Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Analysis

By Bernard Malamud

  • Tone

    Objective, Yet Sympathetic

    Malamud doesn't mince words and he tells his story is crisp, objective terms. He wants us to understand the facts, and he doesn't use a lot of embellishment or adjectives. Check out this autumn apple-crisp prose:

    Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. (1)

    Not exactly dense, flowery language, is it?

    Yet Malamud also uses the tone to sneak in little moments of sympathy here and there. For instance, look at the way he describes Leo's first look at Stella's picture, when "he gazed at it for a moment and let out a cry" (142).

    He's not deviating from telling it like it is, and yet he lets us know that Leo has had a big emotional reaction to the image. It's hard not to feel for the guy in that moment, despite the fact that Malamud isn't overtly tipping his hand about Leo's roiling emotions. You can be objective and still guide the readers' hearts with a carefully chosen word. In fact, doing so might just win you the National Book Award.

  • Genre

    Family Drama

    Families: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Well, you can live without them, but as Leo and Salzman find out, it's pretty dang depressing.

    Leo wants a bride to rid him of his crushing loneliness, and Salzman is eaten up inside because his daughter has run away to join the circus, er, is disowned because she liked to go out and party with rich men.

    So both of them strive to reach a mutually advantageous solution. This story shows the drama that happens when family is something that is absent (and yearned for). There are no epic Thanksgiving dinner arguments here—all that, presumably, comes later.

    But if Leo and Stella Salzman end up getting hitched, we can bet that there will be lots of familial drama to come… possibly revolving around Salzman's borderline obsession with eating fish. Stinky.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    How in the name of all things literary does a story about frustration, uncertainty and loss earn the title "The Magic Barrel?" It barely gets a mention in the story. Salzman says that his drawers "are already filled to the top (with bachelorette portfolios) so I keep them now in a barrel" (7). However, when Leo goes to Salzman's apartment, he realizes that there is no barrel in sight.

    So there is no magic barrel. Got that. But riddle us this: how could it possibly warrant getting mentioned in the title? Not to mention the National Book Award-winning short story collection that this story appeared in?

    For that, O Shmoopers, head on over to the Symbols section. We've got a whole analysis of this (non)magical (non)barrel just waiting for you.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending is where the story's philosophy and attitude towards God comes right to a head. In a lot of ways this story ends prematurely, since we don't know if Leo and Stella hit it off, whether Leo can "save" Stella, or why Salzman's hanging out chanting "prayers for the dead" (202).

    It ends with a lot of questions unanswered… which is kind of the point. Let's break it down.

    There's a lot of hope for Leo and Stella. Leo has already "concluded to convert (Stella) to goodness, himself to God" (189). He's approaching the meeting with her with a lot of chips on the betting table. He wants to resolve all of the struggles and insecurities he's been fighting with for the whole story.

    Stella seems to share in his wild desire to end loneliness, with her eyes "filled with desperate innocence" (201). So these potential lovers have nothing but sky-high expectations for what comes next—they're totally open to the possibility of falling in love.

    Salzman, on the other hand, is a little more of a mystery. We don't know whether he doesn't want this union, since his daughter "should burn in hell" (188) or if he "had planned it all to happen this way" (200).

    But his "chanting prayer for the dead" (202), which is the story's final image, suggests a kind of rebirth. We can assume that he's saying the Mourner's Kaddish. The Mourner's Kaddish is the central prayer of mourning, and it's less about death than it is about the mourner's continued belief in God even in grief.

    So this final image is less about ghosts and corpses than it is about hope and faith continuing on even in times of darkness. Whoa—this might be an uplifting short story. You heard that right—a short story that is actually uplifting! This is a rare breed indeed.

  • Setting

    New York City

    The setting takes place "not long ago" in "uptown New York," which gives us a pretty good starting point for parsing the specifics. After all, "The Magic Barrel" keeps things spare, so we have to infer certain things. The story was published in 1958, so we're probably pretty safe in assuming that it takes place in the early 1950s.

    That's awesome, but what does it mean? Well for starters, the setting gives it a tone and a rhythm that you wouldn't see in a story set elsewhere. . There's a general claustrophobia, as you might expect from The Big Apple. Leo livers "in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books" (1), which is part of a "dark fourth-floor hallway of the graystone rooming house" (2). Not a lot of sunny spaces in Leo's life.

