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THE ASSISTANT Notes including • • • • • • • •

Life and Background of the Author Introduction to the Novel List of Characters Critical Commentaries Character Analyses Critical Essay Essay Topics and Review Questions Selected Bibliography

by Mordecai Marcus, Ph.D. Department of English University of Nebraska-Lincoln

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA 68501 1-800-228-4078 ISBN 0-8220-7015-4 © Copyright 1972 by Cliffs Notes, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


LIFE AND BACKGROUND OF THE AUTHOR Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. As a boy, he enjoyed a vigorous and adventurous life in the city streets and parks. His parents, Max and Bertha Fidelman Malamud, ran a neighborhood store, which contributed to Malamud's knowledge about the city's ethnic groups. Malamud graduated from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School, a school which drew its students from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic groups. He studied at City College, a long subway ride from Brooklyn to upper Manhattan, where he received his B.A. degree in 1934. In 1942, he received an M.A. degree in English literature from Columbia University, where he had taken courses in 1937 and 1938. During the Depression, he worked in factories and briefly as a government clerk in Washington, D.C. In the 1940s, he taught evening classes at Erasmus Hall and began writing short stories. In 1945, he married Ann de Chiara, by whom he had two children--Paul in 1947 and Janna in 1952. Malamud has not revealed whether or not he had a strict Jewish upbringing, but it is clear that during his mature years he did not practice Judaism in any formal way though he remained faithful to his sense of a Jewish heritage and identity. In 1949, during what were painfully lean years for young people who desired to make college teaching a career, Malamud was appointed an instructor of English at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) at Corvallis. Soon his stories began to appear in leading magazines, and in 1952, his first novel, The Natural, was well received, though it became well known only after the success of his next two books: The Assistant (1957) and The Magic Barrel (1958), a collection of short stories. In 1956, Malamud traveled in Europe and later he used some of his observations there for short stories. In 1959, The Magic Barrel received the National Book Award as the best work of fiction published during the preceding year. In 1961, Malamud published his third novel, A New Life, and joined the faculty of Bennington College. Two years later, in 1963, he published Idiots First, a second collection of short stories. In 1966, appeared The Fixer, his fourth novel, which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and became a best seller. In 1969, he added three new stories to the three previously collected tales about the adventures in Italy of the expatriate American painter Arthur Fidelman and issued them all as Pictures of Fidelman. In 1971, he published his fifth novel, The Tenants. Malamud's fiction is usually organized around moral dilemmas and crises of growth. He combines realism and symbolism, as well as tragedy and comedy, often with the help of mythological and archetypal underpinnings. He employs fantasy that is occasionally supernatural but which more often, as in The Assistant, gives realistic happenings a quality of magic and ritual. From his Jewish background, Malamud derives a bitter humor that often appears in the self-mockery of his characters but it is also forgiving of the self and others. His compassionate poetic sensibility blends with a sense of grace achieved through suffering. Malamud has declared that "All men are Jews," doubtless a metaphor for the universality of alienation, suffering, and the moral compulsion for men to make the very best of their lives within the limitations and ambiguities of human existence. This moral compulsion is a religious task in that it demands an equal labor for the salvation of oneself and others; indeed, one is impossible without the other. Malamud, however, has rarely created specific Jewish social contexts, usually preferring to examine the tensions of Jews adrift in gentile surroundings. Malamud's first novel, The Natural, may seem an unlikely performance from an urban intellectual. It is a sports tale constructed in extraordinarily fantastic, mythological, and supernatural terms. It tells the story of a baseball hero, Roy Hobbs, driven by desire to be the best in the game, basking in the rewards of

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


heroism while oblivious of his duties to others. Roy achieves success through skill and through some sense of sacrifice, but he abandons those people he truly loves for those who promise thrills, success, or glamour, and so he brings doom upon himself and upon those who need his loyalty. The mythological elements of the story include a magic bat, sudden death and resurrection, infertility, and the restoration of lost powers. Finally, however, Roy's long initiation into adulthood finds him lacking in heroic qualities. In his second novel, The Assistant, Malamud returned to the streets of his boyhood and, as if inspired by the need to derive an ultimate moral significance from kinds of suffering he once witnessed, he shows us a young man's successful initiation to the demands and limits of life under oppressive circumstances. The short stories in The Magic Barrel (1958) and Idiots First (1963) use a variety of modes and material. Malamud writes of cramped but aspiring city life, of painful and sometimes fruitless loyalties between friends, of the failure of imagination and charity in Americans living in Europe, and of the relations between Jews and blacks. His combination of realism and symbolism gives way to supernatural fantasy in "Angel Levine" and "The Jewbird." Tinged with magic and ritual, this combination is best realized in the title story, "The Magic Barrel," surely one of the finest modern American short stories. Here an ascetic young rabbinical student who is about to graduate from seminary pursues a suitable wife with the aid of a quick appearing and disappearing, photograph-bearing, tale-telling marriage broker, only to fall in love with a picture of the marriage broker's disreputable daughter. The story vibrates throughout with the tension between truth and deception. Between these two collections of stories appeared Malamud's third novel, A New Life (1961), displaying traits new and old in Malamud's fiction. The novel's hero, S. Levin, arrives from New York City to be an instructor of freshman composition at an agricultural and technical college in the Pacific Northwest. Levin has pulled himself up from being a drunken wastrel, and now he dreams of creating spiritual awakening among the students and faculty of this so-called cow college. But, as it turns out, it is he who must and does awaken. The novel satirizes the college milieu and also Levin's own bumptuousness, yet Malamud shows a tender regard for the transformation of Levin's egoism and sensualism into a moral heroism. At the novel's end he is about to marry the former wife of a shallow colleague, a woman whose sensibilities he has brought back to life through a love which is now fading. Levin faces a painful future with this woman, her adopted children, and Levin's own child which she carries in her womb, but he accepts the necessity of suffering for others and of laboring to love this woman. The fact of Levin's Jewishness has little significance to the novel, but the Jewishness of the hero of Malamud's fourth novel, The Fixer (1966), is of major importance. In this novel, Malamud deserts familiar grounds and plunges into early twentieth-century Czarist Russia. The hero of this novel is Yakov Bok, a dispossessed, ordinary, unfortunate, intelligent but uneducated Jewish workman, who breaks out of the ghetto to pose as a gentile so that he may work in areas forbidden to Jews. Falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy, Bok becomes the center of a massive search for a Jewish scapegoat for the ills of Russia. The plot unfolds two basic and related themes: the self-deception of the persecutors and the ritual projection of their terrors upon the Jews; and Bok's gradual awareness of what it means to be a Jew. Still very much a religious skeptic, in prison Bok finds his Jewish heritage and identity ever more precious, for his persecutors demand that he confess to a crime he did not commit so they may use his confession for political and anti-Semitic persecutions. His heroic refusal to win freedom through a false confession makes his responsibilities as a Jew equal to his responsibilities as a man. At the novel's end, though Bok remains (like the heroes of The Assistant and A New Life) in a trapped situation, he has asserted the value of his own life and human life by accepting suffering. Along with The Assistant, The Fixer demonstrates Malamud's effective use of the Jew as both an Everyman and as the kind of saint that the unextraordinary man can become. Malamud has declared that in writing The Fixer he wished to call attention to such

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


large-scale social cruelties as the American treatment of the black man. In The Tenants (1971), Malamud returned to New York City, this time using the setting of the 1960s, employing a poetic fervor and a wry humor like those in The Assistant and in his New York short stories. The Tenants is a tale about two American writers: one, a Jewish novelist blocked in his creative work and lovelessly detached in his personal life; the other, an aspiring black writer, talented and warm hearted, who derives too much of his creative energy from his own hostility and bigotry. As always, Malamud's fiction pleads for a loving recognition of the limitations and promises of human life which can help bridge the manifold alienations within and between men.

INTRODUCTION TO THE NOVEL The novel is set in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is a rundown conglomeration of tenements and stores not far from a small park, a movie theater, and a public library. With the exception of Frank Alpine and Ward Minogue, the important characters are Jews, but since they are in a neighborhood of gentiles, they are drawn to one another--however vaguely or antagonistically at times--by the bond of their Jewishness. Judaism as a formal religion seems to have little place in their lives, but their consciousness of themselves as Jews is always present The sources and nature of such an identity are complex, and to those who have had little contact with ethnic groups especially in big cities--ethnic identities may be puzzling. They are, however, a widespread element in American society, subject to scrutiny by social scientists and manipulation by politicians. In earlier twentieth-century America, they were of more concern in Eastern cities than in Midwestern farm communities because in rural communities they seemed colorful and accommodative but in cosmopolitan places they were often sources of tension. These ethnic identities take their origin from the large-scale transplantation of European cultural and religious groups. Wave after wave of immigrants poured Irishmen, Italians, Poles, Jews, and many other groups into seaboard cities where they clustered together because of a common language, religion, eating habits, and ways of earning a living, but of equal importance was their sharing of a folklore, a history, a temperament, and a fund of culture and humor. They took pleasure but, even more important, they took great security from mutual support and mutual ritualization of the essentials of their identity. The keystone of their mutual reliance was a sense of trust in this new, strange land. A sense of joy and safety infused their formal religion, their social clubs, their everyday gossip, their courtship and mating habits (intermarriage was frowned on bitterly), and sometimes their education and their criminal elements. Unlike other immigrant groups (such as the Irish and Italian), the Jews did not come from a single country, a fact which still eludes many Americans, as does the feeling of Jewish identity of some American Jews who do not observe the Jewish religion. The roots of Jewishness run strong and deep. The modern Jew (unless he moves to Israel) lives in what is called the Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews throughout the Western world after the destruction of ancient Israel in the first century of the Christian era. Into the dispersion the Jews carried their religious laws with an ever-expanding written and oral commentary, which covered not only issues of basic morality but also injunctions about eating, dressing, observing the Sabbath and holy days, conduct of marriage, rearing of children, and so on. The law was conveyed through the ancient Hebrew language, the language of the Old Testament and of religious discourse. Learning in this rich lore was highly honored. Out of compulsion but sometimes by choice, the Jews tended to live among themselves and were often brutally herded into ghettos. As the victims of large-scale animosities and cruelties, the Jews learned to be

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


mobile (hence such trades as jeweler, peddler, pawnbroker, and salesman); they developed a rich tradition of parable and an often self-mocking and emotion-relieving humor, but above all they developed a will to survive as individuals and as a people. The culmination of their persecution was the European Holocaust of 1939-45, in which about six million European Jews were systematically murdered and cremated by Nazi Germany. Thus Jewish culture and identity became a kind of national identity independent of any geographical locale. In the Middle Ages, this culture developed a Germanic vernacular language called Yiddish, which until the early twentieth century was often the first language learned by a Jew, whether he was born in Russia, Poland, Germany, or an eastern American city. A highly expressive tongue, Yiddish served as a vehicle for folklore and humor, some of it formalized in newspapers and books. Morris Bober reads The Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper published in New York City, and The Assistant is embellished with a number of Yiddish words. The Jewish law always called for the highest morality (indeed, a kind of moral passion); for joy in God' s gifts within the limits of the law; for justice among nati6ns; and for equal treatment of stranger and friend; but some of these requirements often clashed with the structure and demands of modern life. AntiSemitism led to fear and suspicion of the gentile; isolation, religious observance, and dietary laws led to a feeling of alienation from the gentile. These conflicts, plus the upsurge of anti-religious scientific and social thought in the modern world, and the general decline of traditional faith, led to the paradox of the modern intellectual Jew: He became a man who is often profoundly skeptical of religion, unable to observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws, usually passionately liberal, deeply attached to fellow workers and friends by bonds other than those of Judaism, and often searchingly keen in his questions about social structures and traditions. In the modern Jew, the puritan element of traditional Judaism turned in him to a passionate but not always comfortable concern with social ethics. Men like this are not very conspicuous in Malamud's fiction but knowledge of them as part of the Jewish identity helps explain such persons as Morris Bober, S. Levin, and Yakov Bok. Above all, it helps explain the tenacious identity of the nonreligious Jew. It is within the borders of this changing social context that the Jews of The Assistant, especially the Bober family, steer their precarious way, though it is indeed their character traits that shape their destiny and give them their frequently appealing (though somewhat bumbling) characteristics. Anti-Semitism is on a fairly small scale because there are few Jews in the neighborhood, but one senses a delicately ritualized distancing between Jew and Italian, and an identification of German, Irish, Norwegian, and Swedish as somehow to be suspected but, in one's deeper soul, to receive recognition as fellow humans. Malamud also makes subtle use of the interplay between the Bobers, the Karps, and the Pearls to show ordinary human variations among Jews and to show that the most meaningful bonds and trust do not follow ethnic lines--one of the major things that Frank Alpine (and Helen Bober as well) and the reader must learn. The all-important desperation and precariousness of the Bober family have many roots: in Morris' lack of education, in bad luck related to his bumbling character, and in the socioeconomic changes which are impinging on the neighborhood-type small grocery. The immediate temper of the times is also important, but Malamud, perhaps purposely, has made it difficult to place the time of the action. We learn repeatedly that times are bad, coffee still costs a nickel a cup, Frank buys himself an outfit of clothes for a surprisingly low cost, Helen's complaint that "This is our youth" has a depression ring, and Louis Karp drives a Mercury--a car first manufactured in 1938--but the most decisive evidence seems to be Frank's $35 weekly pay for working in an all-night café--a wage extremely unlikely for the later Depression years. Possibly the action occurs in the immediate post-World War II years, a period colored by a feeling of depression. Vital as are all these background factors, one should not forget that Malamud's tale focuses on the quality

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of the noble yet bitter and unsuccessful life of Morris Bober but even more essentially on the struggles and transformations in Frank Alpine's life--all of which demonstrate the complexity, ambiguity, and painful triumph of a human life which could happen almost anywhere. Malamud shows us in Alpine's struggles that, despite one's heritage, "there are Jews everywhere."

