Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Plot Analysis

By Bernard Malamud

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)

Eureka!

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.

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