Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In The Assistant, Bernard Malamud carefully structures his realistic second novel so that the story of the intertwined fates of Frank Alpine and the Bobers grows to symbolize self-discipline and suffering. The hero, Frank Alpine, unlike the hero of Malamud’s The Natural (1952), achieves self-integration and the subsequent identification with a group.

Frank enters the life of the Bobers when he comes with Ward Minoque, who represents his worst self, to the struggling neighborhood store of Morris Bober to steal. Unlike Ward, Frank immediately recognizes Morris as a suffering human being. Indeed, Morris is the suffering Jew, an Everyman. Now old, he has achieved none of his dreams and must deprive his daughter, Helen, of her dream of attending college.

To expiate his crime and to change his life, Frank returns to the store and, promising to work for nothing, persuades Morris to use him as an assistant. Unaware that Frank is the one who stole from him, Morris helps the hungry and homeless Frank with room and board and a small salary. Morris then becomes the moral guide Frank never had.

Frank begins to change, but his progress is fitful, and he steals small sums from the register. His moral growth is accelerated by his falling in love with Helen, an idealistic young woman who will give Frank her love if he earns it. Motivated by this hope and a memory of the beauty of the selfless life of Saint Francis of Assisi,...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

The Assistant Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Morris Bober, a sixty-year-old Jewish immigrant and the owner of a small Brooklyn grocery store, is slowly being driven out of business by a fancy delicatessen-grocery recently opened around the corner. Rising at six on a cold, windy autumn morning to sell a three-cent roll to a sour-faced Polish woman, Morris begins his daily routine of drudgery and frustration. Working long hours in a dreary store, Morris barely makes a living for himself, his wife Ida, and his daughter Helen, who desires to go to college and live a meaningful life. Every afternoon Morris escapes the gloom of the store by retreating to his upstairs apartment for a nap, his “one refreshment” for the day.

Morris is a decent man in an indecent and abusive world. He is a commercial failure surrounded by success. The harder he works, the less he seems to have. He extends credit indiscriminately, even in cases where he knows he will never be repaid. If he could serve the people who still do business at his store he would. Morris will not ignore the needs of another human being. He says it is the least one man can do for another.

Two holdup men appear one night near closing time. Unwilling to believe that the thirteen dollars in Morris’s cash drawer could be his entire take for the day, one of the men pistol-whips him. Sick of his meager existence and filled with self-disgust, Morris bitterly denounces the years of failure and the false hope of success in America. He feels a profound sense of isolation and sadness. He wants more for his wife and daughter, yet he is unwilling to compromise his ideals.

A young Italian drifter named Frank Alpine enters the store. He is one of the men who robbed Morris earlier. Frank worships the gentleness and goodness of Saint Francis. He begins to hang around the store, helps Morris in small ways, and finally asks to be taken in as an assistant in order to gain experience. When Morris stumbles across Frank, who is asleep in the cellar, and learns that Frank has lived for a week on a daily bottle of milk and two rolls stolen from the doorstep each morning, he gives in and hires Frank. Ida is distrustful of having a Gentile in her house, but when Morris’s head wound reopens, Frank takes it upon himself to run the store while Morris recovers. Business...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

The Assistant Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Assistant, Malamud’s critically acclaimed second novel, is a realistic look at the Jewish community. Malamud, however, transcends the Jewish experience by revealing on a universal moral level what it means to be a man. His protagonist learns about the regeneration of the self and the process of individual redemption.

The focal point of this initiation novel is Frank Alpine, a twenty-five-year-old orphan who has recently come from the West to New York City. Typical of his always making the wrong decision, Frank falls in with a thug and helps him rob and beat a poor Jewish grocery store owner, Morris Bober. Later, after falling in love with the grocer’s daughter, Helen, Frank rescues her from a would-be rapist (the same thug) but then completes the act of rape himself. Clearly at the nadir of his existence and unknowledgable about himself, Frank finally begins to learn.

Deciding that he is, after all, “a man of stern morality,” Frank takes the place of the grocer he injured. He works sixteen hours a day in the grocery, supplements this with a night job, and secretly gives the Bober family money from his savings account. He also cuts his ties to Ward Minogue, the thug, and stops his voyeuristic behavior toward the woman he loves, Helen Bober. Through discipline, love, and suffering, Frank becomes a responsible adult such that even Helen realizes that “he had changed into somebody else, no longer what he had been.” Appropriately, at the end of the novel, Frank has himself circumcised and, after Passover, becomes a Jew.

On the surface, Malamud seems to be suggesting the moral supremacy of the Jewish belief; however, the writer does several things to suggest that he is really interested in establishing a general humanistic code of ethics. First, Frank’s role model, Morris Bober, is not an orthodox Jew (he never goes to synagogue and fails to follow the dietary code). Second, Frank actually traces the Catholic pattern of sainthood; Malamud takes care to indicate that Frank parallels his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Early in the novel, Frank describes Saint Francis as a man of poverty feeding birds in a natural setting. By the...

(The entire section is 895 words.)

The Assistant Overview

The Assistant is a morality drama in which human kindness and honesty, despite appearance, triumph over callousness and greed and...

(The entire section is 99 words.)