The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 10

Morris is buried early in April, five months after he was robbed by Frank and Ward. Section Ten covers a full year — from April to the following March or April — this progression of time and events being necessary so that Frank can attempt to reestablish a relationship with Helen and so that his laboring and suffering may be great enough to justify his dream of restitution. During this time, the hopes and dreams of Helen and Frank are presented alternately in the narrative until they reach a point at which a fusion between them seems possible.

The abruptness and sternness of Helen's continuing rejection of Frank are presented in dialogue rather than as part of her thoughts in order to show that her response is automatic, not reflective. Now all her hopes for improving herself focus on a college education, which she sees as the only way that she can honor her father's memory. Helen seeks some relief from her loneliness by starting night school again and by seeing Nat, but neither of these things greatly increases her happiness. Progress at night school is very slow, and the discomfort of such study is emphasized when, by accident, she observes Frank at his night job. The association of her studies and his work emphasizes her loneliness and her limited time for study.

The brief scene in which Frank overhears Helen slap Nat is evidence that Nat's interest in Helen is still only physical, and that he probably still pretends ignorance of Helen's desire for something more.

Two important events serve to change Helen's rejection of Frank. When Frank makes his proposal to send her to college full time, she rejects it immediately, releasing her accumulated resentment toward him, but at the same moment she realizes that she has hated him as a substitution for hating herself. This recognition, along with her waning of anger since Ward's death and her realization that under different circumstances she might have responded to Frank's "starved leap," is like a revelation, making her aware of what has been going on in Frank and in herself. Ward had come to represent for her all the outrage in her parents' and her own life, and Frank's assault had associated him very closely with Ward.

The self-hatred to which she now admits can be based only on the feeling that she had foolishly set her hopes for a new life on Frank Alpine, whose background and qualities were not very promising. Frank's assault made her feel that she should have known better than to look to him for salvation. As a result, she had stopped looking at him as a promising person and saw him only as an embodiment of grossness and foolish aspiration. Now her acknowledgement that he made a "starved leap" shows some awareness of the motivation that Frank himself reflected on at length in Section Seven. Unfortunately for Frank, his admission to Helen that he had helped Ward to rob Morris reinforces the identification between Ward and Frank, an identification which had been diminishing in Helen's mind. But seeing Frank at work at the all-night restaurant makes Helen realize the suffering and sacrifices he is going through for her and her mother. After this, Helen's admission to herself that Frank has indeed changed is linked to her thanking him for his help, but even more important is her telling Frank that she is using the volume of Shakespeare which he gave her. She is acknowledging a bond between them, a gesture which underlines the likelihood that she will indeed, as she says, reconsider Frank's offer to send her to day college.

Frank's year-long service in the store throughout Section Ten shows him suffering exhaustion, poverty, and loneliness much greater than he did earlier in the novel. The emotional content of his suffering also changes. Helen's dislike and rebuffs only seem to drive him harder and he is determined to send Helen today college despite great financial pressures. Frank seems now almost to be reveling in his suffering, to be wearing it as earlier he thought only Jews could wear suffering, "like a piece of goods" made into "a suit of clothes." Clearly he is suffering for the one he loves, and he hopes that she will eventually return his love.

Before Frank tells Helen of his plan to send her to day college, he reflects that if she refuses, "he would shut the joint tomorrow and skiddo." In fact, however, Frank continues his labors and hopes. But this passage emphasizes his quest to regain a woman's love. Indeed, all of Section Ten convincingly suggests that Frank's love for Helen and his adoption of Morris' role and way of life are deeply embedded with the feeling that only by carrying on Morris' efforts and by winning Helen's love can he accomplish a personal rebirth — the acquisition of Morris' morality and of the combination of such morality with an intellectual dedication in Helen.

Frank's efforts to improve the business and his repeated offers of a college education to Helen are the result of imaginative and almost demonic inspiration. This drive, however, is for a brief while interrupted by Frank's spying anew on Helen and by his beginning to cheat customers again. These actions are a brief resurgence of unsavory traits. They are the result of vindictive despair and self-punishment. The limited vision and hopelessness shown by these acts parallel Helen's self-hatred and narrow view of Frank. Frank's spontaneous abandonment of this behavior suggests that he no longer needs examples or rewards for help in suppressing his worst side.

Circumstances have developed so that a rebirth of love between Helen and Frank is possible, and Frank's hopes for a better future for both of them are not out of the question.

Frank's addition of hot carry-out foods gives him added income and improves the grocery business. His hopes to start a restaurant do not seem foolish. The store is returning to the condition it was in before Frank's arrival, perhaps becoming somewhat better.

Frank's adoption of Morris' identity is stressed in several ways. Frank gives up his sleep to get the Polish woman her three-cent roll, but he is no longer doing it "for the Jew": He is doing it for himself. Now Breitbart sits with Frank over tea and a Yiddish newspaper, just as he had sat with Morris at the beginning of the novel. But changes have occurred. When business is slow, Frank occupies his time by reading the Bible and thinking of St. Francis. Here, St. Francis' brown rags remind us that Frank still lives in poverty but that he is trying to create something beautiful from it. The scrawny birds around the saint's head probably represent the persistence of Frank's hope, a hope whose flowering is symbolized by the fantasy that Helen accepts the wooden rose. Frank's circumcision and conversion to Judaism are presented very tersely because they reflect a concentration of tendencies in his character — almost automatic responses to his needs. Surely his chief reason for the circumcision is his memory that Helen had cursed him as an uncircumcised dog. Now he wants to nullify her rejection and make himself pleasing should they become intimate. The pain from the circumcision that "enraged and inspired him" presents a summary of his suffering throughout the novel.

Frank's becoming a Jew is both touching and mildly humorous. His chief reason must be to make himself acceptable to Helen, but surely he also wishes to acknowledge that he is no different from Jews, that he is willing to live among them even if Helen won't have him. The elusive humor is probably based on the fact that Frank has discovered that he can be a Jew because he shares a fundamental humanity with them, and on the feeling that if sectarian divisions cannot be wholly crossed by asserting common humanity, they can sometimes be healed by accepting someone else's ethnic identity. Yet, in the sense of Morris' definition, Frank was becoming a Jew before his conversion, and now the desperation of his love creates the challenge of making that identity official — a challenge he is able to accept. The combination of sadness and humor summarizes the novel's investigation of the delicate balance between the limitations and the positive aspects of ethnic identities.

Very probably the novel's end is intended to predict a reconciliation between Frank and Helen. But the circumstances amidst which it may flourish will not be very expansive, and the suffering and growth which may make it possible are more important than the promise of mutual love.

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