Women in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud: Springboards for Male Self-Transformation?

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Author: Tim Parrish
Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2007
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,544 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Parrish represents women in Malamud's fiction as being agents of male satisfaction, emancipation, and self-examination.]

Bernard Malamud's depiction of women in his fiction has not drawn sustained critical interest.1 There is of course a good reason for this: Malamud's fiction is not primarily about women. Critics of Malamud are generally interested in other issues: narrative style, the meaning of being Jewish, art and morality, suffering, the schlemiel, to name several often cited Malamud themes.2 Insofar as Malamud has not attracted the sort of feminist interest (and contempt) that his peer Saul Bellow has, we might say that Malamud's work has chosen its readers well. His work, I think, has pretty much been read in the humanistic-thematic way that Malamud probably intended for it to be. Still, given that so many male writers are being reread in the context of how their work depicts women, one might be surprised that a writer of Malamud's stature has not received this kind of critical scrutiny. Certainly, this essay seeks to redress that imbalance, but I also hope to show why in many ways the relative lack of interest in this topic makes a certain kind of sense. If one is not committed to tearing down the legacy of Malamud's work (as I am not), then one is limited in what one can say about women in the fiction of Bernard Malamud' without castigating him for giving his female characters short shrift. As we shall see, while his female characters do not displace his male heroes from his imagination's center stage, they do struggle to be more than help-mates for the male characters's individual quests. Ultimately, even predictably, the female character is subsumed by what we might call the male character's thematic necessity; yet, something of her voice, the story that she might have had, lingers in the narrative. Reading Malamud's fiction for that "something" will not make him a feminist writer, but it will enable us to see how in depicting the needs and desires of female characters Malamud's imagination was often at odds with itself.

Observing that "Malamud's vision of women is basically a conservative one," Iska Alter concludes that for Malamud "a woman's primary purpose is still centered in the claims of biology" (96). Although Alter's judgment is more than defensible, Malamud's fiction is more complicated than this reading allows. Throughout this essay I will be examining a variety of representative works, but I begin with the short story "The Model" because it represents Malamud's most sustained engagement with the role that women play in his imagination. The story revolves around Ephraim Elihu, "an amateur painter," who has decided to take up painting again after a long lay-off (Stories [The Stories of Bernard Malamud] 301). Elihu calls the Art Students League to request a model--a nude one--and explains that while not a recently practicing artist, he is looking to take up the activity again. Malamud presents Elihu as one who...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075247