The Magic Barrel | Michael L. Storey

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 1,615 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Michael L. Storey

Michael L. Storey

SOURCE: "Pinye Salzman, Pan, and 'The Magic Barrel'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 180-83.

An Excerpt from "the Magic Barrel"

Leo was informed by letter that she would meet him on a certain corner, and she was there one spring night, waiting under a street lamp. He appeared, carrying a small bouquet of violets and rosebuds. Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking. She wore white with red shoes, which fitted his expectations, although in a troubled moment he had imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white. She waited uneasily and shyly. 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.

Bernard Malamud, in his "The Magic Barrel" in The Magic Barrel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

[In the essay below, Storey notes parallels between Salzman and Pan, the half-goat, half-human god of Greek mythology.]

Pinye Salzman, the marriage broker in Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," presents a paradox to the reader. He is seen as both earthy and magical: at times "sucking the bony remains of a fish" and at other times moving about "as if on the wings of the wind." Furthermore, his intentions are unclear in assisting the protagonist, sixth-year rabbinical student Leo Finkle, who has hired Salzman to find him a bride. In question is whether or not Salzman secretly intends for Leo to marry Stella, the marriage broker's daughter. When Leo asks to meet Stella, after finding her snapshot in a packet of photographs of clientele Salzman has left with Leo, Salzman claims that it was accidental that the snapshot was among the photographs, and he refuses to introduce Leo to the profligate Stella. The vehemence of his refusal and his respect for rabbis convince the reader that Salzman has no intentions of bringing the two together. But just when they seem clear, Salzman's intentions are made ambiguous by the fact that Leo, after forcing Salzman to arrange the meeting with Stella, is "afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way." It just might be, the reader feels, that Salzman has artfully arranged the salvation of his daughter through love and marriage with a rabbi.

I believe that Salzman has intended all along to unite Leo and Stella and that Malamud makes this clear through a virtually unnoticed analogy of Salzman and Pan, the goat-god. This analogy also resolves the seemingly contradictory elements—the earthy and the magical—in Salzman's character because, as a god, Pan possesses the magical characteristics assigned to Salzman, and his half-goat, half-man form gives him that earthiness which Salzman displays.

A direct allusion to Pan is made only once in the story. When Leo is out walking one afternoon with Lily Hirschorn, one of Salzman's clients, he senses that Salzman is around, "perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union." That Malamud intends this to be a key allusion in the conception of Salzman's character is suggested by several other, less explicit parallels he draws between Salzman and Pan.

Salzman's physical characteristics—"his wisp of beard, his bony fingers" his "skeleton with haunted eyes"—resemble at least one artistic depiction of Pan: the fourth-century, B.C., engraved bronze mirror "Aphrodite and Pan Playing Five-Stones." His ravenous appetite, gluttonous habits, and fishy smell also give Salzman the suggestion of a goat. In addition, Salzman imitates Pan's habit of suddenly appearing and disappearing. Salzman first appears to Leo "one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway." Later, he disappears "as if on the wings of the wind." When Leo goes to Salzman's apartment to question him about the picture of Stella, Salzman's wife tells Leo that Salzman's office is "In the air" and that it is difficult to keep track of the marriage broker: "Every time he thinks a new thought he runs to a different place." Near the end of the story, Malamud describes Salzman as "transparent to the point of vanishing." Salzman's occupation of marriage broker gives him still another likeness to Pan, who is traditionally associated with amorousness and fertility.

Another important parallel between Salzman and Pan is created through the depiction of Stella, Salzman's daughter. Pan's daughter is Iynx, who was transformed into a bird by Heré for attempting to charm Zeus sexually. She is considered symbolic of "restless, passionate love." Stella is also depicted as restless, passionate love. Salzman describes her as "a wild one—wild, without shame," and when we see her in the final scene she is standing "by the lamp post, smoking," dressed all in white, except for red shoes, colors traditionally associated with love and passion. Stella's name, Latin for star, also hints at her nature, for stars are popularly associated with love, passion, and restlessness (as in "wandering star"). When Leo first sees Stella's picture, it both moves and frightens him because he recognizes that Stella has experienced passion, perhaps of an evil kind, and is capable of love.

The most significant parallel between Salzman and Pan in terms of ascertaining Salzman's intentions is revealed in the effect that Salzman has on Leo. Pan is traditionally credited with bringing both nightmares and panic (to which he lends his name) to humans. Also, in much twentieth-century literature, such as the stories of Forster and Lawrence, Pan-figures have the power of bringing characters into contact with reality. Throughout "The Magic Barrel" Salzman produces these same effects on Leo.

The day after his initial meeting with Salzman, which ends with Leo dismissing the marriage broker, Leo finds himself figuratively in Pan's woods and literally in a state of confusion bordering on panic: "All day he ran around in the woods—missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand."

That evening just as Leo is able to regain "sufficient calm" and "peace," Salzman unexpectedly arrives to convince him to meet Lily Hirschorn. It is this meeting, during which Leo envisions Salzman as Pan, which has the effect of bringing Leo into contact with reality and to the state of panic. When Lily presses upon Leo questions about his relationship to God ("'When," she asked in a trembly voice, 'did you become enamored of God?',") he realizes what Salzman has done:

Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her—no relation to the living or dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness.

It is the traditional method of the Jewish marriage broker to exaggerate the qualities of both parties in order to increase the chances of a match, but here Salzman's exaggerations have the effect, not of bringing Leo and Lily together, but of bringing Leo to a sense of reality and a state of panic. Shortly after this walk with Lily, Leo realizes that

Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing—to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. It seemed to Leo that his whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless. This bitter but somehow not fully unexpected revelation brought him to a point of panic (my italics).

While Lily's questions are the immediate cause of Leo's new sense of reality and state of panic, it is Salzman who is responsible for Lily's questions and is therefore the real cause of Leo's present state.

Later, Leo experiences nightmares, also traditionally credited to Pan. These occur when Leo attempts to forget Stella after Salzman has refused to arrange a meeting: "Leo hurried up to bed and hid under the covers. Under the covers he thought his life through. Although he soon fell asleep he could not sleep her out of his mind. He woke, beating his breast."

Panic, nightmares, "days of torment," and the realization of what his life is really like convince Leo "to convert [Stella] to goodness, himself to God." It is significant that this conviction is accompanied by physical changes in Leo which give him a resemblance to Pan-Salzman: "Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes were weighted with wisdom."

This transformation in Leo seems to indicate that Salzman's plan has not been designed entirely for the benefit of Stella, that he is concerned with Leo's salvation as well. Salzman has thrust Leo into a meeting with Lily in order to expose to Leo his own specious life. Until Leo is aware that he has pursued the spiritual at the expense of the earthly and that the spiritual will come only through the earthly, he is unable to choose the right bride. Hence Salzman cannot lead him directly to Stella but must first take him to a new sense of reality made vivid in a state of panic. Once Leo has faced the stark facts of his life, he is ready for marriage with the right woman—not Lily, the ascetic, of whom the goat-god would hardly approve, but Stella, daughter of the goat-god, whose passionate nature is the perfect complement to Leo's ascetic nature.

(read more)

This section contains 1,615 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Michael L. Storey