The First Seven Years by Bernard Malamud
In The First Seven Years by Bernard Malamud we have the theme of desire, love, insecurity, conflict, independence, appearance and change. Taken from his The Complete Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Malamud may be exploring the theme of desire and insecurity. Feld throughout the story longs for his daughter Miriam to live a life that he thinks will be better than the life he has been able to provide for both Miriam and his wife. By asking Max to go on a date with Miriam, Feld hopes that not only will Miriam and Max become friends but in the future it may also lead to a possible marriage between the two of them. If anything this desire within Feld (for Miriam and Max to get married) appears to be driven by the insecurity that Feld feels about what may happen Miriam should she not marry someone who Feld believes to be of a significant social position. Throughout the story the reader suspects that Feld’s desire for Miriam to marry someone he considers to be of a better social class than he is, is driven not only by Feld’s own insecurities but he also appears to be associating happiness to wealth. Feld believing that people who are wealthy are happier than those who have little or no wealth.
Malamud also appears to be exploring the theme of appearance. When Feld first learns that Max is studying to become an accountant he is disappointed, believing that an accountant is no more than a bookkeeper. However when he discovers that Certified Public Accountants ‘were highly respected people’ Feld becomes more content. This may be important as it suggests that appearance is more important to Feld than an individual’s character. The fact that Miriam believes Max is interested in ‘material things’ may also be important as it suggests again the idea of appearance. It is possible that Max considers the possession of material things to be reflective of how he will appear (in a positive light) to others. The theme of conflict, both internal and external, is also evident in the story. There is the obvious example of Feld being unhappy that Miriam does not wish to go to college, Feld considering education to be a necessary tool in order for a person to advance their social position (which would appear to be Feld’s intentions for Miriam throughout the story). If anything this would highlight an internal conflict within Feld. Also Sobel leaves the store when he discovers that Feld has asked Max to go on a date with Miriam which would further suggest the idea or theme of conflict. There is also a minor conflict when Miriam decides that should she be asked (by Max) to go on another date she will refuse to.
It may also be important that Miriam throughout the story is independent. Not only has she refused to go to college preferring to get a job instead but she is also able to make up her mind (without instructions from others) when it comes to Max and deciding against going on another date with him. By allowing Miriam to be independent it is possible that Malamud is suggesting that at the time the story was written (1959) there was a new generation (of European immigrants in America) who no longer relied upon the beliefs of their parents rather instead they had the ability to make their own decisions and decide for themselves which direction their lives would take without having to follow a path that their parents may have once followed (getting married to a person of their parents choosing). It is also interesting that while Miriam would appear to be independent, Feld on the other hand is reliant on others. This is noticeable by the fact that Feld on several occasions, when Sobel has walked out of the store, has called upon Sobel to return to work. Even when he hires somebody new things are not the same for Feld.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. Malamud may be using Sobel’s hammering in the store to symbolise not only Sobel’s frustration of having to see Feld ask Max to go on a date with Miriam but it is also possible that the hammer symbolises the strength of Sobel’s love for Miriam. The title of the story may also be symbolically significant as Malamud may be making reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel. In that story Jacob agrees to serve Laban (Rachel’s father) for seven years and in return Laban will allow Jacob to marry Rachel. Malamud may also be using the setting at the beginning of the story as foreshadowing. The reader is aware that Feld is looking ‘through the partly frosted window at the nearsighted haze of falling February snow.’ This line may be important as the ‘nearsighted haze’ described by Malamud in many ways mirrors the nearsightedness of Feld who cannot see that Sobel is in love with Miriam.
The ending of the story is also interesting as Malamud appears to be not only further exploring the theme of insecurity but may also be exploring the theme of change (or what seems to be a change within Feld). Feld’s opinion of Sobel as a possible suitor to Miriam is unflattering. Through his own insecurities and by equating wealth to happiness Feld cannot see Miriam having a better life should she marry Sobel. However there is a sense of change within Feld and he comes to an agreement with Sobel, telling him that he should wait two more years before he begins a courtship with Miriam. It is also interesting that some critics suggest that this change within Feld is not driven by his realization that Sobel loves Miriam but rather again by Feld’s own insecurities. By having Sobel continue to work in the store for another two years Feld is also ensuring the continued success of his business, fully aware that through Sobel’s hard work the business will continue to prosper.