The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 3

In this section, Malamud reveals conflicts and incipient changes in Frank's character through his involvement in the grocery store and through the complexities of his growing interest in Helen. As Frank manages the store under Ida's reluctant guidance, he shows much competence and initiative, as well as general perceptiveness and intelligence. But his interest and exertion are not exactly what they may seem. Variations on the idea that the store is a tomb, echoed by Al Marcus, and the egoistic irrationality of anti-Semitism, echoed in Otto Vogel's warning that a Jew will "steal your ass while you are sitting on it," are ironic counterpoints to Frank's optimism.

Despite his protestations of honesty, Frank begins and continues to steal from the grocery store. He is a mixture of elation and remorse; he is a selfish egomaniac who can rejoice in stepping on or at least triumphing over others, and he is a humane loving person who rejoices in the beauty of honesty and affection. It is Frank, not "the Jew" Morris, who steals while the other lies sick. Appropriately, Section Three provides a retrospective moment in which Frank thinks about his decision to rob Morris because it was "only a Jew" from whom he was going to steal.

Frank no longer believes this rationalization for two reasons: He is beginning to sense the Bobers' humanity, and his stealing is so closely related to the satisfaction of his daily needs that selfishness is almost justification enough. But he does find a new rationalization: His stealing is justified because he has improved the business.

The motif of the grocery store as a tomb has an ironic counterpoint in Frank's feeling that the store is like a cave. He enjoys its protectiveness and he increases his feeling of security by feasting on a variety of foods. Thus cave as a metaphor both resembles and differs from the ideas of a prison and a tomb. The idea of a protecting cave suggests the maternal womb with its steady supply of nourishment. Frank's withdrawal into this cave represents both a desire for rest and safe recuperation and an immersion in a new kind of existence from which he will be reborn. Frank's stealing and his guilt, his desire to be honest, and his desire for a new life all imply that something in the Bobers' world will create striking changes in him. The store is a retreat, but its protective aspects will change into painfully fostering ones.

Frank's remorse over his stealing has a touch of masochism. He feels "a curious pleasure in his misery," possibly because he looks forward to some kind of triumph through remorse and restitution. This is implied by his recurring feeling that confessing to Morris, and then to Helen, about the holdup will guarantee not only some kind of forgiveness but also an acceptance which he is doubtful of gaining in any other way. When Frank reflects on the holdup, he decides that it was, in a sense, very much like his own funeral. Now he is confused about how to recover and maintain his status as a person — through aggression and trickery or through honesty and service.

Frank's aspirations are sharply defined by his attraction to Helen and by his sense that they share great loneliness and an aspiration for a better and more meaningful life. After Frank recognizes the starvation and hope in Helen's face, he considers her physical attractions. Earlier, Frank had thought of Helen's panties (hanging on the clothesline) as being flower-like, a motif which is repeated at the end of this section. Ward Minogue's incisive outburst to Frank that it isn't Frank's conscience but rather his desire for one of those ripe "Jew girls" that is bothering him emphasizes Frank's physical desire but it increases the reader's anticipation that Frank's desires will include tenderness and love. The sharp contrast between Ward and Frank, and Ward's refusal to return Frank's gun, increase our sympathy for Frank.

The ambiguity and the possibilities inherent in Frank's interest in Helen are conveyed with sensitive pathos in the scenes of the fraudulent telephone call and Frank's spying on Helen in the bathroom. The phone call illustrates Frank's desperation and emphasizes Helen's lonely desire for companionship. But the crucial outcome is Frank's agonized wish that he had been honest, and his pained feeling that "when he lied he was somebody else lying to somebody else." He is beginning to realize that rewarding relationships must be based on truth and trust. His desire to confess to Helen the stratagem of the phone call implies that he needs to make himself suffer as part of the price of gaining acceptance.

In preparing to spy on Helen in the bathroom, Frank gives us a clue that once more he is going to act according to his worst motives and thereby spoil this chance for success. However, Malamud is using Frank's thoughts to convey a different outcome. Frank's feelings of loneliness and loss as he sees Helen in the bathroom are related to his perception of her sadness, and his observation of her "breasts like small birds in flight, her ass like a flower" parallels Frank's earlier idea of her panties being flower-like and recalls the symbolism of the birds and flowers of St. Francis. Birds and flowers here symbolize love that is given naturally and freely. Frank has a momentary memory of past erotic feelings but it is immediately displaced by a quiet exaltation. His relief that steam on the window blots out the naked Helen shows the precariousness of his feelings. He wants to hold onto his new feeling, to separate it from lust. Frank is beginning to see Helen as a person — a lovely person — whose sadness intensifies her beauty and whose beauty makes loneliness even more lonely. This new perception and conjunction of motifs establishes Helen as a symbol of loving aspiration and as the potential reward for Frank's suffering and growth.

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