Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
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 Frank that the “Jewish Law” is the basis of his behavior. Later, at Morris’s burial, the rabbi dignifies Morris’s life by stating that he was “a true Jew” who lived “the Jewish experience” and “with a Jewish heart.” Morris suffers and endures, “but with hope.”
Malamud’s use of Jewish humor and irony helps to explain his conflicting beliefs of optimism and pessimism and the balanced interplay of hope and despair in his art. Morris is a schlemiel, a character from Yiddish folk literature who is repeatedly knocked down by fortune but who always struggles to his feet to try his luck again. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, Morris is constantly aware of the absurdity of his situation and his actions in the face of an unlucky fate. Malamud believes that “all men are Jews” because all people have the possibilities to be good. In a world of chaos and suffering, this moral code brings sanity and significance to one’s life.
In The Assistant, Frank has the possibility of redemption. When Morris dies, the unwitting saint father makes way for the saint-elect prodigal son, the first life creating the pattern and possibility for the second. In continuing Morris’s life, Frank fulfills the possibilities of the grocer’s actual son, who died while still a child. In suffering for Morris and accepting responsibility, Frank achieves his own redemption, becoming at last an honest and good man. Although his struggle to survive and escape the tragedy of the past is, at the end of the novel, just beginning, Frank has the possibility to be human, to create meaning in life. His purification through pain and suffering and his struggle for rebirth through selfless love and ethical behavior represents Malamud’s hope that people can prevail.
Malamud is an intensely moral writer who once said it was the writer’s responsibility “to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Malamud has consistently emphasized that he bases his writing on a belief in the nobility of the human spirit and that only readers who respect human beings can respect his work. His humane sensibility encompasses both human pain and human potential. He writes in defense of human beings. The humor and irony, tragic vision, and possibility for profound human decency that Malamud weaves throughout The Assistant stand as a testament to that defense.
In revealing the mystery of humankind in this brilliant work, Malamud shows faith and a sense of awe for the human capacity to endure. Malamud’s work reflects his despair at the futility of humane values in the face of contemporary reality, yet he continues to fill his fictional world with love and beauty, compassion and hope, and to affirm life in spite of its ambiguities.