The Assistant: Chapter 7
Morris receives a handbill announcing the opening of the new Taast and Pederson grocery, with special low prices that he can’t afford to match. He notices that Frank has left without taking his fifteen dollars’ pay. Morris feels unhappy to have to lose his assistant at this critical time, but he reasons that for Helen’s sake it had to be done. He tells Ida that Frank is gone, but doesn’t tell her the real reason, that Frank had been stealing. Ida is glad to see Frank gone, but Morris is still unhappy. He goes up early for his nap. He has a dream that Taast and Pederson are stealing from his cash register. They are speaking to each other in German and ignore him. Next he dreams that Frank is speaking to Helen in Italian, and Morris recognizes a dirty word. In the dream, he fights Frank and then Frank sits on his chest.
Tessie has a dream that a tree is hit by thunder and that someone is groaning terribly. The groans are coming from Frank, who awakens tormented by grief over what he has done. He had thought that he must love Helen before she was lost to him; he thought that she would understand that he did it out of love. But now, he realizes that in the park last night, he murdered his chance at a future. He feels trapped and sick, and wants to kill himself. Suddenly his tormenting conscience brings Frank to a startling realization: he is actually a man with stern morality.
Ida heard Helen crying last night and thinks Nat must have done something to her, and now she feels guilty about making Helen go out with Nat. Helen wakes up feeling dirty and hating herself for having trusted Frank. She plans to order him out of the house.
Returning from work, Nick smells gas in the building, and he and Frank realize it’s coming from the Bobers’ flat. They burst in and find Morris collapsed, poisoned after having forgotten to light the gas for the heater before lying down for his nap. Frank drags him out and revives him. Later, an ambulance comes and takes Morris away, his wife and daughter with him. The doctors find that pneumonia has settled into the grocer’s weakened lungs.
The next morning the store is still shut, and Frank decides to take it upon himself to open it, letting himself in through the window. Ida is angry until she sees the amount of money he’s taken in. Still unaware of the real reason Morris fired Frank, she allows him to stay until Morris recovers.
Taast and Pederson open their grocery, and at the end of the week, Frank notes that the grocery is close to a hundred short of what it normally makes per week. He withdraws $25 of his own money to put into the register.
After ten days, Morris comes back, but stays upstairs. Frank doesn’t have the courage to visit him. Helen hasn’t told her parents what happened between them, but hasn’t spoken to Frank, either. On two occasions he tries to speak to her, to apologize, but she coldly rejects him, saying he makes her sick. Frank has a dream that he’s standing in the snow outside Helen’s window, in bare feet. He waits in the snow until he’s nearly frozen, until she opens the window and tosses out a white flower. Then he looks again, and the window is sealed with ice, and there’s no flower in his hand.
Week after week, Frank struggles to keep the grocery on its feet, but the Norwegian grocery takes more and more of his customers. He continues to withdraw all he has in the bank to pad their earnings. He paints the store, removes the phone, and cuts down on gas expenses by lighting only one radiator. Ida wants to sell the store at auction, but Frank can’t bear this idea, believing that if he can keep the store alive he can win back Helen.
Helen meanwhile is miserable, too sad to attend her friend Betty Pearl’s wedding. She sleeps poorly, worried about her father’s health, the store, and her own future. She refuses to answer Nat Pearl’s calls.
The store is losing money every week, and Frank attempts to collect on a debt owed by a drunken Swedish painter named Carl. He goes to Carl’s house to find Carl passed out and his wife struggling to feed their four children. Moved by pity, he leaves them, returning a few moments later with some money of his own to give to Carl’s wife. However, on his way back to Carl’s, he is intercepted by Ward Minogue, who cries that he is sick, and offers to sell him the revolver they used in the crime. Frank gives him three dollars and drops the gun into a sewer.
Frank reads about Jews, learning about how they have been persecuted throughout the years, as in the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the ghettoes of Europe.
Now and then Frank spies on the Norwegians’ fancy grocery and delicatessen, which always seems to have customers inside. Desperate for money, he gets a night job as short-order cook at a restaurant called the Coffee Pot, sleeping when he can in the back room of the store while waiting for the few customers who still come in. The store seems to be a prison for him, in a climate of regret. He finds a board of pine and carves from it a flying bird and a flower. The flower he gives to Helen, but later, he finds that she’s thrown it away.
Analysis of Chapter 7
Dreams and sleep play a role in this chapter. Everyone seems to have trouble sleeping, and the dreams convey their hopes and fears. Morris’s dream shows that he is tormented by thoughts of the Norwegians’ store taking all his business. The fact that they are speaking German may mean that Morris is conflating them with the first grocer, Schmitz, or it may have a more sinister meaning connected with Nazi Germany’s seizing of Jewish property and life during the Holocaust. When he dreams of Frank saying dirty words, he is imagining his worst fear of Frank doing dirty things to Helen. The pressure he feels on his chest turns out to be the gas he is breathing as he sleeps. Frank’s dream shows that he thought he had true love from Helen (the white flower) but he realized he never had it, and is left outside in the cold.
Ida thinks that Morris tried to commit suicide by leaving the gas on, but Morris insists it was an accident. Even if it wasn’t a conscious act on his part, it seems probable that Morris subconsciously wanted to die, to give up on his life.
Just as Morris is giving up on life, Frank commits himself to taking Morris’s place. As his tormented conscience works at him, he realizes that he does have strong morals, it’s just that he hasn’t followed them. Now he is determined to work hard to win Helen’s love and pay back Morris for his kindness.
Frank’s feelings of pity for the family of the drunken painter show that he is becoming more similar to Morris every day. His burdensome feelings of guilt also make him more like Morris and the other Jews, who formerly got on his nerves for their perpetual suffering. When Frank reads about the suffering of the Jews throughout history, we get a feeling that he finally understands the Jewish point of view. Bernard Malamud once said, “Every man is a Jew though he may not know it.” For Malamud, being a Jew meant being the universal man, a compassionate human being with the knowledge that despite its joys, life is essentially tragic. Now Frank is learning that he is a Jew.
The fact that Frank continues reading even without hope of seeing Helen at the library proves that he was sincere about his desire for self-improvement.
Finally, the bird and flower Frank carves from wood symbolize spirituality and love, and represent his continuing attempts to become more like Saint Francis of Assisi, who is associated with birds and flowers. However, his bird and flower are wooden, not real. When he gives the wooden flower to Helen, it is his offering of love—but again, it is not real love yet, it’s still his own crude estimation of love, and she rejects it.