The Assistant: Essay Q&A
1. Describe the relationship between Morris and Frank, his assistant. How are the two men alike? In what sense can each man be said to have “saved” the other?
The relationship between Morris and Frank is almost like that of father and son. Morris having lost his son Ephraim to a childhood illness long ago, and Frank having been abandoned by his father, the two men need each other. After Morris dies, Frank inherits the store and carries on Morris’s values, as a son normally does for his father.
Despite their apparent differences in age, faith, and way of life, Morris and Frank are similar characters in that they both suffer from bad luck. Both have a feeling that whatever they do, nothing turns out right. Both want a better life for themselves, but can’t seem to achieve it. Helen notes of her father: “The harder he worked….the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate.” Frank says of himself, “I work like a mule for what I want, and just when it looks like I am going to get it I make some kind of stupid move, and everything that is just about nailed down tight blows up in my face.”
Although Frank thinks that Morris is too sentimental—“his pity leaks out his pants”—he too is a sentimental guy. He faults Morris for his enjoyment of suffering, but Frank too seems to relish his own suffering and guilt as he steals from the store. Both men have a “stern morality,” although Frank doesn’t act like it. By the end of the story, it seems that Frank has become even more like Morris when he accepts Morris’s way of life as his own.
Each views the other with pity and compassion, Morris thinking that he needs to help the poor homeless Frank, and Frank feeling that he should help Morris, out of penitence for the wrong he did when he robbed the grocer. Morris saves Frank by giving him food and sheltering him from the cold world. As Morris’s assistant in the store, Frank becomes an assistant to the grocer’s way of life, slowly learning what it means to be a good, honest man. Under Morris’s influence, Frank is saved again, this time spiritually. He is redeemed from his sin and becomes a fully realized human being.
Frank, meanwhile, acts as a savior of Morris, saving his life three times: once when he catches Morris as he collapses outside the store, once when he drags Morris from the gas-filled room, and finally when he rescues Morris from the fire. He also saves Morris’s store from going under and keeps the family from ruin after Morris is gone. Finally, as he emerges from Morris’s grave, it seems that he embodies the resurrection of Morris, allowing Morris’s hopes and dreams to live on through the younger man. Frank’s actions redeem or save Morris, giving his life meaning.
2. Discuss the character of Helen in relationship to her three suitors, Louis Karp, Nat Pearl, and Frank Alpine. Why does she reject all three?
Helen is a character who longs for something better in her life. As she says to Louis Karp, she wants to “make herself a better person, have bigger ideas, live a more worthwhile life” because, after all, “We die so quickly, so helplessly. Life has to have some meaning.” Helen has something in common with her father. Like him, she has a strong moral standard in life, and is disappointed and hurt when others fail to live up to it. Helen rejects Louis Karp because he cannot understand her or her dreams. He is a lazy, unimaginative, materialistic “stupe” as Morris would put it, more interested in getting a hamburger than hearing Helen’s “deep philosophy.” She rejects Nat Pearl because he is only using her for sex and withholds his future from her. Nat, who graduated from Columbia with high honors and is in law school, has many chances to meet girls from upper class circles. He won’t marry a poor girl like Helen. Nat’s morals are also not compatible with Helen’s. “You’re a funny kid,” he tells her, when he realizes she’s not willing to continue having casual sex with him. “You’ve got some old-fashioned values about some things.”
Helen’s attraction to Frank comes when she sees him in the library and they talk. Frank is more ambitious than Louis and more sentimental than Nat. His stories of Saint Francis of Assisi and of his lost love, the carnival girl who died, move Helen. But she eventually rejects Frank because he cannot rise above his baser self to become the person she wants him to be. Helen never truly loves Frank, because as long as he hides his true self from her she is only able to love her image of him, the idea of what he could become—a university-educated man, possibly an engineer or chemist, as she fantasizes. He cannot live up to this image. At the end of the novel, however, Frank proves to her that he can help her achieve her dreams, and there is hope that she will be able to love Frank, this time for real.
3. What view does Malamud take of the American Dream?
The Assistant can be seen as a novel about the failure of the American Dream, and Morris Bober, like Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, one of the dream’s disappointed victims. Morris “had hoped for much in America and got little.” The world in which Morris toils is a dark one. He seldom sees the sky, and his store seems to him like a tomb. He often feels that in his gentile neighborhood, anti-Semitism costs him business. Morris is good and hardworking, but in the American capitalist economy, the good and hardworking do not always succeed. Often, it is the self-serving men such as Charlie Sobeloff and Julius Karp who prosper at the expense of the honest and deserving.
