Publishing “The Magic Barrel” in 1954, Bernard Malamud was at the beginning of his career, and near the beginning of a brief and remarkable period in the history of Jewish-American writing. For perhaps a decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid1960s, the American literary imagination seemed to have been captured by a series of books by and about Jews. In 1953 Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March, a story of tragicomic misadventures set in Chicago’s Jewish immigrant milieu. In 1957 Malamud brought out his second novel, The Assistant, the tale of an impoverished Brooklyn grocer who becomes a kind of Jewish every man. 1959 saw the literary debut of Philip Roth, whose Goodbye, Columbus was the account of a doomed love affair between two Jewish young people divided by social class.
Goodbye Columbus won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1960, as Bellow’s Augie March had done in 1954, and as Malamud’s collection of . . . Read More
Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” was first published by the Partisan Review in 1954 and reprinted as the title story in Malamud’s first volume of short fiction in 1958. The period between those two dates was an eventful time in American history. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court unanimously rejected the concept of segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which found that the practice of maintaining separate classrooms or separate schools for black and white students was unconstitutional.
In the same year Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate for having unjustly accused hundreds of Americans of being communists. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to successfully orbit the earth, sparking concern that the Soviets would take control of space.
While the text of ”The Magic Barrel” is almost entirely free of topical or historical references that might allow readers to . . . Read More
Point of View
Point of view is a term that describes who tells a story, or through whose eyes we see the events of a narrative. The point of view in Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” is third person limited. In the third person limited point of view, the narrator is not a character in the story, but someone outside of it who refers to the characters as “he,” “she,” and “they.” This outside narrator, however, is not omniscient, but is limited to the perceptions of one of the characters in the story. The narrator of the story views the events of the story through the eyes of Leo Finkle even though it is not Leo telling the story.
Symbolism is a literary device that uses an action, a person, a thing, or an image to stand for something else. In Malamud’s ”The Magic Barrel” the coming of spring plays an important symbolic . . . Read More
Malamud’s Leo Finkle is a character trying to figure out who he really is. Having spent the last six years of his life deep in study for ordination as a rabbi, he is an isolated and passionless man, disconnected from human emotion. When Lily Hirschorn asks him how he came to discover his calling as a rabbi, Leo responds with embarrassment: ”I am not a talented religious person…. I think … that I came to God, not because I loved him, but because I did not.” In other words, Leo hopes that by becoming a rabbi he might learn to love himself and the people around him. Leo is in despair after his conversation with Lily because “.. .he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless.”
As he realizes the truth about himself, he becomes desperate to change. Leo determines to reform himself and renew his life. Leo continues to search for a bride, but without the . . . Read More
Leo Finkle has spent the last six years studying to become a rabbi at New York’s Yeshivah University. Because he believes that he will have a better chance of getting employment with a congregation if he is married, Leo consults a professional matchmaker. Leo is a cold person; he comes to realize that ”he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.” When Finkle falls in love with Salzman’s daughter, Stella, the rabbinical student must confront his own emotional failings.
Lily Hirschorn is introduced to Leo Finkle, the rabbinical student, by Pinye Salzman, the matchmaker. She is a schoolteacher, comes from a good family, converses on many topics, and Leo considers her “not unpretty.” It soon becomes clear, however, that the match between them will not work.
Leo consults . . . Read More
Leo Finkle has spent the last six years studying to become a rabbi at New York City’s Yeshivah University. After hearing that he would have better job prospects if he were to get married, Leo decides to consult a matchmaker. Matchmakers, also called marriage brokers, were common in many European Jewish cultures, as well as in some Jewish immigrant communities in the United States. Leo’s own parents were brought together by a marriage broker, and Leo is determined to find his bride through the same tradition. He contacts Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker who has advertised in The Jewish Daily Forward, New York’s leading Yiddish newspaper. (Written in Hebrew characters and based on the vocabulary and syntax of medieval German, the Yiddish language was spoken by many European Jews and their American immigrant descendants.)
Salzman arrives at Pinkie’s apartment one day late in February and the two set about their . . . Read More
The “Curse” of the Lifted Veil
The “veil” in George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil” symbolizes the boundary between the natural world and the world of the supernatural, which in this story includes the realm of the spirit and of death. The words “shroud” or “curtain” also appear throughout the story as references to the image of the “veil.” Latimer’s powers of clairvoyance, his ability to both see into the future and hear the internal thoughts of people around him, is described in terms of his ability to see beyond the “veil” which separates the natural world from that of the spirit world. While these powers of clairvoyance would seem to be a gift, Latimer experiences them as a “curse,” which drains life of all pleasure, bringing him only misery and suffering.
The “veil” or “curtain” which separates . . . Read More
The Victorian Era
Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1819-1901) was born in the same year as George Eliot. Victoria’s reign lasted from 1837 until her death. Because her life span and reign came to characterize this period in history, it came to be known as the “Victorian” Era. Victorian England is associated with restrictive moral attitudes and repressive standards of social behavior. There was, however, a strong element of criticism of these standards among many prominent writers and intellectuals of the time.
The Industrial Revolution
The 19th Century can now be seen as a period of transition from a pre-industrial economy to an industrial economy in most of the Western world. In England, the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by great political and cultural changes, as well as scientific advances. The development of . . . Read More
”The Lifted Veil” is written in the first person, meaning that the story is told entirely from the perspective of one individual, the main character, Latimer. “The Lifted Veil” is Eliot’s only story written in the first person. Because the reader sees the events of the story only through the eyes of the main character, the narrative creates the effect of an internal, psychological flow of ideas. Because the story is told as it is written by Latimer over the course of the month before his death, and recalls the events of his life, beginning in childhood, it takes on the form of an intimate confession, of a dying man’s last effort to clear his conscience.
The story is structured in “flashback” form, as Latimer begins the story exactly one month before he knows he’s going to die, then takes the narrative back to his . . . Read More
Science versus the supernatural
“The Lifted Veil,” like many Gothic tales, interrogates the boundaries between scientific knowledge and the supernatural, between the rational and the irrational. This set of dichotomies is laid out in the differences between Latimer and his friend Meunier. Latimer describes their childhood friendship as an attraction of opposites, a meeting of minds between “the dreamy and the practical.” As a doctor, Meunier is schooled in the field of science, the epitome of rational thought. Latimer, on the other hand, has no practical occupation, but possesses supernatural powers, associated with the irrational. Toward the end of the story, however, when Meunier performs the blood transfusion which brings Mrs. Archer momentarily back to life, this distinction is put into question. It is through Meunier’s scientific experimentation that this episode of life after death produces an effect which . . . Read More