LIST OF CHARACTERS Frank Alpine The protagonist; his regeneration organizes the plot; twenty-five years old.

Helen Bober The only living child of Morris and Ida Bober; a love object to Frank Alpine; twenty-three years old.

Morris Bober The owner of a small, failing grocery store; he is largely responsible for the regeneration of Frank Alpine; sixty years old.

Ida Bober The devoted but acerbic wife of Morris Bober.

Ephraim Bober The long-dead infant son of Morris and Ida; the symbol and repository of Morris' faded hopes.

Breitbart A peddler of electric light bulbs; devoted father of simpleminded Hymie.

Nick and Tessie Fuso The only tenants in the upstairs portion of Morris Bober's decaying building; Italian-Americans.

Carl Johnson Known as Carl the painter and the Swedish painter; in debt to Morris Bober for groceries; povertystricken.

Julius Karp The flourishing owner of a liquor store near Morris Bober's grocery; rents space to a competitor of Morris.

Louis Karp Son of and assistant to Julius Karp; bumbling and unsuccessful suitor of Helen Bober.

The Macher A Jew of advancing years; offers, for a fee, to burn down Morris Bober's building for the insurance money.

Al Marcus Salesman of paper products; dying of cancer.

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Detective Minogue Hard-bitten and puritanical Irish-American cop; violently vindictive toward his criminal son.

Ward Minogue Initiator and partner with Frank Alpine in robbing Morris Bober; cynically criminal; corrosively bitter and ill.

Betty Pearl Friend of Helen Bober, but alienated from Helen by her own conventionality.

Nat Pearl Formerly and briefly a successful casual lover of Helen Bober; brilliant law student.

Sam Pearl Father of Betty and Nat; owns the neighborhood candy store; successful bettor on horse races.

Podolsky Jewish refugee immigrant who considers buying Morris Bober's store until he inspects its meager trade.

Pederson and Taast Norwegian competitors of Morris Bober; Taast buys out Pederson.

Schmitz The German competitor of Morris Bober; because of ill health, he sells out to Taast and Pederson.

Charlie Sobeloff Former business partner of Morris Bober; ruthlessly cheated Morris for his own gain; now runs a successful self-service market.

CRITICAL COMMENTARIES SECTION ONE Frank Alpine, the protagonist of the novel, does not appear until the very end of Section One, when he and Ward Minogue hold up Morris Bober's grocery store. Section One introduces the impoverished world of Morris Bober, which will soon prove to be both a trap and an agent for the spiritual redemption of Frank Alpine. The robbery and Frank's association with the bitter and corrupt Ward Minogue will be used to show the conflicts between dishonesty and honesty within Frank and will help create Frank's desperate need for confession and regeneration. The central fact of Morris Bober's life is his failing grocery store from which he barely manages to eke out a living for himself and his small family. Morris' dreadful luck and his persisting decency are revealed by his relationship to his business. The store is repeatedly described as a tomb or prison. Morris spends sixteen hours a day in the store, going out only to haul in his cases of milk and to buy his Jewish newspaper outside Sam Pearl's candy store. The volume of trade at his store is agonizingly small, and now--to make matters worse--Morris has a thriving competitor in the newly opened delicatessen-grocery

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


of Schmitz, a German. Morris' decency is first shown in combination with his wry frustration. Early each morning he sells the Polish woman her three-cent roll. Later in the novel we will learn that he loses an hour's sleep daily so he can serve her. Next, he lets a little girl take groceries on trust, sure that he will never be paid for them. When his tenant, Nick Fuso, goes around the corner to buy food at Schmitz' grocery rather than at Morris', the theme of faithlessness first enters the novel, soon to be presented at greater length and depth in other kinds of actions, particularly those of Frank Alpine. Morris' poverty and lucklessness are contrasted with the affluence of Julius Karp, whose neighboring liquor store flourishes while Morris' business hovers on the brink of ruin. But Karp's success is not based merely on luck. We learn that he probably bribed someone to get his liquor license when Prohibition ended, and we realize that Morris' bad luck is based partly on his inability to seize opportunities and to act as underhandedly as Karp. Most recently, for example, Karp betrayed Morris by renting a store to Morris' new competitor, Schmitz the German. Later we will see that Morris' character made him an easy victim for his former partner, Charlie Sobeloff; unlike Charlie, Morris lacked the imagination, as well as the money, to establish a self-service market. Now Morris' bad luck is increased by his charity to povertystricken customers, and his physical exhaustion is increased by his getting up extra early every morning to sell his Polish customer her three-cent roll. Morris has a sharp eye and a kind heart for the needs of others but not enough concern for himself. Morris' suffering is increased by the biting memory of his dead son Ephraim, for whom he had high hopes, and by his inability to do better by his wife, Ida, and his daughter, Helen. Ida shares the misery of running the failing store, and Helen works as a secretary, a job she hates, because Morris cannot send her to college and because she wants to help the family financially. The relationship between Morris and Ida has been somewhat soured by their poverty and their never-ending concern with the failing store. They vent their frustrations in sardonic comments on business and each other and themselves. In Section One, Malamud very skillfully interweaves Helen Bober's unhappy situation and its relation to that of her parents. Morris and Ida talk and reflect on Helen's frustrations and wonder about her rejection of Nat Pearl and Louis Karp as potential suitors. The scene showing Helen and Nat on the subway, revealing Helen's thoughts about Nat, adds to the reader's knowledge of her frustrations and difficulties as an unmarried woman. Nat Pearl wanted and still wants only to have sex with her. Knowing now that he offers her nothing more, Helen regrets her previous, casual love-making with him. Her determination never again to yield her body except when there is mutual love is akin to her fierce determination to improve herself and gain a college education. The relationships between the Karps, the Pearls, and the Bobers revolve around Nat Pearl's and Louis Karp's interest in Helen and around Julius Karp's faithlessness in renting to a competitor for Morris, but the general contrasts between the families are striking and are thematically important. Unlike Morris, Julius Karp is contemptuous of people and is grossly materialistic. Morris can understand that his daughter's interest in education and her sensitive nature would keep her from being seriously interested in Louis, a man who shares his father's values and attitudes. Later in the novel, for example, we hear Julius telling his son that when someone's got gelt (money) every girl is his type. Merely by their possession of money, the Karps form a kind of social class above the Bobers, though they are morally inferior to them. The Pearl family also stands in sharp contrast to the Bobers. Sam's luck in winning money on horse races shows a kind of shrewdness that is foreign to a straightforward person like Morris; in addition, Sam's luck at gambling has enabled him to send Nat through college, while Helen Bober can struggle through only a few evening classes. It is no surprise that Morris and Sam have little to say to each other, and later in the novel we will see how little Helen and Betty Pearl have to talk about to one another. These families take a small comfort in sharing a Jewish identity, but this sharing holds little promise for any of them and it

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increases Helen's discomfort because it is one reason for Nat's and Louis' interest in her. These contrasts contribute to the development of Malamud's humanism, his view that values are not unique to certain ethnic groups and that ethnic mutuality does not guarantee similar values. The last two scenes of Section One bring Morris' bad luck into sharp focus by contrasting his lot and luck with Julius Karp's and by showing Morris as, once again, the victim of fate. Because Karp is unwilling to install a telephone in his liquor store, he is unable to call for the police when he senses that a holdup is imminent. Afraid, Karp turns off his lights and thus diverts the holdup men toward Morris' store. Morris' poverty (he has only $15 in his cash register) brings Ward Minogue's unbelieving wrath down on his head. The blow Morris suffers will create physical disabilities that will make possible Frank Alpine's involvement with the grocery store and with the Bobers. The robbery scene suggests several things about Ward Minogue and Frank Alpine that will be developed later in the novel. Ward's vituperative anti-Semitism is part of his corrosive hatred of all people, and his attack on Morris stems from his complete disregard for the humanity of others. The novel as a whole shows that these values are opposite to Morris' warmth, gentleness, and generosity, a fact which intensifies the half mad quality of Ward's taunts. The scene also draws a contrast between Ward and Frank, a contrast which will be made much clearer and sharper as the novel progresses. Frank does all he can to dissuade Ward that Morris is hiding money; he gives Morris a drink of water after Ward strikes Morris in the face and he tries to keep Ward from hitting Morris on the head. This aversion to physical violence indicates the gentle and humane tendencies in him which will increase as he works with the Bobers.

SECTION TWO The lives of Frank Alpine and Morris Bober cross accidentally; knowing nothing about each other, one is a somewhat reluctant criminal and the other, a pathetic victim. But they begin slowly to establish a relationship which is similar to that of son and father, a relationship that develops in to Frank's assuming much of Morris' identity. In Section One, we were concerned with Morris' character and his world; now we consider Frank's character. Section Two also introduces many motifs that are developed as the novel progresses. In particular, we discover Frank's need to confess and his difficulty in confessing, and, like Morris, his tendency to ruin his chances. We observe also Morris' growing reliance on Frank, the variety and similarity of relationships between several fathers and sons in the neighborhood, Ida's fear that Frank will be interested in Helen, and the pathos of Helen's aspirations and circumstances. Frank's unexplained arrival in the neighborhood and his tenacity in seeking a relationship with Morris suggest an intense attraction toward Morris and his store. During his first conversation with Morris, Frank is tormented by a desire and a reluctance to say something important. As we realize that this is an urge to confess, we understand that Frank was one of the holdup men. Frank's desire to go to work for Morris suggests a need for roots as well as for an opportunity for expiation, and the characterization and background of Frank do much to explain both of these yearnings. Frank is an orphan and he has been a drifter. He has left the West Coast to search for opportunity in the East, an emphatic reversal of the common idea that California is the land of opportunity; this is a strange quest for Frank when one considers the strikingly unpromising neighborhood he has come to. There is a suggestion that Frank is depending on chance rather than intelligence and effort as the source of opportunity, but it is possible that his desire to change himself has--at least for the moment--attracted him to the world of Morris' poverty and suffering. Frank seems to have a hidden realization of a need to accept suffering and benefit from it, though he is unable to understand the similar need which he sees in Morris.