Nothing is secure: in the capitalist American economy, customers are attracted to what’s shiny and new, and even the most loyal of them can be lured away by a special deal next door. Men who are old and behind the times are tossed out like so much garbage, their years of experience no longer useful in the modern, fast-changing market. “America had become too complicated,” Morris thinks. “There were too many stores, depressions, anxieties. What had he escaped to here?”
Other immigrants depicted in the story share Morris’s plight. We see the Polish woman waiting in the cold for her three-cent roll, Breitbart trudging around with a heavy box of light bulbs, Al Marcus, half consumed by cancer, continuing to sell paper. These are the unlucky ones whom the Dream has left behind.
There are lucky ones, too. Karp and Pearl prosper: Karp with a Mercury in the garage; Sam Pearl’s son Nat graduating from Columbia and attending law school. There is hope yet for the next generation. The American Dream may not have come true for Morris, but it may for Helen.
4. Compare and contrast Morris Bober with the other two Jewish businessmen in his neighborhood, Sam Pearl and Julius Karp. Are we meant to see Morris as a failure or as a hero?
Sam Pearl and Julius Karp serve as foils for Morris Bober in this novel. In contrast to the other two men, Morris appears to be a luckless failure. While Morris struggles through degrees of poverty, Pearl prospers through his luck in horse racing, and Karp grows rich from his liquor store. Sam earns enough to help his son, Nat, go to college; now Nat is in law school on scholarship and has a promising future ahead of him. Meanwhile, Morris’s daughter is forced to give up university and get a job to help the family. Karp has purchased a large home for his family, but the Bobers are still living in a cramped two-bedroom flat above their store.
Although Karp and Pearl are more successful than Morris, Morris is presented as a better person. Pearl makes money by selling candy and betting on horses, and Karp prospers by selling liquor, but Morris’s money comes from bread and milk, food that is wholesome for the community. Morris’s honest and compassionate character is highlighted in particular with contrast to Karp, whose every action is self-serving. Karp rents out the tailor shop to a grocer, knowing this will harm Morris’s business. When he fears his store is about to be held up, he runs away, leaving Morris to become the robbers’ victim. As Morris faces losing his store, Karp has a solution that will benefit him: Helen will marry his son, and the store will go to him. The grocer, on the other hand, does everything for others. He takes a homeless Frank under his wing even after Frank has stolen from him (“Did you steal from me my milk and rolls? … Why didn’t you ask?”) He is incapable of lying to Podolsky, the refugee who is interested in buying his shop. He goes out of his way to open the store early for the somewhat anti-Semitic Polish woman who only buys one three-cent roll a day, and dies shoveling snow so that people can walk on the sidewalk.
Julius Karp refers to Morris as a “shlimozl,” a luckless figure familiar from Yiddish folklore. Critics have also identified Morris as a schlemiel, a similar character known for his bungling and naïveté. Whatever the term, Morris’s problem is that he is too honest, too trusting, and too unlucky to prosper in a world inhabited by sharks like Julius Karp. Morris is a born loser. And yet, with his stern morality, his steadfast honesty, and his concern for others around him, we see him as a hero.
5. Explain why Frank becomes a Jew at the end of the novel. What does it mean to be a Jew? Is his destiny a heroic one?
Frank’s conversion to Judaism at the end of The Assistant comes as something of a shock, but actually, it is only the final step in a conversion process that has been taking place throughout the novel. The circumcision itself is symbolic of Frank’s purification, in particular with regard to sex. It is an appropriate penance for his crime of victimizing Helen with his sexual desires. The pain he suffers from the circumcision indicates his willingness to accept the burden of suffering as a part of life.
To Malamud, being a Jew means to be a fully compassionate human being, one who is honest and kind toward other people. It does not necessarily mean attending synagogue or keeping kosher. “All men are Jews, whether they realize it or not,” Malamud once said. The rabbi at Morris’s funeral echoes this sentiment saying, “There are many ways to be a Jew.” The fact that Frank is Catholic, and we have just seen him reading the Bible and thinking of Saint Francis of Assisi, indicate that we are not meant to see the conversion as a religious one so much as it is an acceptance of a heritage, a moral code, a way of life that has been passed down to Frank by his surrogate father, Morris.
Frank’s destiny, although it may appear humble, is indeed heroic. He has overcome his baser self—his urges to steal, his lustful desires—to be disciplined and to follow a moral code. In doing so, Frank has become a better person, a selfless one, who suffers for the benefit of others. If life is suffering, Malamud seems to say, it only has meaning insofar as we suffer for others. Frank is a hero because he has learned this lesson. His labor is hard and thankless, but as long as he does it for love, his spirit is free.