The Magic Barrel

Last modified on December 5, 2000

Portrait Life Art Critics Barrel

The Magic Barrel. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958:

[The First Seven Years] [The Mourners] [The Girl of My Dreams]

[Angel Levine] [Behold the Key] [Take Pity] [The Prison]

[The Lady of the Lake] [A Summer's Reading] [The Bill]

[The Last Mohican] [The Loan] [The Magic Barrel]

Back to Stories by Bernard Malamud

Click on the red ball of each story to go back to the top.

"The First Seven Years". Partisan Review, 17 (September-October, 1950), pp. 661-671.

  • Major Characters:
    • Feld: The protagonist of the story that is narrated in his point of view. He is an immigrant from Poland who has become a moderately successful shoemaker. He now owns his shop and he would like to have his daughter "marry an educated man and live a better life." He has "for an age suffered from a heart condition."
    • Miriam: Feld's nineteen-year-old daughter. She likes reading. Despite her father's wish, she did not go to college and started working. "As for education, what was it, she [Miriam] asked, but books..."
    • Sobel: A thirty-five-year-old shoemaker and Feld's assistant. He is a refugee from Poland, who "escaped Hitler's incinerators" and has worked for Feld for five years. He loves reading classics and has been advising Miriam's reading since she was fourteen.
    • Max: A "college boy." He is a pedler's son but Feld respects him "because of the sacrifices he had made throughout the years - in winter or direst heat - to further his education." He is now taking a business course to become a CPA.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • Five years before: Feld has a heart attack. Sobel starts to work for him and saves him and his store.
    • "Quite recently": Sobel leaves the store when Feld asks him not to give Miriam so many books to read. He returns after Feld talks to him.
    • [The beginning of the story] On a snowy day in February: Max comes to Feld's store to have his shoes repaired. Feld asks the boy to go out with Miriam and gives him his phone number.
      Sobel furiously pounds on the naked last and rushes out of the store.
    • About a week later: Feld visits Sobel's apartment to ask him to come back. Sobel would not see him. Feld hires a new helper.
    • On a Friday evening: Feld is not feeling well and stays in bed. Max calls in and has the first date with Miriam.
    • Saturday a week later: Miriam has the second date with Max. After coming home, she tells her father that she was bored.
              When Feld had sufficiently recovered from his anguished disappointment to ask why, she answered without hesitation, "Because he's nothing more than a materialist."
              "What means this word?"
              "He has no soul.  He's only interested in things."
    • Several days later: Max comes in to pick up the repaired shoes which "somehow looked better than new." "Max handed him [Feld] two crumpled bills and received in return a newly-minted silver half dollar." That night Feld discovers that his new helper has been stealing from him, and he suffers a mild heart attack. He stays in bed for three weeks.
    • Three weeks later: On the first day he returns the shop, Feld goes to Sobel's place and asks him to return. He learns that Sobel has been in love with Miriam. Feld manages to say, "I pay wages in cash, Sobel." After his fury subsides, he tells Sobel to wait for two more years before he proposes Miriam. Feld walks home "with a stronger stride" in the falling snow.
    • Next morning: When Feld comes to open the store, he sees he needn't have come "for his assistant was already seated at the last, pounding leather for his love."
  • Themes:

"The Mourners". Discovery, 5 (January, 1955), pp. 37-95.

