The Assistant (1958) is American writer Bernard Malamud's second novel and is generally regarded as one of his best. It tells the story of Morris Bober, a poor immigrant Jew who owns a small grocery store in New York in the middle of the twentieth century. Business is bad and he struggles to make ends meet. The core of the novel is the relationship between Bober, an honest man who shows compassion to others, and Frank Alpine, an Italian American drifter who arrives in the neighborhood and ends up working in Morris's store. The Assistant paints a detailed and accurate portrait of an impoverished neighborhood in which three very different Jewish immigrant families try to make their living. It touches on issues such as the American dream and what people will or will not do to achieve it. It shows how ethical values, whether conceived in a religious framework or not, potentially offer a person freedom from the oppressive nature of human life. The spiritual journey undergone by Frank Alpine is a moving story of how a man can find hope and renewal in an apparently hopeless situation.
immigrants. Malamud's mother died when Bernard was fourteen, and after that he was raised by his father who, like the fictional character Morris Bober in The Assistant, owned a small grocery store and worked long hours to keep it solvent. Malamud attended Erasmus Hall High School, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he worked in a census office and a factory in order to provide additional income for his impoverished family. He also attended City College of New York, which at the time was a school for poor students. He received a bachelor's degree from that institution in 1936.
In 1942, Malamud received a master's degree in English from Columbia University. He had already begun writing short stories, and some of these were published in magazines during the years of World War II. During this period Malamud supported himself by working odd jobs (rather like Frank Alpine in The Assistant), and he also taught evening classes at Erasmus High School and then Harlem High School. In 1949, he joined the English Department of Oregon State College, where he stayed for twelve years, rising to the rank of associate professor. He married Ann de Chiara in 1945, and they had a son, Paul (born 1947) and a daughter, Janna (born 1952).
In 1952, Malamud published his first novel, The Natural, a fable about a baseball player cast in the form of the legend of the Holy Grail. Four years later, in 1956, Malamud received a fellowship in fiction from Partisan Review, and he lived in Rome and traveled in Europe. The next year saw the publication of his second novel, The Assistant, which in 1958 received the Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Daroff Memorial Fiction Award of the Jewish Council of America.
In 1959, Malamud published a collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, which won the National Book Award in 1959. The stories have a mystical flavor and explore moral issues of freedom and responsibility. Most of the characters are Jews. Malamud followed this with a third novel, A New Life (1961), which is set in a college and draws on his experiences teaching at Oregon State. In the same year, Malamud moved back to the East to teach creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont.
After Idiots First (1963), a second collection of short stories, Malamud published The Fixer (1966), a novel about a persecuted Jew in a tsarist Russian prison. The novel was extremely successful and established Malamud's reputation as one of America's leading writers. Malamud received the National Book Award for Fiction and a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which remains his most critically acclaimed and popular novel.
- An unabridged reading of The Assistant, read by George Guidall, was available as of 2007 from Jewish Contemporary Classics. There are six cassettes, lasting a total of nine hours.
Other works of Malamud include Rembrandt's Hat (1973), his third collection of short stories, and the novels, The Tenants (1971), Dublin's Lives (1979), and God's Grace (1982).
Malamud died of a heart attack on March 18, 1986, in New York City.
The Assistant begins on an early evening in November, in a mostly poor immigrant but mostly non-Jewish area possibly in Brooklyn, New York, although never specifically named. It is some time during the middle of the twentieth century, after World War II. Morris Bober, a sixty-year-old Jew who immigrated to the United States from Russia many years earlier, is working in his grocery store. There are few customers, and the store makes little money. Morris is thinking of selling the store, as his wife Ida wants him to do, but he doubts he will be able to find a buyer. Even if he did manage to sell, he does not know where he would go or what he would do.
Ida is embittered by the poverty they endure. The next day she grumbles at her husband for not doing what their next-door neighbor Julius Karp did. Karp converted his shoe store into a wine and liquor store, which is much more profitable than Morris's grocery store. Their economic situation is getting rapidly worse. Morris stays open seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, but he only just manages to eke out a living. He is close to bankruptcy. The previous year another grocery store opened in the neighborhood and took business away from Morris.
Twenty-three-year-old Helen Bober, who lives with her parents and works at a secretarial job she dislikes, runs into Nat Pearl on the subway. Nat, who is also Jewish, is a law student; he and Helen had been seeing each other during the summer, but she has been avoiding him since and says little to him now. Helen is lonely as she walks home. She hands over her paycheck to her father and after supper goes to her room. She hates living in the five-room flat and hopes that she may be able to go to college one day.
Morris talks with Karp, who tells him he is worried that he will be robbed. He tells Morris to call the police because a suspicious car is parked across the street. Morris does nothing, and it is he, not Karp, who becomes the victim. Two men with handkerchiefs over their faces, one of whom wields a gun, enter Morris's store and demand money. Morris hands over the small amount in the cash register. Thinking that Morris is hiding more money, the man with the gun strikes him across the head. The robbers then ransack the store but find no more money. The man with the gun hits Morris over the head, and he collapses on the floor.
Morris lies in bed for a week, recovering, while Ida tends the store. During this time a stranger, Frank Alpine, arrives in the neighborhood. He says he has come from the West and is looking for work. For a while he hangs around Sam Pearl's candy store, then one morning he helps Morris bring in two heavy milk cases. He does the same favor for Morris several days later. Morris invites him into the store, and Frank tells him his story. He is twenty-five years old, an orphan who has yet to find his direction in life. He is restless and keeps moving on from place to place. Frank asks Morris if he may help out at the store, with no wages, so he can learn the grocery business. Morris refuses.
Helen is being courted by Julius Karp's son, Louis Karp, who says he would like to marry her. But Helen says that she does not want to be a storekeeper's wife and insists that they can be no more than friends.
One day, Morris discovers that someone is stealing milk and rolls from him in the mornings. This situation continues for several days, and Morris reluctantly calls the police. Mr. Minogue, a detective who is also investigating the robbery, comes to the store. That night, Morris discovers Frank in the cellar, and Frank confesses to sleeping in the cellar and taking the food because he was hungry. He has been unable to find a job. Morris allows him to sleep in the house.
The next day Morris collapses outside the store. Frank picks him up and brings him in.
While Morris is recuperating, Frank works in the store. He turns out to be an efficient and apparently honest worker, even though Ida is suspicious of him. He works longs hours and is content, and the customers like him. Frank is interested in Helen and wants to get to know her, but he finds it difficult to get an opportunity. One day, he tricks her by calling her to the telephone in the store, even though there is no one on the line for her, just so he can find a way of speaking to her.
Business improves at the store, and Frank, who is a good salesman, gets the credit for it. Even Ida begins to respect and trust him, and she and Morris give him a small raise. Frank feels uncomfortable with this because he has been regularly stealing money from the till. He wants to make amends somehow.
Frank goes to a poolroom one night where he meets Ward Minogue, one of the men who robbed Morris. It transpires that the other robber was none other than Frank. Frank wants his gun back from Ward, but Ward wants to recruit him for another robbery, this time of Karp's liquor store. Frank refuses and leaves without his gun.
Frank spies on Helen and through a window catches sight of her naked in the bathroom.
After Morris recovers, he decides to keep Frank employed at the store, over Ida's protests. She does not like the way Frank looks at Helen. But Morris and Frank get along well and tell each other stories about their lives. However, Frank continues to steal from the store, trying to justify himself by saying that he has brought the grocer good luck, although he still feels badly about his actions. He also promises himself that he will confess to Morris his part in the robbery, but he can never bring himself to do it. He continues to want to befriend Helen, and after he sees her at the library, he persuades her to walk with him in the park on their way home. She notices that he is dressed better than usual, and she thanks him for the help he has given her father. They talk about the books they have been reading and their desire to attend college. Frank would have to work at nights in order to accomplish his goal. Helen talks about how she dislikes her secretarial job and how she would like to do something more useful, like social work or teaching. He tells her about a girl he knew years ago, who was an acrobat in a carnival. She was killed in a car accident. As Helen goes to sleep that night she is still confused about how she should think about Frank.
Business continues to improve during December. Morris is able to pay off outstanding bills, and he allows Helen to keep more of her wages. Helen and Frank continue to get to know each other, walking home together from the library. Helen envies him all the places he has visited, since she has led a more restricted life, traveling seldom. Frank say he plans to start college in the fall, and Helen, excited by this news, recommends some novels she thinks he should read. Frank reads them to please her, but he finds them hard going.
One evening Nat calls Helen, wanting to see her. She puts him off, much to her mother's annoyance. Ida wants Helen to marry and thinks that Nat, who is Jewish and studying law, is a good prospect. Frank buys Helen a gift of a scarf and an edition of Shakespeare's plays, but she refuses to accept them. She likes Frank but does not want to become seriously involved with him, and she tells him to return the gifts to the store for a refund. But Frank just tosses them into the trash. Seeing this, Helen rescues them and eventually agrees to accept one gift, the Shakespeare book. She and Frank remain friends. Ida becomes suspicious and takes to following Frank, and then Helen, at night, convinced there is something going on between them. She tries to persuade her husband to ask Frank to leave, but Morris reminds her they had agreed that he should stay until the summer.
One afternoon, Morris is having his hair cut across the street and sees several customers leaving the grocery store carrying big bags. But when he returns to the store he finds that only a small amount of money has been recorded in the cash register. He wonders if Frank is stealing, and for the next few days watches him closely. But he sees nothing wrong and begins to doubt his suspicions. He concludes that even if Frank has been stealing, it is his, Morris's fault, for paying him so little. So he decides to give Frank another raise, even though Frank protests it is unnecessary.
Helen feels that she is falling in love with Frank, even though she has doubts about the wisdom of doing so. They kiss passionately, but she does not fully accept him. Because Frank is not Jewish, she fears that her parents would be devastated if she were to marry him. She postpones making any important decisions. One evening, Frank smuggles Helen up to his room. He wants to make love to her, but she refuses.
Mr. Minogue, the detective investigating the robbery, brings a suspect with him to the store, but Morris says he does not recognize the man. That night, Ward Minogue, the detective's son, visits Frank in his room, but again Frank refuses to take part in another robbery. Ward tries to blackmail him, but Frank replies that if Ward ever says anything about Frank's role in the robbery, he will tell Ward's father, who is looking for him, where he can find him.
Ida follows Helen one night and watches as Helen meets Frank and kisses him. When Helen gets home Ida is angry and upset that her daughter has kissed a "goy," a gentile. She tells Helen she should marry someone with a college education and implores her to give Nat another chance.
Julius Karp visits Morris. They have not spoken for several months, since the robbery. Karp has figured out that Frank is stealing from his employer; he also plans to persuade Morris to get Helen to take a serious interest in his son, Louis. Morris tells Karp that business is good due to Frank, but Karp tries to convince him it is because the rival grocer has been in poor health and his store had been closing for part of each day. Now the rival store has shut down completely, Karp informs Morris, but a new, ultra-modern grocery store will open in its place the following week. Morris dreads that he will soon be put out of business. He also continues to believe that Frank has helped his store by increasing business. Meanwhile, Frank decides that he will replace all the $142 he has stolen. He manages to put six dollars back in the till and feels pleased with himself. He plans to pay it all back within a few months. But then he decides he needs a dollar, because he is seeing Helen that evening. When the next customer comes in, he puts a dollar less in the till than the cost of the item she buys, but Morris catches him red-handed. Frank is forced to confess the truth of Morris's accusation that he has been stealing from him the day he arrived. Morris gives him his week's wages and tells him to leave, which Frank does.
Helen sees Nat but is impatient to be with Frank. But when she goes to the park at night, instead of seeing Frank she is accosted by Ward Minogue. She fights him off, and Frank comes to her rescue. She and Frank kiss and Frank declares his love for her. He then forces himself on her sexually, against her will. She is distressed and curses him.
