In Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," in what ways are Leo's reactions determined by his environment?

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

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Great story!!

Bernard Malamud's short story, "The Magic Barrel," is full of wonderful imagery and rich characters, most especially Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student, and Pinye Salzman, a Jewish matchmaker.

Malamud uses Leo's environment to influence the young man's reactions. When Leo is in his cramped apartment, he seems to find little hope for his future after meeting Salzman. He seems to vacillate between knowing what he wants and changing his mind. It is here, too, that he is so cynical. Salzman is ever-hopeful, but Leo doubts the matchmaker's capabilities, and ultimately is filled with despair. Leo remains this way until the pivotal moment when he sees THE picture.

When Leo goes out walking with Lily Hirschorn, something mystical is in the air—something not quite based in reality. Leo becomes imaginative, very unlike his usual self, as he imagines the matchmaker may be...

...hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street; flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed 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...

This becomes a time of realization for Leo: he becomes aware that Lily is not rooted in reality, believing Leo to be a devoutly religious man—he sees that the entire meeting is a sham. Lily is not what he expected, and he is not what Lily expected. And he finally realizes he is not who he thought he was. Again, the sense of the mystical intrudes—he sees...

...a profusion of loaves of bread go flying like ducks high over his head, not unlike the winged loaves by which he had counted himself to sleep last night..."

When Leo goes to Salzman's home, another "magical" place, this environment affects him differently. He is anxious, bewildered, and yet hopeful. He is more animated than we have seen him (because of the picture). Leo speaks to Salzman's wife, who looks familiar, but Leo is sure this is an illusion. He looks around for the "mythical" magic barrel Salzman has spoken of.

'Can you tell me where his office is?'

'In the air.' [The wife] pointed upward.

'You mean he has no office?' Leo asked.

'In his socks...'...An odor of frying fish made Leo weak to the knees.

'Go home, he will find you...'

...and like she has spoken an incantation, Salzman appears at Leo's door before Leo arrives there.

Now when Leo meets with Salzman in the young man's apartment, it is as if the environment is electrically charged. Leo reacts to it: seeing Salzman there, he is "overjoyed." He is courteous and respectful, which has not always been the case with Leo regarding Salzman. And now, instead of being disdainful and cynical of the the matchmaker's capabilities, Leo approaches him with high regard. Somehow, Leo finally believes.

Finally, when the meeting with Stella is arranged, once again there is magic. The two young people meet on a street corner, under a single street lamp. Leo has become a man with a desperate hope. He carries flowers for her. He sees candles and violins floating in the sky. In this environment, Leo becomes romantically hopeful, with high expectations. And while he may be helping her in some way ("Perhaps I can be of service..."), he sees "in her, his own redemption." Here he is a man who has come to believe in second chances...and perhaps, also, in magic.

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