Analysis of Bernard Malamud’s The First Seven Years

Bernard Malamud’s “The First Seven Years” was initially published in the Partisan Review (September–October 1950). In 1958 it was published as the first story in Malamud’s first collection of short fiction, The Magic Barrel.

In the long opening paragraph Malamud provides a comprehensive foreword to the story by introducing the setting, characters, and narrative point of view. It even hints at the problematic situation, but that does not become clear until later. The plot can be described briefly. Feld, a Polish immigrant living with his wife and daughter, Miriam, owns a small shoemaker’s shop, presumably in Brooklyn, where Malamud himself was reared; his trusted assistant, Sobel, also a Polish immigrant, has worked for him about five years. Feld worries for his 19-year-old daughter, who shows no interest in going to college or dating. Instead she has turned to the thirtyish Sobel to be her mentor; a prolific reader, he recommends and lends classic books to her that he accompanies with written expositions and critiques. Feld arranges a date for Miriam with Max, a drab college student who gives him a pair of shoes for repair, but their two evenings together lead only to mutual boredom. Having overheard Feld’s request of Max, however, Sobel rushes enraged from the shop without a word and does not return, leaving the aging, ailing Feld to work alone. The effort is excessive, so he hires another assistant, who proves capable but untrustworthy, so his wife persuades him to find Sobel and plead for his return. When he confronts Sobel in a meagerly furnished rooming house, the assistant refuses to return regardless of higher pay. Only then does Feld learn that his assistant has been laboring not for money but for Miriam. At first, he is incredulous, outraged, so he responds harshly, but on learning that Miriam accepts Sobel’s devotion, Feld relents and asks him to work for two more years until she is 21; then he leaves before receiving an answer. The next morning, however, when Feld drags himself downstairs for another exhausting day alone in the shop, he fi nds Sobel there “already seated at the last, pounding leather for his love” (16).

As its title suggests, Malamud’s story is based loosely on the scriptural account of Jacob’s desire to wed Rachel, the younger daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban (Genesis 29:10–30). Laban consents to their marriage if Jacob will agree to give him in return seven years of labor. Jacob concurs, and when the time has passed, Laban hands him his veiled daughter. Not until the following morning does Jacob discover that he has been deceived into marrying Rachel’s elder sister, Leah. According to the law of the land, Laban tells him, the eldest daughter must be the first to marry. Only after seven more years may Jacob take Rachel to wife. Again Jacob agrees, and after the next seven years pass, he and Rachel are wed.

Bernard Malamud/Library of America

In neither the Genesis version nor “The First Seven Years” does the courted maiden speak to her father about the pending betrothal. Miriam replies to Feld’s questions about Max but says nothing in the reader’s presence about Sobel; her affection for him is revealed only indirectly and implicitly by Sobel himself in response to Feld’s questioning. Moreover, aside from the disagreeable portrait of Max, who appears but briefly, the sole well-defined character in this story is Feld; he alone awakens to experience, whereas the others are fixed in their aims and attitudes, so they undergo no change. In contrast, during Feld’s confrontation with his obstinate assistant, he experiences an epiphany, a sudden awakening to a truth that had long been evident but to which he had been blind, the deepening relationship between Sobel and Miriam. Once this realization occurs to him, his mind clears, and he no longer foresees a bleak future for his daughter but a happy one with Sobel, who loves her deeply. With this new understanding gained almost instantaneously on leaving Sobel’s room, Feld heads home through the snow, walking “with a stronger stride” (15).

Much of the story’s effectiveness, as is true of nearly all of Malamud’s early fiction, is achieved through the subtle stylistic variations he applies in his language. Known chiefl y for his imaginative portraits of Jewish characters, communities, and themes, Malamud takes advantage of the Yiddish he learned from his parents as a child and adapts it to suit his aim of being an American and indeed a universal author as well as a Jewish one. Consequently, he often blends Yiddish and English into Yinglish, a style that includes Yiddish syntax and phrasing without necessarily incorporating actual Yiddish words, which he uses but sparingly in his fiction. By shifting, often quickly, among standard English, colloquial English, and Yinglish, Malamud achieves the sense of a Yiddish-speaking environment in an English narrative like “The First Seven Years” and several other stories in The Magic Barrel and Idiot’s First (1963), as well as in such novels as The Assistant (1957). The opening paragraphs of “The First Seven Years,” for example, are rendered in standard English; Feld’s share of the dialogue with Max is chiefly Yinglish; Max himself speaks colloquially with such terms as “She’s all right” to look at, and he asks whether she is “the flighty kind”; paraphrasing Max, the narrator says, “it was okay with him if he met her” (6). Malamud’s diversified style conveys an impression of authenticity in a situation that borders on myth among his earthy, romanticized East-European Jewish immigrants in urban America who fret and suffer but truly come to life as they speak.

Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977. Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Giroux, Robert, ed. “Introduction.” In Bernard Malamud’s The People and Uncollected Stories. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989. Malamud, Bernard. “The First Seven Years.” In The Magic Barrel. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958. Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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