The Magic Barrel

Author Bernard Malamud (1914–1986)
Classification Psychological realism
Fiction F
First Published 1954
Locale New York City
Time of Plot Unspecified

Principal characters

LEO FINKLE, a rabbinic student at Yeshiva University
PINYE SALZMAN, a marriage broker

The Story

"The Magic Barrel" begins with the introduction of Leo Finkle, who is twenty-seven and in search of a suitable wife, to Pinye Salzman, who has advertised his services as a matchmaker in a local Jewish newspaper. Leo has spent six years in study, with no time for developing a social life. Inexperienced with women, he finds the traditional route of obtaining a bride appealing, an honorable arrangement from which his own parents benefitted.

At their initial meeting, Salzman brings names from which to choose a proper wife for a respectable rabbi. The cards on which they appear, which he has selected from a barrel in his apartment, include significant statistical information: dowry, age, occupation, health, and family. When Leo learns who some of his prospects are (a widow, a thirty-two-year-old schoolteacher, a nineteen-year-old student with a lame foot), he dismisses Salzman. The experience leaves Leo in a state of depression and anxiety. Salzman, however, appears the next evening with good news: He has been assured that the schoolteacher, Lily Hirschorn, is no older than twenty-nine.

Leo agrees to meet Lily, whom he finds (as Salzman has claimed) intelligent and honest. Yet in addition to being "past thirty-five and aging rapidlX’ Lily appears overly in awe of Leo’s profession—a result, the young man concludes, of Salzman’s misrepresentation. Additionally, Lily’s questions concerning Leo’s love of God are threatening; in a moment of self-revelation, Leo harshly confesses that he desired to become a rabbi not because he loved God but because he did not.

Their meeting results in Lily’s disenchantment and Leo’s despair. Angry at first with Salzman, Leo comes to realize that it is his lack of self-knowledge and fear of finding himself incapable of affairs with women that have led him to Salzman in the first place. With brutal clarity, Leo sees that he has set limits in his relationships with both God and women, limits that have left him feeling empty and unloved. These insights, while terrifying and painful, serve as turning points in Leo’s life as self-realization propels him toward understanding and possible change.

After a week of inner conflict—during which he abandons himself to an all-consuming loneliness—Leo recommits himself to his rabbinic goals and dedicates himself to obtaining love and perhaps even a bride.

Once at peace, Leo is visited again by Salzman. Leo confronts the matchmaker with his unfair misrepresentations, terminates their business agreement, and declares that it is now love he seeks. In a final attempt to make a sale, Salzman gives Leo a packet of photographs with which to find love. After many days, Leo opens the package and examines the pictures. He sees many attractive women, but they all lack a certain quality that he desires. As the photos are returned to the packet, a small snapshot of a woman falls out; while not especially attractive, she seems to possess the soul, the depth, the suffering, the potential—and even a certain lack of goodness—that Leo feels he himself must attain.

Hit hard by this recognition of a bond between them, Leo hurries across town in search of Salzman. Salzman reacts to Leo’s choice in inexplicable horror and pain. Claming that the photo fell mistakenly into the packet, he rushes out the door, pursued by Leo, whose only chance for love and happiness is now threatened. Salzman tries to convince Leo that this woman is not a suitable match for a rabbi and eventually reveals the source of his anguish: The snapshot portrays a wild woman who disdains poverty, who Salzman now considers dead—his daughter, Stella.

Tormented by this discovery, Leo finally concludes a plan: He will dedicate himself to God, and Stella to morality and goodness. Encountering Salzman one day in a cafeteria, Leo reveals that he at last has love in his heart and implies that perhaps he can now be the one to provide a valuable service. A meeting is arranged for Leo and Stella one spring evening on a street corner.

Leo approaches Stella, who, although smoking a cigarette under a street lamp, is nevertheless shy and not without innocence. While Leo exuberantly rushes forth, Salzman stands around the corner chanting the traditional Hebrew mourning prayers.

Themes and Meanings

"The Magic Barrel" explores many aspects of the theme of self-discovery: the awakening of passion and desire; the definition of identity; the search for love. As the story begins, Leo is emerging from years of study to embrace life’s dilemmas. He experiences the awakening of passion and desire with resistance and confusion; his search for a wife begins not out of desire for love or devotion but, rather, to improve his chances of securing a congregation. Through his experiences with the matchmaker, Leo discovers what kind of bride he does not want—someone who sees him not for who he is but for his position in society.

As he attempts to define his priorities, Leo is caught in a web of contradictions: "apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man." Leo’s relationship with God constitutes a major part of his struggle for identity. When he accepts the shortcomings of his studies (his books have not taught him to love either God or women) and himself, Leo is able to redefine his goals and begin advancement toward them. His major goal is to achieve love: not only love for God but also love for a woman.

In his efforts to meet and woo Stella, Leo is no longer content merely to take what Salzman has to offer—especially in a situation that causes the matchmaker much pain. Leo can now offer internal peace to both Salzman and himself through his involvement with Stella. Having come to terms with his own limits and with God, Leo is capable of fulfilling his need for love and of allowing himself to influence another’s life. He has finally achieved the attributes of passion and compassion that allow him to open his heart and reach for someone else. During their final encounter in the cafeteria, Salzman barely recognizes Leo, who "had grown a pointed beard," and whose eyes were "weighted with wisdom." Clearly, the reference is to a man who looks like and is a rabbi, not to a man studying to become one.

Style and Technique

As Salzman is employed by Leo to procure a bride, so is he employed by the author as the vehicle through which Leo’s self-discovery is attained. A man of much depth and sorrow, Salzman conceals a pain so great that he rejects even the attentions of a religious man. Yet, it is only through Leo that he can hope to find peace of mind and a reunited family.

Salzman is an unsuccessful man whose office, his wife tells Leo, is "in the air." In immigrant English, Salzman explains his lack of success: "When I have two fine people that they would be wonderful to be married, I am so happy that I talk too much.... This is why Salzman is a poor man." The compassion lacking in Leo is discovered in Salzman, whose greatest desire is to provide happiness.

References to Salzman’s ethereal and somewhat mystical qualities recur throughout the story. He appears and disappears in direct, yet unspoken, response to Leo’s needs; he is described as a "skeleton with haunted eyes," his appearance often "haggard, and transparent to the point of vanishing," whose magic barrel, Leo concludes, is probably "a figment of the imagination." In this fusion of the down-to-earth and the otherworldly, the literal and the symbolic, the characterization of Salzman is representative of Bernard Malamud’s distinctive style.