Bernard Malamud has been reckoned a magician himself in that, as one of the most significant Jewish American writers of the 20th century, he helped acquaint readers with Jewish culture as he simultaneously placed Jewish fiction in the mainstream of American literature. The Magic Barrel won the National Book Award in 1959 and is generally regarded as his best short story collection. “The Magic Barrel” features Leo Finkel, a young man studying at New York University to become a rabbi, and Salzman, the marriage broker to whom Leo turns because his studies have prevented him from having a social life. Salzman is part salesman, part fantasy figure, as he speaks of having an office somewhere in the air and a barrel full of beautiful potential marriage partners from whom Leo may choose. As in many of Malamud’s stories, Leo suddenly awakens from his preoccupation with his studies to the painful realization that he lacks love in his life, both human and spiritual.
A good deal of the story’s appeal revolves around its down-to-earth comedy (Salzman’s dialect; his humorous, exaggerated merchandising of the women; his lunching on strong-smelling whitefish; his request that Leo have a “glass tea”) as well as on the various interpretations of the ending. In general, it contains the Malamud theme of love reaching those who suffer; in particular, on other levels, various interpretations seem possible.
After Leo rejects the women Salzman describes to him (they are too old, or “used goods,” or too homely, too intellectual, and so on), he finally sees Stella, the one woman he is destined to spend his life loving. Is the irony that she seems, to some critics, to be “as much more as virgin” (Weaver 59), thus ensuring Leo a rocky marriage? Or does she, as Leo does, symbolize the newer generation of Americans who, unlike their parents, marry for love rather than according to the dictates of the marriage brokers? Or had Salzman intended all along to unite Leo with this woman— who turns out to be Salzman’s daughter? In any interpretation, Malamud’s story is a 20th-century love story that could have occurred only in America.
Malamud, Bernard. “The Magic Barrel.” In American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenkls. New York: Delacorte Press, 1987.
Weaver, Gordon. The American Short Story, 1945–1980. Boston: Twayne, 1983