The Magic Barrel
The Moral Maturity and Identity in Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading”
After analyzing “A Summer’s Reading” from the 20th century American collection, The Magic Barrel (1950) by Bernard Malamud, exhibits a theme common in several short stories that teaches a challenging but, valuable lesson. “A Summer’s Reading”has a very valuable lesson that is still applicable in today’s world. The lesson is about meaning behind how powerful a “man’s word” can be, but also the pressure to be someone you are not and how that can affect you. George, the young main character, in this story lies about what he is doing for the summer to Mr. Cattanzara, an older neighbor that George has built a relationship with. The guilt and the pressure on George to fulfill this false identity eats him alive until he decides to try and accomplish the goals he set for himself. The story exhibits a pattern that is followed in many of Malamud’s pieces of writing. A young impressionable immature character, George is mentored by an older wise character, Mr. Cattanzara, who is offering his teachings because he himself is miserable and does not want George to make the same mistakes he did. Then George comes to a “realization” that causes him to become more morally mature. George comes to this realization when he runs into a drunk Mr. Cattanzara and finally sees the sad brokenness of his life. George decides that he will not end up that way and eventually goes to the library to read the one hundred books that he said he would read.
In the beginning of the story “A Summer’s Reading” George is both intellectually and morally immature. This however is something that changes over the course of the short story. One of the clearest examples of George’s moral immaturity is when George lies to Mr. Cattanzara about what he is doing in the summer to make himself seem accomplished in front of his older respected neighbor. George, embarrassed that he is unemployed, says “I’m staying home – but I’m reading a lot to pick up my education” (138) which was half-true until Mr. Cattanzara asked how many books were on George’s list and he replied with “I never counted them. Maybe around a hundred” (138). Once the whole town knows about this task that George has set for himself, the other neighbors begin to respect him. The thing that is the most immature about George in this particular scene is that he believes that this fame and respect can last forever without him actually completing the task. This lie is probably due to George and his sense of imprisonment he has because of his intellectual immaturity.
One example of Georges intellectual immaturity revolves around his relationship with his sister, comparing it to Mr. Cattanzara’s relationship with his wife. Mr. Cattanzara is living in an imprisioned life style, coming home every day, doing the same thing, and living the same boring life. Every day when Mr. Cattanzara came home from work, sometimes drunk, he would read the newspaper front to back, and then went up to bed, all while his wife leaned out the window looking out at him the whole time (137). George feels this sense of being stuck because he has no job and follows the same routine every single day, living off his sisters one dollar a day that she gives George. Neither of them have a real sense of control over their own lives, they are imprisoned because of what their identity in society is.
George finally comes to a realization late in the short story when one day he walks by Mr. Cattanzara, like he does every day, and sees the reality of his sad life. George starts to avoid people, especially Mr. Cattanzara, while he is on his walks because of the embarrassment and shame he feels about this identity that is not true. One day while George was on his walk he realizes that he already made eye contact with Mr. Cattanzara and it is too late to avoid him. A drunk Mr. Cattanzara starts wobbling towards George in the middle of the street and mumbles “George, don’t do what I did” (143). This has so much significance because George at this moment is still intellectually and morally immature, trying to avoid his own sad reality. I believe that in this moment George realized that he is the younger Mr. Cattanzara and that is where his life was headed, to the sense of disappointment that everyone has because the “man of the house” was failing the family. It is not until George sees Mr. Cattanzara, the man he once looked up to and respected, drunk and broken that he decides to turn his own life around. This is one of Malamud’s common themes that has shown up in other short stories such as, “The Magic Barrel”. In this particular short story, the young character named Leo went to an older match maker named Salzman for help finding a wife. There are obvious issues while trying to find a wife, eventually Leo goes to Salzman’s house in search for a particular girl, only to see the reality of Salzman’s unhappy marriage. Because of Salzman’s unhappy marriage, like Mr. Cattanzara’s unhappy life, these older men want the best for the younger men, George and Leo, because they do not want these young men to end up the way they did.
After the realization of these issues, George finally begins to understand and change his moral and intellectual immature ways. He realizes that the lies do not feel good anymore because of all the guilt he was feeling and he decides to “…go to the library, where he had not been in years. There were books all over the place… he easily counted off a hundred, then sat down at the table to read” (144). Eventually after lying to himself and everyone else for so long, he is forced to mature because of the pressure to live up to his own identity. Because of Georges immature lies about who he is it ends up being positive because it leads him to moral maturity, which then lead him to intellectual maturity, because he was finally reading the books he said he would read. Readers can see the change in both moral and intellectual maturity because George begins to care about living up to the identity he had created for himself. George now cares about his education and honoring his word as a man to read one hundred books.
After reading and analyzing “A Summer’s Reading” there is a clear theme about intellectual and moral maturity. In this story readers can feel the pressure of the lies about Georges identity and how that affects him. Readers can feel the pressure from Mr. Cattanzara to be better than him, which means living up to his identity. George cannot rely on his sister and live on one dollar a day for the rest of his life. Because of the realization that George comes to he not only matures intellectually but morally. George created his own identity, not realizing the power that this had on people, which eventually caused him to actually go to the library and sit down with one hundred books. This short story analyzes this theme in an emotional way that allows the readers to feel the pressure and the awkwardness of Georges back-and-forth emotions. The clear lesson that is learned is about identity and the process of intellectual and moral maturity that is learned by the younger character, George, from his mentor, Mr. Cattanzara.