    Salzman, similarly, lives in "a very old tenement house" where "Leo found Salzman's name in pencil on a soiled tag under the bell and climbed three dark flights to his apartment" (145).

    Right away, you can see those New York-y clichés piling up. Tight spaces. Tenement houses and apartment buildings where you're never alone. There are a lot of people and a lot of pressure, which helps contribute to Leo's overall stress level. You can't get that kind of stress in, say, Oahu.

    But at the same time, we also get a sprinkling of magic amid the crowded buildings. When Finkle first talks to Salzman, he

    "… observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself." (4)

    Later, when he goes to meet Stella, "Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky" (201). There is a little fairy dust here. It's not quite magical realism, but it gives you the sense that something special is going on here: something that makes all the fishy smells and tiny apartments and general New York cruddiness worthwhile.

    It's also worth noting that these magic images mostly seem to appear in the sky. They're a part of New York, since they affect the seething masses of New York residents, but they're also detached and a little distant. They speak to a freedom and an expansiveness that Leo presumably longs for. Also, the fact that they appear in the sky suggests some kind of heavenly origin: that the magic comes from God and that God's actions influence the story.

    Finally, the specifics of this New York neighborhood—uptown Manhattan, which has a lot of Jewish communities—is reflected here and there throughout the text. The early references to the Forward (1), a Jewish newspaper and Yeshivah University, (1) a school with a history of rabbinical study, underline the cultural realities of the story.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Shoreline

    You got this one, oh loyal Shmoopers. Bernard Malamud won't use six words when three will do perfectly well. That's actually why the story is so good: he packs all kinds of subtlety and meaning into small, brief sentences.

    It's like a clown car, except instead of white-painted nightmare food, it's themes and ideas and meaning that come flying out of this tiny little story.

  • Writing Style


    Malamud keeps things as sparse and direct as possible; we don't see a lot of flowery phrases and run-on sentences here. He sticks to the point, he uses easy-to-understand words, and he never wants the reader to get lost in the phrasing and risk missing the meaning behind it all.

    "The Magic Barrel" is has a pretty dense plot, and Malamud's aerates this density with a very precise choice of words. For example, he describes Salzman as "a skeleton with haunted eyes" (116). That's only five words and yet it says a ton about Salzman's character, demeanor and state of mind at that moment.

  • The Magic Barrel

    The "magic" barrel is actually an ordinary barrel where Leo keeps the cards of his clients:

    "You wouldn't believe me how much cards I got in my office," Salzman replied. "The drawers are already filled to the top, so I keep them now in a barrel." (7)

    Wait; scratch that. We're actually pretty sure the magic barrel is just a figment of Salzman's imagination. You sit on a throne of lies, SalzmanLeo visits Salzman's home and finds "no sign of Salzman or his magic barrel" (155). So unless the barrel is hidden in a closet somewhere, it probably doesn't even exist at all.

    But even though we can discount the reality of the magic barrel, we can't discount its symbolic import. After all, it has a whole short story (and an entire National Book Award-winning collection) titled after it.

    So what does it all mean, exactly? Well, barrels are usually pretty mixed-up places. A barrel is the anti- filing cabinet. Everything is mixed up inside barrels so what you pull out—a piece of candy, a pickle, or a name and picture of a girl—is a matter of luck. Or in this case, maybe a matter of fate.

    Except—record screech—the characters in "The Magic Barrel" aren't bumping into each other on the street and finding True Love. They're being deliberately set up together by a professional matchmaker who doesn't use barrels, but instead has careful collated files of eligible bachelorettes and bachelors.

    …Unless, of course, a rogue picture of a disowned, wayward daughter somehow gets into the mix and a hapless rabbinical student ends up falling for her. That really would be a pretty magical occurrence, wouldn't it?

    …Unless, of course, a crafty matchmaker slipped a picture of his hauntingly pretty daughter in an envelope full of pictures of average-looking women and then gave that envelope to a lonely bachelor. The lonely bachelor would probably be intrigued, especially after being set up to fail on a few dates beforehand, right?