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Frank is first characterized by his appearance and by his interest in St. Francis. His broken nose may symbolize the ill-fitting divisions in his character but eventually it suggests that the roughness of his character is superficial, a fact that Helen Bober will learn to understand. Frank's admiration for St. Francis' loving acceptance of poverty predicts his own salvation through suffering and begins an identification with St. Francis, reinforced by Frank's name, that will culminate with Frank embracing poverty as if it were a bride. Frank's Franciscan character traits will develop as he learns the meaning of dedication and love within the Bobers' world. Now, however, Frank is full of guile, of doubts, and of contradictions. When these are overcome, he will be on his way toward the purity of heart of a St. Francis. Frank's emphasis on St. Francis' taking a fresh view of things relates to his own desire for a fresh start and also reveals an imaginative side to his character which has not had a chance to develop but which might interest Helen Bober. Frank is variously dishonest. He thinks nothing of lying to explain his presence in Morris' neighborhood. It is a small dishonesty, but it is antithetical to Morris' straightforwardness and trustfulness, thereby preparing us for the grossness of Frank's stealing from such a person. Here Frank's incidental dishonesty has some similarity to Ward Minogue's immorality, his total disregard for the integrity of other people. When Frank asks Morris to hire him, his claim that he is completely honest represents a partial intention, not a reality. Frank would like to be honest and would like to be thought of as honest, but he has not yet learned the value and meaning of a consistent integrity. Frank's claim also represents a somewhat childish rationalization that his best intentions are somehow a reality. Frank's attitude toward Jews reveals a parallel duplicity in his character. Frank tells Morris "I always liked Jews," which is a lie, for he persists in thinking of Morris as "the Jew." His statement is an attempt to believe that he is broadminded, but it is also an embarrassed effort to overcome barriers between himself and Morris and to ingratiate himself with Morris. Frank's persistence in seeing Morris as "the Jew" shows that he continues to think in prejudiced clichés, using Jews as targets for his restless hostility. Frank's feelings about Jews, however, are mild compared to Ward's hatred. Although Frank is underhanded about some things during his first long talk with Morris, he is quite candid about much of his character. When he tells Morris about his self-defeating behavior, he characterizes himself as a luckless loser, as is Morris, and his explicit comment on his tendency to act too quickly and to accomplish nothing forewarns us of much that will happen between him and the Bobers. Like Morris' bad luck, Frank's is partly based on weaknesses in his character, and Morris intuits that Frank's feelings of lucklessness and hopelessness are like his own, a similarity which will contribute to the growing bond between them. Frank succeeds in ingratiating himself with Morris by listening to him sympathetically and by cleverly seizing the means to wash his windows. Frank's destitute condition awakens Morris' natural compassion, and Frank's stealing milk and rolls from Morris and sleeping in the basement contribute to the growth of a bond between them, for Morris' pity for Frank increases, and possibly Frank's truthful explanation of the reason for his theft helps Morris to overlook Frank's past lies. In any case, Morris does not judge Frank a thief and presumably believes Frank's repeated assertions that he is honest. As Section Two concludes, two ironies converge: Morris' head wound, for which Frank is partly responsible, and Frank's stealing milk and rolls; both create an opportunity for Frank to begin working for Morris and for him to establish a relationship with the Bobers. Frank, especially at the end of Section Two, seems to be clinging to the Bobers as if his life depended on it. When Morris collapses and Frank has a chance to start working in the grocery store, he acts like a desperate man. His swift donning of Morris' apron is the first of his continuing acquisitions of Morris'

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


identity, and his exclamation that he needs the experience is so transparent a rationalization of his need to attach himself to Morris that the scene suggests that Frank knows that he wants more than a grocery clerk's experience--he wants some knowledge or transformation by sharing Morris' suffering and morality. The introduction of Detective Minogue into the narrative provides material to round out the four fatherson relationships in the novel. Detective Minogue's stern and cold behavior toward his son is probably the source of Ward's viciousness. Ward's actions are anti-puritan responses to his father's harsh Puritanism. Yet father and son are more alike than we may guess at first. Likewise, Julius Karp and Louis share shallow and materialistic dispositions. And Sam Pearl's gambling shows a manipulativeness paralleled in Nat's attitude toward Helen. But as surrogate father and son, Morris and Frank have a relationship containing much potential warmth and a potential education for the son figure, an education which receives some impetus from Frank's various betrayals of Morris. Helen's aspirations and her awkward feelings about Louis Karp continue to show the wistfulness of her situation. Her relationship with Nat Pearl, sketched in Section One, suggested that Nat's materialism is a large barrier to a relationship between them because he is too ambitious to consider marrying a poor girl. In the scene between Helen and Louis at Coney Island, we see that Louis' materialism makes him unacceptable as a husband for Helen. Helen's gentleness with Louis, however, shows that her intellectual interests and her aspirations haven't given her a snobbish view of Louis. When the scene with Louis is considered in the context of Helen's relation with Nat, it may suggest that she has been slow to see that Nat's materialism, like Louis', accompanies a certain shallowness. Malamud's placing the scene between Helen and Louis immediately before the scene showing Frank's success in beginning to work for Morris is a hint that her hope of "something happening" may be answered by the unexpected arrival of Frank Alpine.

SECTION THREE In this section, Malamud reveals conflicts and incipient changes in Frank's character through his involvement in the grocery store and through the complexities of his growing interest in Helen. As Frank manages the store under Ida's reluctant guidance, he shows much competence and initiative, as well as general perceptiveness and intelligence. But his interest and exertion are not exactly what they may seem. Variations on the idea that the store is a tomb, echoed by Al Marcus, and the egoistic irrationality of antiSemitism, echoed in Otto Vogel's warning that a Jew will "steal your ass while you are sitting on it," are ironic counterpoints to Frank's optimism. Despite his protestations of honesty, Frank begins and continues to steal from the grocery store. He is a mixture of elation and remorse; he is a selfish egomaniac who can rejoice in stepping on or at least triumphing over others, and he is a humane loving person who rejoices in the beauty of honesty and affection. It is Frank, not "the Jew" Morris, who steals while the other lies sick. Appropriately, Section Three provides a retrospective moment in which Frank thinks about his decision to rob Morris because it was "only a Jew" from whom he was going to steal. Frank no longer believes this rationalization for two reasons: He is beginning to sense the Bobers' humanity, and his stealing is so closely related to the satisfaction of his daily needs that selfishness is almost justification enough. But he does find a new rationalization: His stealing is justified because he has improved the business. The motif of the grocery store as a tomb has an ironic counterpoint in Frank's feeling that the store is like a cave. He enjoys its protectiveness and he increases his feeling of security by feasting on a variety of

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


foods. Thus cave as a metaphor both resembles and differs from the ideas of a prison and a tomb. The idea of a protecting cave suggests the maternal womb with its steady supply of nourishment. Frank's withdrawal into this cave represents both a desire for rest and safe recuperation and an immersion in a new kind of existence from which he will be reborn. Frank's stealing and his guilt, his desire to be honest, and his desire for a new life all imply that something in the Bobers' world will create striking changes in him. The store is a retreat, but its protective aspects will change into painfully fostering ones. Frank's remorse over his stealing has a touch of masochism. He feels "a curious pleasure in his misery," possibly because he looks forward to some kind of triumph through remorse and restitution. This is implied by his recurring feeling that confessing to Morris, and then to Helen, about the holdup will guarantee not only some kind of forgiveness but also an acceptance which he is doubtful of gaining in any other way. When Frank reflects on the holdup, he decides that it was, in a sense, very much like his own funeral. Now he is confused about how to recover and maintain his status as a person--through aggression and trickery or through honesty and service. Frank's aspirations are sharply defined by his attraction to Helen and by his sense that they share great loneliness and an aspiration for a better and more meaningful life. After Frank recognizes the starvation and hope in Helen's face, he considers her physical attractions. Earlier, Frank had thought of Helen's panties (hanging on the clothesline) as being flower-like, a motif which is repeated at the end of this section. Ward Minogue's incisive outburst to Frank that it isn't Frank's conscience but rather his desire for one of those ripe "Jew girls" that is bothering him emphasizes Frank's physical desire but it increases the reader's anticipation that Frank's desires will include tenderness and love. The sharp contrast between Ward and Frank, and Ward's refusal to return Frank's gun, increase our sympathy for Frank. The ambiguity and the possibilities inherent in Frank's interest in Helen are conveyed with sensitive pathos in the scenes of the fraudulent telephone call and Frank's spying on Helen in the bathroom. The phone call illustrates Frank's desperation and emphasizes Helen's lonely desire for companionship. But the crucial outcome is Frank's agonized wish that he had been honest, and his pained feeling that "when he lied he was somebody else lying to somebody else." He is beginning to realize that rewarding relationships must be based on truth and trust. His desire to confess to Helen the stratagem of the phone call implies that he needs to make himself suffer as part of the price of gaining acceptance. In preparing to spy on Helen in the bathroom, Frank gives us a clue that once more he is going to act according to his worst motives and thereby spoil this chance for success. However, Malamud is using Frank's thoughts to convey a different outcome. Frank's feelings of loneliness and loss as he sees Helen in the bathroom are related to his perception of her sadness, and his observation of her "breasts like small birds in flight, her ass like a flower" parallels Frank's earlier idea of her panties being flower-like and recalls the symbolism of the birds and flowers of St. Francis. Birds and flowers here symbolize love that is given naturally and freely. Frank has a momentary memory of past erotic feelings but it is immediately displaced by a quiet exaltation. His relief that steam on the window blots out the naked Helen shows the precariousness of his feelings. He wants to hold onto his new feeling, to separate it from lust. Frank is beginning to see Helen as a person--a lovely person--whose sadness intensifies her beauty and whose beauty makes loneliness even more lonely. This new perception and conjunction of motifs establishes Helen as a symbol of loving aspiration and as the potential reward for Frank's suffering and growth.

SECTION FOUR Morris' decision to permit Frank to continue working after Morris is well enough to return to work provides opportunities for deepening relationships between Frank and Morris, and between Frank and Helen. Again, Malamud focuses on the conflicts within Frank, illuminating them by comparisons and

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


contrasts to Morris and Helen. Ida is pained to have a gentile in their midst, chiefly because she sees a threat in Frank's possible interest in Helen. Morris is bitter at the thought that perhaps Frank brings in more business because he is a gentile, but he does not hold this against Frank. Gradually Malamud is showing the growth of friendship between Frank and Morris. Morris' loneliness is somewhat relieved by Frank's presence, and when Frank moves into an upstairs room, he takes his first tentative step toward becoming, as it were, a member of the Bober family. Frank's smiling acceptance of Morris' proposal that Frank must go at the beginning of summer strongly suggests that important things will happen long before summer arrives. Morris' spirits rise somewhat as his business improves, and Frank continues to feel that the store is a haven for himself. In this atmosphere, Frank and Morris exchange stories about their pasts, and Frank begins to understand some of Morris' values. Frank's description of himself as self-educated has a slightly false ring, for he is not especially systematic in thought or knowledge. Morris' tale of his flight from the Czar's army suggests the precariousness of a Jew's life in Europe but, more important, it shows that Morris has escaped from one kind of bondage into another. Frank's casual assurance that he will follow Morris' advice not to be trapped by a family shows that Frank does not fully understand that his attachment to the Bobers and their world is deepening. Frank's discussion with Morris about honesty gives us a fresh insight into Frank's character, and it reveals a gap between the two men that Frank must close if he is to become a "son" and, in effect, a double for Morris. As Frank advises Morris to steal from his customers and Morris rejects the idea with quiet indignation, we are shown the value systems of the two men. Frank's ideal is quick pleasure and quick success based on the notion that everyone would steal if he could, and that material success--small or large--is the basic satisfaction of life. Although Morris' ideals are put in pragmatic terms--his customers don't steal from him and an honest man "don't worry when he sleeps"--deeper values are revealed. As Morris describes grocers who dilute milk with water and who lie about quality, we sense that Morris considers such acts as personal injuries to the people who buy. Morris' honesty is based on a need to create order and trust, to live in a world where basic kindness is a protection against inevitable misfortunes. Frank, however, sees life as a competitive game, a game where one proves one's superiority by his cleverness. Yet Frank's feelings of guilt alternate with his pleasure in stealing; subtly but surely, Morris' gentleness and harmony are changing him. Frank's reaction to his new environment is complicated because he tries to account for Morris' persistence. He does not see that Morris has almost no choice of lifestyle and destiny, and that dishonesty would be too great a price for Morris to pay for any escape from poverty. Breitbart's brother who ran off with Breitbart's money and wife is another example of a man on-the-make, a man similar to Julius Karp and Charlie Sobeloff. The sardonic tone of "then he took off with what was left of the bank account, persuading Breitbart's wife to come along and keep it company" suggests how easy and tempting it is to be dishonest. To some men, cheating comes almost naturally, thereby emphasizing the lucklessness of men like Breitbart and Morris Bober. Nevertheless, the persistence of men like Morris and Breitbart helps hold the world together. Frank, baffled by the persistence of such men in their prison-like world, needs deeper understanding of what now seems to be surrendering to an appalling existence. He cannot imagine the possibility of a similar future for himself, for he is still relying on two formulas: He is living only temporarily in Morris' world and the future holds something marvelous for him either through luck or dishonesty, which seem to him the only pathways to success. Unable to understand completely Morris' world, Frank once more resorts to the idea of an essential difference: First, you had to be a Jew"; second, Jews live to suffer. This reaction, however, does mark some change in Frank. He no longer sees Jews as so alien that taking advantage of them is no sin. But he sees the suffering and lucklessness of such a Jew as Morris as the stamp of a different kind of character. He has not yet related it to the honesty and tenacity of this

