The Assistant: Chapter 8
Morris’s recovery is slow, and his doctor orders him to rest. He is filled with melancholy and dreams of the green fields of his boyhood. All the time, he worries about the store. Ida tells him that they are taking in $75 a week, which isn’t as bad as he feared, but still terrible. Ida says to keep Frank on for another week, but Morris decides that Frank must go now. Frank hears him coming and is afraid, not knowing what he will say. Morris thanks him but tells him that he must leave. Frank tries to explain that he is a changed man. Desperate to explain, he at last confesses to Morris that he was involved in the robbery, but Morris surprises him by saying “This I already know, you don’t tell me nothing new.” Morris pities Frank, but insists that he must go. Frank hangs up his apron, packs his things, and says goodbye to Tessie. He leaves a note for Helen, which she reads tearfully but doesn’t intend to answer.
With Frank gone, Morris realizes that business is worse than ever before. He and Ida discuss selling the store, but it seems impossible. They ask Karp about the potential buyer he had mentioned to them months before, a refugee named Podolsky. Karp, hoping a favor will endear his son to Helen, calls Podolsky. He advises Morris not to let Podolsky stay too long and not to tell him anything about his troubles with the business.
Early Wednesday morning, Podolsky arrives to see the store. Morris is filled with compassion for this man, who has gone through so much to come to America, and he feels he cannot deceive him. Before he can stop himself, he has told Podolsky all his woes. Podolsky slips away without saying goodbye.
Morris goes to visit Charlie Sobeloff, an old business partner who cheated him badly long ago when they owned a store together, using the money to build his own store. Having forgiven Charlie, he hopes that his old friend will be able to give him a job or help him out in some way. As he goes out, he notices a line of customers at Karp’s liquor store, and despite himself, wishes that Karp’s business would burn to the ground.
In this poignant scene, on his way to beg for a job from the man who stole from him so long ago, Morris wonders where his youth has gone and what he worked so hard for all his life. He arrives at Sobeloff’s Self-Service Market, amazed by its size and noting how crowded it is with customers. Charlie is unable to look straight at Morris as he offers him a part time job as a cashier. At the end of the day, Charlie notes that Morris is short a dollar, but he’ll let it go. Morris insists that he will pay a dollar.
As Morris heads home, he continues looking for work, with no success. He seems to have grown too old and tired. He goes to see his friends Breitbart and Al Marcus. Breitbart’s not home, so he waits awhile with Breitbart’s slow-witted son, and when he finally gives up and leaves, gives the boy two quarters. Al Marcus isn’t home, either—he’s gone to the hospital, never to return. When Morris returns home, Ida takes one look at him and begins to cry.
That night, Morris goes into the kitchen to eat some cream, when he hears a noise in the store. A strange, skinny man in an old hat and long dark overcoat, with a red beard and red-haired hands, is standing at his counter. The man says he is a “macher” (Yiddish meaning a schemer, or one who makes things). What he makes are fires, and offers to burn down Morris’s store so he can collect the insurance. To start the fire, he will use celluloid so that the arson cannot be detected. “Magic,” he says, showing Morris how the celluloid burns without ashes.
Morris turns him away, deciding he doesn’t like the idea. But the next night, when he is alone in the building, Morris takes a celluloid film negative and tries to start the fire himself. Just as it flares up, he repents and tries to put out the flames, starting himself on fire. He screams for help, and it is Frank who comes to his rescue, beating out the flames. When the danger is past, Morris orders Frank out of the house.
Analysis of Chapter 8
Frank appears in this chapter as Morris’s savior. This is the third time he has rescued the grocer—first, by catching him as he collapsed outside the store; second, by pulling him out of the gas-filled room; and now third, by saving him from fire. When Frank reveals his long-hidden secret, that he was one of the two who robbed Morris, he hears a treeful of birds breaking into song, indicating that the burden of guilt has been lifted and his spirit is free. Again, Frank is becoming more like his idol Saint Francis of Assisi, who preached to the birds. It might even be said that after having been three times Morris’s savior, Frank is becoming almost a Christlike figure.
As Frank becomes more and more like a saint, Morris goes into a decline, allowing himself to be tempted to do evil. In the end, the steadfastly honest Morris finds he simply cannot do wrong, even to benefit himself. First, he has the chance to keep Frank on to help him, but in principle, he feels Frank must go. Next, Morris has the opportunity to sell the store to the refugee Podolsky, but he is too compassionate to swindle an innocent newcomer into buying a dying business. Finally, Morris has the chance to burn his store down for the insurance money, but he finds he is unable to pull off the crime.
Morris’s character is contrasted again with the characters of more successful but less honest businessmen, Karp and Sobeloff, to ironic effect. Morris fails to make money selling milk, something nutritious and good for society, while Karp prospers by selling liquor, something poisonous. Sobeloff has swindled Morris out of four thousand dollars, but Morris would not cheat him out of even one dollar.
Imagery of death appears throughout this chapter, creating a feeling of doom for Morris and his store. While upstairs recovering, Morris compares the silence of the store below to “a graveyard whose noiseless tombstones hold down the sick earth.” He thinks he can smell the scent of death seeping up through the floor. Later, the arsonist too says that the store smells “like an open grave.” When Morris visits Al Marcus’s home, the sister-in-law tells him that Marcus has gone to the hospital to die. “Can you go on living if you’re already dead?” she asks rhetorically. This question may apply also to Morris. Though he’s cheated death several times already in the book, we get the feeling that like his friend Al, Morris is a walking dead man.
Many of Malamud’s stories have some element of magic, borrowed from Yiddish folklore. In this novel, the character of the arsonist who claims that his work is “Magic” seems to be a magical figure. He appears late at night, seemingly out of nowhere, and speaks in a humorous dialect. His clothing, his red beard, and his red-haired hands mark him as some kind of devil figure straight out of a folk tale. The scene injects a spark of magic and quirky humor into an otherwise dark and melancholy chapter.