Although ‘‘The First Seven Years’’ is one of a number of stories by Malamud that feature Jewish characters who live in New York City, there are few details that locate the story in a specific place. These details help to give the story the plain and timeless quality of the folk tale or Biblical narrative. It is indeed loosely inspired by the Genesis story of Jacob’s love for Rebecca and his willingness to serve Laban for seven years to win her hand.
The absence of a clearly defined or complex external setting—the reader is told only that it is February and it is snowing—also conveys the fact that ‘‘The First Seven Years’’ is essentially an internal drama. It shows characters who are caught up in the swirl of powerful emotions that are universal in their application. The details of time and place are not so important.
The internal drama centers primarily on Feld, the character who is presented with the greatest personal challenge. He must learn to grow and change, to see things he had formerly not seen and to value things he had formerly not valued. This is not an easy task for an elderly man whose formative years lie in the distant past, in a shtetl in Poland where, according to him, he wasted his youth. Feld is continually anxious that his daughter Miriam should not waste hers. But there lies the irony of the story. There is such a contrast in Feld between what he thinks he is doing—protecting the interests of his daughter, acting with vision and foresight, keeping the long-term future in mind—and what he actually does, which is to try to arrange a completely unsuitable match and to fail to recognize the destined couple who are together under his own roof.
Early in the story, there is a telling passage when Feld looks out of the window ‘‘at the nearsighted haze of falling February snow.’’ The personification (the attribution of human traits to inanimate objects) in ‘‘nearsighted’’ obviously does not mean that the snow itself is nearsighted but that the falling snow makes it hard for a person to see very far. The term makes a perfect metaphor for Feld himself, and, coming as it does in the first paragraph of the story, it foreshadows what is Feld’s dominant characteristic: he is not far-sighted. As the narrator explains at the beginning, Feld is a practical man, but this practicality operates between very narrow limits. This deficiency is glimpsed in the direct way he speaks to Max when he is about to try to interest the young man romantically in his daughter: ‘‘I am a businessman,’’ Feld says, which might be thought of as an unpromising beginning for a man entering into such a venture. Many of Malamud’s characters in his other stories and novels are imprisoned in one way or another, and Feld is no exception. He is the prisoner of his limited notions of life that cannot, whatever the worthiness of his aims, accommodate any goal other than practicality, material success, and social respectability.
This means that Feld cannot even begin to understand a man like Sobel. Although Feld acknowledges that Sobel is trustworthy, capable, and efficient (practical virtues that he can appreciate), Feld is puzzled as to why Sobel is content to work for such low wages and has no worldly ambition. The reason Sobel continues to work for Feld, of course, is his love for Miriam, but Feld, with his myopic (a narrow view) vision, does not allow himself to perceive this. As for Sobel’s habit of immersing himself in books, Feld sees no virtue in it and feels that Sobel is simply ‘‘queer.’’ When he asks Sobel why he reads so much, Sobel replies that he reads to know although he offers...
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