The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Laura Krugman Ray

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 2,337 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Laura Krugman Ray

Critical Essay by Laura Krugman Ray

SOURCE: "Dickens and 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 4, 1978, pp. 35-40.

In the essay below, Ray discusses parallels between "The Magic Barrel" and Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations (1861).

As Sheldon Grebstein has noted in "Bernard Malamud and the Jewish Movement" [in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1975], Malamud is "the heir to rich Jewish traditions, and worthy heir that he is, he remakes them his way and reinvigorates them." One of Malamud's methods of reinvigoration is the conversion of major texts from other literary traditions to the dimensions of his own Jewish-American fiction. That Malamud has learned from and modified such Yiddish authors as Sholom Aleichem and I. B. Singer is generally accepted. Critics of his work have also agreed that Malamud has learned as well from the traditions of American, British, and continental literature. And Malamud himself, in one of his infrequent interviews, has fed the fire of literary historical speculation by alluding to Shakespeare, Stendhal, and Kafka and remarking simply that "I am influenced by literature" ["An Interview with Bernard Malamud" in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1975].

A particularly striking instance of such influence and adaptation is provided by the relationship of one of Malamud's finest short stories, "The Magic Barrel," to Charles Dickens' mid-Victorian masterpiece, Great Expectations. On the surface these works have little in common: one is a condensed and elliptical short story about a rabbinical student's search for a suitable wife, the other a complex and leisurely novel about British class structure and the psycho-sexual consequences of new definitions of gentility. Yet Malamud has transformed Dickens' distinctly British novel into his own world and idiom, his own themes and techniques. Selecting among the resources of Great Expectations, Malamud settles on the novel's central pattern of delusion, crisis, and regeneration, bringing his hero, like Pip, through a series of trials to a comparable resting place, union with a woman herself refined by suffering; and he follows as well Dickens' mix of folklore materials with psychological and sociological realism to create a fiction that speaks simultaneously of its own local setting and of its larger context, the upper west side of Manhattan and the landscape of the human heart.

Although they inhabit radically different social worlds, both Leo Finkle and Pip are heroes of romantic expectations. When Leo, an isolated rabbinical student, calls in a marriage broker to find him a bride, his motives are apparently professional—he has been told that he will find a congregation more easily if he is married—but actually deeply emotional. He rejects in succession all of Salzman's candidates because they are in one way or another imperfect: one is a widow; another is thirty-two; a third, though young and pretty, is lame. Leo is troubled by the failure of reality to produce his imagined bride, and in this respect he resembles Pip, who is consistently troubled by the discrepancy between his fantasies of gentility and his actual apprenticeship to the blacksmith Joe. Pip too rejects a proferred bride, Biddy, because she is not sufficiently ladylike and elegant, in effect because she does not conform to the standards set by Estella. Both heroes fancy themselves unflawed and therefore justified in rejecting flawed women; both are destined to learn otherwise, to recognize fully their own imperfections.

The agents of these belated self-discoveries are again remarkably similar figures, the matchmaker Salzman and the convict Magwitch. Malamud and Dickens both use folklore materials in creating these characters; both men are physically repulsive to the fastidious heroes, yet also spiritually instructive; both have a talent for materializing unexpectedly and unsought (Magwitch returns to England when Pip has outwardly become a gentleman, Salzman returns to Leo's room when the student has regained his poise after an unsettling date with one of Salzman's clients). And both have beautiful daughters who will eventually be courted by Leo and Pip in defiance of their own earlier prescriptions. It is this triangular configuration of father, daughter, and suitor, itself a familiar fairy tale pattern, that most clearly ties "The Magic Barrel" to Great Expectations.

[In "Fire, Hand, and Gate: Dickens' Great Expectations," Kenyon Review (1962)] Harry Stone has written of Dickens' use of fairy tale and mythic materials that "through such suprarealistic counterpoint the artist's fabling and concentrating mind is also to impose order upon the petty welter of everyday experience." From this ordering of the commonplace by means of the fantastic, Dickens illumines the most complex emotions in his treatment of Pip's psychological development. Malamud undertakes a similar project on a smaller scale—he gives us only a few months in Leo's life—but he follows Dickens in making the initiatory ritual of courtship into a psychological ritual of despair and rebirth through which human imperfection furnishes access to humanity.

Both works, then, combine folklore elements with more naturalistic treatments of setting and character, producing realistic fiction modified by suggestions of another order of human experience. The young Pip believes Magwitch's boasts of controlling a vicious young man with "'a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver'"; the convict seems to the boy an emanation of the primal landscape, emerging as he does from the mud and water of the marshes, and an element of local mythology, a reincarnation of the pirate hanged long ago on a nearby gibbet. Magwitch's power later turns out to be natural rather than supernatural when he reaches Pip's 'heart' through generosity and pathos and prepares him for Estella. Salzman, too, is credited by Leo with magical power when, on a walk with one of the matchmaker's clients, he senses Salzman "hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street …; or perhaps [as] a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them." Again, the union Salzman actually presides over at the story's end is a naturalized version of Leo's fantasy, and the matchmaker's power is shown to be a deeply human one.

