Bernard Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant, was an immediate success and within a few years of its publication attained the status of an American classic. Based upon his own experience working behind the counter in his immigrant father’s grocery store, this novel establishes Malamud as a major American writer. Along with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Malamud is the third Jewish American writer whose ascendance in American literature results from portraits of the Jew as a persuasive symbol of Everyman. The problem of marginality, of alienation and living on the edge, is central to the Jewish experience, and in their fiction these authors present an ambiguous, complex universe in which Everyman is trying to survive.
Influenced by existentialism, Malamud uses Jewishness as an ethical symbol. In his works, the Jew becomes the metaphor for the universal good person who must endure great suffering while striving to withstand the dehumanizing pressures of the world. Malamud’s central metaphor of Jewishness is the prison (the grocery store in The Assistant), a perfect symbol for the human and, most particularly, the Jewish condition.
A predominant theme in modern Jewish prose, Malamud’s in particular, is that when one strives to accommodate oneself to the world, one loses oneself in the process. In his portrait of Morris Bober in The Assistant, Malamud is concerned with self and its standing quarrel with an aggressively materialistic American culture. Malamud reverses the traditional American success story, as Morris and later Frank succeed morally only by virtue of their failure in society.
Morris possesses an ancient identity, and his relationship to this identity determines his moral and ethical development. At one point in the novel, Morris tells...
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