“The Magic Barrel” begins with the introduction of Leo Finkle, who is twenty-seven and in search of a suitable wife, to Pinye Salzman, who has advertised his services as a matchmaker in a local Jewish newspaper. Leo has spent six years in study, with no time for developing a social life. Inexperienced with women, he finds the traditional route of obtaining a bride appealing, an honorable arrangement from which his own parents benefited.
At their initial meeting, Salzman brings names from which to choose a proper wife for a respectable rabbi. The cards on which they appear, which he has selected from a barrel in his apartment, include significant statistical information: dowry, age, occupation, health, and family. When Leo learns who some of his prospects are (a widow, a thirty-two-year-old schoolteacher, a nineteen-year-old student with a lame foot), he dismisses Salzman. The experience leaves Leo in a state of depression and anxiety. Salzman, however, appears the next evening with good news: He has been assured that the schoolteacher, Lily Hirschorn, is no older than twenty-nine.
Leo agrees to meet Lily, whom he finds (as Salzman has claimed) intelligent and honest. However, in addition to being “past thirty-five and aging rapidly” Lily appears overly in awe of Leo’s profession—a result, the young man concludes, of Salzman’s misrepresentation. Additionally, Lily’s questions concerning Leo’s love of God are threatening; in a moment of self-revelation, Leo harshly confesses that he desired to become a rabbi not because he loved God but because he did not.
Their meeting results in Lily’s disenchantment and Leo’s despair. Angry at first with Salzman, Leo comes to realize that it is...
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“The Magic Barrel” is another fantasy; this one mixes elements of the traditional fairy tale with Jewish folklore. Like most fairy tales, the story begins with “Not long ago there lived . . .” Leo Finkle, the rabbinical student searching for a wife, is the prince; Salzman, the marriage broker with the magic barrel and sudden appearances, is the supernatural agent; and Stella, his prostitute daughter, is the princess. As in a typical fairy tale, the prince finally meets the princess and through the intervention of the supernatural agent has a chance at a happy ending.
The fairy tale combines with elements from Jewish folklore. The characters are stereotypic: the marriage broker, the schlemiel, and the poor daughter. The setting is the usual lower-class milieu. With Leo helping Salzman at the end, the plot has the familiar reversal. Even the theme is the easily recognizable one of redemptive rebirth through love. Malamud also infuses the story with humor. Aside from the stock characters and stock situations, he uses puns, hyperbole, and juxtaposition (women are described in the jargon of a used-car salesman).
The story is also social criticism directed at the Jews. Leo Finkle has learned the Jewish law but not his own feelings. He takes refuge in his self-pity, he wants a wife not for love but for social prestige, and he uses his religion to hide from life.