Study Guide

The Magic Barrel

By Bernard Malamud

The Magic Barrel Introduction

Imagine if OkCupid or Tinder were way more serious… and completely controlled by a weird old dude who smells like fish.

Welcome to the wild world of Jewish matchmakers and the bachelors and bachelorettes who seek them out. Leo Finkle, the most uptight rabbinical student of all time, decides that he can get a bigger congregation if he has a wife. Unfortunately, he's approaching the end of his studies, and the man has been hitting the books so hard he basically has zero social life. So he calls upon the services of one Mr. Salzman to help him out… and ends up falling hard for his matchmaker's daughter.

Do hijinks ensue? Nope, not really. More like sad, weird, introspective speculation on what it means to love God and humanity. "The Magic Barrel" covers Leo's quest for true love in remarkable sparse fashion, with bizarre melancholy that's super-familiar to anyone who's ever swiped left over a sleazy looking pic… or swiped right with the heart-wrenching hope that this might be the one.

But this story was making waves when it came out in 1958, way before you spent time pondering if you'd like to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat. It's widely considered one of the best American short stories, and the collection it appeared in—also called The Magic Barrelnabbed Bernard Malamud a National Book Award. Because, even though the medium has changed, people have been seeking help in finding The One for eons. And the course of finding true love never did run smooth—especially in midcentury New York City.

What is The Magic Barrel About and Why Should I Care?

This is a story for everyone who has swiped idly through Tinder while waiting for a bus. Or anyone who has stayed awake late into the night answering questions like, "Do you like horror movies?". Or anyone who has read tutorials about how to frame the perfect profile picture. Or anyone who has sat through an awkward first date with someone you hardly knew, just because they had an adorkable profile.

"The Magic Barrel" proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Before online dating, there was speed dating. Before speed dating, there were newspaper personal ads. And before personal ads, there was the local matchmaker.

And the similarities between Leo Finkle's matchmaker mayhem and the online dating woes of today are eerie. Leo's just as cynical as people today—he does the 1950s equivalent of snickering and swiping left through the first batch of profiles that his matchmaker brings out. He's as neurotically introspective as anyone trying to craft the perfectly witty "Six Things I Could Never Do Without" list. He's as bummed as anyone after going on a failed first date.

But underneath it all, he's just as hopeful, scared and willing to believe in some kind of magic as any online dater today.

Leo is a rabbinical student living in midcentury New York City and relying on a grizzled old matchmaker to find his Princess Charming. His life is about as different from ours as we can imagine… and yet he's still totally relatable in his quest for love.

This story isn't all gooey "We're all the same!"ness, though: it's weird, sad, surreal, hopeful, caustic, and hilarious. You know, kind of like the process of dating—in any time period.

The Magic Barrel Resources

Websites

Background on the Author
Here's a solid look at Malamud and his life. His bio will help you understand where the story came from.

Malamud's Biography
A great breakdown of All Things Bernie, thanks to the great Biography.com.

Articles and Interviews

Malamud's Obituary
Here's The New York Times' obituary on Malamud from 1986.

Malamud's Biography
This is Malamud's bio from the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

A Period Review of "The Magic Barrel"
Here's The New York Times again, reviewing "The Magic Barrel" (or at least the collection of short stories it entails) when it was first released in 1958.

Commentary on "The Magic Barrel"
Commentary Magazine weighs in with another review when the book was first released.

The Washington Post on Malamud
Here's a 2004 article from The Washington Post on Malamud and his life.

Video

A Tribute to Bernard Malamud
In May of 2014, The Center for Fiction organized a tribute to Malamud, including a retrospective of his work.

Audio

Malamud Reads!
The Center for Fiction has an audio file of Malamud himself, reading from his story "The Mourners."

Images

The Man Himself.
Here is a rather handsome image of Bernard Malamud.

More Bernie, More Better
You cannot stop Bernard Malamud. You can only hope to contain him.