Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Summary

By Bernard Malamud

The Magic Barrel Summary

Leo Finkle is a bright young dude studying to be a rabbi. Because he's so focused on his studies, and because an acquaintance suggested "that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married," (1) he decides to get the services of a matchmaker. But the matchmaker he chooses, Pinye Salzman, has a track record that isn't exactly sterling. As Salzman himself says "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" (129). Uh oh.

Despite his misgivings, Finkle signs on for Salzman's plan, and soon gets a look at a wide array of nice local ladeez. None of them quite feel right, though, and Finkle picks up on the ways that Salzman embellishes their good qualities a little too much. Older girls are listed as younger, disabled girls are pushed as pretty, and so on.

Finkle has trouble deciding on a girl and eventually grows irritated with Salzman's "creative salesmanship." This comes to a boiling point when Leo is out with a girl named Lily Hirschorn—Leo can sense that Salzman has talked up Leo to Lily in the same way he talked up Lily to Leo. Lily seems to think that Leo is a super-holy man… which he ain't. Leo, in fact, realizes that he doesn't love God.

Afterwards, "he was infuriated with the marriage broker and swore he would throw him out of the room the minute he reappeared," (114). Salzman lets him calm down, but afterwards the rabbinical student refuses to call on the old man's services.

But he changes his mind when he finds an envelope from Salzman in his room. The envelope is full of more photographs of eligible girls. He finds the picture of the perfect girl—Leo feels as if he's seen her before—and in a white-hot passion runs out to find Salzman. When he gets to talk to Salzman, however, he's in for a nasty surprise: the girl he chose is Salzman's daughter, who in his words is "Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now." (184)

Yikes. Guess there's a nasty father/daughter disagreement a-brewing: Saltzman has disowned her.

Finkle leaves, but soon comes back after promising himself that he'll make Salzman's daughter into a model citizen, and become a God-loving man in the process. Salzman relents and agrees to set up a meeting, leaving Finkle suspecting that the old man had planned it this way from the beginning. The story ends with Finkle meeting Salzman's daughter Stella under a street lamp with Salzman around a nearby corner, chanting "prayers for the dead." (202)