The First Seven Years Summary

Bernard Malamud

The First Seven Years

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The First Seven Years Summary

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“The First Seven Years” is a short story that was written in 1950. It later appeared in Malamud’s first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, in 1958. The narrative tells the story of Feld, a Jewish shoemaker who is searching for a suitable husband for his daughter. The story itself is set in 1949. During this time, Jewish immigration to the United States was common, and the world was attempting to come to terms with the horrific results of the Holocaust and World War II.

When the narrative begins, Feld is working alongside his assistant, Sobel. While working, Feld thinks about Max, a young college student, and marvels at the young man’s earnest pursuit of education. Max then arrives with a pair of shoes needing to be mended. Perhaps seeing this as a sign, Feld takes Max aside and asks the young man if he would like to meet his daughter, Miriam. Max agrees to meet with Miriam, and Feld gives him her phone number. Later that day, Sobel is working and pounds on his repair equipment so hard he breaks it, then storms out of the shop after quitting his job.

Sobel’s abrupt departure is particularly inconvenient for Feld. It was Sobel who assisted him five years earlier after Feld had a heart attack. He almost had to sell his business. In time, Sobel, who is a Polish Jewish refugee, learned to run the business and saved Feld from ruin. Though Sobel is uneducated, he does spend a lot of time reading. Moreover, he lends books to Miriam. Unlike Max, however, it seems Sobel shows no desire to better himself in life.

Feld attempts to talk with Sobel and convince him to return to work, but when he goes to visit him, the landlady says he is not in. distraught, Feld eventually hires a new assistant. Though the new hire is not as good a worker as Sobel, Feld is eventually satisfied. Moreover, he is happy that Max and Miriam will have their first date at the end of the week. When the date is over, however, Feld learns that Miriam seems underwhelmed by Max, though he feels relief that she has agreed to a second date. Feld again waits for Miriam after her second date, but learns that Miriam was bored with Max while on the date, and that she will not go out with him again.

After Miriam’s second date with Max, the young man stops calling. He also changes his route to school so that he can bypass Feld’s house. Feld finally sees Max again when the young man stops by the shop to pick up his repaired shoes. Though in the same room and with the history of Miriam and Max between them, the embarrassing event is never mentioned. Later that night, Feld discovers that the new assistant he hired to replace Sobel is actually stealing from him. He is so shocked by the discovery that he has a heart attack, and is bedridden for three weeks.

When Feld is finally able to return to work, he realizes that his only hope is to seek out Sobel again and convince him to return to work. He finally tracks Sobel down and asks him to return, but Sobel declines. When Feld offers the young man more money, Sobel still declines and admits that he does not care about the money. Feld then comments that he has always treated Sobel like a son, so he is unsure as to why Sobel has left and will not return. Sobel then responds by asking why Feld sought out men for Miriam to date but neglected to seek out Sobel for the honor.

As the two men talk about Miriam and work, it is revealed that the only reason Sobel has actually worked for Feld for the last five years is because he is in love with Miriam. Though Feld partially guessed this some time ago, he never allowed himself to entertain the thought. Sobel finally admits that Miriam knows how he feels about her, but Feld tells Sobel that he will never be able to marry Miriam. After Sobel begins crying, Feld feels sorry for him and has a change of heart. Though he does not want Miriam to be a shoemaker’s daughter, he eventually agrees to a future union between the two. He tells Sobel that if he waits two more years, he can then talk to Miriam about marriage. When Feld arrives at work the very next morning, Sobel is back, hard at work.

As with many of Malamud’s other stories, themes of Jewish immigration and Jewish identity can be found throughout the narrative. As a Polish Jewish refugee, Sobel’s arrival in the United States also highlights not only the theme of Jewish immigration but the devastating effects of the Holocaust. Polish Jews like Sobel found themselves displaced even in their new lives, such as Sobel’s in America while he, like many others, is seeking out the American Dream. This search for identity and success, of belonging, is laced with the devastating reality of what took place in Europe years earlier and what it now unfolding all around them.

The narrative also takes into account the religious aspects of its characters. Feld himself is faced with quite a moral choice in determining what to do about Sobel’s love for Miriam. Miriam, for her part, sees distinctly spiritual traits in Sobel. The narrative itself is informed by a particular story from the Bible. It is the story of how Jacob labored as Laban instructed, all to marry his daughter Rachel. Jacob had to toil for seven years just to win her hand in marriage. As such, Malamud’s story highlights the perseverance not only of the Jews as a people, but of individuals in the face of overwhelming obstacles. In time, endurance and hope create inroads that lead these characters to love, friendship and acceptance.