Study Guide

The Magic Barrel Themes

By Bernard Malamud

  • Religion

    Malamud doesn't go overboard in his religious descriptions, but hey: Leo's studying to be a rabbi—religion and God are on this story like white on rice. In fact, what at first appears to be a quest for love actually turns into a search for God.

    In "The Magic Barrel," finding God can only be achieved through man. By seeking out loving connections with our fellow human beings, we actually discover God's love… or at least the hope that we can find that love someday. It isn't easy and it doesn't come without a price. But in the end, it's the only struggle worth making.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why doesn't Leo have a loving relationship with God?
    2. How does Leo's rabbinical studies affect other people's impression of him?
    3. In what ways does God make his presence known in the story?
    4. How does Salzman's plan fit into a seemingly larger cosmic plan?

    Chew on This

    God's presence is a palpable force in Leo's life, designed to restore his faith.

    God's presence is incidental and Leo finds his way through his own choices.

  • Love

    This is one of the big ones: at the end of the day, all of us just want to be loved. Leo doesn't think he needs love early on—he's just looking for a bigger congregation—but as the story progresses, he realizes just how lonely he is and how much he needs Stella to make him happy.

    But "The Magic Barrel" isn't just about Leo and love—it's about Salzman as well. He's unhappy because he's disowned his daughter, and the pain of it eats him alive. Acting as a matchmaker with Leo and his daughter is an attempt to make everything right in one fell swoop. We don't know if he ultimately succeeds, since the story fades out before we learn for certain. That might not matter though: the quest to find love here is what matters, not necessarily the outcome.

    Questions About Love

    1. At what point does Leo realize that he needs love?
    2. How do Salzman's efforts to help his clients reflect his views towards Stella?
    3. How do faith and religion intertwine with the search for love in this story?
    4. How much do surface impressions matter in this story? What does that say about love?

    Chew on This

    Leo truly loves Stella, even though he's only seen a picture of her.

    Leo doesn't love Stella, but he must learn to love her if he is to succeed in his ambitions.

  • Lies and Deceit

    "The Magic Barrel" toys with the idea of white lies, and how harmful (or awesome?) they might be. Salzman lies about the girls he shows to the rabbi, while Leo lies to himself about what he wants and why he's studying to be a rabbi. It's truth-allergy season in New York for these characters.

    Even though lying is a no-no, characters in this story often lie with the very best of intentions and the hope that something good will come of them. They also help illustrate the characters' human failings… which help us connect to them more readily.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Does Salzman really lie about the girls? Or is he just exaggerating a little bit? Is there a difference?
    2. How, specifically, are Salzman's lies damaging to his clients?
    3. In what ways does Leo lie to himself about what he's doing?
    4. Would Salzman be more successful at matchmaking if he were a better liar?

    Chew on This

    Salzman's lies are ultimately harmless and may even do some good.

    Salzman's lies, though well-meaning, are quite harmful and prevent his clients from finding true love.

  • Dissatisfaction

    These characters ain't happy. Leo is so twisted up in knots about who he is and where he's going that he can barely see straight. Salzman is nursing a wound so deep and abiding that he may take it to his grave. "Dissatisfaction" is the understatement of the year—these people aren't just unsatisfied, they're miserable.
    And we don't really know whether they end up satisfied in the end, either. Maybe Leo and Stella aren't right for each other. And even if they do hit it off, is that going to ease Salzman's pain? But for these characters in "The Magic Barrel," the journey is the destination: what's important is not banishing your dissatisfaction, but just making the effort to banish it.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How does the characters' lack of satisfaction inform the choices they make?
    2. How does Leo go about vanquishing his unhappiness? Does it involve gaining or finding something, or is it something he just figures out in his head?
    3. How does Stella's unhappiness play a part in the story?

    Chew on This

    The characters ultimately resolve their unhappiness here.

    The characters are still dissatisfied with their lot by the end, and probably always will be.

  • Appearances

    Hey, it's not super-surprising that a character being matched up to a potential date through photographs and biographical info alone is a tad superficial. We all have—or at least have heard—approximately one gajillion stories about the superficiality of OkCupid. We all have experienced—or at least have heard about experiencing—the joys of swiping left and right in an image-obsessed frenzy on Tinder.

    A matchmaker is nothing more than a Luddite version of online dating. In the case of "The Magic Barrel," Leo is on JDate. But not only is Leo preoccupied with the appearance of his would-be bride; he's concerned with Saltzman's appearance. And Saltzman is concerned with his. "The Magic Barrel" shows us that not only do we often judge a book by its cover, but also we judge it correctly.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What can we tell about the characters by their appearance?
    2. How do the characters' various appearances demonstrate how different they are from each other? How do they unify them or bind them together?
    3. How are the inner lives of the characters reflected in how they look?
    4. How is Salzman's appearance honest in ways that his words are not?

    Chew on This

    Appearances can be deceiving in this story, and don't always reflect the truth.

    Appearances are eminently trustworthy; these characters all wear their souls on their sleeve.