The driving element of any story is conflict; without problems, no story exists. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s explanation of literary terms, characters may have a conflict with self, with another character, with the pressures and expectations of society or with God or other natural forces. While Bernard Malamud’s short story “The Magic Barrel” revolves mainly around the protagonist’s internal struggle, examples of each kind of conflict aid in the development of the story’s plot.
Man versus Society
In the introductory paragraph of “The Magic Barrel,” protagonist Leo Finkle’s first conflict becomes clear: to pursue his chosen career, society expects him to be married. To address this situation, Finkle hires matchmaker Pinye Salzman, which sets the rest of the plot -- and the conflicts -- in motion. The conflict is resolved by his decision to pursue Salzman's own daughter Stella as his bride. A second societal conflict arises from the fact that Stella is not a woman who would be socially acceptable as a wife for a rabbi, but Finkle determines to redeem her by his love.
Man versus Self
The story’s central conflict, one of self-doubt, is discussed by the author himself in his autobiography, “Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work.” The character discovers that he does not feel capable of either loving or being loved. The internal conflict affects him both socially and professionally, causing him to doubt his future as a rabbi. After months of depression, Finkle finds love, and the conflict finds resolution in the moment that he first sees Stella's photograph. He realizes from her experienced, regretful expression that she will both understand him and help him to understand himself. In the final scenes, he is a confident, love-struck man.
Man versus Man
A secondary conflict exists between Finkle and Salzman. After meeting one of Salzman's prospective brides, Finkle feels that Salzman has manipulated and lied to him, misrepresenting his female clients to encourage interest. Finkle’s anger with Salzman stews for months and surges when the matchmaker refuses to introduce him to Stella. After the final meeting between the two men, Finkle's anger is resolved with the understanding that Salzman will allow a meeting and with Finkle's "tormenting suspicion" that the match had been planned all along. Each man will benefit from the final match -- Finkle from his love for Stella and Salzman from the redemption of having a rabbi marry his wayward daughter.
Man vs. God
While Finkle never speaks directly to God in the story, an implied struggle exists between the protagonist and God. As a rabbinical student, Finkle feels that he should love God but realizes that he does not love either God or others because he does not feel loved. His conversation with potential bride Lily Hirschorn, in which he dodges all questions relating to his love for God, is evidence of his strained relationship. This conflict seems to be resolved in his decision to love the fallen Stella, as he hopes to redeem himself with God by redeeming her. He resolves to "convert her to goodness, himself to God," finding a way to love God by proving that he can love man.