At the center of Malamud's adaptation of Dickens is the shift from an ideal of social gentility to one of spiritual distinction, a shift from the outward values of nineteenth century British culture to the inward values of contemporary Jewish-American life, which nonetheless leaves intact the capacity for self-delusion and corruption. Thus, in each work the mentor admires in the young hero precisely the quality of which he is himself undeservedly vain. Magwitch takes a creator's pride in Pip's gentility: "'Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman of you! It's me wot has done it!'" But neither creator nor created yet understands that Pip is in fact just a snob, a gentleman only in the externals that Magwitch's money can buy. And Pip becomes 'gentle' only when he comes to love and value Magwitch, to plan his escape, to sit by him at his trial, and to keep watch at his deathbed. Salzman sees in Leo a most perfect specimen of another order, a learned and exalted young man whom he takes pride in addressing as 'rabbi,' a title as yet unearned. When Leo realizes that Salzman has presented him to a prospective bride as "'A sort of semimystical Wonder Rabbi,'" he too is brought to understand that he is unfit for his calling, "'that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.'" Gentleman or snob, wonder rabbi or loveless ascetic: each young man is carried to the point of self-recognition, to the awareness that he is just himself an imposter who cannot withstand self-scrutiny. Just as Pip becomes a gentleman by accepting his responsibility for a man who has loved him, so Leo comes to understand his rabbinical role when he pleads with Salzman for the chance to meet Stella: "'Put me in touch with her, Salzman,' Leo said humbly. 'Perhaps I can be of service.'" For each hero, the fulfillment of his goal is achieved ironically through the exchange of its external for its radical meaning: Pip is gentle when no longer an affluent young blade and Leo a spiritual leader when no longer a likely candidate for a desirable congregation.

And since novel and short story are both tales, the heroes are matched with two unexpectedly flawed heroines. Estella and Stella share more than the obvious duplication of their names. Both are stars, beacons which signal the spiritual progress of their lovers; but more importantly both are women of sexual experience and even sexual abuse—Estella has been brutalized by her husband, and Stella has presumably lived as a prostitute. The plots of novel and story show the hero possessed by his vision of an ideal woman: for Pip the ideal is represented by the young Estella, before he understands her emotional deficiency, while for Leo the ideal is a fabrication of his own, unacknowledged and so unchallenged. But just as Pip learns through Magwitch, that in pursuing his star he has been guilty of selfishness and ingratitude toward the other members of his community, so Leo learns through Salzman that he is unfit to minister to the needs of a congregation or to court a wife.

The crisis for Pip comes with a fever; in his delirium he imagines a desperate loss of identity, recalling later

That I had a fever and was avoided, that I suffered greatly, that I often lost my reason, that the time seemed interminable, that I confounded impossible existences with my own identity.

The fantasy anticipates the actual transformation which follows, when Pip returns Joe's love and abandons his gentleman's career in favor of ordinary labor as Herbert's clerk. Leo experiences a comparable period of despondency and self-doubt when his identity as a learned and godly rabbinical student seems endangered:

The week that followed was the worst of his life. He did not eat and lost weight. His beard darkened and grew ragged. He stopped attending seminars and almost never opened a book. He seriously considered leaving the Yeshivah, although he was deeply troubled at the thought of the loss of all his years of study—saw them like pages torn from a book, strewn over the city—and at the devastating effect of the decision upon his parents.

For Leo too a real transformation succeeds the fantasy. He decides first to find love for himself, then to accept Salzman's help, and finally to offer his own help toward Stella's reclamation. Malamud makes Leo's transformation explicit by altering his hero's appearance: "Salzman looked up at first without recognizing him. Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom." For Pip the process is attenuated by absence from England for eleven years. But for both heroes the change is preparatory to a muted love scene of ambiguous import.

In the original ending of Great Expectations, Dickens allowed Pip and Estella to meet by chance in the streets of London, exchange kind words, and go their separate ways. The revised version, however, brings the lovers together in the ruined garden of Miss Havisham's house on a December evening. Estella appears, "the freshness of her beauty" gone, but in its place "the saddened softened light of the once proud eyes." The meeting recalls to Pip his vigil at Magwitch's deathbed, when he told the convict that his daughter "'is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!'" And the novel now ends with a striking tableau:

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Compare this evocation of a chastened hero, a heroine no longer virginal, and her dead father whose unspoken presence seems to sanctify the union, with the conclusion of Malamud's story. Leo meets Stella under a corner lamppost:

From afar he saw that her eyes—clearly her father's—were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption. Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky. Leo ran forward with flowers outthrust.

Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.

The ruined garden and the New York street corner are realistic settings with powerful overtones: the garden is clearly Edenic, the corner a traditional haunt of prostitutes. Both suggest that the women who inhabit them have known evil and suffered from it but are now, in Malamud's phrase, "opening realms of possibility." And with radically altered expectations, the heroes salute these women through gestures of courtship; Pip extends his hand, Leo his flowers, in token of a proferred self. Salzman's Kadish may well be, as Richard Reynolds argues [in "'The Magic Barrel': Pinye Salzman's Kadish," Studies in Short Fiction (1973)], a prayer for resurrection rather than a lament, but in any case his presence, like Pip's memory of the dying Magwitch, invokes the triangle of father, daughter, lover at a moment when the couple might seem more appropriately left alone. Dickens and Malamud, however, insist on the father's role as parent, matchmaker, teacher. Themselves defeated and pathetic figures, these shabby tricksters nonetheless carry the important message that to be used is also to be humanized, to suffer is also to love.

Great Expectations and "The Magic Barrel" are stories of despair and regeneration. Through a period of suffering and crisis, induced by a quasi-magical mentor, a young man learns to accept his own imperfect nature and to value the imperfections of others; the sign of his redemption is a union, however tenuous, with a woman of equal imperfection and need. Malamud has found in Dickens' inexhaustible novel the materials for his own muted yet resonant fiction. Working in the reduced scale of the short story, selecting among and refashioning the resources of Great Expectations, Malamud creates an authentically Jewish-American fable through which he, like Dickens, instructs us that love comes not to the virtuous but to the vulnerable as a reward for revised expectations.

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This section contains 2,337 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Laura Krugman Ray