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The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud Essay

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Updated: Mar 25th, 2020


The story under analysis is The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud, one of the most famous American Jewish authors of modern literature whose stories “possess uncommon staying power” (Bluestone 403) as they are still actual. The story comes from the collection of 13 short novels.”‘The Magic Barrel’ is the title story of a collection that received the 1959 National Book Award” (“Bernard Malamud” p. 41).

The story centers around the life of a young rabbinical student Leo Finkle. Having recognized the fact of his coming graduation and search for the place connected with it, he decides to find himself a good wife as he was told that it is much more easier for married man to do that. However, being not sure in his own forces he decides to call for help. A matchmaker Salzman comes for his call.

He presents to the would be rabbi some pictures of his potential wives however Leo is not satisfied with them, deciding for himself that it was the bad idea to address a matchmaker. However, Salzman is very persistent and skilled in negotiations. After a chain of visits he made, Leo to go for a walk with one of Salzmans candidates.

Walking with a girl, Finkle expresses the thought which becomes central in the whole story and which has symbolic meaning. Being irritated with the girls questions he confesses that he, being the would be rabbi does not love God. This confession makes the whole story and opens a wide religious topic to discuss.

Main Point in the Story

First of all from the first lines it becomes obvious that religion is main point in this story. It is difficult to suggest some other topic knowing the profession of the main character. From the firs lines of the story the reader recognizes Leo as an exemplary rabbi. He is going to graduate from the prestigious New York’s Yeshivah University and to make a good career. However, with further development of the action the reader can distinctively see that Leo is not as simple as he seems.

It is possible to observe some hidden conflict within his person. The first sign is his negation of the traditional for the man of his destiny title rabbi in his first dialogue with Salzman. The author specially focuses the readers attention on this fact, repeating it several times throughout all dialogue. The title connected with Leos would be profession irritates him. From the first point of view this fact can be taken as the desire of the young man not to take a long shot and just follow the rules.

However, repeated several times, it irritates him much more than just simple break of rules. It is more obvious that he still does not recognize this unconscious aversion to the chosen path. Duality of his inner world can be slightly seen in this dialogue. He does not want to become a rabbi and he does not want to get married. This fact can explain his refusal of several rather profitable fiancées. Moreover, Salzman plays the great role in the recognition of this fact by readers and by the main character too.

Being the first to spark the would be rabbi anger, he than serves as an excellent background to show the change occurring in Leos soul. He showed Finkle 6 cards of the possible brides. Number six is associated in the Bible with the number of mens imperfection. Quite symbolic is Leos refusal to take at least one of them. He is still fighting with dark seduction and he still beliefs in the presence of the God in his soul. However, Salzman does not surrender. He continues to strive to young rabbi.

“Everything he does is explicable in naturalistic terms” (Sloan 51). He follows his material interests, however the image of a matchmaker can also be symbolic. His character is usually associated with God. However, it is possible to suggest another point of view. He seduces rabbi with six imperfections. Moreover he has a strange ability to appear from nowhere, just answering to the slightest Leos desire. Especially it can be seen in the last scene, when old man came to Leos home earlier than he had.

Finally, we can see that he manages to seduce him with his vicious daughter. With this in mind we can make a parallel from Salzman to Devil, seducing the vagabond soul. This association is quite obvious. Having got to know about the religion motif in the story it is rather logic to suppose the existence of the opposition of God and the Devil. The position of God is shown in the Leos soul when Salzman can be the embodiment of evil.


However, being poisoned with dark Salzmans seduction, Leo surrenders and goes to meeting. He was absolutely satisfied with the development of the actions until Lily touches religious affairs. The already known feeling of irritation possesses him. It is much more powerful than in the first case and being not able to hold it, he makes terrible confession. He does not love God. The recognition of this fact was so strong that it led to the destructing of Leos personality.

He was sure about the truthiness of his words and it seemed horrible to him. He was going to devote his life to Good and now he had no aim. Moreover, with the recognition of his strange religious feelings came the recognition of the fact that he had never loved anyone. Being deeply stressed with this notion Leo shrinks into himself. Only miracle can save him and his belief.

The image of Stella seems to be introduced with this purpose. Stella means star from Latin. Its symbolic meaning is obvious. She became the pole star to the desperate rabbi, taking him out from the dark of his thoughts and doubts. Leo finally “finds his vocation and his love in the suffering face of Stella” (Flower 390). However, being vicious, she was the only person to draw Leos attention.

Quite symbolic is the end of the story. “The complex ending of “The Magic Barrel,” in particular, has become a focus of debate” (Dessner 87). The reader can see the motif of atonement which is related to Stella and Leo. Young rabbi decides to make fallen women, obviously a prostitute, better trying to redeem his hesitations in his belief no matter how difficult it would be. Stella is given another chance to live her life again with a good man by forgiving God.

Being written in rather simple and understandable way, The Magic Barrel however touches such complicated issues as religion, mens belief, the recognition of the person of his place and eternal topics of the opposition of God and the Devil in the background of human hesitations. Salzman and Finkle serve as an ideal instrument for the author to reveal his thoughts about the issue and make readers think about the possible hidden motifs and senses of the story.

Works Cited

“Bernard Malamud”. Language and Literature. 2005: 41-28. Print.

Bluestone, S. Good as Matchmaker: A Reading Of Malamuds “The Magic Barrel”. 2000: 403-410. Print.

Dessner, L. “The Playfulness of Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel””. Essays in Literature.: 87-101. Print.

Flower, D. “Should We Both Tremble?”. The Hudson Review. n.d.: 389-396. Print.

Sloan, G. “Malamuds Unmagic Barrel”. Studies in Short Fiction 32.1995: 51-57. Print.

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