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 picks up as the Gentiles in the neighborhood feel more comfortable with one of their own behind the counter.
Ida is suspicious that Frank is up to no good and fearful that he will try to seduce her daughter. Her fears are realized when Frank first spies on Helen naked in the bathroom, and later on when he tries to lure her to his room. Helen, despite strong doubts, finds herself falling in love with Frank, but refuses his sexual advances. She seeks a good man to escape the tragedy of the past, and Frank resolves to be the kind of person Helen wants him to be.
Helen wants to be more self-disciplined and tells Frank he needs to be also. Frank empties stolen cash from his wallet into the register and finds joy that he now has control over his life. A moment later, however, after Helen calls for him to meet her that evening in the park, Frank takes back a dollar from the register in order to bring Helen home in a cab. The theft is discovered by Morris and, despite Frank’s pleas, Morris exiles Frank from the store.
That evening Frank...
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goes to the park vowing to show his love to Helen. She arrives ahead of him. Ward Minoque, the man who earlier robbed and beat her father, attempts to rape her. She is saved from rape by Frank’s intervention, is then raped by him, and curses him as an “uncircumcised dog!”
During Frank’s exile, the Bobers’ fate becomes worse. They discover that the previous increase in trade is attributable not so much to their assistant as to the illness of the grocer around the corner. The delicatessen closes, but a new, larger, self-service store opens that will surely drive Morris into bankruptcy. At this point, Morris “accidentally” leaves the gas to his bedroom heater turned on while forgetting to light it and is taken to the hospital. Frank saves his life, returns, and again takes over the store, explaining to Ida that he owes something to Morris.
When Morris returns, Frank confesses to him that he is one of the men who robbed him. Morris surprisingly replies that he already knows this, but that he cannot forgive Frank for stealing from the store after he was taken in. Morris sends Frank away once again. Not long after, Morris dies of pneumonia after shoveling the spring snow from the sidewalk for the few customers he has left. At the funeral, Frank tumbles awkwardly into the grave and climbs out again, symbolically reborn.
Frank comes to take over the store again and declares he is a changed man. He works at an all-night coffee shop and returns to the store every morning in time to sell the Polish woman her roll. Declaring his love for Helen, he offers to finance her college education. Helen accepts and realizes that something in him has changed. She thanks him for running the store and supporting the family. One day in April Frank has himself circumcised and feels both “enraged and inspired” by the pain between his legs. “After Passover he became a Jew.”