she should burn in hell") and will, by extension, consume Leo. In fact, "Stella" does the job to perfection since it means "star."…
There are several other parallels you could track down. Part two ought to have a body of water (i.e. "Red Sea"). It does. Leo ought to have other parallels to Moses. He does. There ought to be more examples of law and tradition breaking, since Leo is the great Law-Breaker rather than a Moses or Law-Giver. There are. Since Salzman appears and disappears on "wings of the wind" and has a relative who has fallen and burns in hell, it shouldn't be too difficult to relate them to the redemption story. (If you will permit me—if she indeed is burning, it is interesting to note that when Leo first sees her she is standing "by the lamp post, smoking.")…
One last line of analysis must be given here to show clearly that what Leo thinks is a "redemption" process is precisely the opposite. We look at Leo at the end of each section and find how he had "entangled himself" to such an extent that he became suspicious of "Salzman's machinations." He acted "frenziedly" in his craving for Stella, was "afflicted" with a "tormenting suspicion" and finally had "prayers for the dead" prayed for him. Leo looked upon evil, decided it was good, and ran to greet it with flowers outthrust.
I do not see how anyone could find the story "ambiguous" with respect to Leo's decision.
The analysis presented above uses a great deal of direct textual evidence (such as breaking of various rules) to show that Leo is the opposite of a high-level rabbi and it uses direct textual evidence for parallels between the story and the Pentateuch, that which Leo studied for years and that which he would be expected to teach as a rabbi. In the latter interpretation, Leo becomes the great Law-Breaker as contrasted to the author and "hero" of the Pentateuch, the Law-Giver, Moses. Leo seeks not the Promised Land offered by God, but the promised land of his own desires, union with a prostitute whom he does not even know, save from a cheap picture. Leo breaks God's laws, the Mosaic law, the natural law, the standards appropriate to a rabbinical student and to a Jew in general; he breaks the traditions of his religion, his race, his ancestors, his parents; he breaks the rules of common courtesy and kindness. He seeks that which makes him shudder, a picture of evil which he decides will become his good. From direct textual evidence, Leo is perhaps the greatest loser in the history of literature since Lucifer's Fall….
You may disagree with the last sentence, but the point there was exaggerated for a particular reason. Over and over again the commenters on this story project Leo as a winner, as someone who has "matured" and seeks his redemption. Pinye Salzman is even seen as a "criminal." How can anyone hold the idea that Leo is somehow "maturing" by choosing a hooker? Here I would like to attempt an answer, not by quoting endlessly, but by commenting on the type of criticism involved. Let us therefore begin by presenting a case for Leo as the good guy.
As we read "The Magic Barrel" we note that Leo is suspicious that Pinye arranged for him to find Stella's picture and that the whole story was staged. Leo is presented pictures of older or crippled girls so that Stella will seem better. Stella is condemned so as to make her more attractive to Leo. Pinye is a poor, undignified representative of the old, repressive system which must be broken through for true maturation to take place. (Maturation, in this interpretation, consists of doing exactly what one wants to do.) Leo runs toward his redemption to the tune of violins.
What precisely is it that is the key to the two polar opposite—and hence ambiguous?—interpretations? Clearly it is the interpretation of the role of the matchmaker. Is Leo right in his suspicion that the whole affair was staged or is Pinye right in denying any duplicity? If you side with Leo, then everything Pinye says is suspect because after all lying is breaking a commandment. If you side with the matchmaker, then you see Leo as having a guilty conscience, one that turns Pinye into a Pan or a liar or a fraud. How do we resolve the issue? We look closely at the story for evidence that one is presented as a positive character and the other as negative. Only if the evidence is mixed can we accurately say the story is "ambiguous." A close analysis shows Leo to be the consummate loser. The only evidence for Pinye as wrong comes from Leo's thoughts. No, Leo as hero simply will not hold up if you use the evidence of the story itself.