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


particular Jew, Morris Bober, and he does not see that the masochistic element in the Bobers is a partial relief from their misery. Frank can understand Morris' behavior only by assigning it to an ethnic base different from his own. But Frank shares enough of Morris' basic honesty--mixed with other feelings--to continue to be restive under the burden of his guilt toward Morris. Malamud shows us that a combination of Frank's regard for and guilt toward Morris, and his desire for Helen, activates in him some awareness of a terrible division within himself and a growing respect for Morris' values. Frank continues to sense in Helen a hunger like his own, but this is not the kind of hunger that criminality satisfies. The brief flashback concerning Frank's reluctance to join Ward in robbing Morris, and Frank's memory that he had always known that someday he would be driven to confess some wretched crime committed against an innocent person, reveal that deep within himself Frank has always regarded his criminal tendency as a terrible violation of his true values but a violation he was fated to act out so that he might learn from the terrible consequences of crime how to discover his deeper moral self. Now Frank feels the need to confess to Morris as an escape from the past and as a part of his rebirth. His need to cleanse himself and enjoy a little peace and a little order parallels Morris' feeling that honesty assures peace and order. Yet Frank still thinks of Morris as "the Jew" and his conflicts about the scope of his being answerable for first robbing Morris and then stealing from the cash register show Frank unable to choose between his selfish and his loving impulses. Also, his remorse is partly selfish because it is associated with his desire for Helen. Frank's conflicts come into clearer focus in the most important of his retrospective thoughts about his earlier life. Frank recalls his starved existence in cellars and gutters and his desperation to improve himself. His idea that "he was really an important guy" led him rapidly to the idea of a criminal career with the aid of a gun. At that time he thought that he would enjoy seeing others suffer as his own lot improved; this is akin to the psychology we see working in Ward Minogue. Frank dreamed that owning a gun would start him toward salvation through wealth and power but actually it involved salvation only as it led him to discard the criminal self whose great success he had fancied. The earlier, casual meetings of Frank and Ward, when Ward detects a gun on Frank and then encounters Frank at Coney Island, strongly reinforce earlier implications in the novel that Ward is, in a sense, a psychological double for Frank, that he represents and acts out Frank's worst impulses. We realize that Frank agreed to join Ward's holdup because "it was a Jew he planned to rob," an idea which again shows how thoughtlessly Frank has viewed other people--useful as victims, Jews especially. It is true that Frank's revulsion for robbing Morris shows that he knew he was not acting out of his true self, but he still seems unaware that his petty criminality is based on the idea of other people being objects, and now when he yearns for confession and restitution it is chiefly so he may win Helen. The novel has by now revealed enough of the possibilities of kindness, sensitivity, and positive morality in Frank--no matter how opposed within himself by selfishness and vindictiveness--to make possible a relationship between him and Helen. Although Frank deliberately goes to the library hoping to meet Helen there, he is also motivated by sincere curiosity. Both he and Helen suffer from similar loneliness surrounded by almost desperate though quiet aspirations. Helen feels an initial antipathy toward Frank because of her mother's fear of a gentile entering her life, and she is troubled by his hungry gaze. Malamud sets up this situation so that he can show Frank altering Helen's view of himself during the course of their first meaningful conversation, after they leave the library. Frank's memory of St. Francis' making a wife and children out of snow surprises and touches Helen. Frank's comments about St. Francis continue the earlier identification between Frank and St. Francis, especially as we recall Frank's homelessness, and this identification is reinforced at the end of this section when Helen wonders if Frank himself is making a wife out of the snowy moonlight. The dialogue between Frank and Helen does much to continue the characterization of him and to show differences as well as similarities between them. Helen guessed that Frank would be reading Popular Mechanics, but

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


when she learns that he is reading a biography of Napoleon and that he thinks that novels don't contain the truth, we see that Helen is only half wrong. Frank's interest in Napoleon suggests that he sees aspirations as dependent on grand gestures and on a disregard for ordinary morality. His disdain for fiction indicates that he doesn't have a very sophisticated view of what is true and what is false. Other ideas are important in this dialogue. Frank's protest that he helps Morris in order to repay him for kindness, and Frank's protest that he won't get stuck in a grocery store, are more than a little insincere, for he clings to Morris in hope of some kind of salvation, and his plans for the future remain very hazy. His assertion to Helen that he is thinking of starting college comes without any preparation in the novel and is partly genuine aspiration and partly an attempt to awaken interest in Helen--to show her in terms she can admire that he is not just an ordinary guy. His comment that an acquaintance of his started college late but is now "making his pile" shows that Frank cannot separate education and materialistic pursuits. Helen takes no exception to his remarks. Her own financial needs contribute to her somewhat mixed ideas about the American success ethic. As she confesses to Frank her dislike of her job and her desire for some useful role in life--"some kind of social work or maybe teaching"--we learn that she too wants to escape. Helen is too sensitive to sneer at Frank's aspirations, and both are too gentle and perhaps not quite perceptive enough to notice the discrepancy between her view of life and Frank's. Frank's story about the carnival girl makes the reader, like Helen, wonder momentarily whether or not it is true, probably to conclude, as Helen does, that it is true and was recalled in a moment of loneliness. The story functions as a sort of half-conscious plea; Frank is asking Helen to believe and share his dreams. Later, Helen's thoughts about Frank's confusing image in his roles of clerk, ex-carnival man, and future college student are an accurate representation of Frank's confusion about himself. Helen's reflection that Frank is creating a wife out of snowy moonlight implies a certain skepticism, but it also suggests that she has a real interest in him. Malamud seems to be saying here that Frank and the Bobers live in a world where old-fashioned miracles do not happen but where subtle possibilities may lie in stray corners.

SECTION FIVE This section explores the beginnings of love between Frank and Helen by showing us the awkwardness of their respective situations and the difficulties of rapproachment: Frank is a gentile, Helen a Jew; Frank is a clerk, Helen the boss' daughter. The improvement in Morris' business creates a certain relaxation and warmth between Frank and Morris and it also increases Helen's interest in Frank. In addition, Frank's thoughts about going to college and his thoughtful gifts to Helen show a sensitivity to her values and a desire to please her. The improved relationship between Frank and Morris enables Frank to discuss with Morris the question of what a Jew is. The question has become important to Frank for several reasons. After Helen returned his gifts, he eased his hurt feelings by reflecting that marriage to Helen would have included "having to do with Jews the rest of his life," a thought he puts aside when renewed friendship between them prompts Helen's "Don't forget I'm Jewish" and his cutting "So what?" Frank's hopes for changing himself and for courting Helen are stimulated by his discovery that the redemptive suffering in Crime and Punishment does not involve Jews. He is still puzzled about the meaning of such moral suffering, even though it is becoming increasingly important in his own life. When Morris explains the basic morality of Jewish law to Frank, Frank replies accurately that other religions have the same ideas, and he continues to press Morris about why Jews seem so attached to suffering. Morris enigmatically explains that men suffer for one another, an idea that is the reverse of the selfish and sadistic orientation of Ward Minogue. Although Frank receives no direct answer as to why Jews may be especially prone to suffering, Morris' comments are teaching Frank that Jews are as human

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


and deserving of honor for basic morality and human interdependence as anyone. Frank's confession that once he didn't have much use for Jews leaves him still unhappy, for he has failed to confess to the holdup. To confess about the holdup, however, would be to admit the element of disregard for human integrity which lies at the root of all racial and ethnic hatred. If one accepts Malamud's use of the Jew as a symbol for alienated and suffering man who must accept his responsibilities for other men as well as for himself, one might say that Frank is recognizing "the Jew" in himself and hence making himself ready to be acceptable as a lover to Helen. This situation is ironic when we consider Ida's fear of a relationship between Frank and Helen. Ida's values include the very narrow sectarianism that Frank and Helen are outgrowing. Ida encourages a relationship between Helen and Nat Pearl because Nat is Jewish. She is alarmed at Helen's interest in Frank and she would probably be oblivious to any suggestion that Frank is becoming, as it were, a better Jew than Nat. But the growing relationship between Frank and Helen is not sentimentalized. Frank's plans for college are at least partly designed to impress Helen but they come from aspirations in him which resemble Helen's. Frank's difficulty with the great European novels that Helen recommends to him is an index to the imaginative poverty of his rootless background, but his successful struggle to read the books shows his native intelligence and a certain sacrificial dedication to Helen's values. Frank's response to the books also helps to suggest the possibility of mutual affection between people with different interests. It adds to the feeling that Frank and Helen share a warmth and sympathy about human beings, a disposition which goes beyond their different ethnic and intellectual backgrounds, and Frank's successful efforts with the books show that he might develop the imaginative and systematic thinking that Helen associates with higher education. Frank's sensation that he is reading about himself is germinal to his later realization that he has passed through redemptive suffering. The gift of a scarf and a volume of Shakespeare's plays produces a crisis for Helen and Frank. Helen can no longer wonder about Frank's intentions: He wants to be more than a friend. Helen's refusing a date with Nat is akin to her refusing Frank's gifts. She turns Nat down because she knows that he wants to make only a physical claim on her. Unlike Frank, Nat pretends not to understand Helen's reasons for turning him down. Significantly, her phone conversation with Nat is followed by brief memories of the preceding evening when she found Frank's gifts. Helen's present reflections that she might have been more relaxed with Nat had she returned Frank's gifts before the phone call show that despite her plans to return the gifts, she recognizes in herself an urge to respond favorably to Frank. She is charmed by Frank's offerings because they are evidence that Frank appreciates her as a woman and as an intellectual. Helen realizes that Frank is falling in love with her. She fears his love and his presents; she is not ready to pay again with sex for "love" and presents. We know, however, that Helen is panicky and unsure. Her response to Nat's phone call and her memories of the love in Frank's eyes are proof that her rejection of him is not complete. The renewal of a relationship between the two young people comes by subtle stages. The scene in which Frank feeds pigeons, some of whom perch on him, is the strongest identification yet between Frank and St. Francis. It serves to emphasize Frank's loneliness--he turns to the birds for companionship--and it shows that his tenderness is not embittered by Helen's rejection. A gentle rapprochement between them occurs when she agrees to accept one of his gifts, partly under the influence of Frank's implication that he will take her acceptance as part of "a little memory of a guy you once knew." This tentative understanding eases some of the tension and leads to an important turn in the plot: Helen will soon admit to herself that she is in love with Frank. Just as the stage is being set for the flowering of love between Helen and Frank, the plot reveals the persistence of traits in Frank which will later lead to the violent interruption of that love. Frank's discussion of Judaism with Morris suggests his hopes about securing Helen, but his inability to confess

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


his crime to Morris is a part of his persistent stealing of money from the grocery store. Morris' distress when he feels that Frank is stealing from him shows the great importance that Morris places on trust, thereby revealing that Frank's thoughtless selfishness and dishonesty are a deep violation of his friendship with Morris. Morris responds with a charitable increase in Frank's weekly salary, but his fear that Frank is dishonest prepares us for his later spying on Frank and ascertaining that he is stealing from the store. The long, cautious courtship between Frank and Helen will then be shattered.

