The Magic Barrel | Critical Essay by Carmen Cramer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Magic Barrel.
This section contains 1,607 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Carmen Cramer

SOURCE: "The Americanization of Leo Finkle," in Cuyahoga Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 143-47.

In the following essay, Cramer interprets "The Magic Barrel" as the story of Finkle's conversion from Jewish to American traditions.

The old world tone of Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" belies the action of the story. In various terms, it is usually considered an initiation story which also presents mystical elements of Jewish culture, a typical "Jewish comedy." However, the action of the story actually follows the Americanization, not the maturation, of a young man. Leo Finkle, although from Cleveland and living in New York City, represents the "ancient and honorable … Jewish community." He possesses few of the typical American traits—decisiveness, emotionality, actionorientation—but he melts into the American pot by the end of Bernard Malamud's polished piece of writing, "The Magic Barrel."

Leo Finkle follows tradition well, that is, the tradition of the old world, at the beginning. As a rabbinical student, this young man understands adhering to law, to ritual, to custom; so, to pick a wife, Leo consults a marriage broker because "his own parents had been brought together by a matchmaker." Salzman, the marriage broker, is a man of "business" with a ritual, "'First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind promises.'" The ritual progresses toward "strict standards and specifications" in order to "better the bargain." Such ritual is not a part of the American myth, which has as its center a virtual lack of history and tradition.

Earl H. Rovit on "the Magic Barrel":

"The Magic Barrel" establishes the pervasive conflict between the orthodox and the "new" values of Jewish behavior in modern American life. The oddity of the rabbinical student, Leo Finkle, calling in a matchmaker, Pinye Salzman (who smells always of whitefish), immediately brings into focus the ambiguous stresses of attempting to live correctly in a cultural situation where values are in flux. The grotesqueness of Pinye Salzman—his gluttonish mannerisms, his used-car salesman's approach to marital arrangements, his commercial rapacity—is balanced by his final dignified behavior when he intones the Kaddish (the Prayer for the Dead) around the corner from the rendezvous between Finkle and Salzman's dishonored daughter, Stella. Conversely, Finkle's austere dignity, which is dramatically established by his honesty, his ruthless introspection, his querying himself about the exact extent of his faith, is counterbalanced by his final appearance at the rendezvous with a bouquet of flowers awkwardly and eagerly thrust out in front of him. The resultant tableau is tense and richly ambiguous. The conflicting forces are held in poetic suspension….

Finkle with the bouquet, Salzman reciting the prayer, and Stella dressed in white with red shoes, smoking under a lamp post. Each point on the triangle enlists the reader's sympathy, but each is also treated with a basic irony. The aesthetic form of the story rounds upon itself and the "meaning" of the story—the precise evaluation of forces—is left to the reader.

Earl H. Rovit, in his "Bernard Malamud and the Jewish Literary Tradition," in Critique, Winter-Spring, 1960.

The marriage broker is an element in a tradition that is not American. Even Leo realizes the un-American tone of matchmaking when he inquires about one of Salzman's clients: "'I don't understand why an American girl her age should go to a marriage broker.'" Salzman is part of a profession that existed long before Jamestown, so, properly, that profession has established procedures, ritualized and orderly, to accomplish the "bargain" in an unemotional way. The "bargain" represents, of course, a concept quite foreign in the 1940's when Malamud created the story, even though it was still respected in ethnic communities: the concept of wife-ownership, the dowry being the transfer fee, love being a potential possibility after marriage.

Leo requests the old-world tradition because his is an old-world personality. His "severe scholar's nose" and "ascetic lips" illustrate an inactive life. He studied "without time for a social life" even in the midst of that all-American place, New York City. No women, no laughter, no dancing, drinking or theater-going accompanied his life. Even Malamud's style at the first of the story reinforces Leo's lack of action; the verbs indicate that, at most, Leo's eyes can move: "the student pretended not to see," "Leo's eyes fell upon the cards," "Leo gazed up." Generally, Leo merely observes and thinks: "Leo reflected," "He had thought it best," "turning it over in his mind," "But Leo was troubled." The young student does not act, does not take matters into his own hands to accomplish things, a typical American trait, mythologized from colonial times on.

