The Magic Barrel

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Writing in the last third of the twentieth century, Malamud was aware of social problems: rootlessness, infidelity, abuse, divorce, and more, but he believes in love as redemptive and sacrifice as uplifting. In "The Magic Barrel," the matchmaker worries about his "fallen" daughter, while the daughter and the rabbinic student are drawn together by their need for love and salvation.

An almost opposite attracts theory.

Leo Finkle (in "The Magic Barrel"), insisting that his future wife be young and beautiful, learn to revise their values, reject assimilation, materialism, and conformity; and embrace sacrifice and spirituality.

We need to be reminded of the Hitlerian time of barbarism as we face today's growing spread of despotism. The stories in "The Magic Barrel" do not dwell on it at any length, but they evoke it in a phrase, a descriptive passage, a memory of irremediable sorrow. It is a shadow of horror on the lives of older characters in the book as they try to make a living in meager shops on the city's frontiers -- not frontiers of the future but of the past, the cluttered streets and the crumbling buildings that were new a long time ago.

If we seek morals in this book, we may find many concerned with man's inhumanity to man and the catastrophes that cannot always be dispelled by stoic laughter. One moral is suggested by those crumbling buildings in cluttered streets. Abroad, their counterparts had more grandiose origins as palazzos. They are therefore laden with the beguiling attributes they deserve or that we read into them, and, in either case, glorify, as history. Which doesn't make them any more healthful to live in or to enhance the warmth of the spirit and keep out the cold of the night.

Leo Finkle (in "The Magic Barrel"), insisting that his future wife be young and beautiful, learn to revise their values, reject assimilation, materialism, and conformity; and embrace sacrifice and spirituality. Trapped in depressing, even dangerous...
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