How does Malamud conclude "The Magic Barrel?"

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

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By the end of "The Magic Barrel," Malamud has taken a young man closed off from the world by his studies, his nervousness, his desire to act in a traditional manner, and his preconceived ideas of the world and himself, to a place where Leo Finkle can be honest about who he is, what he is not, and what he feels he needs in life to be truly happy.

Leo believed he needed a perfect woman to be his wife. All of the women Salzman suggests have some imperfection: a limp, being widowed, age, etc. Leo is looking for perfection because he has convinced himself that his own life is aligned perfectly: he is ready to finish his studies to become a rabbi, and he is going through the process of finding a wife—but not for love. It is because he feels it would help him "win a congregation." During a meeting with one of Salzman's prospective brides, Leo realizes the truth about himself: he isn't as together as he believed he was. His relationship with God is non-existent: he says...

...I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.

This epiphany devastates Leo: his life had been based upon the premise that he would serve God. He does not know God; he does not know himself. In this state, Leo seems to lose direction and hope. He does not see Salzman for some time until the matchmaker shows up at Leo's apartment simply to drop off photos of women from his "magic barrel." Inside is a picture unlike the rest in its appearance...

...a snapshot of the type taken by a machine for a quarter.

This denotes a photo taken on the boardwalk at a beach or at a carnival: it is unsophisticated and simple. But something about the picture draws Leo. Something about her "moves" him, but not her beauty, for some of the other women in the pictures were more beautiful. However, a sense of her deep suffering speaks to his heart. When Salzman discovers who Leo wants to meet, he refuses to introduce them, noting...

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

Leo, however, will not be put off. Finally, as the rabbinical student notes he might be of some help, Salzman relents and arranges a meeting. Stella appears under a streetlight on a corner to meet Leo. She is wearing a white dress with red shoes—though for a brief moment Leo images the dress is red and the shoes, white. These details (the street corner, the red dress) suggest that Stella may have been a prostitute. Leo does not judge her...perhaps because of Leo's knowledge of his own lack of perfection. And in her eyes he sees a "desperate innocence." It is also spring—a time for new beginnings, new birth, new life. Magic is truly in the air:

Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky.

This vision shows that romance is present. And perhaps not so oddly, Salzman is around the corner, "leaning against a wall," chanting "prayers for the dead." Salzman had told Leo earlier that to him, his daughter was dead. His prayers, we can infer, are directed toward the salvation that he hopes Leo will bring to Stella. And in a sense, Stella seems to be the thing that will save Leo: for it is in the world of imperfection that he will be able to truly discover what love is—which may well lead him back to his faith.

Malamud ends the story on a note of hope.

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