In Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel," Leo is a young rabbinical student who contacts a marriage broker, Salzman, because he does not have the time to meet a bride on his own. He reasons that using a matchmaker is an honorable way to meet a partner—it is how his own parents met. Leo agrees to meet Lily, but the meeting does not go well. At his next meeting with Salzman, Leo insists on seeing photos of the prospective brides and selects one that Salzman balks at, saying that the photo was included by mistake. The girl turns out to be Salzman’s own daughter, and Salzman describes her as “wild.” Leo insists, and Salzman watches their first meeting surreptitiously and “chanted prayers for the dead.”
Because this is a short story and there is minimal time for character development, the characters are relatively flat, although there are several complex relationships the author alludes to but does not fully develop. For instance, why does Salzman call his daughter, Stella, "wild," and why does he pray for her? This is never explained. We also never learn about Leo’s own romantic background, which, on the surface, is the focal point of the story. What the reader is told is that Leo “had for six years devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, as a result of which, understandably, he had found himself without time for a social life and the company of young women.”
The story is replete with symbolism and metaphors. For instance, Leo glances at the night sky 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.” When Malamud compares the moon to “an egg laying itself,” it is a metaphor for birth and procreation.
When Lily asks him when he became “enamored of G-d," this is a form of personification, as if Leo could be in love with a deity the way he might love a person. In his mind, Leo thinks this reference likens him to “some mystical figure…no relation to the living or dead.” In other words, Lily makes Leo seem like the personification of a mystical being, not like a real person.