  • Major Characters:
    • Kessler: A former "egg candler," who now lives "alone on social security." He is past sixty-five and has been living in "a small cheap flat on the top floor of decrepit tenement on the East Side" for ten years. Although he was skilled, "he was a quarrelsome type and considered trouble maker, so the wholesalers did without him."
    • Gruber: The landlord of the tenement. A "fat man with a consistently worried face," who suffers from financial worries and from a high blood pressure.
    • Ignace: A "small, bent-back janitor" of the tenement, who "had several times played two-handed pinochle" with Kessler.
    • The wizened Italian woman with three middle-aged sons: Kessler's next door neighbor.
    • Hoffman: Kessler's other neighbor. A sullen, childless German living with his wife.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • Thirty years before: Kessler was "unable to stand his wife or children...walked out on them." He never saw them thereafter.
    • Several years before: Kessler's flat was filthy and Ignace spread the word about Kessler. The other tenants shunned him as a dirty old man.
    • "One day" [The beginning of the story]: Ignace and Kessler begins a quarrel over the way Kessler dumps the garbage. Enraged, Ignace relates the trouble with Kessler to Gruber. The landlord decides to terminate Kessler's lease as an undesirable tenant although he knows his janitor is exaggerating. That night Ignace gives Kessler two weeks' notice, till the first of December.
    • December 1: In the morning, Ignace finds in his letter box Kessler's twenty-five-dollar rent. In the evening, Ignace reports Gruber about the money. Gruber walks up to Kessler's flat and opens the barricated door and tells him to leave by the fifteenth giving back to him a half of his rent although he pleads Gruber to let him stay.
    • December 15: Ignace finds in his letter box the twelve fifty from Kessler and telephones Gruber. The landlord makes Igance write a note that the money has been refused and return the money with it.
    • December 16: Kessler returns the money but Ignace again write a note and return the money with it "under the old man's door."
    • December 18: Kessler receives a copy of his eviction notice, which says to appear in court on Friday.
    • Friday: Kessler does not appear in court. In the afternoon the marshal and his two assistants come to the flat and force Kessler and his belongins out of the flat. They leave after bolting the door. Kessler sits on a chair on the sidewalk beside the pile of his belongings in the rain. It turns to snow but he stays on without a coat and hat. On her way back from shopping, the "wizned Italian woman" recognizes Kessler and starts to shriek. Her two sons carries him back to his floor. Hoffman cuts the padlock of the door with a file and Kessler is carried into his flat. Despite Ignace's protest, they carry in Kessler's furniture and other belongings into the flat. The Italian woman sends in hot macaroni, which Kessler will not eat.
      Ignace calls up Gruber, who in the middle of supper decides to come and talk to Gruber. He goes to Kessler and tells him to leave in the morning despite his pleads and protest:
              "What did I did to you?" He bitterly wept. "Who throws out of his house a man that he lived there ten years and pays every month on time his rent? What did I do, tell me? Who hurts a man without a reason? Are you a Hitler or a Jew?" He was hitting his chest with his fist.
    • Saturday ("The next morning"): Gruber decides to talk to Kessler once more before seeing the marshal, thinking "he would offer to get the old man into a public home." Unlocking the door, he finds Kessler on the floor and soon realizes that he is "engaged in an act of mourning." "Then it struck him [Gruber] with a terrible force that the mourner was mourning him: it was he who was dead." Gruber is agonized and then feels miserable. The story ends as follows:
              When after a while, he gazed around the room, it was clean, drenched in daylight and fragrance. Gruber then suffered unbearable remose for the way he had treated the old man.
              At last he could stand it no longer. With a cry of shame he tore the sheet off Kessler's bed, and wrapping it around his bulk, sank heavily to the floor and became a mourner.
  • Themes:

"The Girl of My Dreams". American Mercury, 76 (January, 1953), pp. 62-71.

  • Major Characters:
    • Mitka: A young writer, who "had burned the manuscript of his heart-broken novel in the blackened bottom of Mrs. Lutz's rusty trash can in her back yard."
    • Mrs. Lutz: Mitka's landlady, "herself a writer - a bad one but always interested in writers and had them in her house whenever she could fish one up..."
    • Madeleine Thorn: The author of the story in The Globe that impressed Mitka. He falls in love with her after reading it.
    • Olga [Thorn]: Madeleine's mother. A "lone middle-aged female....marvelously plain..."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • One November day, Mitka burns "the manuscript of his heart-broken novel" in the trash can [barrel] in his landlady's backyard. He had worked on the novel for "three long years" and it was returned to him "after a long year and a half of voyaging among more than twenty publishers." He vows "never to write again" though he feels he cannot write anyway.
    • For a few months, until February, Mitka secludes himself in his room doing nothing. He grows "wan and thin" despite Mrs. Lutz's encouragement and enticement.
    • One day in February, Mitka reads Madeleine Thorn's story in the Globe, to which he had once contributed a dozen stories before working on the novel. The story is about a young female writer whose almost completed novel MS has been accidentally burned in the backyard "barrel" by her landlady. "The tale haunted him" and he writes to Madeleine to "assuage her grief" that night.
    • A few days later, Mitka receives Madeleine's short reply: "Dear Mr. Mitka (a most feminine handwriting): Thank you for the expression of your kind sympathy, sincerely, M.T."
    • The next day, Mitka recieves another letter from Madeleine in which she writes that "the story wasn't true" but that she is lonely and expects another letter from him. Eventually their correspondence begins.
    • On "a Monday evening" in March, a meeting is arranged at the branch public library. Mitka finds Madeleine's mother Olga there. She takes him to "a beer place" and feeds Mitka with the foods extracted from her market bag. She reveals that her daughter "died at twenty--at the fount of life." Olga, giving advice, encourages him to keep on writing.
              On his way home, affected by the feel of spring, Mitka imagines himself holding and swinging his landlady across the threshold as his bride "as they waltzed around his writing chamber." (italics, mine)
  • Themes:

"Angel Levine". Commentary, 20 (December, 1955), pp. 534-540.