SECTION SIX The sudden growth of Helen's love for Frank brings many already--established themes into new conjunctions. Helen's acceptance of Frank changes her as well as Frank, and a sense of healing permeates their relationship. Their dreams of college for Frank continue, and Helen's dream of a near-idyllic future for her family lights up her gloomy world. But Frank and Helen's affection is inhibited by internal and external circumstances. Helen's feeling that she made a mistake in giving herself to Nat Pearl without love makes her determined to take no chances on repeating the mistake with Frank. Frank's mixed response to this attitude creates sympathy for him. His physical longing for her is a torment, but he realizes that he must discipline and change himself in order to be worthy of Helen. Frank, however, has other problems; he is haunted by his past. When Detective Minogue brings a holdup suspect for Morris to examine, Frank is once again confronted with his part in the crime and is frightened that Morris will suspect him. In addition, Ward's attempt to blackmail Frank by threatening to expose Frank adds to the potential damage which may now come from his past. Ida's distress over Helen and Frank, and Morris' terror when he learns from Karp that his business has improved because of Schmitz' illness but will suffer once the two Norwegians re-open the delicatessen, provides a dramatic backdrop for the violence which concludes this section. Ironies now multiply. Morris' new apprehensions about his business put him in a bad mood; if discovered, Frank's dishonesty will seem intolerable. But at the same time that Morris' hopes are sinking, Helen's and Frank's hopes are soaring. Frank's determination to become honest so that he may be worthy of Helen convinces him to replace six dollars, almost all the money he is carrying, in the cash register. Helen's telephone call to Frank is motivated by her regret that she is dating Nat instead of Frank, and by her discovery that she loves Frank. Her mother's insistence that she see Nat and her new affection for Frank are gathering toward this section's climax. Frank is elated by his hope that Helen will declare her love for him; as a consequence, he must have money for his late date. Thus he steals--one more time. But after Morris catches him stealing a dollar, Frank realizes that he has always stolen, never borrowed. His past with its residue of cynical selfishness has always kept him from developing the kind of trust and friendship which might have led him to borrow from Morris. Frank has learned and absorbed moral principles from Morris and Helen, but not sufficiently. Now circumstances seem to be doomed once more for him. The concluding portion of Section Six brings many strands of action and many motifs together. Helen's unsatisfactory date with Nat shows his persistent urge to exploit her, and his remark about Frank being a dago reveals the kind of degrading ethnic judgment that Helen and Frank have been trying to overcome. Then, when Ward Minogue accosts Helen in the park, he becomes a kind of degraded version of Nat's exploitativeness. Consumed by hatred, anesthetized by liquor, Ward tells Helen he wants only "what you give that wop." Ward's violence and attempted rape show once more that he reduces all other people to objects to be hated or used for his own satisfaction. His "I'm personally a fine guy--son of a cop" is the ultimate of cynicism, a mockery of ordinary decency, and his remark that his father once beat him up in

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


the girls' yard at school reminds us of Ward's deep-seated rapist tendencies. Frank arrives to rescue Helen, but his rescue, ironically, also becomes a rape. The fact that he has been drinking suggests a similarity to the sodden Ward Minogue, almost enough to make us disregard the fact that Frank has been drinking out of despair because Morris' firing him has destroyed his hope of Helen's continuing love. The circumstances seem almost impossibly difficult for him, and a few sentences reverberate with unbearable conflict and despair. Helen's "Please not now, darling" is anguished. This is not the time for abrupt sexuality. But Frank's despair, the cause of which Helen does not know, leads him to grab what he can get, a tendency in himself that he described in his early conversations with Morris. His feeling that Helen is beyond reach as she was in the bathroom when he spied on her reminds us that the bathroom spying was visual rape which became adoration. Now, however, adoration has given way to physical rape. The final sentence, in which Helen calls Frank an "uncircumcised dog," reminds us that Frank has thrown away his victory over Helen's ethnic apprehensions. His violation of her has made him seem an alien person rather than a fellow human.

SECTION SEVEN Despite its large number of scenes, Section Seven contains a rather small amount of action. It reveals an uncomfortable stabilization of various relationships after Morris catches Frank stealing from the shop and after Frank rapes Helen. In a sense, this section is a kind of purgatory for the main characters, a purgatory offering only attenuated hopes. The important developments are Morris' near-fatal accident with the gas, the opening of Taast and Pederson's delicatessen, and Frank's securing a job at an all-night restaurant. Morris' accident, probably brought about by an unconscious suicide wish, and his subsequent illness enable Frank to stay on for a while at the grocery, where he broods over his past and present, and makes vain efforts at a reconciliation with Helen. The opening of the delicatessen adds to the desperation of all four of the main characters. But Frank's job at the restaurant enables the grocery to survive, thus emphasizing the sacrificial aspect of his dedication to the Bobers. The initial scene between Morris and Ida reveals the bitterness in their adapting to dreadful circumstances. As Morris tells her that he has fired Frank and reluctantly offers an explanation, the dialogue between them is sardonic and almost masochistically ritualized. Morris keeps the truth about Frank to himself because he feels some guilt about dismissing Frank but, more important, he does not want to give Ida a chance to curse him for his earlier disregard of her fears about Frank--a hesitation given ironic force by the reader's knowledge that Morris does not know the worst about Frank. Morris eases the situation with excuses, but his aggressive claims that he has done only what Ida desired indicate his despair about his situation has changed into hostility against Ida. Ida's anguish and regret that she insisted that Helen date Nat serves two functions. It humanizes the women's former insensitive domination of her daughter's personal life, and it suggests how very intense Ida's outrage and retrospective self-justification would be if she knew about Frank's assault on Helen. For many reasons, including pride, shame, and a sense of partial responsibility, Helen tells her mother nothing about Frank's attack. But the reader, even though he is in possession of knowledge that Ida lacks, is unlikely to feel as Ida would. On the contrary, the reader tends to hope for a reconciliation between Frank and Helen, and believes in Frank's regeneration. Frank's thoughts about himself are often the focal point of Section Seven. Most of these desperate thoughts develop ideas that have been already established in the novel. His recalling his thoughts and actions of the preceding night makes explicit the circumstances and feelings that culminated in his assault on Helen. These thoughts would have been out of place in Section Six because they would have robbed its conclusion of its impact through surprise and also would have weakened the emphasis on the terrible

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


nature of Helen's experience. Coming now, these reflections solidify the reader's earlier intuitions about the motives for Frank's assault and begin to restore sympathy for Frank. Frank's impassioned reflection on how he has again ruined his life reinforce the metaphors of the secret self ("The self he had secretly considered valuable") and on death of the self ("He stank"). Frank's suffering finally leads him to a major revelation: "all the while he was acting like he wasn't, he was really a man of stern morality." What Frank discovers here is that the man of morality within himself is less a secret self than an essential self, one which he has kept in abeyance. He now sees the consequences of various wrong doings, and he regrets that he did not discover his better self earlier. Frank's unhappiness when he is near Helen is now much greater than it was during his earlier yearning for her, for now he contemplates the loss of what he had within his grasp and what represented change and fulfillment. In this tortured situation, Frank imagines himself swearing to Morris to a complete change in himself. Frank's thoughts are becoming frenetic, and his imagined statement to Morris that if he ever steals again "I hope to drop dead on the spot" shows that he has learned at last about the unequivocal nature of morality: Either a man is true to his best nature or in some sense he is dead. Frank dedicates himself to discipline and love, hoping to reconcile himself with Helen, but his rash action has destroyed all of Helen's hopes about him and confirmed all of her suspicions about his worst nature. The morning after the assault, she showers three times before she feels cleansed of Frank's filthiness. His single vile act has convinced her that his best qualities were fraudulent and not intrinsic. She has retreated to her mother's identification of propriety with being Jewish, thereby abandoning much hard-won knowledge. Frank's dream of Helen tossing him a flower that disappears as he sees her window sealed with ice identifies Helen, through the symbol of the flower, with spiritual awakening. His loss of the flower alters his whole world. Helen's disregard of him makes him seem "as if he didn't exist" because it judges him to be without an essential moral self. Frank's encounter with the poverty-stricken family of Carl the painter produces a spontaneous burst of compassion; now, it would seem, he has broken through his selfish veneer. His desire to relieve Carl's family with his last three dollars shows the reverse of his impulse to steal, but his desire to help them is ironically frustrated by the return of Ward Minogue (now a symbol of Frank's past). As Section Seven draws to a conclusion, Frank's physical and mental suffering are extreme. He manages the grocery all day and works all night at the cafe, but he almost revels in his misery as a source of salvation and he continues to hope for Helen's love. He experiences his nightmarish life in the store as a kind of devotion to a prison, but it is the kind of prison without which he could not be free to be his newly discovered essential self. His determination to stay even "when the walls caved in" is again proof that he identifies endurance and suffering with the struggle to remain in life by being his best self. Frank's carving of a wooden bird and then a wooden rose is beautifully symbolic. These acts continue the identification of Frank and St. Francis but, more important, the bird represents Frank's still aspiring moral sense and the flower represents his continuing hope of a complete spiritual regeneration through love for and from Helen. The bird was "shaped off balance but with a certain beauty," a phrase which suggests Frank's incipient moral self and also recalls the symbolic suggestions of his broken nose. The flower becomes a rose starting to bloom, which suggests that only love can complete his spiritual rebirth. Helen's having tossed the wooden rose into the garbage symbolizes the continuation of Frank's purgatory. If suffering is to bring him fulfillment as well as spiritual salvation, he still has much suffering to experience.

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


SECTION EIGHT Section Seven ended with a sense of unresolved tension. Morris lies in the hospital but once home he will have to fire Frank and then face, in his weakened condition, the competition of Taast and Pederson. Helen must return to the frustration of her job and her loneliness, with little hope for the future. Morris and Ida are as concerned about Helen's future as about their own. Frank must face Helen's rejection of him and also face the likelihood that Morris will fire him again. Morris, Ida, and Frank try desperate stratagems to extricate themselves from these situations, but the focus of Section Eight is on the deteriorating condition of the Bober family. Morris almost gives up; he yields to the temptation of staying in bed and giving as little thought as possible to what is going on in the grocery. Now, rather than a constricting prison, the store seems to have become a grave. It is the grave of Morris' hopes for a decent survival and of Frank's hopes for a rebirth through change and love. But Morris is not a man to turn away long from his family's miseries. He confronts Frank and acts as his conscience demands that he do. The first stratagem of the Bober family to escape their situation is explored in their conversation about the prospects of auctioning the store and selling the building. The futility of these plans show that the Bobers seem truly trapped, for their debts and the comparative worthlessness of the store and the building will bring them no charity from their creditors nor from prospective buyers. Morris recognizes the hopelessness of the situation but feels compelled to make whatever efforts he can to improve their condition. His proposal that after selling, they buy a candy store somewhere is obviously the stuff of dreams, and Ida's declaration that she won't sell penny candy suggests that stich a change, besides being unlikely, might be for the worse. Ida's hope that Helen might marry Louis Karp is akin to her hope that Julius Karp will help them sell the store to the refugee, Podol sky. Her suggestion to Helen that she marry Louis is coldly practical. Ida shares the simple-mindedness about values and about human relationships that Louis displayed when he proposed to Helen on the Boardwalk at Coney Island. Ida may not be quite as blunt as Louis but we feel that the pressures of material want now reinforce her tendency to see relations in material terms, a view presumably accompanied by the feeling that other values will take care of themselves. When Ida tells Julius Karp that Helen is lonely and "wants to go out with somebody," Ida is not really truthful, but her anxieties blind her to both this fact and to the impossibility of a relationship between Louis and Helen. Julius Karp's whistling through his teeth when Ida drops in to tell him of their troubles is an index to his character. His whistling implies that the Bobers' tough luck is what they get for lacking Karp's wisdom. Karp's statement that maybe he will call Podolsky sometime, followed by an inquiry about Helen's marital prospects, is a nasty dig at the Bobers' situation and implies that Karp doesn't do favors for people-especially incompetent people--without the return of favors. In this case, Ida is to return the favor by making arrangements between Helen and Louis. When at long last the prospective buyer arrives, the situation that greets him is even worse than it would have been when he was first expected--several months ago--for despite all of Frank's efforts, the Bobers' store is failing. Indeed, Podolsky's inspection of the store increases the pathos of Morris' situation by showing how desperately difficult it would be for him to lie in an attempt to improve his prospects. Morris' inability to hoodwink Podolsky is not important, though, for the sad condition of the store is all too obvious; yet it does show us again Morris' innate honesty and inability to exploit others to relieve his own misery.