The new grocery is about to open, and Morris is depressed at the prospect. Ida says they must sell the store. Meanwhile, Frank has returned to his room in the house and during the night is full of remorse for his actions. The next day, Helen goes to work as usual, without telling anyone about the rape. She is full of self-hatred.
Later, the upstairs tenant, Nick, smells gas in the house. Frank drags Morris from his room, saving his life. It transpires that Morris turned on the gas but forgot to light the gas radiator. In the afternoon, Morris develops a fever and is taken to the hospital. Ida lets Frank stay on, but business declines when the new grocery store opens. Frank puts twenty-five dollars in the register as part of his plan to pay back the money he stole. Helen, however, refuses to speak to him. Business declines further, in spite of all Frank's efforts to attract customers.
Helen becomes depressed. She refuses to go to the wedding of her friend Betty Pearl, and she does not sleep well.
Frank tries to get one of Morris's customers, a Swedish painter named Carl, to pay a debt, but when he finds that the painter and his family are poor, he goes back to his room and gets three dollars. On his way back to Carl's, he meets Ward Minogue, who is sick. Ward wants to sell Frank's gun back to him, and Frank gives him the three dollars, which he had intended to give to Carl's family. He then drops the gun into a sewer.
Frank takes a night job at the Coffee Pot, working from ten until six. During the days he runs the grocery, and at the end of the week puts the thirty-five dollars he has earned from his night job into the cash register. This extra money prevents the store from going under. He bitterly regrets losing Helen. To try to win her back, he carves a wooden flower out of a pine board and gives it to her, but she throws it in the garbage.
As spring approaches, Morris makes only a slow recovery. Like Helen, he is depressed, and he worries about the business. When he is strong enough to go downstairs to the store, he tells Frank he must leave. Frank confesses to his part in the robbery of Morris's store but claims he is no longer the person he once was. Morris replies that during his convalescence he had put two-and-two together and realized that Frank was one of the robbers. Frank begs to be allowed to stay, but Morris insists that he must leave. He packs his bags and writes an apologetic, farewell note to Helen.
After Frank's departure, business declines even further. The family plans to sell, and Ida visits Karp, inquiring about a potential buyer. The following week, the buyer, a man named Podolsky, arrives, and Morris tries to persuade him to buy the store, but nothing is decided. Despairing, Morris turns to Charlie Sobeloff, an old business partner of his, for help. Charlie owns a large supermarket. Charlie hires Morris as a part-time cashier for a short while, but Morris soon leaves. He goes to two employment agencies in New York City, without any success, and he has no luck either seeking out old friends and customers.
A stranger pays a call on Morris at the store. He proposes an insurance fraud scheme, whereby the man would arrange for the house and store to burn down so they could collect the insurance money. Morris refuses, but the following night, when the house is empty, he deliberately starts a fire. Then he thinks better of it and tries unsuccessfully to beat the flames out. Frank arrives in the nick of time and puts the fire out. Frank asks Morris if he can come back to work at the store, but Morris again tells him to leave.
Ward Minogue's father finds Ward, beats him up, and tells him to stay away from the neighborhood. Ward breaks into Karp's liquor store, gets drunk and accidentally sets fire to the store. He is burned to death in the conflagration. Karp's house and store are burned to the ground. Karp is devastated and wants to buy Morris's house and store so he can continue his business. Morris asks for a higher price than he knows either is worth, but Karp instantly agrees.
Morris shovels snow in cold early spring weather, catches pneumonia, and dies three days later. Frank attends the funeral, where the rabbi lauds Morris as a good Jew. Frank also attends the burial. At one point he loses his balance and falls on top of the coffin.
Julius Karp gets sick and is unable to buy Morris's store. Frank takes over the running of the store, which now belongs to Ida. Frank has some creative ideas that improve business, including offering a wider range of foods, and the rival grocery reduces its opening times. The store begins to prosper and Frank plans to support Helen's college education, even though she still refuses to speak to him. In August he manages to tell her his plans. Her heart softens towards him, but she firmly refuses his offer. He confesses his part in the robbery of Morris's store. She is horrified and runs from him.
Frank continues to work in the store, although he finds it hard to make ends meet. Helen starts seeing Nat again, and Frank is jealous. He starts spying on her in the bathroom and he also starts to cheat his customers. But abruptly he stops both activities. Helen, realizing that it is only because of Frank's ability to keep the store open that she is able to attend college at nights, becomes more friendly to him, rejecting Nat. Frank starts to read the Bible, and dreams of a future with Helen. In April he goes to the hospital for circumcision, and after Passover he converts to Judaism.
Frank Alpine is a twenty-five-year-old man of Italian extraction. He is described as "tall and not bad looking, except for a nose that had been broken and badly set, unbalancing his face." He has a dark beard and melancholy eyes, and when he first arrives in the neighborhood of Morris's grocery store, he is shabbily dressed.
Frank is a drifter who has had a rough life. His mother died a week after he was born, and he has never even seen a picture of her. His father abandoned him when he was five years old. He was raised in an orphanage, and when he was eight he was sent to live with a tough family. He ran away ten times. He has lived in a lot of places, including California and the East Coast, but he has not had any success in life. As he tells Morris, "sooner or later, everything I think is worth having gets away from me in some way or another," including education, jobs, and women. (A girl he was fond of was killed in a car accident.) Frank blames himself for doing something stupid just when it looks as if he is about to achieve something. He does not know how to make things happen differently; he always ends up with nothing. This pattern repeats itself in his relationship with Helen. He falls in love with her and continues to pursue her in spite of her initial indifference toward him. But when she is finally ready to fall in love with him he forces himself on her sexually and ruins the relationship.
Frank is a man torn between two sides of his nature, the good and the bad. At one point, he conceived the idea that he would make a success of himself through crime. He bought a gun, traveled east and fell in with Ward Minogue in Brooklyn. Together they rob Morris's store. Then when Frank works at the store, he steals from Morris, a man who has been kind enough to give him a roof over his head. Frank soon regrets his thievery and strives to make amends. His conscience does not let him rest. He wants to behave in an ethical manner, and he makes genuine efforts to pay back the money he stole. He finally confesses to Morris his part in the robbery. Eventually, Frank makes the store a success with his creative ideas and relentless hard work.
Frank's acquaintance with Morris leads him to become interested in Jews—their religion and history. Soon after Morris dies, Frank decides to convert to Judaism.
Helen Bober is the twenty-three-year-old daughter of Frank and Ida Bober. She is attractive, with brown hair and blue eyes. She took a secretarial job after high school so she could help her parents financially, but she longs to go to college and find more meaningful work. The intelligent Helen reads thick novels and reflects deeply on life. She hates living with her parents in such a restricted environment and at times feels that life is passing her by and she is not accomplishing anything. "I want a larger and better life," she says to Louis Karp. "I want the return of my possibilities." Helen is lonely. Most of her friends from high school are married now, and she has deliberately stopped seeing them. She wants love in her life, and she has been seeing Nat Pearl, but the relationship is not working out. She allowed him to make love to her, but she regrets having done so because she thinks that is all Nat wants. She wants genuine love and refuses to have sex again without love. None of her male admirers seems suitable in her eyes. She has no interest in Louis Pearl, even though he likes her and has money. She takes no notice of Frank Alpine at first, but when he persists in getting to know her, she learns to appreciate his better qualities and even thinks she may be in love with him. But she will not have sex with him. When Frank rescues her from Ward in the park, she falls into his arms, but he responds by raping her, after which she refuses to speak to him for months, rebuffing his persistent attempts to make amends. Eventually, Helen is able to attend college at nights. She is the sort of woman who does not give up on her dreams in spite of adverse circumstances, and there are hints that she may learn to accept and love Frank after all.
Ida Bober is Morris Bober's wife. She is fifty-one years old, nine years younger than her husband. She has thick black hair but her face is lined; she has been worn down by the dull, poverty-stricken life they lead. Her life seems bereft of pleasure. She resents the fact that many years ago her husband persuaded her to move from a Jewish neighborhood into the predominantly gentile area where the grocery store is situated. She expresses her resentment by nagging Morris to sell the store, although she also feels guilty because it was she who first persuaded him to become a grocer when he wanted to train as a pharmacist.
Ida keeps telling Morris to get rid of Frank, whom she does not trust, although as Frank proves his worth her attitude toward him softens somewhat. Ida is very protective of her daughter, Helen, and wants her to marry Nat because he has prospects and is Jewish. She cannot bear the thought of her daughter going with a gentile. When she suspects that Helen is seeing Frank, she follows them both at night and is horrified to see them kiss in the park. After Morris's death, which happens in part because he ignored her warnings about shoveling snow, she wails at the funeral that he has deserted her and left her helpless as a child.
Morris Bober is a sixty-year-old Jew who originally lived in Russia at a time when the Jews were being persecuted. When as a young man Morris was about to be conscripted into the Russian army (this was some time before the Russian Revolution in 1917), his father advised him to escape to the United States. Morris managed to get away on his first day in the army barracks. Once in the United States, he attended night school and wanted to be a pharmacist, but when he met his wife, Ida, he lost patience and did not complete his schooling.
Morris is a sad man who regrets the course his life has taken. He is poor and has always been poor. He sees no possibility that this will ever change and believes himself simply to be unlucky. He contrasts his own miserable fortunes with those of Karp, who always seems to gain advantages without working for them. Morris works hard but just gets poorer and poorer. He is worried that his grocery store, which takes in little enough money as it is, is about to fail completely. He wants to sell the store but has little faith that anyone will buy it.
A crucial event in Morris's life is the death of his young son Ephraim from an ear disease, many years earlier. After that he rarely ventured beyond the corner of the street. It is almost as if he is living in a tomb. Sometimes he thinks regretfully back to his life as a boy when he would spend entire days in the open air.
Although his life has been hard, Morris's redeeming quality is that he is unshakably honest. He is "the soul of honesty—he could not escape his honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him." Although he does not observe all the external requirements of the Jewish faith and does not attend the synagogue, Morris believes he is a good Jew because he follows the basic instruction of Jewish law. According to him, "This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good."
However, following these precepts does not produce any happiness for him. His life is all about endurance rather than pleasure. Just before his final illness, he is filled with regret. He is ashamed of himself because he has not managed to provide adequately for his family. He worries about the possibility that Helen may never marry. "I gave away my life for nothing," he thinks to himself.
Breitbart is a Jewish acquaintance of Morris Bober. He is in his fifties with white hair, and he walks the neighborhood selling light bulbs for a living. Breitbart has had a hard life. He used to own a good business, but his brother ruined it by gambling, leaving Breitbart with debts. He went bankrupt and lived with his young son in one small room until he learned how to eke out a living carrying two cartons of light bulbs around with him and selling them to local stores.
Nick Fuso is a young mechanic who works in a garage in the neighborhood. He is the upstairs tenant in Morris Bober's house. It is Nick who first smells gas in the house, which leads to Frank's dramatic rescue of the grocer.
Tessie Fuso is Nick Fuso's wife. She is described as "a homely Italian girl with a big face."
Carl Johnsen is a Swedish painter and a customer of Morris's. He is in debt to Morris, from the days when Morris used to give credit. When times become hard, Frank visits Carl to try to collect the money, but when he finds that the painter and his family live in poverty, he does not pursue the matter.
Julius Karp is Morris's Jewish next-door neighbor who runs a prosperous wine and liquor store. He is described as "paunchy … with bushy eyebrows and an ambitious mouth" and "short, pompous, a natty dresser in his advanced age." When he was younger, Karp own a shoe store that barely made any money. Then after Prohibition ended in 1933, he acquired a liquor license, converted his business into a wine and liquor store, and became wealthy, buying a big house with a two-car garage. Morris grumbles that Karp is simply lucky and thinks that in spite of Karp's success, he is a foolish man, regarding him as "insensitive and a blunderer." In spite of this they used to get on reasonably well, until Karp, who owns another building in the neighborhood, rents that building out to another grocery, thus taking business away from Morris. After this, the two men do not speak much, and Morris dislikes Karp more and more, thinking him "crass and stupid." Sometimes Karp visits Morris's store, however, and gives him unwanted advice. When Morris's fortunes decline further, Karp, who wants his son Louis to marry Morris's daughter Helen, plans to buy Morris's store. When Karp's liquor store is burned to the ground, he and Morris agree on a price for Morris's store, Karp gets sick and is unable to follow through on their agreement.