    Dagnabbit, Malamud! You're too smart for us. You're also too ambiguous for us. Is this magical true love, or is it a wily old man doing what he does best? Is this a fateful meet-cute, or a cleverly orchestrated set-up? We'll never know, because the story leaves this (and all things, really) brilliantly ambiguous.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient

    Malamud falls back to the old stand-by of third-person omniscient to tell us his tale. He moves us effortlessly wherever we need to go, and doesn't feel bound by the perspective of one single person.

    We largely stick with Leo throughout the story, sensing his feeling and self-recriminations, such as when,

    He gradually realized—with an emptiness that seized him with six hands—that he had called in the broker to find him a bride because he was incapable of doing it himself. (110)

    If we stayed with Leo throughout the whole story we'd be stuck with third-person limited, which shows us everything through one single character. But every now and then, we switch perspectives from Leo to Salzman, such as when the matchmaker notes:

    … with pleasure the long, severe scholar's nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain, almost hollow quality of the dark cheeks. (4)

    Malamud wants us to know that Leo is our main dude, but doesn't feel bound to it when Salzman has something we really, really need to know.

    In addition, third-person omniscient narrative lends the suggestion of a higher power; we're seeing what God sees and can flit back and forth between these characters without even asking permission. In fact, third-person omniscience is sometimes glibly referred to as a God's-eye view. For a story with so many religious overtones (and the sense of something greater than us moving behind the scenes) the technique fits like a glove.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Leo Needs A Wife In His Life

    All stories starts with a desire. Leo doesn't have a girl and wants to get one: not because he's particularly lovelorn, but because this rabbinical student thinks it "might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married" (1). Oooh, nothing more romantic than marrying someone as a career move.

    Leo contacts Salzman the matchmaker to solve the problem. We've got the central issue set-up (the need for a wife) as well as the rather flawed way Leo goes about solving it. (calling the matchmaker the way you might call a plumber to fix a sink). It's not all moonlight and violins, but hey, we're just getting started. 

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Swipe Left

    The rising action concerns Salzman showing Leo various pictures of girls, and Leo kind of sniffing at them like he's shopping for veal cutlets. It doesn't go well. He has one tentative date, when Leo "walked with Lily Hirschorn along Riverside Drive" (96), but Lily isn't down with his indifferent relationship with God, and the event turns into a bit of a disaster.

    Salzman's matches just aren't working for Leo, and the rabbinical student just gets more and more frustrated at the older man's general flailing. He calls Salzman on his deceit ("Why did you lie to me Salzman?" 118), and the whole endeavor is basically chalked up as a failure. Sad trombone music all around.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)


    Almost on a whim, Leo looks over some of the girls' pictures Salzman left in his apartment, and one of them jumps right out at him and grabs him by his tight-laced heart. This is followed by a frantic race to Salzman's apartment, where he plans on grabbing the old man by his coat lapels and demanding that he see the girl immediately. Yeah, love will do that to you. 

    Falling Action

    One Catch

    There's just one little problem. Okay, one big problem. The girl, Stella, is Saltzman's daughter and "should burn in hell" (188) according to Salzman. Why? "She is a wild one--wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi" (182). Yikes, Papa Bear. Simmer down.

    So the matchmaker's got some serious issues with his little girl, and seems pretty adamant that Leo can't see her. Leo persists and Salzman relents, but we're not sure how the matchmaker feels about it all. We're also not certain that this isn't just some elaborate ruse to set her up with a nice rabbi-to-be and save her from her wild ways. But we'll have to get used to that ambiguity because…

    Resolution (Denouement)

    Happily Ever After?

    The story ends on an ambiguous note, with the wildly hopeful Leo going to meet his date under a lamp, and Salzman around the corner chanting creepy "prayers for the dead" (202). Leo's certainly pumped up as he runs "forward with flowers out-thrust" (201) towards Stella.

    Salzman's a little more ambiguous, and may be pretty unhappy about everything… or just as hopeful as Leo that everything will work out. We'll never know because the story ends there: hopeful, but without any promises. Ambiguity: it's frustrating, but it's kind of what life is about.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • The Forward (1)

    Historical References

    • Matchmakers (throughout)
    • Yeshivah University (1)
    • Second Avenue (14) 
    • Riverside Drive (96)