The Assistant: Chapter 4
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After a little more than two weeks, Morris’s head has healed. However, the idea of returning to work is depressing to him, and he has a further worry. He is convinced that the reason business has improved in his absence is simply that in this non-Jewish neighborhood, Frank is not a Jew. Perhaps his gentile customers have always secretly hated Morris for being Jewish. If he returns to work and sends the Italian boy away, he fears, business might go down again.
Morris proposes to Ida that they keep Frank on, giving him reduced hours and a small commission, moving him upstairs to sleep in a spare room in Tessie and Nick’s apartment. Ida objects to the plan, saying that they don’t have the money, and predicts that there will be trouble with Helen if Frank stays around. Morris belittles her fears.
Frank accepts the offer and everyone is satisfied but Ida, who makes Morris promise to send the clerk away before the summer comes.
The mood in the store improves with Frank around. Ida has more free time, and the grocer gets on well with his assistant. They spend a lot of time talking. Frank reveals that he ran away from a foster family who made him work instead of sending him to school. He traveled from city to city and was mostly self-educated. Morris reveals how he escaped from Russia after being conscripted into the czar’s army. He got his sergeant drunk and then ran away to America. Frank reflects sadly that this was the “big jig” of Morris’s life, but it seems to have gotten him nowhere. Morris advises Frank not to do what he has done, not to give up his chances in life, to go to school and make something of himself.
As Morris teaches Frank how to be a good grocer, he describes tricks that he’s seen dishonest grocers play on their customers. “Why don’t you try a couple of those tricks yourself?” asks Frank. “When a man is honest he don’t worry when he sleeps. This is more important than to steal a nickel,” Morris replies. But Frank continues to steal from Morris. The stealing excites him, while filling him with guilt and occasional rage at himself.
Frank observes what he thinks of as a desire for suffering in the Jews, including Al Marcus, a paper products salesman who continues to work while dying of cancer, and Breitbart, the light bulb vendor, whose wife left him and whose son is good for nothing. “That’s what they live for, Frank thought, to suffer…. No wonder they got on his nerves.”
Meanwhile, Helen is lonely and wishes for a call from Nat Pearl, but receives none. Frank longs for her company, but is afraid to speak to her. He realizes that no honest relationship with Helen would be possible until he confesses his role in the robbery. He decides to confess to Morris. He knows just what he will say, and rehearses it in his head. Still, when he has the chance to confess, he finds himself unable to do it.
A few days after Christmas, Frank goes to the library in hopes of seeing Helen there. They take a walk in the park together and share their dreams about going back to college. Frank tells a story about Saint Francis of Assisi that surprises and touches Helen. Then, he tells a sad story about a girl he loved who died. Helen sees the young man in a new light. When they return home, Helen is left wondering about Frank. How much of what he has shared is true? Is he really a man of possibilities?
Analysis of Chapter 4
In this chapter, we see Frank’s relationships with Morris and Helen begin to grow, while Frank still hides the truth of how and why he came into their lives.
Frank learns from Morris, who is almost like the father figure he never had. Morris also seems to need Frank as an adopted son, grieving as he still is over the loss of Ephraim. Frank wonders at Morris’s naïve honesty and his seeming enjoyment of suffering. However, Frank himself also aspires to be honest, and he seems to enjoy suffering, too, as he dwells on his guilty conscience.
Frank shows an immature attitude toward Jewish men like Morris, Al Marcus, and Breitbart when he says “That’s what they live for…to suffer.” He sees them as victims instead of as the courageous people they truly are. We will see Frank’s attitude change throughout the book as he becomes more enlightened and aware.
Frank’s relationship with Helen truly begins in this chapter after they meet in the library. This setting establishes that their relationship will be one of intellectual growth and stimulation—a reaching for new heights. Helen is impressed to see that Frank is reading a biography and not just a magazine like Popular Mechanics. She begins to see Frank in a new light after their talk. We the readers wonder along with Helen whether Frank is sincere about his plans to go to college and make something of his life.