Likewise, he lacks decisiveness, another American characteristic. Leo Finkle wants someone else to act and to decide for him—not a reflection of the American independent streak—rather than to experiment and experience on his own: "he thought it the better part of trial and error—of embarrassing fumbling—to call in an experienced person to advise him…." Leo gets upset "from Salzman's failure to produce a suitable bride for him." It is not his own failure but the matchmaker's failure which bothers Leo because he takes no responsibility for action or decision upon himself.

Leo's lack of initiative parallels his lack of emotion—at least emotions other than embarrassment and uncertainty. His first exposure to matchmaking disconcerts him; "By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts." Peace, calm, control are the traits Leo desires instead of the Huck Finn/Horatio Alger upheavals of an active "American" life in which confidence, anger, and excitement prevail.

Leo's old-world traits make him incapable of finding, pursuing, or captivating an American woman. However, the development in the story is the development of Leo's American personality that finally enables him to love Stella. Malamud parallels this development with the coming of spring and warmth, symbols of fertility and freshness long associated with the new world.

Leo's first change is toward emotionality. Showing emotion may not be a signal of maturity, but it certainly is an element in the typical American personality which is characteristically youthful and exaggerated; consider Ben Franklin, General Custer, and Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The change begins after Leo's epiphany about his own religion: he "found himself possessed by shame and fear. 'I think,' he said in a strained manner, that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.'" Leo sees his own lack of emotion, and his heart begins to pump out feelings from that moment. Subsequently, Leo "was infuriated … and swore," his "anger rose," looking at Stella's photograph he "let out a cry," and seeing Salzman after his discovery of Stella, "Leo was astounded and overjoyed." Malamud writes at this point in language emphasizing the feelings which are surging out of the "new" Leo, a Leo who has "discard[ed] his dark spectacles," letting himself out and the world in.

As emotion comes to Leo, so does a new sense of independent action. The feelings serve as motivation for the young man who is discovering an American identity. His new perspective causes him to think that "love would now come to him and a bride to that love. And for this sanctified seeking who needed a Salzman?" He avoids looking in Salzman's packet of pictures, until weeks later, displaying his new energy and action, "With a sudden relentless gesture he tore it open." As his emotion about Stella increases, so does his bent toward action: "Leo rushed downstairs," "Leo … gave chase and cornered the marriage broker…. Leo, forgetting himself, seized the matchmaker by his tight coat and shook him frenziedly," and at the end as he meets Stella, "Leo ran forward with flowers out-thrust." Like any Pequod captain, Leo is actively pursuing his desires.

Leo would never have known his desires if his Americanization had not included for him a change toward decisiveness. Even after his emotions begin churning, Leo still "did not know where to turn." However, the fixation of his emotions on Stella moves him to decision: "Her he desired." Once his mind is made up, more decisions come to Leo: "He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God." The young man becomes forceful with his convictions, but with a new humility, the humility of a Shane or a Daniel Boone: "'Put me in touch with her, Salzman…. Perhaps I can be of service.'" Such decisiveness about a woman known only from a photograph is perhaps the decision of a stubborn child, but also it is one signal of an American personality, that personality deciding that it can do anything, then proceeding to do it.

Leo's conversion to American traditions reveals itself through his newly developed emotionality, action, and decisiveness. These traits are fostered, obviously, by self-awareness, suffering and love; a woman is the catalyst for each of these. In a very short space, Malamud allows Leo to see himself through Lily Hirschorn and Stella Salzman. Lily forces him to look inward, shockingly to find his lack of love, and Stella allows him to face human suffering, both hers and his, therefore letting him learn love.

Through this conversion, Leo demonstrates one of the American paradoxes: E Pluribus Unum. The rabbinical student has long been alone. However, to be American he must be independent, which ironically occurs only after close association with people. He must know others to be himself; he must be part of society to be himself; Leo must love one other person to love humanity. With this balance of the one and the many, Leo's decisions, actions, and emotions are fully American. Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" is surprisingly similar to "the melting pot," brewing up new commitments in Leo Finkle, the American.

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Critical Essay by Carmen Cramer from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.