In Malamud's "The Magic Barrel", does Pinya always seem to be a cynical trader in dreams?

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

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In Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," Pinya Salzman does seem to be a cynical trader in dreams, until the end of the story.

Forever referring to his magic barrel, with an endless supply of unsuitable potential wives for Leo Finkle (the rabbinical student) Salzman's women never materialize. He offers the dream to Leo, but the women may symbolize his cynicism in his old-fashioned profession. 

Pinya pushes the idea of endless cards with women's information:

"You wouldn't believe me how much cards I got in my office," Salzman replied. "The drawers are already filled to the top, so I keep them now in a barrel..."

Each woman Salzman brings to Leo's attention has some flaw—at least in Leo's mind. The first woman is a widow; another is a teacher, but older than Leo would prefer; and the last is "lame." 

Finally Salzman convinces Leo to meet Lily, the older woman Leo had originally rejected. When they meet, Leo's suspicions are realized—Lily is much older than Salzman had at first said, and they are totally unsuited to each other. She sees him as some "semi-mystical rabbi," which is untrue. She says...

I find the subject fascinating...How as it that you came to your calling? I mean was it a sudden passionate inspiration?

Leo is disappointed. Realizing he has a non-existent relationship with the God he is supposed to serve, he loses faith in himself and in the matchmaker as well. 

In all of this, one might see Salzman as a cynical dreamer: seeing potential where there is none. Only going through the motions—for Salzman may believe there is no perfect woman for Leo...But, the idea that Salzman purposely presents "slightly flawed" women is worthy of consideration. For then Salzman "accidentally" shows Leo "the" picture.

When Leo sees the picture of Stella, there may be, in fact, someone for Leo of all the women his "magic barrel." There also seems to be something mystical and magical about Salzman. The cynicism, laced through the dream-like images of his mostly imaginary brides-to-be, may only apply to the women Pinya doesn't want Leo to find. Pinya may purposely have decided he wanted Leo for someone else. For Stella is Salzman's daughter, who is "wild—without shame." Introduced at the end of the story, she is the cliche of a "fallen woman:"

Stella stood under the lamp post, smoking. 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. 

"Street walkers" often were found under a street light, soliciting business. Leo imagines for a moment that Stella is wearing a red dress: red is symbolic of prostitution. The neighborhoods where hookers lived often burned a red light outside to indicate the kind of "business" the building housed.

However she is really wearing white, often symbolic of purity, but also of resurrection in the Bible. 

Her eyes—clearly her father's—were filled with desperate innocence.

This might infer that while she has made mistakes which have broken her father's heart, there is still an innocence about her—and a desire to be "reborn" to a new, better life.

Finally...

...around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.

The prayer for the dead (the "Mourner's Kaddish") is generally recited at a death. However, for Salzman, who may well have orchestrated this entire incident, it may be the prayer for the death of his daughter's old way of life.

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