The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Synopsis of the Magic Barrel
  • 4:09 Analyzing the Magic Barrel
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

First published in 1954, Malamud's 'The Magic Barrel' still has a lot to teach us even over half a century later. Find out what you can learn when you check out this lesson with a synopsis and analysis of Malamud's passionate appeal to our humanity.

Synopsis of The Magic Barrel

Today, many of us looking to find a date can turn to the Internet. With hundreds of dating websites and other online communities, it's now (theoretically) easier than ever to find the person of your dreams. Before eHarmony and Facebook, though, those who couldn't make a match for themselves had to turn to those who could: professional matchmakers. Practically every culture across the globe has at some time engaged in the practice of matchmaking, and in some, it's become a long-standing institution. It's certainly of importance in the short story, The Magic Barrel, written by Bernard Malamud in 1954.

Leo Finkle, the protagonist of The Magic Barrel, has terrible luck with making acquaintances. A rabbinical student from Cleveland, Leo has locked himself away in his tiny New York apartment, devoting all of his time to his studies and none to socializing. However, at his parents' urging, the soon-to-be rabbi decides he should try to find a suitable mate for no other reason, really, than to attract a larger congregation when he's been ordained.

Being socially challenged, Leo turns to a local marriage broker, Pinye Salzman, hoping that the same time-honored tradition that brought his own parents together would also find his companion. The aging matchmaker carries a briefcase containing cards with information on various young women, such as occupations, education, dowry, etc. He claims to have so many of them at his office that he has to keep them in a barrel for lack of drawer space. After Salzman selects some candidates, Leo scrutinizes their info and rejects three seemingly viable options for different, entirely superficial reasons. Disenchanted with the matchmaking process, Leo sends Salzman away, with both of them looking rather depressed.

Pinye quickly returns, though, with some exciting news. He's found out that one of the young women Leo had dismissed as too old (Lily Hirschorn) is actually younger than he'd thought. After a round of verbal fencing with Salzman, Leo consents to meet Lily, and the two have their first date. While on it, Lily is lively and engaged where Leo is sullen and aloof. She asks him questions about his spiritual life and his decision to take rabbinical orders. This line of questioning agitates Leo considerably, and he becomes defensive, lashing out at both Lily and Pinye.

Once he's calmed down, Leo realizes that much of his frustration should've probably been directed toward himself. For the next week, he sulks at home, even contemplating abandoning his studies. Salzman eventually returns, but can't get a word in edgewise while Leo berates him for overselling his clients. Downtrodden, Pinye leaves, but not before giving Leo a manila envelope containing pictures of some ladies that he'd picked out for him.

Come spring, Leo has started making plans for a more active social life. However, they seem to have fallen through, so Leo turns to the still unopened and dusty envelope in desperation. As he rifles through the photos, the last he comes to doesn't seem to belong - it's a simple snapshot taken by a novelty machine. Leo is utterly captivated by the woman's picture and leaves immediately to go find Salzman so he can track her down. When he arrives at Pinye's address, Leo finds no office or barrel or much of anything to speak of, really. Pinye's wife tells Leo his office is 'in the air' and 'in his socks,' as well as that he's out at the moment and that she has no idea where to find him.

Miraculously, the wheezing matchmaker beats Leo home and excitedly asks whom he has chosen from the pictures he left. Leo explains that he wants to know more about the girl in the snapshot, but Pinye is suddenly overtaken by horror and gathers his things and leaves. After chasing him down and begging, Leo finally discovers that the young woman is Salzman's apparently wayward daughter Stella, whom her father has disowned for her 'wild' ways.

After some time has passed, Leo runs in to Salzman again. Despite his protests that Stella is no woman for a rabbi, Leo professes his love for her, even though they've never met. Pinye finally concedes and agrees to put Leo in touch with his daughter, and the story ends with the two meeting for the first time while Salzman chants prayers for the dead somewhere nearby.

Analyzing The Magic Barrel

Many of us have probably heard of parables, short narratives using metaphor and symbolism to illustrate a moral point. Bernard Malamud, one of history's most prominent Jewish-American authors, has become part of this tradition considering that many of his stories like The Magic Barrel can be classified as parables.

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