OK, you ask, but aren't we back where we started? How can someone cling to the view that Leo is the good guy? The answer is rather harsh, but I think the harshness is fully justified. My judgement, after some years of studying the issue, is that those critics actually believe that breaking all the rules and sleeping with a prostitute is a maturational experience…. Those critics must actually believe that "adult" movies are indeed adult, rather than mere adolescent sex fantasies. I am convinced that they believe that breaking God's law, dropping religious beliefs, and doing anything your little ole heart desires are the marks of maturation. They aren't, in the abstract, but the issue raised by their misunderstanding is a serious one. Let us spend a few lines on it. Leo may represent the "mature" modern rabbi who abandons his entire background and perhaps he may in a more general sense represent the Jew who has nothing of Jewishness left except his race. Certainly that interpretation fits with other Malamud Jews, especially Henry Levin (of "The Lady of the Lake") who changes his name to Henry R. Freeman and heads for Europe to escape and denies his Jewishness to one and all. But there is more to it than that, simply because Leo's story is more than abandoning his past values. Leo actually decides to treat what is shudderingly evil as a positive good through which to achieve redemption. The critics and commenters who find Leo a "model" for our youth must have absorbed the same reversal of values, which reversal after all so pervades American society. Leo, then, may also represent all of us who are faced with the profoundly spiritual question: which value system do I choose? We know Leo's choice and have clear and direct textual evidence that he chose wrong. The evidence from the story is clear, but we have come to the point in literary criticism where we may ignore the text, ignore the structure of the story, ignore anything that clashes with the interpretation we want to make. We have come to the point where the choosing of evil is considered a positive good—just as Leo considered it.
Before stating the final conclusion about "The Magic Barrel", comments on general Malamud criticism are in order….
Sidney Richman's Bernard Malamud (1966) is the first I want to treat because it exemplifies a point. Although it was designed to be a novel by novel and story by story analysis, its first chapter concerns Malamud as Jew and as Jewish writer and the tradition of Jewish writing. That narrowing of perspective is always suspect, since after all a Jew can (and has) written books set in other religions and cultures. A reader should not don his Jewish glasses to view a work until after all other analytical tools have been used and not even then unless it is warranted. Richman himself notes that Malamud's first novel, The Natural, contains not a single "Jew or a mention of one." He then proceeds to view the novel through his Jewish glasses anyhow. (Now if I were going to force a Jewish interpretation, I'd note that Roy, which means King, is discovered by Samuel, conquers a giant (Whammer = Goliath) in a field, carries a music box (= lyre), and in general tie in Roy to David in "Samuel" or "Kings" in the Bible. However, I would start from the fact that Malamud mentions David just after Roy conquers Whammer and would not start with Malamud's Jewishness.) The Jewish vision is important of course in the overtly Jewish stories in The Magic Barrel, The Assistant, The Fixer and so on. The point here is a simple one and all too often overlooked, and the point is that each story and novel ought to be taken on its own first and the various views of it should be dictated by what is found, not what is preconceived.
There are several valid literary criticism approaches which can and should be used for each work. We can show where a work fits into intellectual history in general and into literary history in particular, with special reference to its place in the author's literary production and its comparison to its contemporaries. We can show the sociological setting of the work or that in which the author lived. We can study the psychology of the work, either the author's vision or the make-up and motivation of the characters. We can assign the work a taxonomy of literary labels, from either classical literary criticism or modern versions, labels such as prose narrative fiction and so on. Notice that these four general areas are primarily concerned with assigning the work its appropriate niche in an intellectual frame of reference. This assignment is necessary. Yet what is missing in this work is what this journal [Linguistics in Literature] is primarily concerned with, the process of investigating the integration of form and content of a work, the process of investigating a work to explore fully what is contained in it. Where either approaches find ambiguity, such as two possible basic interpretations of "The Magic Barrel," yet the [Linguistics in Literature] approach supports only one, then that one is the preferred interpretation because it is supported by the convergence of more than one critical approach. We are not here dealing with math where there is a definite answer or set of answers which cannot be doubted, but that does not mean that any critical interpretation is as good as any other. When two or more critics converge on an interpretation from different directions using independent arguments, then that interpretation is certainly preferable to others.
Let us, then, turn to another book of criticism and see the types of critical approaches used. We turn to Bernard Malamud edited by the Fields (1975). This excellent volume contains a variety of approaches, including a significant interview with Malamud himself. One quote relative to the Richman discussion above came in response to the question:
Would you reject the term Jewish-American writer categorically?