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The hopelessness of selling to Podolsky is, we discover, no greater than the hopelessness of Morris' finding a job; both are pursued with uneasiness and self-mockery, for the Bobers know that their advice to Podolsky about conducting and improving the business would do no good and they know that, in all likelihood, Morris cannot secure another job. Morris' job-seeking becomes progressively more uncomfortable. His memory of how Charlie Sobeloff cheated him out of a former business and founded a fortune reminds us that Morris' failure is based on naïveté; on a kind and trusting heart. Charlie's crooked career resembles that of Breitbart's thieving brother, and Breitbart's family devotion resembles Morris'. Morris' other attempts to get a job are futile; he is a lost person in a highly competitive world and kindness has no part in rescuing the forlorn. Morris' visits to Breitbart's home and to Al Marcus' are the last gasps of his hopes; he seems to have no clear idea of why he visits Breitbart's home (perhaps it is to see a person as lost and as loyal to his family as himself) and his hope that Al Marcus can help him find a job is as likely as Marcus' surviving the final stages of cancer. Morris' last hope of rescue is the macher's offer to burn down the store and building for the insurance money. The macher is a desperate temptation to Morris' despairing self. The macher's heavy Yiddish accent, old-world Jewish dress, and references to Jews as poor and the insurance companies as rich suggest an alienation from and a cynicism toward the modern world of business. The macher is evidence that being Jewish is no bar to being a gross criminal, that alienation and corruption are not exclusive. The macher and Morris are not a dishonest Jew and an honest Jew; they are a dishonest man and an honest man. Morris' declaration that he likes neither fires nor monkey business shows his concern for both people and principles. But Morris is not above all temptation. His own attempt to set a fire shows that his desperation has almost maddened him and that when the corrupt aura of the macher's presence is gone, he himself can consider dishonesty. Although he is able to start a fire, however, his conscience will not let him go through with such a crime. At this moment, Frank's sudden appearance in the cellar to rescue Morris is a partial reversal of roles, Frank representing Morris' best self. Concerning this idea of "the better self," Frank goes through with his plans to protest to Morris that he has changed and to confess his part in the holdup, but the much-wished-for confession comes too late. Morris does not force Frank to leave because of his stealing from the cash register or because of his interest in Helen. Morris declares that it is not the stealing, and several of his comments and observations show that both he and Ida no longer consider Frank a threat to Helen because Helen shows no interest in him. The only remaining explanation, its likelihood reinforced by Morris' telling Frank that Frank knows why he must leave, and by Morris' reflection that "he did not want a confessed criminal around" (a reflection which comes after the revelation that Morris had figured out Frank's guilt before the confession), is that Morris now finds Frank's participation in the holdup to be unforgivable. The dislike of a confessed criminal may seem to emphasize the legal aspects of the crime--Frank's being a potential criminal--but, more likely, the accumulation of Frank's betrayals are too much to bear. Frank's confession, like his contrition toward Helen, his desire to replace all of the stolen money, and his realization that he had never thought of borrowing from Morris instead of stealing--all have come too late. Thus although Frank's sudden appearance at the end of Section Eight saves both Morris' conscience and his life, it is too late to restore Frank to Morris' acceptance and forgiveness. The sudden concluding act of rejection may suggest that Frank deserves his punishment.

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SECTION NINE The conclusion of Section Eight leaves the reader uncomfortably anticipating how Frank will continue his relationship with the Bobers and, consequently, how he will solve his quest for salvation. The rift between Morris and Frank seems irreparable. With great skill, however, Malamud interweaves resolutions for the painful destinies of Ward and Morris, and introduces new hope for a situation in which Frank can continue his struggles. Ward has lived with an almost complete disregard of consequences, focusing always on the pleasures of the moment and the sordid joys of sadistic revenge, both traits which are residual in Frank and which have been acted out in his relationship with the Bobers, and which appeared in Ward's attempt to rape Helen. Ward's illness leads him to seek momentary relief in drinking. The fact that he must first down enough liquor to get beyond the point of nausea emphasizes his disregard for his health. Ward's final confrontation with his father is an agonizing contrast to the relationship between Morris and Frank. As a surrogate son, Frank has pursued Morris and struggled to atone for the wrongs he has done Morris. Ward is in continual flight from his father, but the fact that he has remained in the neighborhood where his father works suggests that Ward wants to bring shame to his father in terms of his father's brutal and puritanical characteristics: Ward wants most to be the opposite of what his father expects, possibly as revenge against his father's attempts to mold him into a rigidly moral person, a person whose first regard is for the image and letter of the law rather than for the spirit of the law. The "spirit" of the law, it should be noted, is at the heart of Morris' devotion to the law. When Ward rushes into his father's arms to plead for safety, his gesture is a cry for a measure of father-son love, a love almost non-existent in this case because of hatred and vindictiveness on both sides. Detective Minogue's last words to his son, threatening that he will kill him if he doesn't stay out of the neighborhood, emphasize the father's shame and how thoroughly he has rejected his son. Ward gains momentary happiness by guzzling liquor and momentary revenge by smashing bottles in Karp's store but these desperate actions cause his death. Malamud uses the burning of Karp's liquor store to devise a situation in which Morris' former optimism can be restored. Morris' last days bring him some happiness but the hope they bring of improved material circumstances eventually turns out to be poorly founded. Nevertheless, that hope is continued in both Frank's and Helen's refusals to abandon their dreams. Watching Karp's store burn, Morris fears that his curse on Julius Karp has been realized, but it turns out that there will be little loss for Karp, who is protected by his insurance, and that there promises to be luck for Morris in his chance to turn his failing establishment into cash that will lead him to new opportunities. Morris' successful bargaining with Karp brings him a brief triumph and perhaps Morris is lucky not to live long enough to see the collapse of this new dream. Morris' bad luck seems to have often occurred because of his stubborn honesty. Now this streak of stubbornness causes his death; afterward, a whim of fate withdraws Karp's financial offer, but Morris does not live to see this reversal. The ironies of Morris' lot are exemplified in his response to a heavy snowfall on the last day of March, a season whose possible threat Morris denies as he sets his heart into the mood of approaching spring. Thus the expansiveness in Morris brought about by his new luck contributes to the mood which leads to his fatal exertions while shoveling his sidewalk. His desire to be free of the store for a while is prompted by his new luck, and his bickering with Ida about his exertions and his health causes him to decide not to go upstairs to get his coat before he goes outside to shovel. His death, then, results not only from the irony of fate but from the testy relationship with his wife which has been created by the constricting circumstances of the store. Before he dies, Morris' affectionate talk with his daughter and his dream about his dead son help us understand the successes and failures of his life. The gentleness and warmth between Morris and Helen suggest that his failure to give her much materially is offset by the character traits she has absorbed from

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


him. Yet Morris' sense of failing his family remains strong, and Morris' last thoughts in the novel, as he dreams of his dead son and as he reflects on this dream, are tragic and painful. The images of Ephraim in Morris' dream remind us that much of Morris' suffering has come from the fatality of circumstances; there was nothing he could have done to save his son's life. Morris' final reflection, "I gave my life for nothing," is followed by "It was the thunderous truth," which may still reflect Morris' viewpoint or may be an authorial comment, but in any case it can be taken to apply only to those material circumstances which the novel as a whole insists are not of first importance in the ultimates of success and failure: love and integrity. Morris' thoughts before he falls asleep and dreams of Ephraim show that the good luck of being able to sell the store and start a new business is not as fortunate as it may seem, for Morris is worried about the emotional upheaval of leaving a place to which he is greatly accustomed and he is worried about the possibility of another failure. This passage strongly contributes to the sense that it is too late for Morris to remedy the mistakes and unhappiness of the past. The weariness of spirit which accompanies his hopes suggests a physical exhaustion, and the restfulness of death seems an appropriate end to his sufferings. In the rabbi's sermon, we should note that important elements are not accurate. Morris was honest, kind, and hardworking, but he did not have friends and he was not a good provider. The presence at the funeral of friends not seen for years by the Bobers reminds us that in burying himself in the store Morris withdrew from many of his old friendships. The rabbi's mention of Jewish neighborhoods reminds us of Morris' loneliness and of the painful, as well as the joyous, results of ethnic sectarianism. More important in the sermon, however, is the rabbi's insistence that Morris was a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience and had a Jewish heart. In the full context of the novel, this passage is reminiscent of the exchange between Morris and Frank about what it means to be a Jew--in which Morris' main emphasis was that the truest morality leads men to suffer for one another. When the rabbi concludes his praise of Morris by declaring "he wanted for his beloved child a better existence than he had. For such reasons he was a Jew," we realize that the traits being praised occur in all warm hearts no matter what their religion or ethnic stock. Yet this passage holds in marvelous balance the ideas of the values and the alienations that exist with all ethnic classifications. This theme is emphasized in Frank's reflections, following the sermon, about Jewish identity. He is still troubled by what he sees as a Jewish penchant for suffering, but his reflection about Jews that "there are more of them around than anybody knows about" shows that he is coming to understand that Judaism is a version of universal humanity whose apparently ethnic traits may appear in anyone, including himself. This passage prepares us for Frank's conversion at the end of the novel. Section Nine continues other themes. Nat's concern for Helen throughout the funeral shows both possessiveness and tenderness, but Nat's already established exploitative attitude toward Helen will take from his concern any genuine effect on Helen's sadness and loneliness. Nat's suaveness is in sharp contrast to Frank's clumsiness at the funeral but the contrast suggests that the fool is holier than the slick operator. The most important theme presented at the funeral and its aftermath is Frank's continuing assumption of Morris' identity. Frank sees the scar on Morris' head and is again reminded of his part in injuring a man who became his spiritual father. Frank falls into the grave because he leans to see where Helen's rose has fallen, almost as if it were a symbol of his hopes and ought to sanctify the coffin of the man Frank wishes to replace. Frank's fall may be a symbol of burial and resurrection, in which case Section Nine's concluding remark that "the grocer was the one who had danced on the grocer's coffin" combines the idea of a kind of triumph by Frank over Morris with a feeling that the ritual of Morris' burial contains an element of gaiety and hope, a celebration of the continuance in life of Morris' best qualities. If those qualities are to continue in Frank, they must still withstand and originate from the kind of

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suffering which afflicted Morris. Morris' death brings a relief from some tension but it leads to what will be increased suffering for Frank. The dull ring of the cash register as Helen and Ida go upstairs is proof that the force of circumstance has given them little choice about Frank's continuing in the store. The surviving major characters all seem close to despair, but the survival in Frank's heart of Morris' best traits gives hope for a better future for all of them.