Louis Karp is Julius Karp's son. He works in his father's liquor store and has no ambition to do more. He is able to live off the fruits of his father's prosperity. He knew Helen in high school and is still interested in forming a relationship with her, but he has little confidence in himself, and in any case, Helen has no interest in him. Louis's father and Ida Bober both want Helen and Louis to get married, but nothing ever comes of their plans.
Al Marcus is a forty-six-year-old man who is dying of cancer. He insists on continuing to work as a salesman of paper products, and Morris is always kind to him.
Mr. Minogue is the "stocky, redfaced" detective who investigates the robbery of Morris's store. He is a widower and the father of Ward Minogue. He was a strict father and beat up his son when Ward was fired from his job for stealing. When he finds Ward in a bar in the neighborhood, he beats him again, telling him that if he ever catches him in the area again, he will murder him.
Ward Minogue is one of the men who robs Morris's store. A violent thief, he seems to have no redeeming features. In junior high school he was a "wild boy, always in trouble for manhandling girls." Then he was fired from his job for stealing from the company. Ward tries unsuccessfully to recruit Frank Alpine for another robbery; he also attacks Helen in the park, trying to rape her. Ward dies after he breaks into Karp's store after hours, gets drunk and accidentally sets fire to the place.
Bettie Pearl is Nat Pearl's twenty-seven-year-old sister. She is a friend of Helen's, although they do not see each other very often and Helen finds her rather dull. Bettie marries a man called Shep Hirsch, but Helen does not attend the wedding.
Nat Pearl is a Jewish second-year law student. He graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University and is described as "handsome, cleft-chinned, gifted, ambitious." He has excellent prospects and rich friends, although Morris Bober thinks he is a showoff and does not like him. Nat is interested in dating Helen, and they saw each other regularly during the summer, but Helen has taken to avoiding him. She thinks that all he is interested in is sex, when she wants a relationship based on love.
Sam Pearl is the father of Nat and Bettie Pearl. He is a former cabdriver, who now owns a corner candy store. Sociable and easy-going, Sam neglects the store, choosing to spend his time betting on horse races. However, he has good luck gambling and has been able to support Nat in college.
Podolsky is a refugee who is a potential buyer of Morris's store. He is a shy, good-natured young man, but nothing ever comes of his interest in the store.
Heinrich Schmitz is the German owner of the new grocery store that takes so much business away from Morris. He is an energetic man who dresses like a doctor, in a white jacket. Later he becomes ill and has to close the store.
Charlie Sobeloff is an old business partner of Morris's who now owns a thriving supermarket. Morris thinks of Charlie as a "cross-eyed but clever conniver." Many years earlier the two men set up in business together, buying a grocery store. But Charlie, who was in charge of the books, cheated and stole, and the business collapsed. Charlie rebuilt his fortunes, but Morris was unable to do likewise. When his store fails, Morris overcomes his dislike of Charlie and goes to his supermarket to ask him for a job.
Otto Vogel is a German who delivers meat to Morris's grocery store. He makes anti-Semitic remarks to Frank Alpine.
Redemption through Development of Moral Awareness
When he first appears in the novel, Frank Alpine is a confused man who is merely drifting from one failure to the next. He does not have a clue about how to create a successful life or to live a moral one. Just before the novel begins, he has made his way to Brooklyn with dreams of leading a life of crime, through which he hopes to "live like a prince." He seems like a hopeless case, but his encounter with Morris Bober starts him out on a process that eventually leads to his moral redemption. His very first actions, when he helps Morris in with the milk crates, show that he is not an irretrievably bad character. His instincts are to help others, but he has got trapped in a negative cycle in which one wrong or impulsive action leads inevitably to another. He acknowledges to Morris that there is something missing in him that stops him from accomplishing anything in life. What is missing is a firm moral core to his being that would enable him to favor his good instincts over his bad ones. He makes a bad start by helping to rob Morris's store; then he steals milk and rolls from Morris, and his response to Morris's kindness in feeding him and then taking him in and allowing him to work in the store is to steal money from the cash register.
But Frank learns. Twice he is on hand to save Morris's life, and he does his best to pay back the money he steals. He develops loyalty to the grocer because he recognizes that Morris lives a moral life. Morris may be poor, but he does not compromise his ethics. Not only does he help Frank, he also helps the poor people in this poverty-stricken immigrant neighborhood by extending credit to them at the store, even though he knows he will never see the money. A key moment comes when Morris tells Frank about some of the ways in which grocers he has known trick their customers, but he will not do so himself. He says, "When a man is honest he don't worry when he sleeps. This is more important than to steal a nickel." Although in learning from Morris he has to overcome some of his own anti-Semitic prejudices, Frank eventually learns to listen to the voice of his own conscience, which too often he had ignored or dismissed, and to be more true to the spiritual side of his nature. The process does not happen overnight, but he recognizes that Morris has a self-discipline that he lacks and a deeply embedded moral awareness that recognizes the humanity of others.
This recognition enables Frank to change the direction of his life. He shows an ability to transform himself by self-sacrifice. After Morris's death he toils endlessly, depriving himself of sleep, in order to keep the store open so that Helen can pay her college tuition. He tries to purge himself of guilt by confessing to Helen that he participated in the robbery of the store. Helen eventually has to admit that Frank has changed. His attitude toward her is now quite different from what it was when he first met her. Then he was motivated by lust, as shown when he spies on her in the bathroom. When he first courts her he is frustrated that they meet only in public places, and when he takes her to his room he wants to have sex; then, later, he rapes her in the park. But by the end of the novel, Frank has done his penance for his actions; he is now motivated by a purer form of love that genuinely seeks to promote the welfare of the other person.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. Describe any recent incidents in which anti-Semitism was allegedly involved. Why have Jews not faced the same kind of persecution in the United States that they have in Europe? Make a class presentation with your findings.
- Research the tensions that often exist in families between first and second generation immigrants regarding adherence to cultural traditions. How do immigrants retain their own cultural and ethnic identity while also becoming part of American culture? Should immigrants make it their goal to become Americans or to retain their own distinct language and culture? Write an essay in which you discuss the issues involved.
- Malamud once commented in connection with the prison metaphor that recurs in his works that a man must invent or construct his freedom. Write an essay in which you discuss what he meant by that, and how his comment might apply to The Assistant.
- Research the mythical and religious elements in The Assistant. Read a synopsis of the medieval story of Parzival and Amfortas and show how it underlies The Assistant. Read about the life of St. Francis. Why is Frank attracted to St. Francis? How do the Christian and Jewish elements in the novel interact in the figure of Frank? Make a class presentation in which you explain your findings.
The completion of Frank's moral redemption is shown in a symbolic incident that takes place at Morris's gravesite. At the burial he accidentally falls into Morris's grave and jumps out again. This shows symbolically that he is reborn and is ready to become Morris's successor. It prepares the way for his converting to Judaism and continuing to operate the store; he becomes, like Morris, the moral man who runs an ethical business and is an example for others.
Ethical Values Contrasted with Materialism and Selfishness
Although Morris considers himself a failure, this is not the theme of the novel. Rather, the reverse is true. At his funeral, Morris is lauded by the rabbi for his simple humanity, his willingness to suffer and endure, and to sustain hope. The fact that Morris was scrupulously honest, that he wanted for others what he wished for himself, that he worked hard and provided for his family, made him a good Jew in the eyes of the rabbi. "He asked for himself little—nothing, but he wanted for his beloved child a better existence than he had," the rabbi says. It does not matter that Morris did not attend the synagogue and lived and worked among gentiles and sold them pig meat that was forbidden for Jews to eat. To be a Jew, as the rabbi interprets it, is to follow the law that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Being a Jew is equated with upholding ethical, humanitarian values rather than with any specific religious practice or ritual.
To live an ethical life does not necessarily lead to material success, however. Goodness is its own reward. The novel consistently contrasts the ethical but poor Morris with his neighbor, the prosperous, worldly wise but selfish Julius Karp. Karp does not work hard, but he has the knack of making money and succeeding in the world. However, Karp feels no obligation to his less fortunate neighbor. He allows a grocery store to be set up in the building he owns, even though he knows this could put his neighbor, Morris, out of business. Karp, attuned to the commercial values that dominate society, always seems to have good luck, while Morris meets only ill luck. Morris has a certain wisdom born of suffering and endurance; in contrast, success has come too easily to Karp, and he has gained no wisdom from it, only a crafty understanding of how the world works. He guesses, for example, long before Morris does, that Frank is filching money from the store, because he knows how common such a practice is. He even stole from his employer himself, when he was a young man working for a half-blind shoe wholesaler.
Morris is also contrasted with his former business partner Charlie Sobeloff, whose ethical values are even worse than Karp's. When they were in business together, Sobeloff cheated Morris out of his money and then used his ill-gotten gains to set up in business himself. He has since achieved material success but at the price of
his personal integrity. There is a deep irony in the situation when Morris, the poor but honest man, is forced to go and work for Sobeloff, the rich but dishonest man. Sobeloff tells him at the end of one day's work that he is short a dollar in the cash register, thus indirectly accusing Morris of theft. Morris instantly makes up the money from his own pocket and then quits the job. He cannot endure such a slur on his character.
St. Francis Motif
A motif is a frequently recurring element in a piece of literature. In this novel, Frank Alpine is linked to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). St. Francis was born into a wealthy family but he turned his back on material possessions to devote his life to the care of the poor and the sick. He was reputed to have magical powers over animals and preached to the birds, who it was said, listened without fluttering. In the novel, St. Francis becomes a symbol of Frank's spiritual nature, the better, more moral life to which he aspires. Frank is fascinated by St. Francis. He remembers the stories about the saint that were read to him at the orphanage; he gazes at a picture of St. Francis in a magazine for five minutes and tells Sam Pearl that the saint was "born good." He reads a biography of St. Francis in the library and tells Helen a story about him.
As the months go by, Frank, in his own small way, becomes a little like St. Francis. He helps the poor by keeping the store open and by trying to give money to the Johnsen family; he is on hand to attend to the sick or those who need help. (Twice he saves Morris's life.) When Helen sees Frank in the park, he appears as a St. Francis-like figure as he feeds the birds. Pigeons perch on his shoulders; another bird sits on his hat.
In the penultimate paragraph of the novel, Frank has a thought about St. Francis. He imagines the saint appearing in front of the grocery and plucking from the garbage the wooden rose that Frank had made for Helen and which she had thrown away. In Frank's imagination, the saint turns the wooden rose into a real rose and presents it to Helen, calling it "your little sister the rose." This imaginative image that comes spontaneously into his mind suggests that Frank realizes that following the precepts of St. Francis is helping him to express his true love for Helen and hastening the day when she may accept him for the genuineness of his love. The wooden flower she discards; the real flower, by the grace of St. Francis, is one that perhaps she will accept.
Morris's grocery store is presented metaphorically as a prison or tomb. Early on, Morris thinks back to a time when he would spend whole days out in the open air. Now he almost never gets out: "In a store you were entombed." This is the first occurrence of a cluster of images—tomb, prison, cave—that suggests the nature of Morris's life. "A store is a prison," Morris says to Frank when they first meet. After Morris's death, Helen, who does not entirely share the rabbi's positive evaluation of Morris's life, says of the store, "He buried himself in it; he didn't have the imagination to know what he was missing." It seems that Morris goes from one enclosed box (the store) to another (his coffin). The metaphor may suggest the hardness of human life in general, the lack of freedom people have, perhaps also the necessity of suffering. The point of the metaphor is not only that human life, at least the kind of life Morris leads, may be compared to a prison, but that what matters is how a person responds to that situation, what kind of moral resources he or she brings to it. Morris shows his worth by his power of endurance and his refusal to act unethically (cheating his customers, for example) to escape his situation. He suffers, but he does not lose his humanity.
