Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

“The Magic Barrel” explores many aspects of the theme of self-discovery: the awakening of passion and desire; the definition of identity; the search for love. As the story begins, Leo is emerging from years of study to embrace life’s dilemmas. He experiences the awakening of passion and desire with resistance...

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“The Magic Barrel” explores many aspects of the theme of self-discovery: the awakening of passion and desire; the definition of identity; the search for love. As the story begins, Leo is emerging from years of study to embrace life’s dilemmas. He experiences the awakening of passion and desire with resistance and confusion; his search for a wife begins not out of desire for love or devotion but, rather, to improve his chances of securing a congregation. Through his experiences with the matchmaker, Leo discovers what kind of bride he does not want—someone who sees him not for who he is but for his position in society.

As he attempts to define his priorities, Leo is caught in a web of contradictions: “apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.” Leo’s relationship with God constitutes a major part of his struggle for identity. When he accepts the shortcomings of his studies (his books have not taught him to love either God or women) and himself, Leo is able to redefine his goals and begin advancement toward them. His major goal is to achieve love: not only love for God but also love for a woman.

In his efforts to meet and woo Stella, Leo is no longer content merely to take what Salzman has to offer—especially in a situation that causes the matchmaker much pain. Leo can now offer internal peace to both Salzman and himself through his involvement with Stella. Having come to terms with his own limits and with God, Leo is capable of fulfilling his need for love and of allowing himself to influence another’s life. He has finally achieved the attributes of passion and compassion that allow him to open his heart and reach for someone else. During their final encounter in the cafeteria, Salzman barely recognizes Leo, who “had grown a pointed beard” and whose eyes were “weighted with wisdom.” Clearly, the reference is to a man who looks like and is a rabbi, not to a man studying to become one.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Identity
Malamud’s Leo Finkle is a character trying to figure out who he really is. Having spent the last six years of his life deep in study for ordination as a rabbi, he is an isolated and passionless man, disconnected from human emotion. When Lily Hirschorn asks him how he came to discover his calling as a rabbi, Leo responds with embarrassment: ‘‘I am not a talented religious person. . . . I think . . . that I came to God, not because I loved him, but because I did not.’’ In other words, Leo hopes that by becoming a rabbi he might learn to love himself and the people around him. Leo is in despair after his conversation with Lily because ‘‘. . . he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless.’’

As he realizes the truth about himself, he becomes desperate to change. Leo determines to reform himself and renew his life. Leo continues to search for a bride, but without the matchmaker’s help: ‘‘. . . he regained his composure and some idea of purpose in life: to go on as planned. Although he was imperfect, the ideal was not.’’ The ideal, in this case, is love. Leo comes to believe that through love—the love he feels when he first sees the photograph of Stella Salzman—he may begin his life anew, and forge an identity based on something more positive. When at last he meets Stella he ‘‘pictured, in her, his own redemption.’’ That redemption, the story’s ending leads us to hope, will be Leo’s discovery through Stella of an identity based on love.

God and Religion
Central to Malamud’s ‘‘The Magic Barrel’’ is the idea that to love God, one must love man first. Finkle is uncomfortable with Lily’s questions because they make him realize ‘‘the true nature of his relationship to God.’’ He comes to realize ‘‘that he did not love God as well as he might, because he had not loved man.’’ In spite of the zeal with which he has pursued his rabbinical studies, Leo’s approach to God, as the narrative reveals, is one of cold, analytical formalism. Unable fully to love God’s creatures, Leo Finkle cannot fully love God.

Once again, the agent of change in Leo’s life seems to be Stella Salzman. The text strongly implies that by loving Stella, by believing in her, Leo will be able to come to God. Just before his meeting with Stella, Leo ‘‘concluded to convert her to goodness, him to God.’’ To love Stella, it seems, will be Leo’s true ordination, his true rite of passage to the love of God.

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