SECTION TEN Morris is buried early in April, five months after he was robbed by Frank and Ward. Section Ten covers a full year--from April to the following March or April--this progression of time and events being necessary so that Frank can attempt to reestablish a relationship with Helen and so that his laboring and suffering may be great enough to justify his dream of restitution. During this time, the hopes and dreams of Helen and Frank are presented alternately in the narrative until they reach a point at which a fusion between them seems possible. The abruptness and sternness of Helen's continuing rejection of Frank are presented in dialogue rather than as part of her thoughts in order to show that her response is automatic, not reflective. Now all her hopes for improving herself focus on a college education, which she sees as the only way that she can honor her father's memory. Helen seeks some relief from her loneliness by starting night school again and by seeing Nat, but neither of these things greatly increases her happiness. Progress at night school is very slow, and the discomfort of such study is emphasized when, by accident, she observes Frank at his night job. The association of her studies and his work emphasizes her loneliness and her limited time for study. The brief scene in which Frank overhears Helen slap Nat is evidence that Nat's interest in Helen is still only physical, and that he probably still pretends ignorance of Helen's desire for something more. Two important events serve to change Helen's rejection of Frank. When Frank makes his proposal to send her to college full time, she rejects it immediately, releasing her accumulated resentment toward him, but at the same moment she realizes that she has hated him as a substitution for hating herself. This recognition, along with her waning of anger since Ward's death and her realization that under different circumstances she might have responded to Frank's "starved leap," is like a revelation, making her aware of what has been going on in Frank and in herself. Ward had come to represent for her all the outrage in her parents' and her own life, and Frank's assault had associated him very closely with Ward. The self-hatred to which she now admits can be based only on the feeling that she had foolishly set her hopes for a new life on Frank Alpine, whose background and qualities were not very promising. Frank's assault made her feel that she should have known better than to look to him for salvation. As a result, she had stopped looking at him as a promising person and saw him only as an embodiment of grossness and foolish aspiration. Now her acknowledgement that he made a "starved leap" shows some awareness of the motivation that Frank himself reflected on at length in Section Seven. Unfortunately for Frank, his admission to Helen that he had helped Ward to rob Morris reinforces the identification between Ward and Frank, an identification which had been diminishing in Helen's mind. But seeing Frank at work at the allnight restaurant makes Helen realize the suffering and sacrifices he is going through for her and her mother. After this, Helen's admission to herself that Frank has indeed changed is linked to her thanking him for his help, but even more important is her telling Frank that she is using the volume of Shakespeare which he gave her. She is acknowledging a bond between them, a gesture which underlines the likelihood that she will indeed, as she says, reconsider Frank's offer to send her to day college. Frank's year-long service in the store throughout Section Ten shows him suffering exhaustion, poverty, and loneliness much greater than he did earlier in the novel. The emotional content of his suffering also

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changes. Helen's dislike and rebuffs only seem to drive him harder and he is determined to send Helen to day college despite great financial pressures. Frank seems now almost to be reveling in his suffering, to be wearing it as earlier he thought only Jews could wear suffering, "like a piece of goods" made into "a suit of clothes." Clearly he is suffering for the one he loves, and he hopes that she will eventually return his love. Before Frank tells Helen of his plan to send her to day college, he reflects that if she refuses, "he would shut the joint tomorrow and skiddo." In fact, however, Frank continues his labors and hopes. But this passage emphasizes his quest to regain a woman's love. Indeed, all of Section Ten convincingly suggests that Frank's love for Helen and his adoption of Morris' role and way of life are deeply embedded with the feeling that only by carrying on Morris' efforts and by winning Helen's love can he accomplish a personal rebirth--the acquisition of Morris' morality and of the combination of such morality with an intellectual dedication in Helen. Frank's efforts to improve the business and his repeated offers of a college education to Helen are the result of imaginative and almost demonic inspiration. This drive, however, is for a brief while interrupted by Frank's spying anew on Helen and by his beginning to cheat customers again. These actions are a brief resurgence of unsavory traits. They are the result of vindictive despair and self-punishment. The limited vision and hopelessness shown by these acts parallel Helen's self-hatred and narrow view of Frank. Frank's spontaneous abandonment of this behavior suggests that he no longer needs examples or rewards for help in suppressing his worst side. Circumstances have developed so that a rebirth of love between Helen and Frank is possible, and Frank's hopes for a better future for both of them are not out of the question. Frank's addition of hot carry-out foods gives him added income and improves the grocery business. His hopes to start a restaurant do not seem foolish. The store is returning to the condition it was in before Frank's arrival, perhaps becoming somewhat better. Frank's adoption of Morris' identity is stressed in several ways. Frank gives up his sleep to get the Polish woman her three-cent roll, but he is no longer doing it "for the Jew": He is doing it for himself. Now Breitbart sits with Frank over tea and a Yiddish newspaper, just as he had sat with Morris at the beginning of the novel. But changes have occurred. When business is slow, Frank occupies his time by reading the Bible and thinking of St. Francis. Here, St. Francis' brown rags remind us that Frank still lives in poverty but that he is trying to create something beautiful from it. The scrawny birds around the saint's head probably represent the persistence of Frank's hope, a hope whose flowering is symbolized by the fantasy that Helen accepts the wooden rose. Frank's circumcision and conversion to Judaism are presented very tersely because they reflect a concentration of tendencies in his character--almost automatic responses to his needs. Surely his chief reason for the circumcision is his memory that Helen had cursed him as an uncircumcised dog. Now he wants to nullify her rejection and make himself pleasing should they become intimate. The pain from the circumcision that "enraged and inspired him" presents a summary of his suffering throughout the novel. Frank's becoming a Jew is both touching and mildly humorous. His chief reason must be to make himself acceptable to Helen, but surely he also wishes to acknowledge that he is no different from Jews, that he is willing to live among them even if Helen won't have him. The elusive humor is probably based on the fact that Frank has discovered that he can be a Jew because he shares a fundamental humanity with them, and on the feeling that if sectarian divisions cannot be wholly crossed by asserting common humanity, they can sometimes be healed by accepting someone else's ethnic identity. Yet, in the sense of Morris' definition, Frank was becoming a Jew before his conversion, and now the desperation of his love creates the challenge of making that identity official--a challenge he is able to accept. The combination of

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sadness and humor summarizes the novel's investigation of the delicate balance between the limitations and the positive aspects of ethnic identities. Very probably the novel's end is intended to predict a reconciliation between Frank and Helen. But the circumstances amidst which it may flourish will not be very expansive, and the suffering and growth which may make it possible are more important than the promise of mutual love.

CHARACTER ANALYSES FRANK ALPINE Frank Alpine's name has two important connotations: It suggests an affinity with St. Francis of Assisi and also refers to mountain heights beyond the timberline, thereby suggesting aspiration. Frank has no memories of his parents but he remembers the Catholic orphanage and the several families he lived with. He is a man in need of a father; he needs someone to help him identify himself. Frank is not a practicing Catholic but his vivid memories of learning about St. Francis suggest that his moral compulsions and his sense of sin are related to his early Catholic training. Frank's desire to be like St. Francis emphasizes one half of his divided character: He is a man who is both saint and sinner, and these good and bad aspects of Frank's character have alter egos in the novel. Ward Minogue is his devil, and Morris and Helen Bober are his good angels. Possibly Morris represents his good heart and Helen his developing intellect. Frank is a self-educated drifter whose native intelligence goes undeveloped and whose perspectives tend to be narrow. Frank realizes this about himself, but his efforts at improvement are limited until Helen Bober provides a model. However, his ideas of success remain--quite understandably--rather materialistic. Frank speaks a reasonably correct language, casually salted with slang but not very vulgar. He uses trite phrases, such as "why people tick" without self-consciousness, but there is a certain strained formality in his language when he tries to express complicated ideas. Frank claims more analytic knowledge than he possesses, as is shown in his elementary understanding of other people's motivations and his puzzlement about the complex portrayals of situations and people in the novels that Helen asks him to read. But his ability to grasp some of the essentials in the novels and his improvement in understanding the Bobers show intellectual growth as well as natural shrewdness. Frank's divided nature, his disposition toward both good and evil, hatred and love, are the material from which his all-important redemption is woven. His earlier existence as a bum shows the strain of hopelessness in him, which stems from a rootless childhood. His hope of rising in the world as a successful criminal is thwarted when he commits his first robbery. As he and Ward rob Morris, he knows that he is incapable of violence and crime, and during his first conversation with Morris, his urge to confess is almost overwhelming. Frank is a kind of man who is known in Jewish folklore as a shlimozel, a term applied in the novel by Julius Karp to Morris Bober. A shlimozel is a person for whom nothing goes right, someone who is always unlucky, often as a victim of circumstances. But as a shlimozel, Frank contrasts with Morris. Frank's bad luck is usually a result of his compulsive overreaching, a trait which spoils things for him. He knows and analyzes this failing in himself but he continues to suffer from it. At one point Frank tells Helen that he is good even when he is bad, probably meaning that he sometimes violates his deepest and warmest impulses and that he is deeply ashamed. Frank is, to a degree, a saint because he learns to suffer for redemption and is at last able to give an almost demonic force to his persistent pursuit of growth and love. That he is innately compassionate is shown by his kindness and warmth toward many people: Morris Bober, the customers, and the needy family of Carl Johnson. As the novel presents Frank's complex redemption, it does not simplify the accompanying difficulties and it allows ample time for the changes in Frank to emerge from struggle and to solidify slowly. Frank Alpine

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is a very human saint, and thus he is an example that all men might, as he does, experience change through suffering.

MORRIS BOBER The name "Bober" is highly connotative. Helen Bober reflects that she is "as poor as her name sounded" and Morris Bober thinks "with that name you had no sure sense of property." In addition, the name Bober is akin to the Yiddish word bubber, meaning someone who peddles beans. An American equivalent would be someone who "doesn't amount to a hill of beans," but the novel suggests that this idea applies to Morris' business and not to his character. Although Morris himself tends to think that his life has amounted to nothing, he is rich in spirit and poor only in material things. Morris is in several ways a displaced person. He is an exile from his Jewish community in the old world and he is an exile from the Jewish community in America and from the widespread life of the city in which he makes his home. Morris fled from Czarist Russia to escape the tyranny of the Czarist army, but his flight for freedom separated him from the outdoor life he loved as a child, and did not lead to significant opportunities in America, where materialism stood in the way of success for a man with a good and non-devious heart. Not only has Morris lost contact with nature but he lives in the prison of his store, frightened by the throbbing life of the city--as is shown during his futile attempts to find a job. Julius Karp thinks of Morris as a shlimozel and thinks that Morris is "inept, unfortunate," meaning that he is unfortunate because he is inept, but Karp is only partly right, and much that he thinks is inept results from the warmth in Morris that contrasts strikingly with Karp's calculating coldness (Karp's name suggests that he is a cold fish, a carp). Morris' variant of the shlimozel is the man who can do for others but not for himself, in this case because of a combination of charitable kindness and a too passive acceptance of his own doom. Morris allowed Charlie Sobeloff to cheat him. He took a store in a poor neighborhood and almost literally buried himself in it. But some of his best traits are related to his failures. He extends credit that will never be redeemed, but not only out of kindness; it is also a kind of self-torture, an embracing of his miserable lot. His generosity is chiefly based on kindness and compassion, his sense that humans suffer and ought to relieve one another as much as possible. He is devoted to his daughter, and his trust follows the Jewish law that a stranger shall be treated as a friend when he forgives Frank for stealing milk and rolls and when he assures Frank that Frank's being a stranger casts no doubts on his honesty. He is anxious to think the best of Frank, even when he suspects that Frank is stealing from him. Morris believes that being Jewish accounts for the best elements in his character--honesty, trust, and kindness--but he cannot help being a product of his world and he does have certain suspicions and animosities toward gentiles. These feelings, however, are far less vicious than similar ones in Ida and are more nearly like Helen's anti-sectarian feelings. Morris pays cash to Otto Vogel because he wants no favors from a German. Here the association with German anti-Semitism is almost impersonal. Morris finds it easy to accept the Polish woman's anti-Semitism because it is "a different kind of anti-Semitism" than that in America. He regards it as an almost natural kind of ethnic suspicion, a slightly shameful recognition of one another's humanity, a suspicion that doesn't prevent all trust. His distress that Frank's success in the store is due to Frank's being a gentile is amusing when we see the contradiction between Frank's thinking that "only a Jew" could stay in a place like the store and Morris' later reflection that only a goy (a non-Jew) with a heart of stone could stay in such a place. Morris finds himself wishing for misfortune to happen to his competitors, but he upbraids himself for such immorality. Morris' naiveté is not wholly admirable, and his self-mocking and self-comforting defensiveness in his dialogues with Ida is not endearing, but he is a very good, loving, and just man.