In this sense the store/prison serves as a testing ground, an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. The metaphor is applied also to Frank's life after he begins to work at the store and live in Morris's house. Al Marcus warns him, "This kind of a store is a death tomb," suggesting he is likely to be there forever unless he gets out while he still can. At one point, Frank himself refers to the store as an "overgrown coffin," and in one of his anti-Semitic moments, he thinks that the Jews are "born prisoners." When he finds himself working two jobs to keep the store afloat, Frank "lived in his prison in a climate of regret that he had turned a good thing into a bad," and he longs for escape.
But for Frank, the restricted life he lives at the store comes to resemble a monastic cell, a place where he can grow out of his restlessness and make spiritual progress like his hero St. Francis. The store may be a tomb, but it offers a kind of spiritual rebirth.
Jews in America
Over two million Jews fled pogroms in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe from 1881 to 1924 and came to the safety of the United States. (A pogrom is an organized riot or massacre that targets a particular group, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often Jews.) Morris Bober in The Assistant took the same route, fleeing Russia probably some time in the 1910s. The high rate of immigration to the United States during this period produced some anti-immigrant sentiment, which resulted in the National Origins Quota of 1924 that drastically restricted immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Although the United States traditionally offered religious tolerance, the new influx of Jewish immigrants faced considerable anti-Semitism during the 1920s and 1930s. Jews were discriminated against in employment, college admissions, and membership of clubs and organizations. Anti-Semitic activists propagated vicious stereotypes of the Jewish character, presenting them as atheists and communists who controlled the press and the financial centers and were therefore a threat to Christianity and the United States. The white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was virulently anti-Semitic, as were the writings of Henry Ford, the head of the Ford Motor Company. Anti-Semitism was also disseminated in the radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest, in the 1930s. Coughlin expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler's policies
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: Three of the greatest of all Jewish American writers are at early stages of their careers. In addition to Malamud, Saul Bellow (1915-2005) publishes The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), and Henderson the Rain King (1959), although Bellow, like Malamud, resists the label Jewish American writer. Both prefer to be known simply as writers, as does Philip Roth, who publishes his first work, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959 and goes on in a stream of later works to examine the experience of second-generation American Jews, many of whom are alienated from their cultural and religious traditions.
Today: Contemporary Jewish American literature uses more diverse settings than the work of earlier writers, who chose urban settings such as Brooklyn, Manhattan's Lower East Side, and Newark. For example, Steve Stern often explores a Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee, and Allegra Goodman's Paradise Park (2001) is set in Hawaii. This change reflects the dispersal of American Jews over a wider geographical area than formerly. Other contemporary Jewish American writers include Paul Auster (b. 1947), whose works include Oracle Night (2004) and The Brooklyn Follies (2005); Michael Chabon (b. 1963), whose The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001; and Jonathan Safran Foer (b. 1977), who is best known for his novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002).
- 1950s: Jews in the United States are a tightly knit community. Only about 6 percent of Jews marry non-Jews. Sociologist Will Herberg publishes Protestant-Catholic-Jew in 1954, citing surveys showing that Jews seek to retain their distinctive Jewish identity rather than acquire a broader American identity.
Today: The number of marriages between American Jews and non-Jews is rising. In 2000, the rate of such marriages was about 40 to 50 percent. As a result, many Jews are concerned about how the Jewish community can retain its distinct Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. Jewish leaders emphasize the importance of continuity within American Jewry.
- 1950s: The U.S. Jewish community is growing in number. Anti-Semitism is in decline, partly in response to the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel in 1948, and Israel's alliance with the United States. Increasingly prosperous, American Jews migrate from cities to suburbs. Jewish populations increase substantially in Los Angeles and Miami.
Today: According to the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002, there are 5,914,682 Jews in the United States, which is about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 40.5 percent of the worldwide population of Jews. Jews occupy a slightly smaller percentage of the total population of the United States than they did in the 1920s. The Jewish community has not grown appreciably in size since 1960. The metropolitan area with the highest Jewish population is New York City.
in Nazi Germany and blamed the Depression on a conspiracy of Jewish bankers. His anti-Semitism became so extreme that in the late 1930s, some radio stations in New York and Chicago refused to air his programs unless they were allowed to approve the script in advance. At the height of his popularity, Coughlin's broadcasts were heard by millions of Americans. However, anti-Semitism in the United States never approached the levels it attained in Europe during this period. In Europe, anti-Semitism reached its terrible climax during the years of the Nazi regime in Germany (1933-1945) that resulted in the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered.
After World War II and the extermination of European Jewry, the United States became the home of the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in the world. Anti-Semitism declined and increasing numbers of Jews were able to make lasting contributions to U.S. society and culture in all fields of endeavor. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sense of optimism among American Jews. The determination and high educational achievements of many second-generation Jewish immigrants ensured their success. (In The Assistant, Nat Pearl, the law student, is an example of a young Jew who is eager to live the American dream and become a prosperous professional.) However, as The Assistant shows, anti-Semitic sentiments were not entirely eliminated. Anti-Semitism is apparent in the attitude of the Polish immigrant woman who shops at Morris's grocery: "She had come with it from the old country, a different kind of anti-Semitism from in America." Otto Vogel, the German, says to Frank: "Don't work for a Yid, kiddo. They will steal your ass while you are sitting on it." Frank Alpine also has some anti-Semitic thoughts, and Morris thinks for some time that one of the reasons business has improved since Frank arrived is that people in the largely gentile neighborhood are more willing to shop at his store if they do not have to deal with a Jew.
Although the novel makes no direct mention of the Holocaust, that event is hinted at in Morris's attitude to Vogel. Morris always pays cash for the supplies Vogel brings, because "from a German he wanted no favors." Significantly also, when Morris is being gassed in his own home due to his carelessness, in his dreams he sees the two Norwegian grocers who are his rivals "gabbing in German" while he speaks in "gibbering Yiddish." Norwegians of course would speak Norwegian, not German, and it is notable also that Morris has this dream of "Germans" invading and stealing from his store while he is being gassed, since millions of Jews met their deaths in the gas chambers of the Nazis.
The Assistant is generally regarded as one of Malamud's three major novels, along with A New Life and The Fixer. Critics have often noted that the novel represents a significant advance on Malamud's first novel, The Natural (1952), in that the author has learned how to integrate symbolic and mythic elements into a realistic narrative. In this respect, Jeffrey Helterman comments that Malamud "settles brilliantly into the mode that will inform most of his best fiction. The world of the grocery store is real, and its characters are flesh and blood." But Helterman points out that these characters have mythic dimensions also, and he discusses the underlying importance of the medieval story of Parzival and the Fisher King. Parzival (Frank) is the pure spirit who heals the wound of Amfortas (Morris). At yet another level, Helterman suggests Frank is St. Francis, and Morris is Christ.
Another critic, Sheldon J. Hershinow, has pointed out the importance of fathers and sons in The Assistant. He writes, "The archetypal core of the novel is a variation of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, in which the father demonstrates unwavering love for his wayward son." Hershinow comments further on the merits of what he calls a "brilliant" novel: "Malamud weaves an intricate plot, and in taking the reader through unexpected but believable twists and reverses, he proves himself a master of both dramatic and ironic effect." When this is combined with an accurately observed setting and use of Yiddish speech rhythms, the novel becomes an "expression of simple dignity that presents a vision of the life of all men, not just Jews."
For Robert Kegan, The Assistant is not so much a realistic novel as a mystical one that creates in the relationship between the characters Morris and Frank the "I-thou" relationship described by the Jewish existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber in his book I and Thou. According to Kegan, "The Assistant mixes the flavor of the Hasidic folktale with the fervor of the twentieth-century quest."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In the following essay, he discusses The Assistant in terms of father-son relationships.
Bernard Malamud's The Assistant is a somber novel which suggests that the human lot is to suffer and to endure and through that to learn how to behave in a moral way, recognizing the needs of others even when one's own life is hard. The novel is at once tragic, since Morris Bober dies unfulfilled and poor, and redemptive, since Frank Alpine, learning from Morris, finds a way of patterning his own life after a moral ideal that had formerly eluded him.
Although the main characters are Morris and Frank, the minor characters all contribute to the structural pattern of the novel. The Assistant is in fact a novel about fathers and sons. There are four pairs of fathers and sons: Julius Karp and his son Louis; Sam Pearl and his son Nat; Detective Minogue and his son Ward; and Morris and his, in effect, adopted son Frank. The sons might be described respectively as the lazy, unambitious son; the successful but materialistic son; the bad son; and the good and the spiritual son. All of these young men seek Helen, the out-of-reach fertility goddess figure in the novel, but they go about it in very different ways.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Malamud's short story, "The First Seven Years," written in 1950, has some interesting similarities to The Assistant. It is about a Jewish shoemaker in New York who takes on a Jewish refugee as an assistant. Malamud was drawn to the character type of the apprentice who is trying to change his life, and in The Assistant, Frank Alpine fulfills the same role. "The First Seven Years" was published in Malamud's collection of short stories The Magic Barrel (1958).
- Saul Bellow's novel Herzog (1964) tells the story of Moses E. Herzog, a Jewish intellectual who is plunged into a personal crisis after his second marriage breaks up and he contemplates the failure of his life. He responds by sending out letters to all kinds of people; the letters reveal his experience growing up Jewish in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Herzog is very different from Morris Bober in The Assistant; he presents another strand of the complex tapestry of the Jewish-American experience.
- One of Philip Roth's earliest and best-known novels is the satire Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Its portrayal of the domineering Jewish mother and her repressed but libidinous son Alexander Portnoy is extremely funny, and it gives a picture of what it was like growing up Jewish in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.
- Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) is one of the finest novels ever written about the immigrant experience in the United States. Set in the slums of New York City's Lower East Side and beginning in 1911, it presents three years in the life of David, a sensitive young Jewish boy. Roth records the effect on the boy of growing up in a harsh environment in a difficult family. The novel perfectly captures the language used by the Jewish immigrants, including Yiddish and Hebrew. Roth's technique and achievement has been compared to that of James Joyce.
The first son to appear is Louis Karp. He is the "slightly popeyed son and heir," a generally unimpressive figure, unambitious, lacking in self-confidence, content to make "a relaxed living letting the fruit of his father's investment fall into his lap." Louis cannot see beyond his narrow, conventional horizons. He is too timid to court Helen seriously himself. As his father knows, if Louis is rebuffed he will retreat into a corner and bite his nails. Julius Karp has to concoct a scheme that he thinks will help his son win Helen's favor, but Helen, who has a vision of what her life might be if she could get a college education and meet the right man, does not take Louis seriously as a suitor, even though they spent a lot of time together when they were both in high school. Louis's great fault is that he does not change. The only change Helen ever observed in him was when, in high school, he saw a photograph of a movie actor and decided to part his hair in the same way that the star did. Louis is limited because all he wants is more of what he already has; he can only think in terms of what already exists; he cannot conceive a new way of thinking or acting. In this respect, he is his father's son, but without the ambition and cunning. All that can be said in favor of Louis Karp is that he will inherit some money, but he will never have the ability to ruthlessly examine his own life in the way that Frank Alpine does. Things have come too easily to him.
