Bernard Malamud's humor is always ironic and usually grim, dark, evoking the type of comic image conveyed by a grinning skull. Often his humor evolves from someone's deservedly or undeservedly being victimized—Schwartz the Jewbird, for example, or the mourners Gruber and Kessler—death and implicit death, but in either case the grinning skull looks on unseen. Although in many of his stories a suggestion of tragedy exists behind the humor, in others whimsy predominates, as in "Angel Levine" and "The Girl of My Dreams." Whimsy is a device that Hawthorne also employs, even in stories based on historical accounts. A perfect example is "Wakefield," in which Wakefield leaves home one day and without a word to his wife does not return for twenty years, when he suddenly steps inside the house while walking past it on a rainy afternoon as if he had been gone no longer than a few hours. According to the narrator the story has a truthful foundation, but in Hawthorne's art, as at times in Malamud's, it is pure whimsy.
As Malamud's ironic humor, both the woeful and the whimsical, is characteristic of Hawthorne's, so may the same be said of the earlier author's predilection for history as a prominent thematic concern in developing his fiction. History provides a foundation of actuality on which to base even most of their more fanciful stories no matter how far from historic reality the two authors may stray. Eventually the reader's awareness of history will keep the incidents and characters linked to that foundation, grounded effectively enough to make the most preposterous possibilities seem viable and acceptable, at least for the duration of the story. Undoubtedly, it is largely if not wholly for that reason that Poe insisted a short story be limited in length to what can normally be read in a single sitting; a longer story, he believed, would override its effect on the imagination of readers and make it incredible before [End Page 114] the conclusion was reached. Like Hawthorne, Malamud rarely if ever allowed that to occur.
Whether rapping the conscience or tapping the fancy, Malamud's humor, again like Hawthorne's, leaves one pondering over the unpredictable reversals that ironic twists bring to the end of their tales. For instance, Hawthorne's young Goodman Brown loses his Faith but receives her pink ribbon to remind him of his loss; Feathertop, with a pumpkin head and broomstick back, has the witch-given appearance and manner of a nobleman, but on seeing himself reflected in a mirror for what he really is, he collapses and becomes a scarecrow again; mentioned already is Wakefield, who in a momentous unanticipated decision reappears at home after two decades as if he had never been away. Similarly, in Malamud's "The Last Mohican," the woebegone Fidelman's manuscript is stolen and lost for good before he realizes how worthless it is; Mitka's erstwhile dream-girl in "Girl of My Dreams" is suddenly transformed from a "lone middle-aged female" with a "bulky market bag"2 into a young writer's inspiration; and Schwartz the schnorring Jewbird is flung outside by the "Anti-Semeet" Cohen to die in filth as an obnoxious Jewish pest. What Robert Alter says about the latter story—"Without the grubby realism in which the fantasy is embodied, the bird would be only a contrived symbol and the story would lack conviction" (31)—applies to much of Malamud's early fiction and to many of Hawthorne's tales as well. Pathos is an element in the ironic conclusions of all these stories; pathos and humor together generate the effect sought by both authors a century apart, and history has a prominent thematic role in much if not most of their fiction. As the etymology of the words themselves imply, history and story are intrinsically linked, both having evolved from the same root.
Although Malamud's first known story as a mature author was written in 1940, it was not published until three years after his death...