Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Appearances

By Bernard Malamud

Appearances

His voice, his lips, his wisp of beard, his bony fingers were animated, but give him a moment of repose and his mild blue eyes revealed a depth of sadness, a characteristic that put Leo a little at ease although the situation, for him, was inherently tense. (2)

Salzman's sadness is one of the big mysteries in the story, and Malamud puts it right out there in his description of the matchmaker's appearance. It's a good way to link appearance with character, and set a precedent for the whole dang story: what you see is generally what you get.

[…] the young man's distinguished face, noting 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)

This isn't the description of a handsome man, and yet it reflects a great deal about who Leo is and what he does for a living. Leo looks the way Saltzman thinks a scholar should look.

He hesitantly inquired, "Do you keep photographs of your clients on file?" "First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind of promises," Salzman replied, unbuttoning his tight coat and settling himself in the chair. "After comes pictures, rabbi." (10) 

Salzman downplays the girls' appearance here, which is an early sign of deception on his part. It also suggests that—unlike Salzman's words—these pictures actually show the girls for who they really are. Could that be the "magic" in the barrel where those pictures are kept?

He walked briskly and erectly, wearing with distinction the black fedora he had that morning taken with trepidation out of the dusty hat box on his closet shelf, and the heavy black Saturday coat he had thoroughly whisked clean."(96)

Leo may not be confident about this process, but he definitely wants to clean up for his hot date, signaling that perhaps he is taking it more seriously than his glum mood suggests.

Lily, petite and not unpretty, had on something signifying the approach of spring. (96)

No question what Lily's hoping for here: we can see it in the way she's dressed. She's hoping for something spring-like, and spring represents love, babies, and new beginnings.

[…] look at them along enough and they all became Lily Hirschorn: all past their prime, all starved behind bright smiles, not a true personality in the lot. Life, despite their frantic yoohooings, had passed them by; they were pictures in a brief case that stank of fish. (142)

Here, the girls' appearance leads Leo to despair, since he thinks he can see everything about them right off the bat. However, here it's Salzman's appearance that has tainted everything about these women—they're sullied because Saltzman is a depressing old dude who smells (literally) fishy.

Her face deeply moved him. Why, he could at first not say. It gave him the impression of youth--spring flowers, yet age—a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted; this came from the eyes, which were hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange. (143)

Stella's familiarity is ultimate what draws Leo to her: like she can understand the pain he's going through. So appearances can signal a connection deeper than mere good looks. Stella isn't conventionally pretty, but she looks soulful.

Feature for feature, even some of the ladies of the photographs could do better; but she lapsed forth to this heart—had lived, or wanted to—more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived—had somehow deeply suffered: it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes, and from the way the light enclosed and shone from her, and within her, opening realms of possibility: this was her own. (143)

Again, we're seeing appearance as a reflection of the soul: a way of reaching through the trivial details and finding out who a person really is.

The door was opened by a think, asthmatic, gray-haired woman in felt slippers. (145)

This is, we assume, Mrs. Salzman. What is it about this brief passage that connects her to Salzman so completely? Is it her sadness? Her shabbiness? Her fuzzy slippers?

Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking. She wore white with red shoes, which fitted his expectations, although in a troubled moment he had imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white. She waited uneasily and shyly. From afar he saw that her eyes—clearly her father's—were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption. (201)

Leo's redemption comes through seeing Stella for who she really is. He's even troubled when he flips the colors of her shoes and dress (virginal white and brothel red, btw) and finds his hope in seeing her clearly: her desperate eyes and her shyness. Her warts and all.

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