Nat Pearl is a stark contrast to Louis Karp. While it would be hard to imagine Louis ever having the ambition or drive to surpass his father, Nat has these qualities in abundance and is set to dwarf his father's very modest accomplishments. Sam Pearl, the candy store owner, is an amiable man who lets his wife run the store; he augments their income by successfully betting on horses. Unlike Julius Karp, however, he does not expect Nat merely to follow in his footsteps, but financially supports his son through college. Nat is described as "gifted, ambitious." He is in his second year of law school, has rich friends and is certain to be materially successful. He is a typical second-generation Jewish immigrant in the 1950s, eager to achieve the American dream and quite willing to pay the price of assimilation to achieve it. While Morris thinks of fulfilling the Jewish law, Nat is busy studying U.S. law. He is the type of young man who looks out for himself. His desires come first in his eyes, and he is accustomed to using his charm to make sure his desires are fulfilled. He wants Helen, for example, because he thinks she is available for sex. He seduced her during the summer, much to her regret, and he cannot understand why she has since frozen him out. Like Louis, Nat is not exactly a deep thinker, his academic brilliance notwithstanding. He wants what he can get out of life, rather than what he can give to others. Ultimately Helen rejects him because of this narrow, self-centered approach to life, in spite of the fact that her mother regards Nat as the most suitable candidate for her because he is or soon will be a professional and because he is Jewish. There is a sub-theme here about the tension between first- and second-generation immigrants that is common to many immigrants to the United States, Jewish or otherwise. Ida is desperate for her daughter not to associate with a "goy" (gentile), in order to maintain the family's Jewish identity, while Helen, although aware of her Jewishness, is also attuned to American values and does not use Jewishness as the sole factor in her search for a husband. The problem with Nat, as with Louis, is that he is not likely to change, not likely to re-examine his life and the principles on which it is based. When Helen starts tentatively seeing him again, she finds him "unchanged after all the months she hadn't been with him."
The third father-son relationship is between the non-Jews, Detective Minogue and Ward. Although it is only lightly sketched by Malamud, this relationship is the saddest of all the father-son relationships shown in the novel. Ward is a violent predator. He has been in trouble since junior high school, where he assaulted girls. He cannot hold down a job and has become a violent predator. He thinks nothing of hitting an old man over the head during a robbery, and he assaults Helen in the park with the intention of raping her. His father's response to all Ward's transgressions, going back to junior high, is to beat him up. Detective Minogue is not a man to whom a son might look for compassionate understanding, and the two have become enemies. It is a cruel inversion of the ideal father-son relationship. They are so estranged from each other that the father does not even know where his son is and has to search for him in the neighborhood. When he does find him, he beats him up yet again. The situation would be funny, like something out of a cartoon, if it were not so tragic. This is a natural relationship turned inside out; instead of closeness and nurturing there is distance and violence, a mutual incomprehension that can never be overcome. Ward's ludicrous death, when on a drunken raid on Karp's liquor store he accidentally sets fire to the place, is all too predictable. If Nat Pearl is too well attuned to the world and its materialistic values, Ward Minogue is so out of touch with what it takes to survive that his death seems almost merciful.
The final relationship, between Morris and Frank, is quite different from all of these. Morris once had a son, Ephraim, who died as a boy of an ear disease. After that tragedy, life closed down for Morris. Before, he would sometimes on holidays take his family out to see a Yiddish play or go visiting. Now, he hardly ever goes out. Morris still thinks of Ephraim; the loss of his son has left a hole in his life that has never been filled. Frank, for his part, is an orphan. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father left him when he was only five years old. Given their personal histories, it is perhaps natural that Morris and Frank are drawn to each other in the cramped prison of the grocery store. They are ready to serve a need in the other, whether that need is consciously acknowledged or not. Morris, for all his complaints about his life, possesses wisdom born of suffering; Frank, who is probably about the age Ephraim would have been, is an ignorant man badly in need of a guiding hand. Unlike the other fathers in the novel, Morris is uniquely capable of giving Frank such a helping hand. His adherence to a moral law that he identifies as Jewish law ensures that he regards others not as objects to be manipulated or exploited for his own gain, but as suffering individuals from whom he is not, in his own humanity, separate. Morris may not like to admit it, but poverty is a great teacher. Suffering and deprivation sensitize a man to the pain that others endure and to their essential helplessness in the face of their tragic fates: "The world suffers. He felt every schmerz." Because of his natural gift of empathy, Morris consistently helps those who need it. For example, he continues to offer credit to the customer who is identified only as "Drunk Woman." He once ran two blocks in the snow to give back to a poor woman a nickel she had left on the counter. He is kind to Al Marcus, who is dying of cancer but continues to do his rounds selling paper products in order to give himself a sense of worth. Even though Morris knows Al does not really need any money, "No matter how bad business was, Morris tried to have some kind of little order waiting for him." To give to others when you have almost nothing yourself is quite an achievement. Morris's quiet but empathic response to Frank the stranger is remarkable. He invites him in for coffee because he "knew a poor man when he saw one." He allows Frank to talk, accepting the younger man's need to unburden himself, and he is moved by Frank's story. "Poor boy," he says.
During his months working at the store, as Frank struggles with his wayward desires and nurses his ambition to better himself, he gradually finds himself absorbing Morris's instinctive moral bearings. Whereas before, Frank was homeless and restless, without a purpose in life, he now begins to see, although it takes a while before he can acknowledge it to himself, the steadfastness and the worth of the man who in the eyes of the world is worth almost nothing. He quietly adopts Morris as his substitute father, and Morris, although he never openly acknowledges it, guides Frank by example, the way a true father should. Nothing in this novel of poverty and suffering is ideal, but the fact that Frank can change so profoundly under Morris's influence offers hope that even within the prison of life, a measure of freedom can be found. This is the legacy that the good father gives to his adopted son.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Assistant, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Helterman presents the novel as a retelling of medieval myth in a modern setting. Frank Alpine plays St. Francis to the Christ of Morris Bober. There are also elements of the Parzival Myth.
In The Natural, the characters are mythic at both levels: the literal story of the baseball season and the archetypal level of the Grail myth. Even though sometimes based on real people and no matter how fascinating or how sharply drawn, these are characters who never were. They are literary characters who have never dwelt beyond the covers of a book. This is not true of Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), in which the novelist settles brilliantly into the mode that will inform most of his best fiction. The world of the grocery store is real, and its characters are flesh and blood. Malamud knows this world well. His father ran a grocery store not unlike Bober's, and Malamud's first published story in high school was an account of his own life "behind the counter."
The characters live and breathe the small lives of the most ordinary men, but what is extraordinary is that Malamud has also invested them with the mythic stature he had given his baseball players. This is partially because these characters have very carefully worked out mythic antecedents, but more because Malamud has made their every act meaningful. They are capable of deeds of courage and cowardice, hard-heartedness and compassion, worthy of the greatest of heroes.
In The Assistant, Malamud again retells medieval myth in a modern setting. This time, however, he counterpoints the Wasteland myth found in The Natural against the history of St. Francis of Assisi. Both medieval archetypes center around a pair of characters: Parzival and the Fisher King, Amfortas, in the first, and Francis and Christ in the second. The novel's principal characters, Frank Alpine and Morris Bober, find themselves in a set of antithetical relationships. Frank Alpine, a man who comes from San Francisco, whose favorite book is The Little Flowers (a medieval collection of vignettes of St. Francis), who is first seen feeding birds in the park (the saint loved birds so much he preached to them), will become St. Francis to Morris Bober's Christ. In this relationship, the morally weak Frank will learn from Bober's spiritual strength. In the Wasteland myth, however, Bober, is Amfortas, the maimed Fisher King who is waiting to be restored by Frank's Parzival. On this level, the despondent Bober will be cured by the energetic Frank.
St. Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, turned his back on his father's material possessions to enter the monastic life where he embraced poverty so completely that his followers were called Pauvres Frères ("impoverished brothers"). In giving up worldly wealth, he turned his back on the flesh and its pleasures, particularly, food and women. He was known for his fasts and would go off for weeks with a minimal amount of bread and water and return with half his supplies intact. In giving up the wealth of world, he was following literally Christ's admonition to "sell all you have and follow me." In all he did, Francis's aim was the imitation of Christ. His ultimate reward was the appearance of the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ, on his body. The stigmata signified that he had learned to suffer like Christ for mankind. In the novel, Morris is wounded in the robbery staged by Frank and the detective's son, Ward Minogue. This wound doubles as the Fisher King's wound and the original stigmata of Christ. Frank first appears to have stigmata when he scratches his hands with his nails in his frustrated desire for Helen, but the ultimate stigmata occur at the end of the novel when he is circumcised, making him a Jew like Bober.
When Frank first appears in Bober's grocery, he is filled with the same worldly appetites that Francis had to give up. Frank steals food, and even looks upon Bober's daughter Helen with "hungry eyes." Little by little, Frank learns to govern and then give up his appetites. This restraint is not a negative or limiting attitude, but is converted into a positive activity, feeding the poor, which he learns from the example of Bober. At the very beginning of the novel, Bober, standing under his No Trust (no credit) sign gives food on credit to a drunken woman he knows will never repay him. Later, Frank performs the same duty when he goes to collect a bad debt from Carl, the Swedish painter. Seeing the man's poverty, he forgives the debt just as Bober would do, though he still has much to learn about the extent of Bober's powers of forgiveness. Eventually, Frank feeds the hungry day and night by turning the grocery into an all-night restaurant and working in a diner by day to help pay Bober's bills. By this time, he, like the saint, has almost stopped eating entirely.
Frank also learns to restrain his sexual appetites. When St. Francis was wondering about his decision to become a friar, he built himself a snow woman and snow children and declared that they were all the family he needed because he was going to put the flesh behind him. Frank tells Helen this story, but she takes it in a self-centered way and begins to think of herself as an idealized snow woman whose chastity is her only valuable possession. After Frank forces himself upon Helen the night he rescues her from attempted rape, Helen wraps herself in the snow woman's mantle and looks on Frank with an icy face while Frank dreams of looking at her through a frozen window. From this stage of self-revulsion on his side and rejection on hers, Frank's love for Helen changes from appetitive lust to a love that is more responsibility than anything else.
As the maimed Fisher King in the Parzival legend, Morris Bober laments the fact that he cannot even feed his family, just as the king of the Wasteland cannot feed his people. Like Pop Fisher in The Natural, Morris attributes his failure to bad luck. Though his luck is bad, the real reason he fails is that he is too honest to take advantage of anyone. He continues to give credit to the poor and refuses to cheat his customers.
In his honesty and bad luck, Morris is contrasted with a neighboring shopkeeper, Julius Karp, a liquor store owner, who seems always to have good luck. Morris never realizes that most of Karp's luck is manufactured by his selfishness. In the robbery that opens the novel's action, Karp, who is afraid his liquor store is about to be robbed, goes to Bober to let him know he might want to use his telephone (Karp, the richer man, is too cheap to have a telephone) to call the police. The obligation to remain open in case Karp returns freezes Bober in the store, while Karp runs off and leaves Bober as the robbers' only victim.
Karp also keeps renting an empty storefront to rival grocers on Bober's block, even though he knows the neighborhood cannot support two groceries. Though Karp pleads financial hardship, he makes it clear he would leave the store empty if his son Louis married Helen. Only self-interest can make Karp charitable. The wonder of their relationship is that Karp appreciates Bober's virtue more than Bober does himself, and often finds ways to spend time with Bober, if only to be in the presence of such goodness. This contact with goodness does not, however, change Karp at all.
Bober, on the other hand, never takes advantage of anyone. When a poor immigrant is about to buy his wretched store, Bober cannot keep his mouth shut, and by telling him the truth about the store's meager earnings frightens off the potential buyer. Not only does Morris refuse to cheat the poor, he doesn't even feel jealous of the success of his ex-partner, Charlie Sobeloff, who has bilked him out of four thousand dollars and used the money to start a successful supermarket.
Morris's despair comes from the fact that he does not appreciate the value of his own virtue and charity. Though he despises the values of Karp, the worldly wise man, who makes his living selling brain-destroying alcohol rather than life-giving milk, Bober still measures his own success by Karp's standards, and seen on those terms, the little grocery is a wasteland as barren as Amfortas's.
