Leo Finkle, the protagonist in Bernard Malamud's short story "The Magic Barrel," is a man on the verge of the discovery of a life outside of his own self. The story involves specifically the potential for love he discovers in his life and in a photography, but the specifics are not as important as the movement outside of Leo's arid little ego.
The story is certainly not simply a romantic tale about a young man who sees a photograph and finds true love forevermore. In fact, in all likelihood, the "love" which Leo believes he has discovered in the photograph and in the person of the daughter of the matchmaker is not one filled with glowing prospects for the future. He knows nothing about the young woman, except what his heart has gleaned from her photograph, and the decidedly negative
review he has received from her own father, and the first sighting of her as he approaches:
. . . And she was there one spring night, waiting under a street lamp. He appeared carrying a small bouquet of violets and rosebuds. Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking. She wore white with red shoes, which fitted his expectations, although in a troubled moment he had imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white. She waited uneasily and shyly. From afar he saw that her eyes . . . were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption. Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky. Leo ran forward with flowers outthrust (13).
Leo's romantic expectations will almost certainly crash soon upon the shoals of reality. However, the success or failure of his imminent relationship with the matchmaker's daughter is not the center of the story. What is crucial is that at last this young man has broken free, with the clever help of the matchmaker, from his own stifling internal self-obsession. He has believed, until he lays eyes on the photograph of Stella, that he is without love, without perhaps even the capacity to love or be loved. ...