  • Major Characters:
    • Manischevitz: A "tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities." He was previously "a man of comfortable means" but "he overnight lost all he had" because of the fire which burned down his establishment to the ground. At almost the same time, his son was killed in the war and his daughter "married a lout and disappeared." Thereafter he suffers from excruciating backaches and unable to work. Like Job, he is religious and takes all the hardships rather stoically.
    • Fanny: Manischevitz's wife, who has recently become seriously ill.
    • Alexander Levine: A Jewish "black" angel, according to Levine, "not to be confused with the members of any particular sect, order, or organization here on earth operating under a similar name." He has "recently been disincarnated into an angel" and his ability is yet limited: "Frankly, I [Levine] cannot perform either miracles or near miracles, due to the fact that I am in a condition of probation. How long that will persist or even consist, I admit, depends on the outcome."
    • Bella: A "big-breasted Negress in a purple evening gown." She is the hostess of a Harlem cabaret called "Bella's," supposedly Levine's joint.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • [Beginning of the story]: Manischevitz prays God for assistance. Finds Levine reading a newspaper in his living room. Levine explains about himself but Manischevits cannot believe him.
    • "The next day...": Manischevitz's and Fanny's conditions somewhat improve.
    • The fourth day: On the fourth day their conditions get worse again and Manischevitz, still in doubt, goes to Harlem to seek "the self-styled angel." Finds Levine, deteriorated in appearance, in Bella's but seeing him dancing with Bella, Manischevitz goes home without talking to him.
    • "...Sunday...": Fanny's condition gets worsened. The doctor says a day or two at most. Manischevitz goes to a synagogue and speaks to God. In the afternoon, he has a dream of Levine and goes to Harlem again. He finds Bella's changed into "a synagougue in a store." Observes four black Jews studying the Bible there and learns from them that Bella's has been moved to the other side of the street. It is already night and he finds Levine drunk beside Bella: "Tears blinded tailor's eyes. Was ever man so tried? Should he say he believed a half-drunken Negro to be an angel?" Manischevitz finally says, "I think you are an angel from God." Levin bursts into tears. After Levine freshening up in the men's room, they go back to Manishevitz's apartment by subway! Levine takes care of everything at once and "takes off" from the roof.
              Luckly he could see through a small broken window. He heard an odd noise, as though of a whirring of wings, and when he strained for a wider view, could have sworn he saw a dark figure borne aloft on a pair of magnificent black wings.
              A feather drifted down. Manischevitz gasped as it turned white, but it was only snowing.
              He rushed downstairs. In the flat Fanny wielded a dust mop under the bed and then upon the cobwebs on the wall.
              "A wonderful thing. Fanny," Manischevitz said. "Believe me, there are Jews everywhere."
  • Themes:

"Behold the Key". Commentary, 25 (May, 1958), pp. 416-427.

  • Major Characters:
    • Carl Schneider: A twenty-eight-year-old "graduate student in Italian studies at Columbia University." He is visiting Rome with his family "to do his Ph.D. on the Risorgimento from first-hand sources, at the same time enjoying Italy" after he has been turned down for a Fulbright fellowship.
    • Norma Schneider: Carl's thirty-year-old wife with "two kids under six." She supported her husband by working before coming to Rome.
    • Mike Schneider: Carl and Norma's son.
    • Christine Schneider: Carl and Norma's daughter.
    • Vasco Bevilacqua: A part-time real estate agent with "no regular office...nor a car." He asks Carl, "What do you think of Marilyn Monroe?"
    • Mrs. Gaspari: A thirty-year-old secretary of Bevilacqua's office, who lives upstairs of an apartment Carl would like to rent.
    • Aldo De Vecchis: The former occupant of the apartment Carl would like to rent. The former lover, aged about forty, of the owner of the apartment.
    • The Contessa: The owner of the apartment. Now past fifty but busy preparing for her wedding.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • Spring: Carl's application for a Fulbright fellowship turned down.
    • October 16: Carl and his family leave the U.S. after Norma's mother has offered to pay their passage to Italy.
    • October 26: Arrive in Naples and start for Rome at once. Stay in a pension and then in a third-class hotel in Rome hunting for an innexpensive apartment in vain for almost a month.
    • "One beautiful late-autumn day" [Beginning of the story]: Carl leaves a real estate agent's office "after a depressing morning of apartment hunting." Bevilacqua speaks to Carl on the street and tells him that he will find an apartment for him.
    • That afternoon: Instead of the appointed one o'clock, at ten to two Bevilacqua shows up at Carl's hotel and takes Carl to three faulty places, which Carl turns down.
    • Next day: Bevilacqua phones Carl at seven-thirty waking up the whole family. He tells Carl that he has found a good apartment.
    • That afternoon: Bevilacqua shows up at one-thirty and takes Carl to the apartment in the rain. The place is owned by a certain Contessa, who has let her lover live in it. She is getting married and has asked the lover to move. But he has taken the key with him and Carl has to wait in Mrs. Gaspari's apartment for the spare key the Contessa's lawyer seems to have. Later it turns out there is no duplicate key and Carl is frustrated.
    • Next day: In the morning Carl phones the portiere to ask for the Contessa's phone number. Instead of giving it, he sends the Contessa's former lover Aldo De Vecchis to Carl's hotel. De Vecchis offers to "sell" the key and Carl refuses although De Vecchis reduces the bribe amount from eighty thousand lire to fifteen thousand. Later, the portiere calls back Carl. Carl offers money and gets the Contessa's address. He visits the Contessa immediately but she has not got a duplicate key either. Outside he finds Bevilacqua waiting for him. Bevilacqua accuses Carl for bypassing him.
    • Next day: In the morning Carl goes to the apartment again. Bevilacqua, the portiere, and a locksmith are there. The door is opened but they find all the furniture destroyed by De Vecchis previous night and the place is in a terrible mess. De Vecchis appears and triumphantly holds the key aloft: "Ecco la chiave!" [Here is the key!] The story ends as follows:
              "He lives for my death," he [De Vecchis] cried to Carl, "I for his. This is our condition."
              "You lie," said Carl. "I love this country."
              De Vecchis flung the key at them and ran. Bevilacqua, the light of hatred in his eyes, ducked, and the key hit Carl on the forehead, leaving a mark he could not rub out.
  • Themes:

"Take Pity". America, (September 25, 1956), pp. .

  • Major Characters:
    • Rosen: An "ex-coffee salesman." A bachelor "with only one kidney" and an owner of "a two-family house." He is not in good health but he tries to be helpful to a widow at all cost despite her refusal to be helped, claiming, "I have a heart and I am human."
    • Davidov: A census taker. (Of what institution? You have to find out by reading the story.) He takes notes of Rosen's story in "an old-fashioned language that they don't use it nowadays."
    • Eva Kalish: A thirty-eight-year-old widow Rosen tries to help and take care of. A mother of two daughters, Fega, five years old, and Surale, three. A "nice-looking young woman" according to Rosen.
    • Axel Kalish: Eva's husband; a Polish refugee, who "worked like a blind horse" and bought a "pisher grocery in a dead neighborhood where he didn't have any chance."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • When Axel Kalish was "maybe forty," he bought a "pisher grocery" for three thousand dollars he had saved. Rosen wholsaled coffee for his store.
    • "After a couple of months" Axel tried to sell the store but nobody bought, "Every day they got poorer." Before he could go in auction, he "dropped dead" in front of Rosen.
      "How did he die?" Davidov spoke impatiently. "Say in one word."
      "From what he died? - he died, that's all."
      "Answer, please, this question."
      "Broke in him something. That's how."
      "Broke what?"
      "Broke what breaks."
    • "After the funeral" Rosen urged Eva to take the insurance money and with her two childen to "run away" from the store. But she kept the store and with the money she bought all sorts of new goods from the wholesalers.
    • "In a few months" the goods were "again dusty" and Evan could not get credit from the wholesalers--except from Rosen, who paid the company out of his own pocket. He offered her to live on the second floor of his two-family house giving up the store to the creditors. Again Eva refused.
    • "The nex day" Rosen told Eva to marry him, not for himself but for her children. But she said,"I had enough with sick men."
    • "The nex day" Rosen suggested Eva to go with him to a marriage broker to find her "a strong, healthy husband" as he would give the dowry. She screamed.
    • Some unspecified period of time passed. Eva worked harder but "the store was still rotten." Rosen gave her famished girls some cakes.
    • "The nex day" Rosen tried to give the girls some cakes again, but Fega would not take because "Mother says today is a fast day." Rosen went into the grocery and offered to help Eva "to stock up once more the store." She cried and told him to go away.
    • Two days later, Rosen made up a scheme and started anonymously sending Eva twenty dollars every week pretending that he was her husband's debtor fifteen years ago.
    • Perhaps a few weeks later, all the letters containing the money were sent back. Rosen made out a will that all his properties would go to Eva, and to her daughters in case she died. In the kitchen he turned on the gas and put his head in the stove.
    • At the beginning of the story: Davidov visits Rosen in his room and urges him to talk about himself. Rosen unwillingly comlies and starts to tell the above story.
    • When Rosen finishes his story, Davidov raises the window shade. Eva is before the window, staring at Rosen "with haunted, beseching eyes." Infuriated, he shakes his fist: "'Whore, bastard, bitch,' he shouted at her. 'Go 'way from here. Go home to your children.'" He rams down the window shade.
  • Themes:

"The Prison". Commentary, 10 (September, 1950), pp. 252-255.