The Wasteland can only be restored if a pure, but foolish, knight comes to the Grail feast where he must ask the right question. The question is different in different versions of the myth, but usually has to do with the nature of the king's wound or the meaning of the feast. In the legend, Parzival finds Amfortas, is too overwhelmed by decorum to ask the question, and is sent away after being told he has failed his quest forever. Parzival, too "foolish" to accept this judgment, finds the Fisher King again, asks the question, heals the Fisher King, takes his place, and the land is restored.
Frank makes much the same mistakes as Parzival. His mindless eating in the store is the same as Parzival's presence at the initial Grail feast. Frank does ask the questions, "What is a Jew?" and "Why do you suffer?" but he is not wise enough to understand the apparently simple answers, "a Jew is a good man" and "I suffer for you." Like Parzival, his intentions are good, but he is not ready to assume the place of the king and is thrown out when he makes a foolish mistake. Frank begins his virtuous life by putting back some of the money he has stolen from Morris. Morris catches Frank stealing Frank's own money, but doesn't realize it. He fires his assistant just at the moment that Frank has begun his reformation. This is the fate of men like Frank: every time he tries to do a good deed, it turns out wrong. He has yet to learn that the nature of the deed is more important than its result.
Frank's virtue, instead of easing Morris's despair, therefore, increases it, because Morris feels he has lost the "son" he thought he had found in Frank. At the same time, new rival grocers have driven Morris's business down to nothing, and he turns on the gas and "accidentally" forgets to light it. Frank rescues Morris and resumes his job while Morris recuperates. The gas-filled store becomes Morris's self-created gas chamber as he dreams the rival Norwegian grocers are speaking German. Between the apparent betrayal of Frank, his daughter's indiscretions with the assistant, and Karp's renting to the Norwegians, Morris becomes convinced of man's infinite inhumanity to man. Since he might as well have become a victim of the Nazis, he allows the gas to destroy his spirit, his breath of life.
Though Frank has saved his life, Bober has hardened his heart against him and refuses to let him stay, even after Frank confesses his part in the holdup. Bober already knew this, and it is not the original crime that makes him refuse the assistant. Bober wants Frank to stay, but is not yet Christlike enough to turn the other cheek. He had accepted the robbery that occurred when Frank was a stranger and desperate. He cannot accept the subsequent petty theft in the store (even though it is finished) because this time Frank had asked to be trusted. For Morris, the breakdown of trust is the breakdown of one man's responsibility for another.
When Frank finds out that Bober had known for a long time that he was one of the robbers, he begins to understand what Bober means by saying, "I suffer for you." In fact, Frank understands Bober better than Bober understands himself. By knowing about Frank's crimes without revealing them or using them for moral leverage, Bober has taken responsibility for Frank's life and suffer for him the way Christ suffered for mankind. Since Christ was crucified for our sins, the pain of his crucifixion is increased every time man sins. When Frank realizes this, he knows that he must take up Morris's burden in the store as Morris had taken up his burden of sin. In doing this, he learns what St. Francis had learned about taking up the burdens of Christ.
Source: Jeffrey Helterman, "The Assistant," in Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985, pp. 37-44.
In the following essay, Kegan shows that the novel mixes elements of the Hasidic folktale with the modern mystical quest. He analyzes the key moments in terms of Malamud's mysticism that occurs within a Hasidic context. The emphasis is on the relationship between Morris Bober and Frank Alpine.
The Assistant mixes the flavor of the Hasidic folktale with the fervor of the twentieth-century quest. The result is startling. Malamud, a macher indeed, fashions Identity itself, alive and dancing, and in so doing, brings to life the very rhythm of the I-Thou relationship—a self-transcending communication. Mystery abounds, redounds to the reader: life is renewed, creation continuous. The Assistant is, in greatest part, of a cool or stern mysticism—as characteristic of Malamud's mystery as heat and explosion are proper to Bellow—of a stern mysticism, to be likened to the Hasidic stance of aboda, of service or devotion, of "collecting oneself and becoming at one." Akin to this is the notion of the yihud, the unity of the transcendent—that a man produces or creates the unity of the transcendent through the unity of his own becoming. The man of becoming, this Frank Alpine, comes out of nowhere, the American man, belonging to nothing, lastly himself, rightly defined by what he is not ("a goy after all"), a man wholly disjoint. "what am I," aboda asks, "and what is my life?"
Alpine's identity is the central concern of even our first meeting with him when he comes into the store. It is our concern: he is masked, a white handkerchief over his face. It is his concern: "A cracked mirror hung behind him on the wall above the sink and every so often he turned to stare into it." And it is Morris's concern: the grocer's "frightened eyes sought the man's but he was looking elsewhere."
Looking elsewhere or not, the grocer and the robber, at this first meeting, experience an oddly primal sort of communication as the two men take water from the same cup; and so, in this folktale fashion of his, Malamud introduces the spirit of the yihud through the act of meeting, the act of union; Malamud lets us know that whoever this man is he is going to relate to Morris in a way that runs deep, to the core, to the beginning.
Through the flavor of folktale Malamud manages—without any damage to the story—to pull across every page the continuing question, "Who is this Frank Alpine?" We know at the start, from the intensity of their unity, that the answer lies in Morris Bober; and Alpine himself—as in need of the answer as the rest of us, the man of becoming, of aboda, mystically attached to Morris—repeatedly emerges as the grocer's savior. Aboda is service: "all action bound in one and the infinite carried into every action: this is aboda." Frank's repeated saving of Morris has about it the mystery of something bigger than persons. It is that which exists between persons: it is relationship. It is here, say Buber and Malamud—each in his own way—it is here that the sacred resides.
Saving the grocer the first time wins Alpine legitimate entry to the house where he at is once a stranger—this disciple of St. Francis, this "Italyener," this man who when eating a Jewish roll says, "Jesus, this is hard bread"—and at once a familiar—"Morris knew a poor man when he saw one", being a poor man himself. Alpine evokes in the grocer a sense of repulsion—"He shifted in his chair, fearing to catch some illness", and a sense of affinity—"I am sixty, he talks like me", and throughout this first face-to-meeting the two men continue to communicate on an order as primal and pure as the sharing of water:
Why don't he go home, Morris thought.
"I'm going," Frank said.
But The Assistant is not a folktale or a myth. It is not, like Malamud's first novel, The Natural, a story of magic through and through. Instead Malamud waits until the reader is drawn into a real frame before he begins without warning to distort that frame. Malamud creates a real frame by giving us perfectly plausible motives for Frank's appearance and desire to remain in the store: at first we see this as guilt at his thievery and pity for Morris; and then, when this wears thin, the author introduces the attraction to Helen, Morris's daughter. Malamud draws us into the frame by duping us twice over: by the promise of superior knowledge, and by a pretense to gimmickry. We think we know more than Morris and Helen. But this is of course a deception. The reason Frank stays is because of Morris and Helen, but only initially for the reasons we suppose. There is a force growing here, about which we have no knowledge whatever, and when we do begin finally to sense that this is so, when the frame of reality begins to give way, it is too late. We are caught.
We know before anyone, for example, that Frank is the man who robbed the store. Thus Helen's feeling that Frank "had done something—had committed himself in a way she couldn't guess" is quickly understood by us to refer to the robbery. It is only later that—duped into thinking we know all the dynamics—thoroughly drawn into the store and the story—we discover the exact nature of Frank's commitment: to learn self, to learn relation. In the same way, Malamud is careful to inform the reader that Frank's touching self-explorations before the grocer are little more than theater. When Frank says to Morris, "Something is missing in me," Malamud follows this with "Frank felt he had all he wanted from him at the moment. "This is, at the moment, convincing enough for us. We feel we understand the man and his motives.
Dwelling in what we think is a completely real world we see Frank's move toward Jewishness as the author's device to indicate the development of Frank's relationship to Helen and Morris. We think of the emerging identity as significant in terms of its sameness to that of Helen and Morris. In other words, if we are thinking about it, we think of it as a gimmick. In fact, however, as we come to learn in what is the essential experience of the story, the move toward Jewishness is the very definition of these relationships. For example, in the beginning, when we see Alpine dressed in the grocer's clothes, then stripped of them, then in them again more firmly than before, we feel that with the subtlety of a small hammer Malamud is saying, "Look, Frank is becoming like Morris." Exposed to this kind of surface work, we feel we are simply being told he is getting more Jewish rather than being shown what it is to be Jewish and so we think of Jewishness as an indicator, a device.
Unthreatened by obvious device, made comfortable by prior knowledge, we are relaxed in a situation we are convinced we understand. There seems to be nothing going on that is beyond our control: a reader likes this feeling of sitting on high, looking down and deciding it's all very interesting. And Malamud makes certain we stay convinced of our superiority. If we were thinking some deeper attraction might be involved, and had begun to ask ourselves, "What exactly can Frank get from Morris?", Malamud quiets this thought in Bober's line that, swallowed here, becomes difficult to digest later on: "What can you learn here? Only one thing—heartache." If and when we are no longer satisfied that Alpine remains at the store simply out of guilt or pity, when we are on the verge of discovering with what kind of energies we are really dealing, Malamud feeds us a little more line by introducing the second motive—the attraction to Helen. Fine. This we understand. The fish stays and the hook is set.
Now that he has us Malamud spares us nothing. The mere wearing of the Jew's apron, and "the clean clothes Morris had sent down [for Alpine] that fitted him after Ida lengthened and pressed the cuffs"—all of this easy role-playing, this telling, gives way to internal wrenching, internal lengthening and pressing. Guilt at his deed, lust for the daughter—hah!—this is just the sort of tolerable anguish to pull Frank and the reader into the house. What is he doing there? He answers the question—significantly enough—with a question of his own: "What is the Jew," he asks, "to me?" And what are we doing there? Why, we hardly know. Only a moment before everything seemed so clear. The story was being told to us, and now—now it's hard to explain, things have a new shape, or rather no shape at all. And there we are, with Frank, in the middle of things, looking for something we can recognize. It is the most difficult task of all for a twentieth-century American author to bring his reader to transcendent mystery. Yet this is, as he has told me, Malamud's very goal. "My job" he has said, "is to create mystery. Exemplification of mystery is the creation of mystery." And if it can only be done by a trick, then at least it can still be done. Saul Bellow, as we will see, accomplished the end through the American voice in Augie March and through myth in Henderson the Rain King. Malamud, in The Fixer, pretends to historical perspective. In The Assistant he dupes us by setting up a frame of reality that we can objectify, and then distorting that reality, disturbing our peace, toppling us into the story itself, never telling us anything again, passing all of it on through relation:
What kind of a man did you have to be to shut yourself up in an overgrown coffin? You had to be a Jew. They were born prisoners. Deadly patience, endurance. That's what they live for, Frank thought, to suffer. And the one that has got the biggest pain in the gut and can hold onto it the longest without running to the toilet is the best Jew. No wonder they got on his nerves!
Patience and endurance get on his nerves. Yet he is drawn, violently, desperately, to the two people who represent these qualities to him. For Helen, too, repeatedly alarms him with her "determination" and her "seriousness." Their relationship, like that with Morris, is clearly shaped by Alpine's drive to find some shape of his own.
And though there is an important distinction, which we will discuss later, it is as much through Helen as Morris that we see the identity emerging. Through Helen, too, we are in the presence of aboda, of a special service whose purpose is to answer the question "Who am I and what is my life?" As their relationship tightens Alpine grows enough for Helen to sense, if only subconsciously, that her confusion—"something evasive about him, something hidden. … He sometimes appeared to be more than he was, sometimes less"—that this confusion has a name: "Don't forget," she blurts uncontrollably, "I'm Jewish." He replies, "So what?" and thinks of himself as crashing through a wall. A commitment is made and it is followed by the desire for instruction. "What do Jews believe in?" he asks Morris. And though he has not yet grown enough to appreciate how profound is his instructor, he is faced with the most essential definition of Jewishness Malamud or Hasidism are able to impart:
"Why do they suffer so much? It seems they
like to suffer."
"They suffer because they are Jews."
"More than they have to?"
"If you live you suffer."
