The Assistant, Malamud’s critically acclaimed second novel, is a realistic look at the Jewish community. Malamud, however, transcends the Jewish experience by revealing on a universal moral level what it means to be a man. His protagonist learns about the regeneration of the self and the process of individual redemption.
The focal point of this initiation novel is Frank Alpine, a twenty-five-year-old orphan who has recently come from the West to New York City. Typical of his always making the wrong decision, Frank falls in with a thug and helps him rob and beat a poor Jewish grocery store owner, Morris Bober. Later, after falling in love with the grocer’s daughter, Helen, Frank rescues her from a would-be rapist (the same thug) but then completes the act of rape himself. Clearly at the nadir of his existence and unknowledgable about himself, Frank finally begins to learn.
Deciding that he is, after all, “a man of stern morality,” Frank takes the place of the grocer he injured. He works sixteen hours a day in the grocery, supplements this with a night job, and secretly gives the Bober family money from his savings account. He also cuts his ties to Ward Minogue, the thug, and stops his voyeuristic behavior toward the woman he loves, Helen Bober. Through discipline, love, and suffering, Frank becomes a responsible adult such that even Helen realizes that “he had changed into somebody else, no longer what he had been.” Appropriately, at the end of the novel, Frank has himself circumcised and, after Passover, becomes a Jew.
On the surface, Malamud seems to be suggesting the moral supremacy of the Jewish belief; however, the writer does several things to suggest that he is really interested in establishing a general humanistic code of ethics. First, Frank’s role model, Morris Bober, is not an orthodox Jew (he never goes to synagogue and fails to follow the dietary code). Second, Frank actually traces the Catholic pattern of sainthood; Malamud takes care to indicate that Frank parallels his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Early in the novel, Frank describes Saint Francis as a man of poverty feeding birds in a natural setting. By the...
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