[(essay date summer 1964) In the following essay, Ratner explores the theme of suffering as a means to regeneration and enlightenment in Malamud's fiction, including The Assistant,The Magic Barrel,The Natural, and A New Life.]
American fiction in the last decade has been marked by a particular kind of asocial novel in which the central figure is a twentieth century isolato, understandably preoccupied with preserving his individuality from the abstract labels which categorize him into invisibility. The critics have varied in their reaction to this tendency: the symbol-hunting technicians of the novel having exhausted almost all early fiction have expanded their efforts to include the hidden myths in current fiction, while the traditionalists have bemoaned the sad state of the novel. The latter, especially, have assumed that if the circumstantial reality, the detailed actuality of the commonplace, is too compressed or too disciplined to conform to theme, the heart of the novel is reduced to a pulse beat.1 But some writers have ignored warnings that they are writing in a minor mode, that their connection with social reality is elusive, and have continued to create important fiction. One of these writers is Bernard Malamud. By means of his moral sensibility and ironic perception, Bernard Malamud has avoided the pitfalls of self-conscious sentimentality, sterile mythmaking or limited topical reality.
The general theme of Malamud's work is the humanistic value of suffering as a way towards man's ennoblement and enlightenment; in his best work he complements his tragic view with a fine comic sense. In his earlier fiction, Malamud's introspective, alienated, querulous heroes redeem their lives on baseball diamonds, in grocery stores and Italian art galleries; in his latest novel, A New Life, and in Idiots First, his new short story collection, he enlarges his subject matter and technique but without sacrificing his consistent tragic-comic style.
There have been a number of critical articles discussing Malamud's characterizations, themes and style; with one exception,2 they have generally considered Malamud as a good but apparently static writer, with a rather limited range. Neither his themes of redemption and responsibility nor his style have been examined in the light of his growth as a writer. But it is by means of his particular style that Malamud preserves his fiction--which more often than not deals with commonplace persons in pathetic situations--from cliches in incident and character. This is partly because he writes with the directness and simplicity of the folkstoryteller, but mostly because his expression is contingent on his ironic view of reality. The irony is often achieved by juxtaposing realistic description with fantastic incidents, or poetic imagery with ordinary occurrences. The value of such a poetic technique, not just as a means of compression, but also to underscore ironic tensions in incident, is clear in Malamud's The Assistant (1957) and in his first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958).
In The Assistant, Malamud sets his action within a slum, a limited world separate from the rest of the city. One can make an...