Like so many works by Bernard Malamud, "The Magic Barrel" contains mystical references, as well as complex relationships and erotic symbolism. For instance, as soon as Salzman comes to his home, Leo looks out the window and
observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself.
This phrase contains many erotic symbols, including the “round white moon,” the penetration of a “huge hen,” and the egg.
Furthermore, Malamud writes,
Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union.
Much of this is erotic symbolism, including the wild buds and purple grapes. Malamud's writing that they symbolize “fruit of a union” implies a sexual relationship.
The reason that Leo has contacted the marriage broker is to find a bride, ostensibly in order to create a family, but also to attain intimacy and satisfy his physical needs. Moreover, Leo is willing to use the marriage broker because his parents met through one. There is something Oedipal about this, as Leo seeks to duplicate his father’s finding his mother or, viewed more symbolically, he seeks to meet and marry his mother himself.
Another Freudian element is when Salzman slips the photo of his own daughter into the packet of pictures he gives Leo. Salzman claims that it was done in error, but it would appear to be a Freudian action. Does Salzman want any man to marry his daughter? He describes her as “wild,” but she obediently shows up at the appointed time and place to meet Leo. Is she really as wild as Salzman says, or does he just not want her to become a bride, with all that it implies? Then again, much discussion is devoted to the red shoes she wears to their meeting:
She wore white with red shoes, which fitted his expectations, although in a troubled moment he had imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white.
This is a literary contrast between purity and immorality, particularly given that the shoes are red, as red shoes are a symbol of sexual licentiousness. On the other hand, white—as in the white dress she wears—is a symbol of purity. However, Leo cannot be sure whether her dress was white and the shoes red or vice versa, implying that he cannot be sure if she is pure or impure. Moreover, after secretly watching their meeting, Salzman “chanted prayers for the dead.” For Salzman, his daughter will marry Leo and be dead to Salzman, possibly symbolizing Salzman’s own Oedipal views of his daughter.