"What do you suffer for, Morris?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you suffer for me."
Here is the core of the novel. It is to this moment that all action real and mystical has led; and it is from this moment that all action real and mystical proceeds. We have learned by this time that Frank's metamorphosis is something more than a gimmick, that we are involved with definition; but not until this moment are we given that definition. We have seen the mystery of aboda and yihud in the repeated rescuing of Morris, in the strange way the two men are drawn together; and we will see it again in Frank's later "discipline," in the "unity of becoming" that is the story's climax—but the essential Hasidic mystery, the mystery the Hasidim saved from Judaism, and that Buber consecrated into the I-Thou relationship, is the mystery to be found in these lines:
"What do you suffer for, Morris?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you suffer for me."
The first words of Hasidism, the spoken tale, which Buber says "developed out of a simple necessity to create a verbal expression adequate to an overpowering objective reality," which have, "at their base … the stammering of inspired witnesses" record the mystery Malamud exhumes in the dialogue above. The Hasidim tell the story of Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, who, desiring to greet a friend a long way from his home, set out one day to reach him. After a long trip he found his door, knocked on it, and heard a voice say, "Who is it?" Rabbi Aaron answered, "I," and was refused admission. Returning to his home, Rabbi Aaron spent a year grieving and considering what had passed. At the end of this time he set out again for the home of his friend. Again he knocked on the door, and again he heard a voice within say, "Who is it?" This time Rabbi Aaron answered, "Thou" and was admitted.
But inasmuch as Frank does not understand Morris, is not at this stage ready to understand, let us ourselves grow with him into the shape of this mystery. Frank has some distance to travel. While there is certainly truth to his repeated phrase "I am not the same guy I was," he has only glimpsed the significance of what Malamud chooses to call "discipline." That he has none himself he demonstrates twice over by trying to rob what he needs to complete himself from the two people he knows to possess it. But what he needs from the grocer is not money, nor from the daughter, sex. What he needs are not things. He emerges at this stage a Jew only to the undiscerning eye of Ward Minogue ("You stinking k——"), whose misperception is grotesquely underscored by the donation of his identity to Alpine himself, a man that night as far from the covenant as any man might be—"Dog, uncircumcised dog," Helen yells at him after he violates her. "The span of a man's life lies between seeking and finding," Buber says of aboda. "Yea, a thousand-fold backsliding of the weak and wandering soul."
Frank is a man in search of fulfillment. He is in need. In robbing Morris of his money, Helen of her virginity, he seeks perversely to satisfy that need, demonstrating its intensity. "He spoke of his starved and passionate love, and all the endless heartbreaking waiting. Even as he spoke he thought of her as beyond his reach …" But Frank is the man of aboda, of service, the assistant. This is his way to fulfillment. In the language of neo-Hasidism, it is only through achieving the relationship of an I to a Thou with Morris and Helen, rather than treating them as things, or uses, that he will reach such fulfillment. Although the relationship to Helen is different from the one with Morris—the first within the frame of reality, the second, allegorical, and beyond it—Frank serves each, is devoted to each, and his fate rests upon what he can learn from the first to apply to the second.
Only now, wallowing in self-disgust, does Frank learn that he has with him the muscle for discipline, for self-initiated devotion, for aboda: "He discovered that all the while he was acting like he wasn't he was really a man of stern morality." Once again he saves the grocer, who this time has nearly asphyxiated himself; but this kind of service we have seen before. It is part of the mystical wave that washes over the story. Frank must do it himself, unassisted either by Nick, the other tenant, or forces beyond himself: "He would do it all on his own will, nobody pushing him but himself."
Now Frank's service becomes mysterious. Though bound ever more intensely to the grocer he becomes himself the object of his assistance, and to more than either of them, it is to an ultimate focus—the relationship between, the holy sparks seeking redemption—that he is drawn. We have wondered throughout at Frank's intentions; now suddenly the matter is transformed, suffused by Forster's "bar of light." Frank's intentions have become "kavanas," the mystery of the intending soul directed to redemption, goalful, but without purpose. Kavana is not will," Buber writes:
It does not think of transplanting an image into the world of actual things, of making fast a dream as an object so that it may be at hand, to be experienced at one's convenience in satiating recurrence. Nor does it desire to throw the stone of action into the well of happening that its waters may for a while become troubled and astonished, only to return then to the deep command of their existence … not this is kavana's meaning, that the horses pulling the great wagon should feel one impulse more or that one building more should be erected beneath the awe-full gaze of the stars. Kavana does not mean purpose but goal.
But this is difficult for the purposeful assistant to learn. In his frenzied rededication to fulfill himself he reads a history of the Jews, "trying to figure out why they are the Chosen People"; but he cannot. "But," Buber writes of kavana,
the liberation [of the holy sparks, the redemption from the exile within] does not take place through formulae of exorcism or through any kind of prescribed and special action. All this grows out of the ground of otherness, which is not the ground of kavana. No leap from the everyday into the miraculous is required. … It is not the matter of the action, but only its dedication that is decisive. Just that which you do in the uniformity of recurrence or in the disposition of events, just this answer of the acting person to the manifold demands of the hour—an answer acquired through practice or won through inspiration—just this continuity of the living stream, when accomplished in dedication, leads to redemption.
Frank works. He works twenty hours a day, giving all of his money, all of himself, to the Bober family. He cleans the store, repaints the walls, varnishes the shelves. He suffers, he repents, he waits, and keeps serving: "All action bound in one," doing it, "with discipline and with love." It is a period of ultimate service: "Frank felt he would promise anything to stay there." There is in his devotion, in aboda with kavana, the quality of prayer, of prayer as the Hasidim understand it: "Men think they pray before God, but it is not so, for prayer itself is divinity."
In Frank's final rescue of Morris from the fire, Frank is able himself, beyond the mystical wave that seems to keep bringing them together, to see the necessity of their union, of their meeting. His language indicates that he does not yet understand exactly how the union is effected; still he says it: "For Christ's sake, Morris, take me back here." "Each act becomes divine service and divine work when it is directed toward the union."
But that union is not finally consummated—cannot be consummated—until Morris dies, dies as he lived, brushing away a little snow, which, before his body is cold, returns to fill in the little space he cleared. As the relationship between Morris and Frank has been carried out beyond the reality frame, as they are, in relation, not so much persons as the personification of the I-Thou relationship itself, Frank's at-one-ment becomes a celebrative collecting of Morris.
The ultimate act of Alpine's conversion, the complete coming together, is a story painted with the color and stroke of the Hasidic folktale. In its brightness and fancy, joy and sadness it most vividly calls to mind the work of Marc Chagall. Pushed by the wave that moves over the entire story, Alpine falls into his teacher's grave, "flailing his arms, landing feet first," "dancing," as Helen and Ida see it, "on the grocer's coffin." In this moment Alpine receives the one gift the grocer has to give—his identity—as the I-Thou relationship is literally consummated. Here the transcendent is most powerfully present through the metaphorical acting out of the notion of the yihud: one produces or creates the unity of God through the unity of his own becoming.
In fulfillment aboda is transcended and replaced by ecstasy: "Hitlahabut is as far from aboda as fulfillment is from longing. And yet hitlahabut streams out of aboda as the finding of God from the seeking of God … As aboda flows out to hitlahabut, the basic principle of Hasidic life, so here too kavana flows into hitlahabut … He who serves in perfection … [brings] … hitlahabut into the heart of aboda. He who has ascended from aboda to hitlahabut has submerged his will in service, and receives his deed from it alone, having risen above every separate service. In this moment Frank Alpine is prayer. Of hitlahabut, Buber has written: "At times it reveals itself in some action which it consecrates and fills with holy significance. The purest manifestation is in dance. In this the whole body becomes subservient to the ecstatic soul. Out of a thousand waves of movement it evokes in a kindred and visible form an image of the many fluctuations of elation and dejection of the enraptured soul. ‘Among all who saw his holy dancing, there was not one in whom a divine conversion did not take place.’ …"
This is the moment of Alpine's conversion, the complete unification: "all walls have fallen, all boundary stones are uprooted, all separation is destroyed," as Buber says it. Only a moment before dancing in the grave, while sitting in the synagogue, he was not a Jew. He thought then, "Suffering to them is like a piece of goods. I bet the Jews could make a suit of clothes out of it." But a moment after having left the grave, suffering is not to him a thing, something to be worn or traded. But instead it is something within which one effects the most essential sort of communication: "He felt pity on the world for harboring him." He expresses his suffering for himself in terms of his suffering for that which is beyond himself. Woven into his expression of feeling for another is the apprehension of the other's feeling for him. He both eliminates himself and increases himself as he himself becomes no part and all part of relationship.
He is the Jew. He is Morris. The women in the family think of him not as the clerk but as "the grocer." His hair, like Morris's has grown thick. He is attached, with the same irony, to the Yiddish newspaper The Forward. And keenest of all, for no reason he has to explain, he finds himself awaking to get the Polisheh her three cents' worth of rolls. Of that practice he had said earlier, "Who but a Jew?"
"What do you suffer for, Morris?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you suffer for me."
Within the Hasidic context Malamud brings to life the mystery of two men relating so perfectly that one person becomes that other person to whom he relates. The pure and perfect communication that takes place in the beginning of the book, when the two men share water, finds its mystically mature expression in Frank's actual assumption of Morris's identity.
But Malamud's mysticism has been carefully confined to Alpine's relationship with the grocer. The lesson we learn here—in a world removed from our own—is important only as we see it can be applied to the world we understand; only Frank is person as well as metaphor. The author is careful to screen the relationship with Helen from any of these flights from the frame of reality. It is here, in the real-life situation, that the lesson is applied. "Love," Buber tells us, "is the responsibility of an I for a Thou." We have learned through the personification of an idea that the essence of the relationship is a responsibility—an ability to respond—that results in one person becoming the other. Is there a sense in which we see this to happen in realistic terms between Frank and Helen? Both Frank and Helen want a college education more than anything else, yet at the book's end each expresses this desire in terms of providing the college education for the other.
Nonetheless, in characteristic fashion, Malamud gives us only a hopeful indication that the young people will be able to achieve such a relationship. Moses, Morris, the book itself—they wander through the desert and die with salvation still left to be written … by the reader.
What Malamud has written for us is the wandering, the moving to the edge. And he has written it in the form of a painstakingly slow moment-by-moment account of one person relating to another man. Who is the other? He is a man who has been in the desert all his life. When he tells Morris of his life (and Morris tells him of the Old Country) he tells tales of "wandering" and "long periods of travel." He is the man born in the wilderness: "Now all of the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised" (Joshua 5:3). Both in this country of Italian origin, an orphan for as long as he can remember—cut loose from father and fatherland—he is from every part of the United States and from no part. He is the American.
Malamud really carries one step further Joyce's story of Leopold Bloom, the wandering Jew of the modern world. Having lost his son while still a child, left only with a daughter, Bloom is reunited at the end of his day to the father-son relationship, as he and Stephen—so promising yet so in need of father and friend—share cocoa in the early hours of the morning. In effect, what Malamud has done with Morris and Frank is to nurture the seed that seems to have been planted amidst the fertile energy of Molly Bloom's closing soliloquy. Rudy has returned. As Buber has said: "Every man can say Thou and is then I, every man can say Father and is then Son."
Source: Robert Kegan, "The Assistant's Service," in The Sweeter Welcome: Voices for a Vision of Affirmation: Bellow, Malamud, and Martin Buber, Humanitas Press, 1976, pp. 37-48.
In the following essay, Ducharme discusses the pervasive irony in the novel, in both situation and language, and its thematic functions. Through the use of irony, Malamud juxtaposes the fantastic and the real and achieves a balance between hope and despair.