Malamud. The term is schematic and reductive. If the scholar needs the term he can have it, but it won't be doing him any good if he limits his interpretation of a writer to fit a label he applies.
There are articles dealing with the Jewish movement, thus placing Malamud in intellectual history and within a sociological frame. The one on his ironic heroes is within our general definition of taxonomic criticism. Articles on Malamud's boyhood, growth and development as teacher and writer are within the definition of psychological approaches given above. The book is not designed to give exhaustive treatment to each story; rather it tends to show repeated character types and motifs. The introduction shows the schlemiel in Malamud from Roy of The Natural, Frank Alpine of The Assistant, Yakov Bok of The Fixer, Harry Lesser of The Tenants, to especially Arther Fidelman in Pictures of Fidelman. With Richman's, the book is one of the several basic books in Malamud criticism.
The most recent collection is The Fiction of Bernard Malamud edited by Benson and Astro (1976). As in the Field's book, the articles cover well the first four broad areas of criticism. Hassan sets Malamud's fiction within contemporary literary history. Field deals with the relevance of the Jewish issue to Malamud's fiction, and thereby deals with its place in intellectual and literary history as well as in a sociological setting. Handy's article on a "quest for existence" and Siegel's on Malamud's "painful view of self" are excellent examples of the psychological approach as understood herein. Fiedler's article is subtitled "An essay in genre criticism" and is clearly within a modernized version of classical criticism. As in the Field book, what is missing is the careful treatment of each story in its own terms. The few passing comments in the Benson and Astro book to "The Magic Barrel" are not capable of being grouped into a single interpretive picture, but some do relate to the interpretation given earlier in this paper. For example:
Malamud's track record suggests that anyone who falls in love with a picture, who thinks he will redeem a prostitute, and who rushes forward to begin the job with "violins and lit candles" on the brain, is in for a few small surprises.
Unhappy Leo Finkle derives solace from the thought "that he was a Jew and a Jew suffered." The Jew, in Leo's parochial view, thus becomes a paradigm of Everyman, in that all men suffer.
There is in the last two books no extended analysis of the story and we must return to Richman.
Richman treats "The Magic Barrel" in relatively long analysis…. He treats it as "the story of love and maturation of a young rabbinical student." He treats Pinye as "half criminal, half messenger of God," although he gives no evidence at all for the first half, and in fact further prejudices us by introducing Pinye as "reeking of fish." (If it is criminal to be so poor as to afford only cheap fish, the jails are going to be bursting soon.) When Leo and Lily talk and Lily asks of Leo's love of God, Richman reads her questions as Pinye's attempts at ritual indoctrination. You will pardon me, I hope, if I find it difficult to see how Lily's "How was it that you came to your calling?" is a ritual indoctrination by Pinye who wasn't even there. Richman concludes that Leo is right, that his redemption involves choosing that from which "he had received an impression, somehow, of evil." Based on those premises, it is no wonder that Richman concludes that the ending of the story is "ambiguous." (There's that word again.) He further concludes that "Leo has graduated into saint and rabbi!" Isn't that really incredible when you see it in bare outline? Leo has graduated into saint, not just rabbi, by running towards a hooker he doesn't even know! I honestly hope you have, as I do, higher expectations of rabbis, to say nothing of the theological problems involved in getting into heaven with a hooker on your arm. No, as an analysis of the integration of form and content, Richman's will not suffice. The story is far too good to be seen as an ambiguous and confusing story of a mixed-up rabbinical student. Let's close … with a single paragraph summation.
"The Magic Barrel" is a great short story. Its power is evident whether you seek a deeper level of meaning or not. It is anthologized widely and discussed by thousands of people every year. Analyses of it are still appearing. The point of this article is that Malamud has constructed his story of the student of the Pentateuch on the structural framework of the Pentateuch and that any interpretation which fails to take into account this integration of content and form is deficient. The conclusion of this analysis is that Malamud as master craftsman and Malamud as artist of vision has created for us a powerful short story which will stand the test of time as a classic of our century.
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