“The First Seven Years” is a short story by Bernard Malamud that appeared in his 1958 collection The Magic Barrel. It’s about a Jewish shoemaker who wants a better life for his daughter, either through education or a suitable marriage. Here’s a summary of “The First Seven Years”.
“The First Seven Years” Summary
Feld, a shoemaker, is in his shop with his helper, Sobel, who works diligently. Feld is distracted with thoughts of Max, a college boy he saw walking to school this morning through the snow. He admires the effort the boy has put into furthering his education, in contrast to his daughter, Miriam, who wouldn’t go to college even though he offered to send her. She likes to read on her own, and gets recommendations from Sobel.
Feld’s reverie is interrupted when a man enters the shop with a pair of battered shoes. He’s surprised to see it’s Max, and he has trouble listening. He’s wanted to get Max and Miriam together, but didn’t know how. He can’t let this opportunity go to waste. Associating with Max could encourage Miriam to go to college; at the least, she could marry him and have a better life with an educated man.
Feld marks the shoes and then asks Max to step into the hallway with him, away from Sobel’s pounding. Max is tall and very thin. The rest of his clothes are as worn as his shoes. Feld compliments him on his educational pursuits. He tells Max about Miriam—she’s nineteen, nice, pretty and smart—and suggests they become acquainted.
Max wants to see a picture (she looks alright) and confirms that she’s sensible. He agrees to meet her. Feld gives him the phone number and tells him to call in the evening. Max asks about the price for the shoes. Feld says $1.50, which he immediately regrets as a half-hearted measure—he should either have charged the regular price or done it free.
Returning inside the shop, Sobel hammers furiously on the bare last and breaks it. He grabs his hat and coat and rushes off before Feld can reprimand him.
Feld feels lost without Sobel. He does all the physical work and most of the other work, as well. Five years ago, after a heart attack, Feld thought he would lose his business and be forced into poverty. At the last minute, Sobel, a Polish refugee, appeared looking for work. Within six weeks he was as good a shoemaker as Feld and expertly ran the business. Sometimes, Feld leaves him with the work and the till, knowing everything is in good hands.
Sobel is bald and looks older than his thirty-five years. He works for a low wage and only cares about books, which he lends to Miriam. She reads them, along with his notes in the margins, with great interest. Feld has told Sobel he could earn more elsewhere or on his own, but he’s not interested in leaving. He’s probably afraid of the world due to his experiences as a refugee.
Feld waits for a week before going to Sobel’s rooming house. The landlady says he’s not there, which is almost certainly a lie, but Feld doesn’t press the matter. He gives up on Sobel and hires a new man.
The new man does a fair job, but there’s a lot more work for Feld now. He can’t trust him with the whole business. He gets through it, though, with thoughts of Max and Miriam. They’re going to see each other on Friday night. He restrains himself from talking to Miriam about it, knowing it’s delicate. She only knows her father thinks Max is nice and suggested the meeting.
Feld isn’t feeling well and is in bed when Max comes by. Miriam brings him in to greet her parents before they leave. Miriam has worked all day, but she looks good.
Miriam gets home before midnight. Feld goes into the kitchen where she sits reading and asks about the date. They went for a walk. It was fine but it’s hard to know much about someone from one meeting. He asked her out again on Saturday, and she agreed.
Miriam asks about Sobel. Feld says he got another job. Miriam goes on reading.
During the week, Feld learns from Miriam through casual inquiries that Max is studying to be an accountant, which disappoints him until he researches the profession and finds they’re well respected.
Miriam goes out with Max on Saturday. Feld waits up with a paper on his lap. Miriam was bored on the date. Max is a materialist—only interested in things. He didn’t asks to see her again and she wouldn’t anyway.
Feld doesn’t argue. He hopes she’ll reconsider and that Max will call. Max doesn’t walk by the store anymore. One day, he comes in for his shoes. Feld worked on the himself; they look better than new. He still charges $1.50. He leaves without mentioning Miriam.
Feld finds out his new assistant has been stealing from him and suffers a heart attack.
Feld is in bed for three weeks. He won’t let Miriam get Sobel. After one day at work, Feld gives in and goes again to Sobel’s rooming house. His room is small and poor with books piled around. He asked Sobel about his reading once, but he couldn’t explain it. He figures Sobel is just unusual.
Feld ask when Sobel will come back to work. He’s not going to—he doesn’t want a higher wage and doesn’t think Feld values him. He reveals he’s worked there five years for his pitiful wage for Miriam. Feld had never consciously acknowledged this to himself, but he’s had a suspicion.
Sobel says Miriam knows how he feels although he’s never told her—she knows his heart. Feld thinks Sobel has manipulated Miriam in some way with the books and his commentary. Angrily, he says Miriam will never marry such an ugly and old man.
Sobel curses Feld but his anger turns to sadness as he turns away crying. Feld is moved and pities Sobel. He thinks of him escaping the incinerators to work five years in silence, in love with a young girl. He imagines Miriam’s life being ugly married to a shoemaker with no more than her mother had. He destroyed his heart and slaved for nothing. His dreams for her are dead.
Sobel reads at the window and looks younger. Feld says Miriam is too young to get married. Sobel should wait until she’s twenty-one and then talk to her. Feld leaves without them saying anything else. He feels a bit stronger as he walks home.
When Feld arrives at the shop the next morning, Sobel is already at his station, working for Miriam.
(End of “The First Seven Years” summary)
I hope this summary of “The First Seven Years” was helpful.