  • Major Characters:
    • Tommy Casteli: A twenty-nine-year-old unwilling owner of a candy store on Prince Street in the Village. Before his marriage, he was called Tony, "a kid of many dreams and schemes" to get out of the "tenement-croweded neighborhood." But alarmed by his association with the neighborhood hoodlums, his father worked up his marriage to Rosa to have him run the candy store. His life now is "a screaming bore."
    • Rosa [Agnello] Casteli: Tommy's wife. A woman "too plain and lank" for Tommy's taste; he had to "beat it off to Texas" and "bummed around" for a while before he decided to get married. Her father, out of his savings, bought the candy store for Tommy so that he could make an honest living with her.
    • Uncle Dom: Years ago, before he was sent to prison, he used to take Tony to Sheepshead Bay for "crabbing." Tommy seems to have had a very good time with him and he becomes tearfull whenever he thinks of Uncle Dom and the incident of the green lobster about which Uncle Dom outwitted a cop.
    • An unnamed girl with a "red tongue": A ten-year-old girl who visits Tommy's store every Monday morning for two rolls of colored tissue paper for her mother. Although she has a very light skin with dark eyes, she is "a plain kid and would be more so at twenty."
    • The girl's mother: A "rock-faced mother", "who looked as if she arranged her own widowhood." She takes care of some small children after school and she needs the paper for them "to cut out dolls and such things."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • "When he was sixteen", Tommy quit the vocational school and started to hang out with the neigborhood gangsters ("gray-hatted, thick-soled-shoe boys"). That eventually lead him to get involved with "the holup of a liquor store."
    • "Before he knew what was going on", Tommy's father and Rosa's father made an arrangement for his marriage. Tommy married Rosa and became the candy store owner after he had spent some time in Texas.
    • Before the main narrative starts, Tommy made fifty-five dollars secretly taking in punchboards. Then he put in a slot machine but Rosa's father destroyed it "with a plumber's hammer." After that, "Time rotted in him."
    • 1st Monday [the beginning of the main narrative]: Tommy finds a girl from around the block stealing two chocoalte bars while he is taking out the tissue paper rolls she has asked for. Remembering Uncle Dom, he decides not to catch her but do something for her: "...warn her to cut it out before she got trapped and fouled up her life before it got started." Seeing fear in her eyes, however, he does not say anything.
    • 2nd Monday: The girl visits again for the tissue papers and steals candy. Tommy's heart beats hard and he can not remember what he has intended to do. Afterwards, he decides to "slip her a hint he knew."
    • 3rd Monday: Tommy cleans out the candy platter the girl has stolen from but she steals from the next plate anyway.
    • 4th Monday: Tommy cleans out the whole top shelf but the girl reaches down to the next and takes something different.
    • "One Monday," (probably the 5th Monday): Tommy puts some loose change on the candy plate. The girl takes only the candy.
    • "Friday": Tommy leaves only two chocolate bars in the plate and puts in the wrapper of one a note: "Don't do this anymore or you will suffer your whole life. Your Friend."
    • (Probably) 6th Monday: The girl does not appear in the morning. After Rosa comes down, Tommy lies in bed upstairs and muses:
      He thought about life. You never really got what you wanted. No matter how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn't get past them. You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didin't know what you were talking about, or they said they didn't.
      Going downstairs, Tommy finds a crowd in the store. Rosa has caught the girl and is "screeching." He slaps Rosa and tells the girl to go home. Her mother comes and takes the girl home after scolding. The girl makes an ironical gesture at the end, which shatters Tommy's sentimentalism.
  • Themes:

"The Lady of the Lake".

  • Major Characters:
    • Henry Levin: An "ambitious, handsome thirty, who walked the floors in Macy's book department wearing a white flower in his lapel, having recently come into a small inheritance, quit, and went abroad seeking romance." Because "he was tired of the past - tired of the limitations it had imposed upon him," he took to calling himself Henry R. Freeman.
    • Isabella del Dongo: A seemingly aristocratic Italian girl Henry falls in love with.
    • Ernest [della Seta]: A guide and caretaker of del Dongo's palace.
    • Giacobbe [della Seta]: Ernest's son.
  • Chronology of Events:
  • Themes:

"A Summer's Reading". New Yorker, 32 (September 22, 1956), pp. 143-150.

