Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073
The third-person omniscient narrator of this brief tale opens the story with a compressed exposition of Arnold’s character and background. The shoemaker is a proud man, recognized by the villagers for his “undefeated stubbornness,” his “unrelenting cantankerousness,” and his “readiness for confrontation.” No one contests his freely expressed opinions; he is master of his world, the shoemaker’s shop. So difficult to live with is Arnold that, years before, his wife and three children “had moved not only out of his house but out of the village.” Maintaining his solitary pride, Arnold refuses to accept even his own sexual needs, admiring but resisting village girls in a “testing relationship of antagonism and desire.” Young men in the village fare no better; his apprentices never satisfy him, and they can seldom tolerate him long enough to learn the trade.
The village is shocked, then, when Arnold hires—and retains—Norbert, who is a drifter, drinker, and gambler. He disappears from the shop for weeks at a time, but Arnold always takes him back, albeit with a severe scolding. He steals money, providing his friends with free shoes and drinking sprees. In short, Norbert is “so indisputably in the wrong” that he is “exactly the sort of person that one did not expect Arnold to tolerate for more than five minutes.” This puzzling about-face in Arnold’s attitude leads the villagers to believe that Arnold wishes to demonstrate “one of his rare qualities, compassion.” Whenever Arnold welcomes Norbert back to his shop, Arnold basks in a self-congratulatory “idea of his own goodness,” feeling that no one in the world is “more generous a man than he.”
Norbert, however, does have redeeming qualities beyond those of his zest for spontaneous revelry. He works hard when he works. Having left the shop for a piece of ice two weeks before Christmas, Norbert did not return for three weeks; yet on New Year’s Eve, when others would not have bothered to return, Norbert is back and “working like a machine to get people’s shoes ready.” Arnold admires Norbert for being “faithful,” for returning on “Old Year’s Day” to finish repairs due before New Year’s Day. He does not scold him, deciding that Norbert “shows appreciation” for him. Appreciation, Arnold thinks ironically, is all too rare an attribute among people.
As Arnold contemplates Norbert’s appreciation while looking down the street from his shop’s door, he sees Old Man Moses, the charcoal burner, dozing on a donkey cart with a small boy riding in back as it meanders up into the bush. Realizing that it will soon rain, Arnold complains to Norbert that Moses should not be getting soaked but should be feasting with his family for the New Year: “That is how we living. Like beast.” Ignoring Arnold’s outrage in his metaphor of people as orphans, Norbert responds only briefly, saying, “Maybe he want to go up in the bush” in order to protect his coals from burning down into powder; yet Arnold ignores the suggestion that Moses may be doing what he wants to do. As an analogue for Arnold and Norbert, Moses and the boy evoke Arnold’s impulse to order the world around him; his own loneliness, his fear of solitary aging, and his foreboding “sense of the approaching new year.” He tells Norbert that “the world have to check up on itself,” oblivious to the irony that he must examine his own life, and he introduces the subject of Norbert’s recent unexplained absence.
In the conversation that follows, Arnold’s deep cynicism becomes apparent. He fears both a useless life and a living death, bemoaning his own drinking and justifying his habitual lecturing: “What else to do but drink and waste and die. That is why I talk.” Norbert contributes only his blunt remark, “We dying,” again and again, to Arnold’s question, “You think we living?” When Arnold learns how much older he is than Norbert and considers Norbert’s “condition,” his despair that “life really mash you up” disturbs Norbert to the point that he reminds Arnold that they have three more pairs of shoes to finish, Arnold having thrown down the pair that he was fixing. Arnold’s genuine concern for Norbert—and for himself—is broken abruptly when two girls arrive to pick up Synto’s shoes.
Arnold responds harshly to the girls as he demands that they enter the shop while waiting for him to finish. With Synto’s niece is a girl “who reminded him of rain and moss and leaves.” Distracted by her alluring presence and aware of his own gruff manner, Arnold asks, “You fraid me?” Hoping that he sounds tough, Arnold is not surprised when the girl confesses that she is afraid, “A little.” Norbert is shocked at Arnold’s next gesture: He offers her a chair, “dusting it too.” A peaceful, calm ambience fills the shop as he repairs the shoes for the waiting girls. In further kindness, Arnold carefully wraps the shoes in a newspaper that he had been saving to read. When the girl thanks him as she is leaving, her voice “made something inside him ache”; she leaves behind the “breathlessness” of “the scent of moss and aloes and leaves” as “if all his work was finished.” Then Arnold offers to buy Norbert “a nip,” returning Norbert’s earlier offer.
When Norbert returns with the rum, Arnold’s usual tough mask of self-righteousness has fallen completely. His longing for intimacy, his desire for community, and his need for renewal have led him to comprehend “how he could leave everything just so and go” as Norbert had done. Arnold tells Norbert, “I dying too,” admitting that perhaps he does frighten people.
When they close the shop that evening, Arnold and Norbert go to Britto’s bar. There they share in the revelry with Britto, his family, and his friends. As Norbert sings along with the band’s traditional songs, Arnold wishes “he could cry.” Later, after singing, drinking, eating, and dancing, Norbert draws Arnold’s attention as he opens another bottle of rum; hesitating before he drinks, Norbert looks at Arnold and says, “Let me dead.” Arnold, thinking about the girl in the shop, believes that if she were “sitting there beside him he would be glad to dead too.” Arnold, perhaps for the first time in his life, acknowledges the joy in living.
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