[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Lyons offers a feminist reading of several of Malamud's short stories.]
Malamud, like so many American Fiction writers, was a great short story writer and a good novelist. That is, like Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor, Malamud's particular talents seemed to find their fulfillment in the story form, and his best stories, like "The Magic Barrel," "Idiots First," "The Last Mohican," "The Silver Crown," and "Talking Horse," are so achieved, so uniquely Malamudian that they seem destined to last until, God forbid, no one reads stories anymore.
I take The Stories of Bernard Malamud as the author's implicit judgment on his stories; his choice of stories and shaping of the collection as his retrospective evaluation of his career as a story writer, including the judgment implied in his omission of the often anthologized "The Lady of the Lake." Reading the collection cover to cover, important patterns emerge. The first is how many of the stories are about the interplay between two central characters and how often the pattern is a quest. Character A literally or figuratively pursues Character B, Character B subsequently pursues Character A--Fidelman and Susskind in "The Last Mohican," Ginzburg and Mendel in "Idiots First," Leo and Salzman in "The Magic Barrel." The other striking quality is how many of the great Malamud stories are spiritual success stories--teaching stories, inspiring stories, stories about impoverished, needy, hungry people breaking through, transcending. Susskind teaches Fidelman that in his book about Giotto, "The words were there but the spirit was missing" and Fidelman at long last reaches "a triumphant insight" (72). In "The Magic Barrel," Leo after much soul-searching (not unconnected with searching for Salzman) when last seen is a far cry from the constrained, unaware rabbinical student he is at the beginning of the story; instead he is running "forward with flowers outthrust" (143), the embodiment of engagement. Perhaps most astoundingly, Mendel, in "Idiots First," not only succeeds in putting his idiot son safely on the train but through his spiritual power teaches the Angel of Death "what it means human" (44) and ends ready to die, a true "ripeness is all" figure.
Not all the great stories end so positively; if they did this tenderest of American Jewish writers would be sappy, not satisfyingly sweet as he assuredly is. But while these are Malamud's basic story patterns--the quest involving two characters and the positive breakthrough, the spiritual success story--other patterns emerged when I focused my attention of the female characters in Malamud stories, which is to say when I looked at the stories through a feminist lens. Then I noticed that although there are positive female characters in Malamud's stories, none of them is a quester. None is full of serious spiritual, moral, or psychological need or ambition. The last story of the collection, "Talking Horse," underscores this absence most vividly. Abramowitz with his desperate quest for freedom and meaning, his incessant questioning of the nature of his being, his repeated willingness...