  • Major Characters:
    • George Stoyonovich: A nineteen-year-old high-school dropout living aimlessly in the working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. He "considered registering in a night high school" but "he did not like the idea of the teachers always telling him what to do. He felt they had not respected him."
    • Sophie Stoyonovich: George's elder sister, a "tall bony girl of twenty-three" who works at a cafeteria in the Bronx. She has to take care of the house because their mother was dead. She sometimes reads "good books."
    • Mr. Cattanzara: A "stocky, bald-headed man who worked in a change booth on an IRT [subway] station," living on the next block to George's. He reads the New York Times "from the first page to the last"; in short, he is the "intellectual" of the neighborhood.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • Nearly four years ago, George Stoyonovich had quit high school "on an impulse" when he was sixteen.
    • "This summer" [the beginning of the story] is a hard time for jobs and George, now "close to twenty", has none. Having no money to spend, he stays off the streets and spends most of the day in his room. Sophie urges him to read some "worthwhile books" but he is in no mood for them: "Lately he couldn't stand made-up stories, they got on his nerves."
    • One evening, while on his walk, George meets Mr. Cattanzara coming home very late from work. George tells him that he is reading one hundred great books in the library list. He wants Mr. Cattanzara to respect him.
    • "After that", George does nothing different from usual but he finds the people in the neighborhood start calling him "a good boy." He feels himself being respected because of the books he is not reading.
    • "As the summer went on George felt in a good mood about things." He occasionally buys paperback books but he never gets around to reading them. Yet, "he could could feel approval on all sides." "For a few weeks" he talks only once with Mr. Cattanzara, who says nothing about the books. George decides to stay away from "the change maker."
    • "Then one night" George sees Mr. Cattanzara, a little drunk, walking toward him. He hands a nickel to George, saying "Go buy yourself a lemon ice, George," as he used to do when George was a "squirt." Asked to name one book on the list he has read so far, George cannot answer. After saying, "George, don't do what I did," Mr. Cattanzara leaves.
    • "The next night" George is afraid to leave his room. Sophie finds out that his brother is not reading a single book on the list and calls him a "bum."
    • "One night," after staying in his room "for almost a week" George sneaks to the park unable to stand the heat. Unexpectedly, he finds people still friendly to him. A man on a street corner asks him if it is true that "he had finished reading so many books."
    • "After a couple of days," George sees Mr. Cattanzara again. He feels that Mr. Cattanzara "had started the rumor that he had finished all the books."
    • "One evening in the fall," George runs to the library and "though he was struggling to control an inward trembling, he easily counted off a hundred, then sat down at a table to read."
  • Themes:

"The Bill". Commentary, 11 (April, 1951), pp. 355-358.

  • Major Characters:
    • Willy Schlegel: A "tall and broad-backed" janitor of the tenement opposite to Mr. Panessa's delicatessen. His heavy face is seamed dark from the coal and ashes. He complains that "he never stopped working" but remains to be poor. He had a son, who died from diphtheria when he was four.
    • Etta Schlegel: Willy's wife. She warns Willy not to buy on credit at the delicatessen but lets him do so after all.
    • Mr. Panessa: The owner of "a small, dark delicatessen" in the basement of a tenement, "really a hole in the wall." He is a sixty-three-year-old retired factory worker and has just bought the store with the last of his money so as not to have to depend on his two married daughters. A "small bent man with a fitful smile."
    • Mrs. Panessa: Mr. Panessa's wife. While her husband lets Willy continue to buy on credit, she anxiously looks with her "bird eyes" at the figure of Willy's debt increase.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • [Beginning of the story] Mr. and Mrs. Panessa has bought the delicatessen. Etta learns from Mrs. Panessa that they bought the small store to support themselves without working too hard. She tells Willy to buy from the delicatessen when they forget to buy something "at the self-service." Willy does as he is told.
    • "Then one day," Absorbed in complaining about his life, Willy orders three dollars worth of goods at the delicatessen. He has only fifty cents on him, but Mr. Panessa lets him buy on credit saying:
      ...everything was run on credit, business and everything else, because after all what was credit but the fact that people were human beings, and if you were really a human being, you gave credit to somebody else and he gave credit to you.
    • "After a couple of days," Willy pays back the two fifty. But he buys a lot on credit again and Etta scolds him: "...we have to pay sometime....And we have to pay higher prices than in the self-service." Despite her scolding, Willy continues to buy on credit.
    • "Once," Willy buys on credit although he has a ten-dollar bill on him. With the money he buys "a beaded black-dress" for Etta. "Thereafter she let him do all the grocery shopping and she did not speak when he bought on trust."
    • "One day," the total of Willy's debt comes to "eighty-three dollars and some cents." Mr. Panessa, smiling, asks Willy when he could pay something on account.
    • "The very next day," Willy stops buying at the store. Etta begins to shop at the slef-service again. She asks Willy when he will pay. He does not know.
    • "A month went by," Etta sees Mrs. Panessa looking unhappy around the corner. Although Mrs. Panessa does not mention about the bill, Etta reminds Willy. They have a quarrel. Willy vows that he would never pay because he hates Panessa and his wife.
    • "That night," Willy goes out and gets drunk.
    • "Hard times set in," the landlord cuts down on expenses and Willy's wages. The tenents are angered about the cut down on heat.
    • "One day," Willy sees Mr. and Mrs. Panessa staring at him from the store. They look like "two scawny, loose-feathered birds."
    • "In the spring," Willy tells Etta that he will pay them bit by bit. He and Etta work hard but they cannot afford to pay back anything.
    • "One morning," Willy recieves a letter from Mrs. Panessa. Her husband is sick and she asks him to pay back just ten dollars. He tears the letter and hides himself in the cellar all day.
    • The next morning, Willy goes to a pawnshop and gets ten dollars for his coat. When he runs back, he finds a hearse across the street. Mr. Panessa is dead. Overhearing Willy's question to a tenant, "What'd he die of?", Mrs. Panessa "shrilly" calls back, "Old age."
               He tried to say some sweet thing but his tongue hung in his mouth like a dead fruit on a tree, and his heart was a black-painted window.
               Mrs. Panessa moved away to live first with one stone-faced daughter, then with the other. And the bill was never paid.
  • Themes:

