The Assistant: Chapter 9
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The fire in the Bobers’ store is out, but now the Karps’ liquor store catches on fire. The fire has been started by Ward Minogue. Earlier that evening, Ward came by to find Frank. Learning that Frank had moved out, he went down to the Karps’ to beg a fifth of whisky from Louis Karp, who flatly refused. He flung a bottle of wine at Louis’s head, snatched a bottle of whisky, and fled. The cops were called and his father, Detective Minogue, found Ward and beat him badly, despite Ward’s pleas that he was ill with diabetes. Ward then returned to the liquor store, broke in, and smashed liquor bottles all over, then accidentally set the store on fire after lighting his cigarette. Ward perished in the fire.
The fire destroys Karp’s business completely. Morris is gripped with guilt, recalling that he had wished this very fate on Karp earlier that day. Later he grows bitter instead. He wanted the fire, not Karp. Now Karp’s insurance will pay for his loss, and Morris gets nothing. Bad luck again. As he is thinking these thoughts, Julius Karp appears with a proposition. He will buy Morris’s store and house. He can use Morris’s store as a liquor store while his own place of business is being rebuilt. Ida weeps with joy and Morris is stunned.
Seeing the spring snow outside moves Morris. He remembers playing outdoors as a child, and longs to be out in the open. He tells Ida he’ll go out to shovel, but she forbids him to do it, saying he’ll catch pneumonia again. When Ida goes up to bed, Morris does it anyway. He comes up to bed, wracked with worries and fears about the future. He wakes up again, feeling feverish. He figures that it’s flu. He dreams that he’s talking to his boy Ephraim. He calls to him, promising him a college education if he’ll only stay alive. He moans, filled with regret, thinking he has given his life away for nothing. Three days later, Morris dies.
At the funeral, all of Morris’s old friends, distant relatives, acquaintances, and one or two customers, sit in mourning. Ida wails, “Morris, why didn’t you listen to me?” The rabbi gives a long eulogy for the dead grocer, a man he’s never met but knows through stories as “a man who couldn’t be more honest.” He tells of how, as recalled by Helen, Morris once ran two blocks in the snow to return five cents that a customer forgot. The rabbi adds that besides being honest, Morris was a hard worker and good provider, describing how Morris got up in the dark and worked all day in his grocery. He ends by saying that Morris Bober was a true Jew, “because he was true to the spirit of our life—to want for others that which he wants also for himself.”
Hearing her father praised, Helen thinks the rabbi has overdone it. She still sees her father as having made himself a victim, as someone who with a little more courage or imagination could have had a better life. Ida also silently disagrees with the rabbi, thinking that yes, they had plenty to eat but too many bills and no peace. She weeps, sorry to judge her husband so harshly though she loves him, but thinking that she wants more for Helen.
At the cemetery, as Morris’s casket is being lowered into the ground, Helen throws in a flower. Frank leans over to see where the flower falls—and he falls in after it, landing feet first on the coffin. Frank is mortified, thinking he’s spoiled the funeral. Nat Pearl takes Helen by the arm and leads her away.
Louis Karp meets Ida and Helen as they return from the cemetery, with the news that his father has had a heart attack and couldn’t get to the funeral. He adds with a shrug that since his father is ill, he won’t want to buy the house anymore. He himself has got a job as salesman for a liquor company.
As Ida and Helen climb upstairs, they hear the register in the store cling, and they know that Frank, “the one who had danced on the grocer’s coffin,” is back in the store.
Analysis of Chapter 9
The chapter is characterized by ironic reversals. Morris wanted to set his store on fire, but it’s Karp’s store that burns down instead. Humorously, Morris resents Karp for stealing his luck again. The next big surprise of the chapter is Morris’s death, which occurs just as it seems that all his troubles have been solved by Karp’s plan to buy his store.
The eulogy given by the rabbi at Morris’s funeral poignantly sums up Morris’s life and provides a moral for this morality tale. Morris was honest and hardworking, a good provider, and even though he sold pork to gentiles and didn’t attend synagogue, he was a true Jew in that he wanted what was best for others, in particular for his own child. These are the things that make a good Jew, and a good person.
The thoughts of Helen and Ida, following the rabbi’s speech, are equally true about Morris. Yes, he was also weak, and lacked imagination and courage, and yes, their life was full of worry because of bills. Malamud’s masterful juxtaposition of Helen and Ida’s thoughts with the eulogy given by the rabbi creates a full picture of life as it really is—it’s not that simple, nothing is perfect, you take the good with the bad, and nobody ever lives up to his ideals, although we all try. The words of Helen and Ida bring the rabbi’s thoughts down to earth and even inject a bit of wry humor into the touching scene.
The scene in which Frank falls onto the coffin is highly symbolic. First, Frank goes in after the flower which Helen has tossed there, signifying that he desires to have the love that she gave to her father. Secondly, as he emerges from Morris’s grave, it is as if Frank is embodying the rebirth, the resurrection, of Morris. The final sentence of this chapter extends the idea that Frank has become Morris: “[T]hey heard the dull cling of the register in the store and knew the grocer was the one who had danced on the grocer’s coffin.” In this sentence, the first “grocer” refers to Frank, who is the grocer currently behind the register, while the second refers to Morris. Frank and Morris are now both known by the same name, “grocer.” Essentially, Frank has taken on Morris’s identity.