Bernard Malamud’s 1950 short story “The First Seven Years” tells the tale of a humble cobbler, Feld, and his daughter Miriam. Feld admires a student, Max, because the younger man is pursuing an education, something Feld always wanted for his daughter. Eventually, he asks Max to go on a date with his daughter, much to the chagrin of his assistant, Sobel. Sobel has been diligently working for Feld for the past five years, biding his time to ask Miriam out. Fortunately, the date between Miriam and Max doesn’t work out, and Feld discovers Sobel’s secret desires. At the conclusion of the story, Feld agrees that Sobel can go out with Miriam if he works for another two years in the cobbler’s shop. The broad theme of the story relates to individuality and social status.
Because he wants the best for his daughter, Feld believes it is in his power to make decisions for her, first in terms of whether or not she should receive an education and eventually in terms of whom she should date. Neither decision works out for either Feld or Miriam. Malamud uses the tension between father and daughter to explore the connection between individuality and decision-making. In this exploration, Malamud reveals that for an individual to fully count as independent, she must be allowed to make her own life decisions.
Formal and Informal Education
Feld’s desire for Miriam to get a formal education relates to his belief that educated people are happier and better than uneducated people. He uses his own life as an uneducated cobbler as a basis for this belief. He does not take into consideration, however, the fact that he is an exceptionally well-read man, as is his daughter, as is his apparently lowly assistant, Sobel. According to Miriam, however, Max is “boring” and a “materialist” even though he is studying to be an accountant. In this juxtaposition, Malamud reveals the instability of Feld’s belief that a formal education automatically makes people happier and better.
Appearance and Reality
On the face of it, Sobel appears to be a lowly assistant, while Max appears to be an up-and-coming young businessman. In reality, Sobel is thoughtful and intelligent, and Max is boring and brutish. The difference between how Sobel and Max appear and how they are is a significant thematic element to the story. Eventually, Feld is able to see past the appearances of each character, ultimately rejecting Max as a possible suitor for his daughter, and accepting Sobel.
Wealth and Happiness
Though his actions are somewhat misguided, ultimately Feld has noble goals for his daughter: that she grow up to be more successful than himself. Feld equates wealth with happiness, and as he is just a struggling cobbler, he wants Miriam to be wealthier, and thus happier, than he has been. This is why he initially rejects Sobel as a potential suitor; after all, Sobel is also a cobbler and an apprentice at that. In the story's climax, Feld realizes that even though Sobel is not wealthy, he is happy and prosperous. By proxy, therefore, Feld becomes aware of his own happiness once he is finally able to disassociate happiness from wealth.