"The Last Mohican". Partisan Review, 25 (Spring, 1958), pp. 175-196.

  • Major Characters:
    • Arthur Fidelman: A "self-confessed failure as a painter, came to Italy to prepare a critical study of Giotto, the opening chapter of which he had carried across the ocean in a new pigskin leather briefcase..."
    • Bessie: Fidelman's sister, from whom Fidelman borrowed a suitcase and a part of the money for staying in Italy for a year. A mother of five living in Levittown.
    • Shimon Susskind: "A Jewish refugee from Israel," who happens to greet Fidelman on his arrival at the Rome railroad station. A sort of "schnorrer" and unlicensed peddler in baggy knickers.
  • Chronology of Events:
    • Late September [Beginning of the story]: Fidelman arrives in Rome. Susskind greets Fidelmman ["Shalom"] at the train station and asks for a suit in his suitcase.
    • "Late one night, about a week after his arrival...": Susskind comes to Fidelman's hotel room and asks for his suit again.
      Fidelman: "...why pick on me? Am I responsible for you then, Susskind?"
      Susskind: "Who else?"
      Fidelman: "Why should I be?"
      Susskind: "You know what responsibility means?"
      Fidelman: "I think so."
      Susskind: "Then you are responsible. Because you are a man. Because you are a Jew, aren't you?"
    • "Early the next morning..." [Tuesday]: Fidelman moves out of the hotel into a less convenient one to avoid Susskind.
    • Wednesday: Susskind greets Fidelman eating spaghetti for lunch at a trattoria. He needs a suit because "Soon comes the November rains." Fidelman decides to to leave for Florence the next day to get rid of Susskind.
    • "That night" [Wednesday]: Fidelman finds his briefcase stolen with the chapter of his paper about Giotto in it. He suspects Susskind for the theft.
    • "Fidelman postponed going to Florence." [Thursday?]: Fidelman finds himself unable to rewrite the stolen chapter. He gets Susskind's old address but cannot find him.
    • "Time went without work..." [for some weeks]: Fidelman tries "to force himself back into his routine of research" but he simply cannot work on his paper. So he again takes up his search for Susskind.
    • "One Friday night..." [in November]: Fidelman comes across a synagogue and goes in. Being advised, he visits the ghetto again and a cemetry [the Cimitero Verano] in search of Susskind. Learns about the afflictions of Jews in Italy.
    • "Three months had gone by since Fidelman's arrival..." [mid-December]: Fidelman is still in Rome in search of Susskind. Arround noon, accidentally finds him selling rosaries in the square of St. Peter's and offers a reward for the lost chapter. After two, secretly follows him to his "home" in the ghetto.
    • Next morning: Fidelman goes to Susskind's place while he is out. He goes inside, "a pitch black freezing cave," and searches for the briefcase in vain.
    • Early in the next morning: Fidelman wakes up from a dream in which Susskind leads him to Giotto's fresco, "San Francesco dona le vesti al cavaliere povero" [St. Francis gives the clothes to a poor cavalier]. Goes to Susskind's place with the suit and gives it to him. Susskind returns the briefcase but:
              Fidelman savagely opened it, searching frenziedly in each compartment, but the bag was empty. The refugee was already in flight. With a bellow the student started after him. "You bastard, you burned my chapter!"
              "Have mercy," cried Susskind, "I did you a favor."
              "I'll do you one and cut your throat."
              "The words were there but the spirit was missing."
      In the middle of the pursuit, however, "Fidelman...moved by all he had lately learned, had a triumphant insight":
              "Susskind, come back," he shouted, half sobbing. "The suit is yours. All is forgiven."
              He came to a dead halt but the refugee ran on. When last seen he was still running.
  • Themes:

"The Loan". Commentary, 14 (July, 1952), pp. 56-59.

