Frank Alpine, the protagonist of the novel, does not appear until the very end of Section One, when he and Ward Minogue hold up Morris Bober's grocery store. Section One introduces the impoverished world of Morris Bober, which will soon prove to be both a trap and an agent for the spiritual redemption of Frank Alpine. The robbery and Frank's association with the bitter and corrupt Ward Minogue will be used to show the conflicts between dishonesty and honesty within Frank and will help create Frank's desperate need for confession and regeneration.
The central fact of Morris Bober's life is his failing grocery store from which he barely manages to eke out a living for himself and his small family. Morris' dreadful luck and his persisting decency are revealed by his relationship to his business. The store is repeatedly described as a tomb or prison. Morris spends sixteen hours a day in the store, going out only to haul in his cases of milk and to buy his Jewish newspaper outside Sam Pearl's candy store. The volume of trade at his store is agonizingly small, and now — to make matters worse — Morris has a thriving competitor in the newly opened delicatessen-grocery of Schmitz, a German. Morris' decency is first shown in combination with his wry frustration. Early each morning he sells the Polish woman her three-cent roll. Later in the novel we will learn that he loses an hour's sleep daily so he can serve her. Next, he lets a little girl take groceries on trust, sure that he will never be paid for them. When his tenant, Nick Fuso, goes around the corner to buy food at Schmitz' grocery rather than at Morris', the theme of faithlessness first enters the novel, soon to be presented at greater length and depth in other kinds of actions, particularly those of Frank Alpine.
Morris' poverty and lucklessness are contrasted with the affluence of Julius Karp, whose neighboring liquor store flourishes while Morris' business hovers on the brink of ruin. But Karp's success is not based merely on luck. We learn that he probably bribed someone to get his liquor license when Prohibition ended, and we realize that Morris' bad luck is based partly on his inability to seize opportunities and to act as underhandedly as Karp. Most recently, for example, Karp betrayed Morris by renting a store to Morris' new competitor, Schmitz the German. Later we will see that Morris' character made him an easy victim for his former partner, Charlie Sobeloff; unlike Charlie, Morris lacked the imagination, as well as the money, to establish a self-service market. Now Morris' bad luck is increased by his charity to poverty- stricken customers, and his physical exhaustion is increased by his getting up extra early every morning to sell his Polish customer her three-cent roll. Morris has a sharp eye and a kind heart for the needs of others but not enough concern for himself.
Morris' suffering is increased by the biting memory of his dead son Ephraim, for whom he had high hopes, and by his inability to do better by his wife, Ida, and his daughter, Helen. Ida shares the misery of running the failing store, and Helen works as a secretary, a job she hates, because Morris cannot send her to college and because she wants to help the family financially. The relationship between Morris and Ida has been somewhat soured by their poverty and their never-ending concern with the failing store. They vent their frustrations in sardonic comments on business and each other and themselves.
In Section One, Malamud very skillfully interweaves Helen Bober's unhappy situation and its relation to that of her parents. Morris and Ida talk and reflect on Helen's frustrations and wonder about her rejection of Nat Pearl and Louis Karp as potential suitors. The scene showing Helen and Nat on the subway, revealing Helen's thoughts about Nat, adds to the reader's knowledge of her frustrations and difficulties as an unmarried woman. Nat Pearl wanted and still wants only to have sex with her. Knowing now that he offers her nothing more, Helen regrets her previous, casual love-making with him. Her determination never again to yield her body except when there is mutual love is akin to her fierce determination to improve herself and gain a college education.
The relationships between the Karps, the Pearls, and the Bobers revolve around Nat Pearl's and Louis Karp's interest in Helen and around Julius Karp's faithlessness in renting to a competitor for Morris, but the general contrasts between the families are striking and are thematically important. Unlike Morris, Julius Karp is contemptuous of people and is grossly materialistic. Morris can understand that his daughter's interest in education and her sensitive nature would keep her from being seriously interested in Louis, a man who shares his father's values and attitudes. Later in the novel, for example, we hear Julius telling his son that when someone's got gelt (money) every girl is his type. Merely by their possession of money, the Karps form a kind of social class above the Bobers, though they are morally inferior to them.
The Pearl family also stands in sharp contrast to the Bobers. Sam's luck in winning money on horse races shows a kind of shrewdness that is foreign to a straightforward person like Morris; in addition, Sam's luck at gambling has enabled him to send Nat through college, while Helen Bober can struggle through only a few evening classes. It is no surprise that Morris and Sam have little to say to each other, and later in the novel we will see how little Helen and Betty Pearl have to talk about to one another. These families take a small comfort in sharing a Jewish identity, but this sharing holds little promise for any of them and it increases Helen's discomfort because it is one reason for Nat's and Louis' interest in her. These contrasts contribute to the development of Malamud's humanism, his view that values are not unique to certain ethnic groups and that ethnic mutuality does not guarantee similar values.
The last two scenes of Section One bring Morris' bad luck into sharp focus by contrasting his lot and luck with Julius Karp's and by showing Morris as, once again, the victim of fate. Because Karp is unwilling to install a telephone in his liquor store, he is unable to call for the police when he senses that a holdup is imminent. Afraid, Karp turns off his lights and thus diverts the holdup men toward Morris' store. Morris' poverty (he has only $15 in his cash register) brings Ward Minogue's unbelieving wrath down on his head. The blow Morris suffers will create physical disabilities that will make possible Frank Alpine's involvement with the grocery store and with the Bobers.
The robbery scene suggests several things about Ward Minogue and Frank Alpine that will be developed later in the novel. Ward's vituperative anti-Semitism is part of his corrosive hatred of all people, and his attack on Morris stems from his complete disregard for the humanity of others. The novel as a whole shows that these values are opposite to Morris' warmth, gentleness, and generosity, a fact which intensifies the half mad quality of Ward's taunts. The scene also draws a contrast between Ward and Frank, a contrast which will be made much clearer and sharper as the novel progresses. Frank does all he can to dissuade Ward that Morris is hiding money; he gives Morris a drink of water after Ward strikes Morris in the face and he tries to keep Ward from hitting Morris on the head. This aversion to physical violence indicates the gentle and humane tendencies in him which will increase as he works with the Bobers.