Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Dissatisfaction

By Bernard Malamud

Dissatisfaction

After two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman. (1)

Yikes, no one makes a decision lightly in this story. Every choice is fraught with pain. This agonizing continues through the entire story, and it's ultimately dispersed not by certainty, but only by hope.

"So few?" he asked in disappointment. (6)

Leo's comment sets up one of the most frustrating scenes: the first array of girls that Salzman shows him. Leo's primed for dissatisfaction from the get-go; before he's even examined the girls' profiles he thinks that the selection isn't broad enough.

His face was gray and meager, his expression hungry, and he looked as if he would expire on his feet. (60)

This is just one of many passages letting us know that Salzman is not a happy person. We eventually learn why, but for now it's quite a mystery. Notice that Malamud mentions Salzman's haggard expression almost every time we see him. That's not a mistake.

Salzman's function was traditional and honorable--valuable for what it might achieve, which, he pointed out, was frequently nothing. (103)

Way to stay optimistic, Rabbi!

He drew the consolation that he was a Jew and that a Jew suffered. (115)

Religion provides some respite against dissatisfaction here, even if it's only realizing that suffering is your lot in life. Here, the story's theological notions are tied in with the main character's dissatisfaction: to live, and to live as a Jew, is to suffer.

Leo's anger rose and he could not refrain from chiding the matchmaker: "Why did you lie to me, Salzman?" (118)

Leo goes from dissatisfaction to anger when he has someone to blame. Contrast that with the rest of the story, where his dissatisfaction is more diffuse, or directed inwardly. Everyone, including Leo, needs a scapegoat.

For some time he watched the people in the street below hurrying along and then turned with a heavy heart to his little room. On the table was the packet. (142)

In this case, at least, dissatisfaction ultimately serves a useful purpose, since it motivates Leo to look at the pictures Salzman left for him. Sometimes, pain really is the cleanser. His pain moves Leo closer to where he needs to be and shows him the path to get what he wants.

He gazed at it a moment and let out a cry. (142)

Leo's not a cheery guy: he expressed his love at first sight with characterizing despair. He doesn't sigh with love; he cries with it.

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