(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 1073 words.)