“The Magic Barrel” by Bernard Malamud is the story of a young rabbi-in-training, Leo Finkle.
Leo, after six years of intense study, is about to be ordained and is hoping to lead his own congregation. With that in mind, and being advised that finding a wife would benefit that prospect, Leo contacts a marriage-broker for help. Enter Pinye Salzman, the enigmatic marriage-broker.
The structure of Malamud’s story is very much like a folk tale in that its characters, setting, and plot have an ethereal, otherworldly quality. According to the Russian folklorist and scholar Vladimir Propp (1895–1970), one can deconstruct a folktale in terms of morphemes (i.e., analyzable chunks) that bring meaning to the characters and events in the story.
For example, the character of Pinye Salzman, the marriage-broker, has an almost mystical persona. We read Leo’s thoughts when he first meets Salzman: “his presence was not displeasing, because of an amiable manner curiously contrasted with mournful eyes.” Moreover, Leo thinks that Salzman’s eyes “revealed a depth of sadness, a characteristic that put Leo a little at ease.” With these reflections, Leo is able to embrace the embarrassing idea of matchmaking and, more importantly, accept this particular matchmaker. In other words, by using terms such as “mournful” and “sadness” to describe Salzman, the author is encouraging the reader to see that both men have a depth and intensity that belies the comical aspects of the plot.
After several failed attempts at being matched by Salzman, Leo is frustrated and ready to give up. However, Leo discovers a young woman’s photograph in Salzman’s portfolio and is completely taken by her. It is a picture of Salzman’s estranged daughter. Much to the objection of Salzman, Leo is determined to meet her because, as he says, “Her face deeply moved him.” Not only is Leo moved by her, but there is something otherworldly and strange about her photograph that is fascinating to him: “It gave him the impression of youth—spring flowers, yet age—a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted: this came from the eyes.” Here again, as with Salzman, the author is using eyes to create an effect in the reader. We are meant to see that both Salzman and Leo, through this matchmaking interaction, have discovered what they need and want.
If one looks at this story as a folktale in tandem with Vladimir Propp’s deconstructionist ideas, one can see that all the structural elements are covered. Leo, of course, is the hero. Pinye Salzman is the “magical agent,” and the daughter is the ostensible villain. However, as with most folktales, the ending is harmonious in that truth and love prevail.