Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Grocery store

Grocery store. Morris Bober’s family store in Manhattan. As an economic and social barrier, the store resembles a bit of European ghetto transported to New York, though it could be located in any large city in which European refugees gather. Having escaped Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Morris has nevertheless contrived a prison of his own making, one which threatens to kill the spirit of his wife, Ida, and his daughter, Helen. Poverty ceaselessly grinds them down. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. Morris crawls out of bed to give the “Polish woman” her three-cent roll, even though she threatens to spit out anti-Semitic insults at him. For hours thereafter, no customer is likely to come into the store. Most of his customers have deserted him for “the German,” who has opened a fancy delicatessen around the corner. When the German becomes ill, his business is bought and refurbished by Norwegians—more Nordic types—and Morris’s misery continues. At the end of the day, the cash register seldom holds enough money to pay the day’s expenses. Only Helen’s paycheck as a secretary keeps the family going.

In this scene of suffering, the street person Frank Alpine makes his appearance. In an apparent example of gross black comedy, Morris’s store is the one that Frank and a companion choose to rob. After being bumped on the head, Morris fails to recognize Frank in the holdup. However, something about the store...

(The entire section is 578 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bober's grocery, where most of the action takes place, is in a section of the city (possibly Brooklyn though never specified) that is almost...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Malamud sustains a tone of sadness throughout the novel. The critic Mark Shechner, in his essay "Sad Music," observes that this tone...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Assistant demonstrates Malamud's deep compassion for suffering humanity and his conviction that good rather than evil is the basic...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment was one of the books that influenced Malamud when he wrote The Assistant. Frank reads...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the Jewish culture and religion and write about your findings regarding the religious beliefs, rituals, diet, etc. of this...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Most of Malamud's works focus on the problems of the Jews. A New Life, his third novel, also has a Jewish hero. The Fixer,...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. This booklet evaluates Malamud's vision in relation...

(The entire section is 340 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Alter, Isaka. “The Good Man’s Dilemma: The Natural, The Assistant, and American Materialism.” In Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud, edited by Joel Salzberg. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Focuses perceptively on the social criticism in Malamud’s fiction that most critics generally ignore.

Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977.

Field, Leslie, and Joyce Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Freedman, William. “From Bernard Malamud with Discipline and Love (The Assistant and The Natural).” In Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field. Rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Analyzes how Frank Alpine, through submitting to the will of Morris Bober and his own conscience, undergoes a spiritual and psychic conversion. Frank is transformed from an “uncircumcised dog” to a “man of stern morality.”

Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. A highly readable guide. Chapter 3 discusses the themes, use of language, points of view, structure, and symbolism of The Assistant. The annotated bibliography is especially useful.

Hershinow, Sheldon J. Bernard Malamud. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Offers a comprehensive analysis of The Assistant, discussing the themes of suffering and redemption, how Malamud relates to the American Dream of success, his use of Jewish humor and irony, and the skillful use of language in the novel.

Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. Boston: Twayne, 1966. Chapter 3 provides an excellent, detailed analysis of The Assistant. The author concludes that The Assistant brought to literature a sense of awe for humanity’s capacity to endure and for humanity’s enigmatic powers of creation.