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, Frank tries to discipline himself. When Frank has nearly won the love of Helen, his hopes slip away when Morris, who suspects that Frank has been stealing, catches him with his hand in the register. Sent away from the store on the day he expects Helen to proclaim her love, Frank gives in to despair and frustration. First saving her from rape by Ward, he then forces himself on her against her will.
Alienated from the Bobers, Frank’s redemption comes when he moves beyond himself. The opportunity arises when Morris is hospitalized and then dies. Frank takes over the store when Helen and her mother are too overwhelmed by their misfortunes to protest. To support them all, he works two jobs. Though he sometimes questions the dreary life to which he has submitted himself, he patiently endures, replacing Morris, whose example he has internalized. After a year, Frank even sends Helen to college. He then reflects his new attitudes by having himself circumcised, a symbolic act of his transformation.
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...
(The entire section is 1,446 words.)