Rabbinical student Leo Finkle seeks out Pinye Salzman, a matchmaker, in the hopes of finding a bride in the short story "The Magic Barrel." The reader starts out hopeful that Leo will find a suitable match, but Leo Finkle is not a passionate man and is struggling to find purpose:
He gradually realized—with an emptiness that seized him with six hands—that he had called in the broker to find him a bride because he was incapable of doing it himself. This terrifying insight he had derived as a result of his meeting and conversation with Lily Hirschorn. Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing—to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.
Unfortunately, Leo’s date with Lily goes poorly because of a few fabrications told to her about Leo. As a result, Leo decides that Salzman’s services as a matchmaker are no longer required. On Salzman’s way out the door, he just happens to leave an envelope containing a few pictures of eligible ladies on the table. As Leo looks through the pictures, he finds one left by mistake, and she's the girl of his dreams. When he goes to Salzman’s apartment, however, the dialogue between Leo and Salzman’s wife provides an interesting twist to the character of Salzman:
“Salzman—does he live here? Pinye Salzman,” he said, “the matchmaker?”
She stared at him a long minute. “Of course.”
He felt embarrassed. “Is he in?”
“No.” Her mouth, thought left open, offered nothing more.
“The matter is urgent. Can you tell me where his office is?”
“In the air.” She pointed upward.
“You mean he has no office?” Leo asked.
“In his socks.”
By the time Leo arrives back home, Salzman is already there, as if he’s omnipresent. The way Malamud weaves fate into the story is unexpected and ironic. Equally eerie are Salzman’s protestations against Leo’s interest in Stella, Salzman’s “baby,” whom he swears is no good for Leo. However, Stella will give Leo’s life a sense of purpose:
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. She waited uneasily and shyly. From afar he saw that her eyes—clearly her father's—were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption.