Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Lies and Deceit

By Bernard Malamud

Lies and Deceit

"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, but is every girl good for a new rabbi?" (7)

We learn later that Salzman has no such barrel in his base of operation (which is less office and more living room). This trait helps establish Salzman as a bit of a used car salesman when it comes to his profession. He may have the best intentions at heart, but he's still prone to exaggeration. In this case, he's not even talking up a girl: he's trying to pretend how successful he is.

"This is because you have no experience. A widow, especially if she is young and healthy like this girl, is a wonderful person to marry. She will be thankful to you the rest of her life. Believe me, if I was looking now for a bride, I would marry a widow." (18)

This statement is less obviously a deceit, but we already understand that Leo is not interested in a widow, so Salzman's insistence and continued efforts to "sell" the idea of the perfect widow makes the information suspicious. It's another way that Salzman's lies reveal what kind of character he is: well-meaning, but not to be trusted.

Before Leo could say enter, Salzman, commercial cupid, was standing in the room. His face was gray and meager, his expression hungry, and he looked as if he would expire on his feet. Yet the marriage broker managed, by some trick of the muscles to display a broad smile. (60)

Life sometimes requires us all to put on our game faces. Salesmen are expected to serve up smiles and pleasantries, and Salzman knows this. He turns his frown upside-down.

[…] he weighed her words and found her surprisingly sound—score another for Salzman, whom he uneasily sensed to be somewhere around, hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street, flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union, though there was of course still none. (96)

Leo is suspicious of Salzman from the very start of his date with the teacher, and is overwhelmed by the ever-present pressure in the air from this match. So imagines Salzman as a pagan god known for illusion and deceit.

He was not displeased with her honesty, recognizing that she meant to set the relationship aright, and understanding that it took a certain amount of experience in life, and courage, to want to do it quite that way. One had to have some sort of past to make that kind of beginning. (102)

This quote plays into the theme of lying because it shows Leo's hopeful attitude towards "setting things aright." In Leo's view, you need the "past" of failure or immoral behavior (like lying, for example) in order to start anew with a "kind of beginning."

He stared at her. Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her—no relation to the living or dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness. The trickster had obviously sold her a bill of goods, just as he had him, who'd expected to become acquainted with a young lady of twenty-nine, only to behold, the moment he laid eyes upon her strained and anxious face, a woman past thirty-five and aging rapidly. Only his self control had kept him this long in her presence. (110)

Leo is a good person—he seems to understand that the girl is not to blame for Salzman's deceit—but Leo is not a fool.

[…] before long it became evident that he had involved himself with Salzman without a true knowledge of his own intent. 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… Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing—to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. It seemed to Leo that his whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless. This bitter but somehow not fully unexpected revelation brought him to a point to panic, controlled only by extraordinary effort. He covered his face with his hands and cried. (114)

There is a reason why Yeshivas are places of learning that emphasize discussion. Leo's discussion with the teacher stirs inside him the realization of his own delusions.

"You told her things about me that weren't true. You made out to be more, consequently less than I am. She had in mind a totally different person, a sort of semi-mystical Wonder Rabbi." (126)

Leo is rightly distressed by the idea of having to live up to the imaginary person that Salzman crafted.

Salzman sighed. "This is my weakness that I have," he confessed. "My wife says to me I shouldn't be a salesman, but when I have two fine people that they would be wonderful to be married, I am so happy that I talk too much." He smiled wanly. "This is why Salzman is a poor man." (129)

The deceit here is fascinating. Read the sentence again. Salzman has little concern for the plight of the couple; he is merely trying to sell marriage the same way one might sell a refrigerator. He genuinely believes in it, but he can't trust himself enough to just be honest.

Leaving the cafeteria, he was, however, afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had planned it all to happen this way. (200)

Even after Salzman's disapproval of Leo's desired match (Salzman's wayward daughter). Ultimately Leo has lost any chance at trusting Salzman beyond his machinations¬—although he may not care since it finally gives him what he's been looking for: a date with a hottie. Sometimes white lies aren't so bad after all…

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