Essay: The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

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  • Subject area(s): English literature essays
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  • Published on: January 13, 2020
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  • The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
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In Bernard Malamud’s short story, “The Magic Barrel”, a rabbinical student, Leo Finkle, is in search of a suitable wife to help him get a congregation before he becomes a rabbi. As he has been completely absorbed in his studies for six years, which has led to his ignorance in his social life, he decides to turn to a professional matchmaker – Pinye Salzman for help. Finkle doesn’t like any of Salzman’s candidates, until he finds a mysterious snapshot of a woman, Salzman’s daughter, Stella. After consulting with the matchmaker, he grows mature both mentally and physically, knowing what love is after meeting Stella and knowing how to love God. In this short story, Bernard Malamud applied symbolism and bring out the theme through two stages: one, where Leo finds his true love and two, where he redefines his identity.

At the beginning of the story, Leo‘s original purpose was to find a wife just to meet the needs of his work; however, his whole life has been dramatically changed after meeting Salzman. Salzman acts like a magical director for Leo because his well-intentioned and rational matches not only taught him to love human beings, but, at the same time, he has paved the way for Leo’s final self-salvation. Therefore, the deeper theme of the story is about the growth of Leo, including love and identity that had been set up in two stages.

During the first stage, Lily Hirschorn, who is the first eligible bride, meets Leo. He finds her to be intelligent and honest, just as Salzman has claimed; however, her questions concerning Leo’s love of God are threatening. When she asked, “Did you become enamored of God?” (Holt 1180), Leo was a bit displeased and harshly confessed that he desired to become a rabbi not because he loved God but because he did not. He realizes in a moment of self-revelation that if he does not truly love another person, then he cannot truly love God. It is the first time that he saw himself lacking passion and detached from any spiritual emotion. The ongoing questions proceeded, “Was it a passionate inspiration?” (Holt 1180) and “You saw revealed in it the presence of highest…” (Holt 1180). Here, Leo gradually realized that Salzman had described a total stranger or some mystical figure to Lily rather than his true self and realized that he wants someone who loves him but not someone who sees him for his position. Leo is in despair after his conversation with Lily because Leo hopes that by becoming a rabbi, he might be able to help himself understand who he is and learn to love the people around him; however, it is the first time that he saw himself to be unloved and loveless. All of the things he learned about God in school are cold, empty, and theoretical, and he had confined himself in a box only he can step in. His strained relationship with God has left him feeling empty and unloved. These insights, while terrifying and painful, serve as turning points in Leo’s life as self-realization propels him toward understanding of his identity and love, encouraging him to change.

As for the second stage, Leo decided to seek a lover in a different way – to seek the woman he truly loves. After his disenchanting meeting with Lily, he discovered a briefcase that Salzman has given to Leo. He examined the photos with many attractive women, but they all lack certain characteristics that he desires. As Leo attempted to put the photos into the envelope, he found another snapshot of a woman who seems to possess the soul, the depth, the suffering, – and even a certain lack of goodness. Leo knew at that moment that he must find her, to save her from her suffering. This is a big turning point in the whole story because he starts to believe that love should be a by-product of living instead of fulfilling his need. Salzman said, “If you can love her, then you can love anybody,” (Holt 1184). When Leo finally meets Stella, he can now offer internal peace to both Salzman and himself because he started to learn how to love a person rather than just being dedicated to his study. For Salzman, he prayed for the falling angel, her daughter, because she has found her true love as well. Leo allows himself to influence his and other’s life. He has finally achieved the attributes of passion and the desire of love that allow him to open his heart and pursue true love itself.

Bernard applied symbolism in the story, which adds deeper meaning to the theme and reaches into the reader’s mind and touches them in ways they didn’t foresee. One symbol in the story is the final scene where Finkle finally meets Stella face-to-face as she stands under a street lamp, waiting for him. Malamud describes the scene as if candles and violins revolved in the sky, a wedding symbol of the act of falling in love. Also, in the last scene, Leo approaches Stella who wore a white dress with red shoes that symbolizes the passion and romance that Finkle had towards Stella. In addition, the color white is a symbolism that she is a virgin because we often describe white as purity and innocence. Another symbolism employed in the story is eyes. In the final scene, “She waited uneasily and shyly. Form after he saw that her eyes – clearly her father’s – were revolved in the sky.” Eyes are always said to be the window to the soul, and Stella’s eyes are “filled with desperate innocence.” To Leo, he can see her inner feelings through the reflection of her eyes.

“Love comes with the right person, not before.” In this short story, it explores the theme of self-discovery through a young man’s struggle, the definition of love, and the awakening of his own identity. Bernard Malamud effectively applied symbolism in his story, which makes readers connect more emotionally to the inner parts of Leo as a character. Originally, Leo seeks a proper wife to fulfill his work, but after meeting with Lily, Stella, and Salzman, he changed his view on himself and start to open his heart to reach the loved one.

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