My strictures against The Natural may have left the impression that I think mixing of comic and serious modes is fatal to the novel. While it is true that the mixing of modes has been unfortunate in some novels—as, for instance, the clash of the romantic with the satiric in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited—there have been, nevertheless, modern novels remarkable for the success with which they combine the comic with tragic. Keith Waterhouse's Jubb is a brilliant example. But we do not have to go any further than Malamud's The Assistant to find a novel that successfully combines the realistic with the symbolic, the serious with the comic.
If, as Harold Kaplan suggests, irony is a device by which "an omniscience entertains itself, but also it is the way in which it proves itself", Malamud entertained himself with The Natural and proved himself with The Assistant. The materials and themes of this novel have been used in earlier stories of Malamud collected in The Magic Barrel. In "Take Pity" Eva, a poor widow, refuses the pity and help of Rosen because to accept it is to accept her own defeat. This is analogous to the resistance Helen offers to the repentant love of Frank Alpine in The Assistant because to accept it means to give up her dreams of escaping from the tedium of a life like Ida's and Morris's. In "The Mourners" we have in Kessler a repentant reprobate like Frank Alpine, while in "The Prison" the setting of a neighbourhood store becomes a symbolic ands real prison for the proprietor Tommy Catelli just as the grocery operates for Morris Bober as a confining cell. The Assistant's old lightbulb salesman Breitbart appeared in the earlier, uncollected story "An Apology" where he was an equally pitiable figure. Finally "The High Cost of Living" and "The Bill" worked with the theme of economic depression in the Thirties and the suffering it caused Jewish shopkeepers; Malamud uses the same social materials for The Assistant.
The irony in The Assistant begins with the title. It initially refers to Frank Alpine as the helper in Morris Bober's grocery store, but Frank also assist Helen to move away from her selfish ambition for success in the world. Ironically, Frank also assist Morris to his grave at the same time that Morris is assisting Frank to discover a set of principles that will give his suffering value. There is a great deal of irony too in the situation of the novel. The three Jewish families (Karp, Pearl, and Bober) live isolated within a gentile neighbourhood, a kind of microcosm of the ghetto within a modern urban setting. Yet it is to these isolated Jewish families that the Italian Frank Alpine, who was brought up in a Catholic orphanage, comes in search not only of economic survival but of a home as well. Furthermore, as Ben Siegel has remarked, Frank's conversion to Judaism reverses "the familiar assimilation story." Morris and Frank, however, reverse not only a cultural pattern, but a religious one as well. Naim Kattan, a French Canadian critic, has noted that Frank Alpine, as an ironically wandering Christian "reverse les roles assignés habituellement aux Juifs et aux Chrétiens." Thus, the Jew Morris Bober is the apologist for the Christian virtues of charity and compassion. This role reversal then issues in the reversal of the American cultural pattern of assimilation of foreigners, for "c'est le Chrétien qui se convertit, c'est le Judaisme qui est assimilateur."
Like Leopold Bloom, Morris "dotes on the memory of a dead son in infancy, and Frank, his heir, is Stephen Deadalus." But ironically, because Morris does not see Frank as a replacement for the dead son Ephraim, he never really accepts Frank once he has discovered his petty thievery and his role in the initial robbery of the store. Just as Morris yearns for a son but turns out the son who comes to him, Frank is also in quest of a father; but here, too, there is irony in the displacement pattern, for Frank finds a father in Morris only to replace him through death, and he finds a girl to love in Helen only to assume a selfless, essentially paternal, role toward her as provider for her education. Morris refuses to forgive Frank's thievery, but Julius Karp overlooks his son Louis' pilfering from the cash register, though he occasionally complains loudly about it. Karp's forbearance, however, ironically issues from no attitude of forgiveness; rather, he looks upon Louis' pilfering as inevitable, a sign of his shrewdness, a mark of the same business acumen that has been largely responsible for his own financial success.
One central event on which much of The Assistant's plot turns is Frank's unfortunate rape of Helen in the park. Just before this, Morris has discovered Frank's petty thievery from the till and fired him. Ironically Morris discovers Frank removing one of six dollars he has just put into the cash register to pay back part of what he has been pilfering. While Helen awaits Frank in the park, she admits to herself for the first time, and she is ready to admit to Frank, that she is in love with him. Frank's fortunes with Morris are low at this point, though not irreparable; his prospects for winning Helen, however, could not be better. Frank's rescue of Helen from the lascivious arms of Ward Minogue can only enhance his position in her eyes. Though just a little while earlier Helen's idea of discipline had seized him with an unexpected attraction, Frank is nevertheless, overwhelmed by his own passion and he takes Helen by force, ironically destroying thereby his best chance for winning her permanently.
There is irony too in the language in which Morris Bober describes his own plight; it arises from a bleakly comic perspective that is dark, but not bitter, in the tradition if Yiddish humorists. Morris interposes this wry point of view between himself and his difficult life in order to wrench, if possible, a smile from his circumstance, a guffaw to forestall a terrible howl of grief. This is consistent with Malamud's attempt to show us men who are good, though highly flawed, men who manage, as Frank says, to be "better than they are." "The affectionate insult and the wry self-deprecation are parts of the same ironic vision which values one's self and mankind as both less and more than they seem to be worth, at one and the same time."
Helen Bober expects Frank to become better than he is when she meets him, so she gives him books to read. But, as Frank remarks, "Those books you once gave me to read, did you understand them yourself?" It is clear that Helen has learned no life-lessons from her reading. She gave Frank Crime and Punishment to read; but she herself learned from Dostoyevky's novel neither compassion nor forgiveness, and she apparently missed entirely its theme of redemption through suffering endured out of love. Her own dreams are the tawdry dreams of success cast in the clichéd mold of the Jew who seeks status and wealth through education. Frank, on the other hand, is extremely limited in his own self-knowledge. When he read Crime and Punishment, Frank "had this crazy sensation that he was reading about himself." But the discovery is not illuminating; it only depresses him. Finally, when Frank's transformation is radically effected, he does not realize either what has happened to him or why. "Then one day, for no reason he could give, though the reason felt familiar, he stopped climbing up the air shaft to peek at Helen, and he was honest in the store." Though a dramatic change has taken place within Frank, he has no understanding of it except that he is a better man now than he was. Frank could no more explain the Jewish religion he assumes (outside of repeating Morris's very unorthodox catechism) than he was able to read a book of Jewish history.
The ironic nature of the location of Morris within a gentile neighbourhood (which I referred to earlier) has a thematic function in the novel. Morris Bober is "representative of the traditions of the older Jewish community" within the "more competitive and fluid urban community." His poverty is a symbol of a larger moral and economic trap, for he represents an ethic of honesty and intense responsibility, a feeling that is an ironic anachronism in modern competitive society. Frank's assumption of these values, though it is the mark of his moral redemption, severely limits his chances of economic success. Though Frank may have envisioned his future in the clichéd terms of the American dream, the irony of the novel is that his displacement of Morris is an acceptance of old world values and a rejection of tawdry values of the American dream of success. These new values prevent Frank from achieving the success he envisioned when he came to New York looking for a better life. Frank's only triumph will be the moral victory of the loving man Morris Bober—a failure in the eyes of the world. What Frank has learned from Morris is a regimen of pain; the pain of circumcision is the ritual acceptance of Morris's views and values and it seals Frank's doom to a life of privation and frustration as a suffering Jew in love with humanity. Just as Morris's life has been a "holding operation on the edge of dissolution" so we cannot expect that Frank's will be much different. The irony of Frank's climbing out of one grave (Morris's grave in the cemetery) only to accept life in another (the tomb of Morris's store) is summed up in Frank's circumcision which both enrages and inspires him, which liberates him from selfishness and commits him to service.
The ambiguity of the novel's ending arises from the juxtaposition of Frank's dream of St. Francis, transforming his wooden rose into a real one and giving it to Helen, with the reporting of the fact of Frank's painful circumcision. This ambiguity has troubled several critics. Sanford Pinsker finds the irony here monstrous.
That Frankie misinterprets the significance of Bober's life [Pinker feels it is a tragedy and a waste]; that he converts to a Judaism he does not understand; that he will (presumably) marry Helen and keep the grocery store running in Morris's memory—all these strike me as monstrous ironies resulting from Frankie's attempt to achieve a moral transformation.
This is certainly an extreme and minority view that depends on seeing Frank's and Morris's lives in terms other than those indicated by the achetypes of Christ and St. Francis. Measured by the moral standard of the love ethic, Frank and Morris approximate the ethical quality of their prototypes to an amazing and admirable degree. I do not wish, however, to deny the ambiguity of the novel's ending, though I think it obvious that the Christ/St. Francis parallel to Morris/Frank Alpine is not functioning ironically in the novel. The juxtaposition of Frank's fantasy of St. Francis and the painful reality of circumcision is, however, characteristic of Malamud's ironic technique. Marc Ratner has argued that Malamud's peculiar brand of irony "is often achieved by juxtaposing realistic description with fantastic incidents, or poetic imagery with ordinary occurrences." The ambiguity involved in such an ironic technique reveals a simultaneous optimism and pessimism in the author, his balance of hope and despair. Ruth Mandel has called this Malamud's distinctive brand of ironic affirmation in The Assistant:
It is the disparity between hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the characters in the novel and the horrible reality that is insisted upon over and over again as it denies the fulfillment of their dreams that produces the overwhelming pathos. This shocking and repeated juxtaposition of hope and reality is an essential part of the ironic technique in The Assistant.
Certainly there is pathos in the novel, though I think Miss Mandel overstates the case a bit; certainly the reality of Frank's life—like all lives—will be much less than what he dreams and hopes for. Though Frank's quest for a better life has landed him in a kind of prison, a man can be free anywhere. It is Malamud's object to show "how an imprisoned man can forge a new self in his reaction to the imprisoning forces."
Charles Hoyt has characterized Malamud's vision as a new kind of romanticism, one that consists in his creation of characters whose approach to their own suffering transcends logic, who endure past all sense, who look beyond the absurdity and wrest a meaning from it. Such a romanticism, though embodying an attitude toward suffering that may be construed as mystical, is grounded on a realistic acceptance of the inescapable pain of life. Combining the mystical with the realistic, Malamud's moral romanticism is aptly conveyed in his ironic technique that juxtaposes the fantastic and the real to achieve a balance between hope and despair.
Source: Robert Ducharme, "The Ironic Perspective," in Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward "The Fixer," Mouton Publishers, The Hague, 1974, pp. 36-42.
Helterman, Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985, p. 37.
Hershinow, Sheldon J., Bernard Malamud, Frederick Ungar, 1980, p. 46.
Kegan, Robert, The Sweeter Welcome: Voices for a Vision of Affirmation: Bellow, Malamud and Martin Buber, Humanitas Press, 1976, p. 37.
Malamud, Bernard, The Assistant, in Two Novels: "The Natural" and "The Assistant," Modern Library, 1957, pp. 209-438.
Abramson, Edward A., Bernard Malamud Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 25-42.
Abramson surveys many aspects of the novel, including how it presents Jewishness and its motifs of imprisonment, suffering, and redemption. Abramson also discusses how the novel's realism interacts with its metaphoric and symbolic quality, as well as Malamud's style, language, and use of humor.
Cohen, Sandy, Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love, Rodopi N.V., 1974, pp. 37-55.
Cohen argues that the development of character in the novel is of more importance than its mythic background of a fertility cycle. He traces the growth of Frank's character, from liar and thief to saint.
Handy, W. J., "The Malamud Hero: A Quest for Existence," in The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, edited by Richard Astro and Jackson J. Benson, Oregon State University Press, 1977, pp. 65-86.
Handy examines the nature of the hero in Malamud's three major novels, A New Life, The Assistant, and The Fixer. Malamud's heroes are not victims; rather, they all seek to discover a new life, beginning with a search for self. They succeed in their quests, but not in the terms they first envision.
Hays, Peter L., "The Complex Pattern of Redemption in The Assistant," in Centennial Review, Vol. 13, 1959, pp. 200-14.
Hays discusses the parallels between the work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the beliefs espoused by the character Morris Bober. It is Morris's love that guides Frank from despair to hope and redemption.