  • Major Characters:
    • Lieb: A baker. "For thirty years...he was never with a penny to his name. One day, out of misery, he had wept into the dough. Thereafter his bread was such it brought customers in from everywhere."
    • Bessie: Lieb's second wife. Her father was killed by the Bolsheviki when she was little. Married to "an educated accountant" for a year, who died of typhus in Warsaw. Her brother, who was later killed in "one of Hitler's incinerators," sent her to America before the war. She married Lieb, a poor baker, and "with my [her] both hands, working day and night, I fixed up for him his piece of business and we make now, after tweleve years, a little living."
    • Kobotsky: Lieb's old friend from "long ago." "Once a cutter of furs, driven by arthritis out of the business."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • Long time before: Lieb and Kobotsky, "immigrants out of steerage," both registered in night school together. [Lieb remembers the same poem Morris Bober recites in The Assistant: "Come," said the wind to the trees one day, "Come over the meadow with me and play."]
    • Fifteen years before: Lieb lends a hundred dollars to Kobotsky. Their friendship breaks.
    • Twelve years before: Lieb and Bessie get married.
    • Five years before: Kobotsky's wife Dora dies.
    • "The sweet, the heady smell of Lieb's white bread drew customers in droves long before the loaves were baked."[Beginning of the story]: Kobotsky visits Lieb the baker to borrow two hundred dollars.
    • "When Bessie finally was rid of the [evening] rush [of customers]...": Kobotsky tells them why he needs the money. Bessie tells him all the hardships she has experienced.
              Kobotsky and the baker embraced and sighed over their lost youth. They pressed mouths together and parted forever.
  • Themes:

"The Magic Barrel". Partisan Review, 21 (November, 1954), pp. 587-603.

  • Major Characters:
    • Leo Finkle: A twenty-seven-year-old "rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University" who, "after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married." He, therefore, calls in a marriage broker to look for a bride.
    • Pinye Salzman: A marriage broker, who smells "frankly of fish" and has "mournful eyes."
    • Lily Hirschorn: A high-school teacher introduced to Leo by Salzman. At first her age is "thirty-two," then "twenty-nine", and finally she turns out to look "past thirty-five." Leo goes out with her and unwillingly experiences a sudden revelation about himself.
    • Stella Salzman: Salzman's daughter. Seeing her snapshot, Leo has an impression that "she...had lived, or wanted to - more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived - had somehow deeply suffered."
  • Chronology of Events:
    • "Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle...": Leo is advised by an acquaintance that it may be easier to win himself a congregation if he were married.
    • "...two days later...": Leo contacts Salzman whose two-line advertisement he has read in the Forward.
    • " night" in February [Beginning of the story]: Salzman's first visit to Leo's apartment. Leo turns down all the three clients: Sophie P., Lily H., and Ruth K.
    • The next evening: Salzman's second visit. He tells Leo that Lily is actually twenty-nine. Leo finally decides to meet her.
    • "Late Saturday afternoon...": Leo has a walk with Lily along Riverside Drive. Trying to clear her misunderstanding that he is "a talented religious person," he confesses unexpectedly, "...that I came to God not because I loved him, but I did not." "Lily wilted."
      Leo realizes for the first time that he is "unloved and loveless" and spends a tormenting week.
    • A week later: Salzman's third visit. Leo tells him that he is no longer interested in an arranged marriage. Salzman leaves after leaving the envelope containing the pictures of new bride candidates.
    • "March came.": Leo keeps the envelope unopened.
    • "One morning..." [several days later]: Leo opens the envelope and finds in it, among the pictures of the women past their prime, a snapshot of the young woman whose "face deeply moved him."
      Leo looks for Salzman and goes to his apartment. His wife tells Leo that his office is "in the air" and "in his socks." He peers in the apartment but there is "no sign of Salzman or his magic barrel."
    • A few hours later: When Leo returns home, he finds Salzman waiting at his door. Salzman refuses to let Leo meet the girl in the snapshot, saying, "This is not a bride for a rabbi." Leo learns that the girl has lived "Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin" and that she is Salzman's daughter Stella.
    • For several days: Leo is tormented. He tries to forget her but cannot. "He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. The idea alternately nauseated and exalted him." On the last day of this period, Leo encounters Salzman in a Broadway cafeteria and asks him to let him meet Stella.
    • " spring night...": Leo meets Stella. The story ends with the following often-quoted two "Chagallian" paragraphs:
              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.
  • Themes:

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