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


HELEN BOBER Helen's name may be intended to associate her with the mythical Helen of Troy in order to stress her role as the most beautiful object in the world of the store. But if this association emphasizes too strongly her erotic appeal, the association can be modified by thinking of the tender qualities of the Helen in Edgar Allen Poe's love poem "To Helen." Helen Bober is like the birds and flowers which were loved by St. Francis, and which symbolize her natural beauty, love, and desire for harmony with the world. Helen has spent most of her life in the drab neighborhood of the grocery store. She is a product of the American big-city high school, where intellectual excitement is often stimulated in the children of immigrants who themselves never developed intellectual interests, for many reasons, especially because of limited education and a bitter struggle for a livelihood. Now Helen's satisfactions center on the local library and on the courses she can take at night at N.Y.U., where during the mid-1940s a three-credit course would cost $45 tuition--a very high price for the Bobers. Helen is a first generation semiintellectual, not always modest in her hopes for and faith in the power of education, and unsure of the relative importance of personal development and economic success. Helen shares with her father not only gentleness, kindness, and compassion but also a tendency toward fatalism, despair, and passivity. She has no real friends and seems to shuttle between the loneliness of her unsatisfying job and the loneliness of night classes and the library. She is not interested in dating the salesmen at her office, and the prospective companionships of Nat Pearl and Louis Karp offer little of what she wants. She is admirably courageous in going her own way. She is independent enough to give her favors to Nat Pearl and then to withhold them because she wants something more than a physical relationship. Helen's sensitivity and intelligence may owe something to her study and reading. She becomes aware of the conflicts and ambivalences in Frank. Frank himself gains greater knowledge of these tensions by reading such books as Crime and Punishment. She is drawn to Frank because in addition to love and striving for improvement, he seems to offer a whole personality rather than the social surface that Nat Pearl offers. The combination of wholeness in Frank (physical, intellectual, and moral concerns) with internal contradictions adds poignancy to Helen's interest in him. Frank's disillusioning assault on Helen causes her to hate herself for having blindly believed in him, but at the novel's end she is recovering from her dislike of him, and a more realistic view of him may make a rewarding relationship possible. In her last appearance in the novel, when Helen thanks Frank for his help, her finest traits are emphasized. She is decent, straightforward, and courageous. Her change of attitude toward Frank suggests that she, as well as he, has been growing.

WARD MINOGUE Ward Minogue's first name suggests that to his father he is more of a ward than a son, a person toward whom he feels more duty than love. Ward is the evil genius of both Frank Alpine and of the neighborhood of the Bobers' store. He haunts the neighborhood as if he were an emanation of all its lovelessness and despair. Just as Frank Alpine has a tendency to appear suddenly out of gray and dark places in order to save Morris Bober and his business, so Ward appears out of dark places to propose a robbery, strike down a poor grocer, threaten blackmail, attempt a rape, and smash up a store. Ward's cynicism is due to a complete failure of trust, this failure derived from a loveless and puritanical upbringing. His cynicism assumes that everyone is driven by desires and selfishness like his own.

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


Ward's anti-Semitism is only one form of his hatred and cynical devaluation of everyone; it is most vivid in his brutality and his rapist tendencies. His physical deterioration and his mindless grasping for the stupor of drink are not only symbols of his moral degradation but are also signs of his disregard for the rules of self-preservation and the possibility of hope. Ward seems suicidal as a result of unconscious despair. His complete lack of hope contrasts sharply with the struggle against despair in Frank, Helen, and Morris.

NAT PEARL Nat's name suggests the word natty, a term for impressively up-to-date and sharp dress, but it is also a term applicable to a slick personality, and the name of Pearl suggests smoothness and financial ambition. Nat is a brilliant law student, but he seems to regard education only as the foundation for material success, a success which would be encumbered by marriage to a poor girl. Nat is quick to recognize that Helen is reading a classic novel on the subway, and he has a veneer of culture, but his intelligence does not include humanistic values, as does Helen's. Nat is a manipulator and he is preparing for a profession well suited to such a role; He is a cool exploiter and has the lack of candor necessary for such operations. He has told his father that Helen expects too much from him, but in talking to Helen he persists in claiming ignorance about her reasons for denying attentions to him. Nat's struggles to leave the neighborhood and to enjoy a better life are based on his father's successful betting, his own cool intelligence, and his sharp eye for opportunities. If Ward Minogue represents the immoral elements in Frank and the Bobers' world, Nat may be said to represent the amoral elements.

CRITICAL ESSAY TECHNIQUE AND STYLE The Assistant combines naturalism, realism, and symbolism. Naturalism may be concisely defined as pessimistic determinism, and realism as the accurate portrayal of life with the assumption that at least some people possess willpower and exert significant control over their destinies. Realism heavily outweighs naturalism in this novel, but the two are subtly combined. The sense of oppressive grayness and endless winter has a naturalistic tinge. The economic circumstances of the Bobers' neighborhood with its grim gray and yellow tenements, its penury, and the working-class character of its inhabitants (a house painter, a car mechanic, a restaurant worker) suggest immobility. Many of the characters seem to be in the grip of desire, frustration, and arrested development, though the characters can be placed in a hierarchy according to how thoroughly they remain victims of their heritages and their circumstances. At the bottom is Ward Minogue, a victim of his upbringing and now of his desires, his resentments, and his illness. Frank's early history suggests that in his days of drifting he was also trapped by his heritage and circumstances, but as the novel progresses, we see Frank freeing himself from these. Both Morris and Helen are capable of choice and exert themselves to maintain their integrity, but circumstances tend to hold them in a vice. The persistence of morality, self-determination, and hope in Frank, Morris, and Helen are traits of the realistic novel and they are emphasized in the progressive inner-liberations of Frank and Helen. The novel employs a very large number of symbolic devices. Some of these include matters discussed in the character analyses: name symbolism, archetypal character roles such as the combined saint and sinner, and the use of characters as alter egos. The parable qualities in plot and character create symbolic effects. A parable is a story told largely to make moral points and is often based on contrasts and comparisons Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


between people. In parable terms, Ward Minogue shows that the wages of sin are corruption, illness, and death. Morris Bober shows that the wages of faithfulness and honor can be dignity and spiritual triumph amidst material failure. Frank Alpine and Helen Bober show that the wages of struggle, faith, and selfcontrol can be redemption and love. In combination with the parable element are a number of mythic parallels, biblically and psychologically archetypal. Morris suffers like Job and preserves his soul. Frank serves as Jacob did for Rebecca, and his reward seems to be promised. The main psychological archetypes are the descent into the grave, the night journey, the winter journey, and the dark night of the soul, all of which lead to Frank Alpine's rebirth. The other symbolic devices, mostly featuring places, things, daydream imagery, and concise actions, can be usefully divided into what the critic Ursula Brumm has called "the cause-linked 'realistic' symbol, and the transcendent or magic symbol of the poetic novel." By transcendent symbol, she means a symbol not closely related to or important in action or setting, but rather an image or association which conjures up elusive meanings merely by its presence and repetition. The chief realistic symbols, important parts of action and setting with expanding meanings, are the Bobers' store, the cellar, the city atmosphere, the pains of winter, the tiny oasis of the library, the lost Ephraim (symbol of Morris' faded hopes), Frank's gifts to Helen, and Frank's painful circumcision. Symbols tending to be transcendent rather than realistic are the air shaft (standing for the impersonality of voyeurism), the seasonal cycle with stress on April and the Passover, memories of and associations with St. Francis, metaphorical birds and flowers in Frank's thoughts about Helen's body, the idea of Helen as a wife fashioned from snow, the pigeons which Frank feeds, Frank's carved wooden bird and wooden rose, and the birds and the rose in Frank's final fantasy about St. Francis. The progressive structure of the novel is hard to establish because of the overlapping and interlocking problems of Frank, Morris, and Helen. The division of the novel into a classical five-stage structure of situation, complication, turning point, climax, and resolution helps to show the centrality of Frank Alpine's role and the relationship between his and the other characters' fates. The situation covers the economic circumstances of the Bobers and Frank's participation in the robbery. In the complication, Frank enters into the lives and hearts of Morris and Helen. The turning point, which actually leads to new complications, comes when Frank loses the loyalty of Morris and Helen by stealing from the store and by his assault on Helen. Morris' death brings a partial climax and a new turning point by settling Morris' problems and providing a chance for renewed struggle and hope for Frank. The resolution centers on Helen's tentative change of heart toward Frank. This progression is accompanied by alternations of hope and despair for Morris and Helen and by a steady downward movement for Ward Minogue. Style and manipulation of point of view are strikingly inter-related throughout the novel. The point of view method is selective omniscience, whereby the thoughts of Morris, Frank, Helen, Ward, and Julius Karp are revealed or reflected. The emphasis is on the thoughts of the first three, and these thoughts are skillfully blended with the narrative voice. The prose style is spare, concisely metaphorical, and energetic, these traits reflecting the constriction and abrupt events in the characters' lives. The style is sometimes colloquial and ironic, qualities which help blend the narrative with the dialogue. The speech of Morris and Ida is heavily influenced by Yiddish and combines mordant irony with incorrect grammar to provide color and sometimes to show them groping for expression. This groping is paralleled in the combination of colloquial and formal language when Frank and Helen try to communicate their ideas. Style and tone show both consistency and some variation. This combination of style and tone supports the subtlety of the plot's interweaving of the fates of Frank, Morris, Helen, and Ward.

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


GLOSSARY OF WORDS AND PHRASES, YIDDISH UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED feh: an exclamation of disgust. gelt: money gesheft: business establishment. gink: (American big city slang) guy, fellow, odd person. gotten yu: My God!, help! goy; pl. goyim: non-Jewish person. Italyener: Italian person. landsman; p1. landsleit: person from the same old-world local Jewish community or shtetl. parnusseh: wages, source of income, or way of making a living. pisher: literal, one who urinates; figurative, a little or slight person, an inexperienced person, or something that adds up to little. Poilisheh: Polish person. schmerz: a blow. schnapps: hard liquor. schwer: literal, heavy; figurative, difficult, painful. shikse: a female non-Jew. shlimozel: person for whom nothing goes right; an unlucky person, a born loser. tsu: whether, if; to. Der oilem iz a goilem: (paffly Hebrew) The populace are dopes, the people is a dummy. Yaskadal v'yiskadash shmey, rabo. B'olmo divre . . . (Hebrew). The first words of the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead: "Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He has created according [to His will]."

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972



Compare the attitudes of Morris, Ida, and Helen toward gentiles.


Trace the stages by which Frank changes his attitude toward Jews.


Discuss various reasons why Frank begins and continues to steal from Morris.


Discuss how Malamud creates the atmosphere of the Bobers' neighborhood and of the store.


Compare Louis Karp and Nat Pearl as prospective suitors for Helen. Account for Helen's feeling that she might respond to Nat if he offered marriage.


Compare the effects of character and chance on Morris Bober's misfortunes.


How does Frank resemble St. Francis?


How does Malamud use the Polish woman, Mike Papadopolous, and Carl Johnson to characterize Morris?


Compare the sexual attitudes of Helen, Frank, Nat, and Ward.


Discuss the images of entrapment throughout the novel.


Discuss the use of alter egos (sometimes called psychological doubles) throughout the novel.


Discuss the function of Frank's spying on Helen in the bathroom, both early and late in the novel.


Compare all the father-son relationships in the novel.


Characterize Helen's relations to her mother and father.


Why are Ida and Morris so sarcastic with each other?


Discuss the reasons for, and trace the course of, Frank's desire to confess the holdup to Morris.


What is the function of dreams throughout the novel?


Trace the theme of betrayal throughout the novel.


Investigate Frank's reasons for becoming a Jew.

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY BAUMBACH, JONATHAN. The Landscape of Nightmare. New York: New York University Press, 1965. BRYANT, JERRY H. The Open Decision. New York: The Free Press, 1970. FIELD, LESLIE A. and JOYCE W. FIELD. eds. Bernard Malamud and the Critics. New York: New York University Press, 1970. A collection of critical articles through The Fixer. Includes three essays on The Assistant offering variant interpretations. FIEDLER, LESLIE. No! In Thunder. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960. KAZIN, ALFRED. "Fantasist of the Ordinary." Commentary XXIV (July 1957): 89-92. KLEIN, MARCUS. After Alienation. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962. MANDEL, RUTH B. "Bernard Malamud's The Assistant and A New Life: Ironic Affirmation." Critique VII (Winter 1964-65): 110-21. MELLARD, JAMES M. "Malamud's The Assistant: The City Novel as Pastoral." Studies in Short Fiction V (Fall 1967): 1-11. RICHMAN, SIDNEY. Bernard Malamud. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966. An excellent critical survey through Idiots First. SCHULZ, MAX F. Radical Sophistication. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1969. SIEGEL, BEN. "Victims in Motion: Bernard Malamud's Sad and Bitter Clowns." Northwestern Review V (Spring 1962): 69-80.

Cliffs Notes on The Assistant © 1972