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Magic Barrel is probably one of the most enigmatic stories by a famous Jewish-American author Bernard Malamud, which was published in 1954. Just like the whole series of the short stories under the same name, it focuses on life choices of Leo Finkle, a rabbi student of religious academy as well as his communication with the other character of the story. The category of character is vitally important for any literary work because it serves to reveal a generalized idea that the author aims to explore. The value of characters in literature are usually determined not so much by their unique traits but also by successful embodiment of universal values and models of behavior while keeping these unique traits.
It is quite clear that Leo Finkle is the main character in the story judging from the attention that the author pays to depiction of him. Besides, it is the only character in the story whose thoughts are revealed to the reader, which makes one come to the conclusion that he is central to the idea of the story. As a character he is an interesting combination of features that contradict to each other. On the one hand, he is calm, straight-forward, devoted to his religious disciplines. He is not quite sociable and listens to his teacher’s advice about having to get married; this is actually not a decision of his own. He is being quite rational about the decision to choose a wife, that is why he invites a Jewish marriage broker. This is allowed by tradition, which is quite important for him. He has spent about seven years on studying the word of God, so he has no time and ability to meet girls. In the first part of the story Leo looks harsh, inflexible and seemingly having no passion for anything.
It is when he meets Lily that he realizes the vanity of his past efforts and the wrong motives of his life. This is a change for honesty for him, he confesses to himself of the fact that his choices are dictated by other people or by his own emptiness. He has an insight about his life when he tells to Lily: "I am not…a talented religious person." and in seeking words to go on, found himself possessed by shame and fear. "I think," he said in a strained manner, "that I came to God not because I love Him, but because I did not."( Malamud) He realizes that his life is shallow as well as his heart because he has never loved anyone apart from his parents. When he discovers the photo of Stella, the matchmaker’s daughter, the reader can see his transformation. His hidden passion which he has suppressed for years appears on the surface. He does not want to listen to reasonable arguments and warnings of Saltsman who explains that she is not the right girl for the rabbi (there is a hint that she is a prostitute, though it is not put in an open way). For Leo giving way to his emotions is probably the first decisions in his life that is his own and is based on real strive of his soul.
Another meaningful character is Pinye Salzman, a marriage agent whose function is to help people meet and realize their matrimonial plans. It is worth saying that he is not successful in doing so because of the people who turn to him. They are all emotionally dead, they have no love or affection and no real touch with life and other people. For this reason, Salzman is just an unhappy person who tries to help other unhappy people but this does not result in their happiness. He is surrounded by poverty and always smells of fish – just a detail that stresses how miserable he is. He is trying hard to please Leo, he calls him rabbi to flatter him but in fact he cannot be helpful to him. The women that he offers to him are in fact devoid of any attraction, although they look attractive. They are tired and have no zest for life, their life has gone by without them, just like his own. Saltzman’s role seems to have absorbed his own personality, and only in the scene with Stella he reveals his humanity, his despair and sorrow.
Lilly Hirschorn is not the main character of the story but her role is significant. The idea about is being a catalyzer for Leo to understand what is wrong about his life. When she talks to her, he realizes that she is in fact is full of illusions that have nothing to do with real life. "When," she asked in a trembly voice, "did you become enamored of God?" – this phrase of her makes Leo understand that she imagines him to be a larger-than life man. Lilly is having no age: such figures as twenty night, thirty two and thirty five are mentioned in the story but no one knows how old she is. She is a teacher of languages, quite educated and well-mannered but she seems to have lost connection with life. The author mentions that she is not married because she is choosy and wants only the best husband, which means that she still has illusions about people and men in particular. This is what they have in common with Leo, they live an illusionary life, and in this sense her roles is to reflect other characters.
Finally, Stella is probably the most enigmatic and controversial figure of the story. She appears just in the end for a short period of time but she is omnipresent: her photo, her presence in the dreams and thoughts of Leo. She is Leo’s obsession but as a paradox, she is called his redemption. Her father is horrified when talking to her, he refused from his own daughter, she is a devil to him: “"She is not for you. She is a wild one--wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi. Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now." There is an implication that she is a prostitute but this is not expressed explicitly. What is attractive about Stella is her real personality and her real pain, this is what Leo discovers when seeing her picture. Her face “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”.
Overall, the above mentioned characters are closely related to each other and essential for understanding of the story. First of all they all mirror each other and make the reader realize that all people are united by common sufferings. Secondly, meeting each other becomes fatal for them in a sense because it stirs their hidden emotions and sufferings. All the four characters realize that they waste their life in one or another way, but not all of them are able to overcome the situation. The story is ended in an enigmatic phrase which makes the readers think on what it really means to be alive and dead: “Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead”.