Identify a structural device that Bernard Malamud uses in "The Magic Barrel."

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" is his use of a motif...

... a recurring subject, theme, a

The motif is one of magic.

Not long ago there lived...

This first line has the sound of a fairytale—similar to "once upon a time." The setting is indefinite. This sense of "otherworldliness" continues throughout the story: alluded to with the title's "magic," the story abounds with references to the mystical.

Pinye Salzman is a matchmaker. The first time Leo meets him, the old man...

...appeared one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway...

He carries with him a black portfolio, similar to a black hat, from which he promises to produce (as if by magic) the perfect girl for Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student who believes a wife would help him "win...a congregation."

The use of this motif lends a sense of the possible to what Leo soon believes to be impossible. For in learning about women he has nothing in common with, and meeting a woman who sees him not as he is but as she wishes he were, he realizes that he is a stranger to himself.

"When," [Lily] asked in a trembly voice, "did you become enamored of God?"

...Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her—no relation to the living or dead...

..."I think," he said..."that I came to God not because I loved him, but because I did not."

This knowledge devastates Leo—he does not love God! He suddenly has no love in his life, and just as suddenly he realizes that he needs love—something an arranged marriage would not have given him. When Salzman [perhaps] inadvertently shows Leo the picture of Stella, the young man is drawn by her looks, but not of beauty. As he studies her image in the photograph...

...she leaped forth to his heart—had lived, or wanted to—more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived—had somehow deeply suffered...

Seemingly, he falls in love with a picture. She is nothing like the women Salzman had tried to convince Leo to marry—even the physical photo is different than the others. And while all of the other women had some single thing that convinced him to reject them, Stella has many things he should find undesirable—according to Salzman:

She is not for you. She is a wild one—wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi...For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead...This is my baby, my Stella...

It may seem an impossible feat for Leo to finally meet Stella, but no more so than a prince fighting through a wall of fire or killing a dragon for a princess. The motif of magic continues. As Leo runs to find Salzman at his apartment, the man's wife notes that his office is "in the his socks." Then she utters words that sound like an incantation:

Go home, he will find you.

Before Leo reaches his home, Salzman is there, as if by magic. Leo tells the matchmaker, "Perhaps I can be of service." These words may even seem magical to Salzman who seems to believe that nothing can save Stella. Love is a magic all its own—believed by countless people to have the power to change the world.

When they meet, Stella's eyes are filled with "desperate innocence," though...

[Leo] was afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way.

Malamud uses magic to bring about unexpected results. 


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