The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 4

Morris' decision to permit Frank to continue working after Morris is well enough to return to work provides opportunities for deepening relationships between Frank and Morris, and between Frank and Helen. Again, Malamud focuses on the conflicts within Frank, illuminating them by comparisons and contrasts to Morris and Helen. Ida is pained to have a gentile in their midst, chiefly because she sees a threat in Frank's possible interest in Helen. Morris is bitter at the thought that perhaps Frank brings in more business because he is a gentile, but he does not hold this against Frank. Gradually Malamud is showing the growth of friendship between Frank and Morris. Morris' loneliness is somewhat relieved by Frank's presence, and when Frank moves into an upstairs room, he takes his first tentative step toward becoming, as it were, a member of the Bober family. Frank's smiling acceptance of Morris' proposal that Frank must go at the beginning of summer strongly suggests that important things will happen long before summer arrives.

Morris' spirits rise somewhat as his business improves, and Frank continues to feel that the store is a haven for himself. In this atmosphere, Frank and Morris exchange stories about their pasts, and Frank begins to understand some of Morris' values. Frank's description of himself as self-educated has a slightly false ring, for he is not especially systematic in thought or knowledge. Morris' tale of his flight from the Czar's army suggests the precariousness of a Jew's life in Europe but, more important, it shows that Morris has escaped from one kind of bondage into another. Frank's casual assurance that he will follow Morris' advice not to be trapped by a family shows that Frank does not fully understand that his attachment to the Bobers and their world is deepening.

Frank's discussion with Morris about honesty gives us a fresh insight into Frank's character, and it reveals a gap between the two men that Frank must close if he is to become a "son" and, in effect, a double for Morris. As Frank advises Morris to steal from his customers and Morris rejects the idea with quiet indignation, we are shown the value systems of the two men. Frank's ideal is quick pleasure and quick success based on the notion that everyone would steal if he could, and that material success — small or large — is the basic satisfaction of life. Although Morris' ideals are put in pragmatic terms — his customers don't steal from him and an honest man "don't worry when he sleeps" — deeper values are revealed. As Morris describes grocers who dilute milk with water and who lie about quality, we sense that Morris considers such acts as personal injuries to the people who buy. Morris' honesty is based on a need to create order and trust, to live in a world where basic kindness is a protection against inevitable misfortunes. Frank, however, sees life as a competitive game, a game where one proves one's superiority by his cleverness. Yet Frank's feelings of guilt alternate with his pleasure in stealing; subtly but surely, Morris' gentleness and harmony are changing him.

Frank's reaction to his new environment is complicated because he tries to account for Morris' persistence. He does not see that Morris has almost no choice of lifestyle and destiny, and that dishonesty would be too great a price for Morris to pay for any escape from poverty. Breitbart's brother who ran off with Breitbart's money and wife is another example of a man on-the-make, a man similar to Julius Karp and Charlie Sobeloff. The sardonic tone of "then he took off with what was left of the bank account, persuading Breitbart's wife to come along and keep it company" suggests how easy and tempting it is to be dishonest. To some men, cheating comes almost naturally, thereby emphasizing the lucklessness of men like Breitbart and Morris Bober. Nevertheless, the persistence of men like Morris and Breitbart helps hold the world together.

Frank, baffled by the persistence of such men in their prison-like world, needs deeper understanding of what now seems to be surrendering to an appalling existence. He cannot imagine the possibility of a similar future for himself, for he is still relying on two formulas: He is living only temporarily in Morris' world and the future holds something marvelous for him either through luck or dishonesty, which seem to him the only pathways to success. Unable to understand completely Morris' world, Frank once more resorts to the idea of an essential difference: First, you had to be a Jew"; second, Jews live to suffer. This reaction, however, does mark some change in Frank. He no longer sees Jews as so alien that taking advantage of them is no sin. But he sees the suffering and lucklessness of such a Jew as Morris as the stamp of a different kind of character. He has not yet related it to the honesty and tenacity of this particular Jew, Morris Bober, and he does not see that the masochistic element in the Bobers is a partial relief from their misery. Frank can understand Morris' behavior only by assigning it to an ethnic base different from his own.

But Frank shares enough of Morris' basic honesty — mixed with other feelings — to continue to be restive under the burden of his guilt toward Morris. Malamud shows us that a combination of Frank's regard for and guilt toward Morris, and his desire for Helen, activates in him some awareness of a terrible division within himself and a growing respect for Morris' values. Frank continues to sense in Helen a hunger like his own, but this is not the kind of hunger that criminality satisfies. The brief flashback concerning Frank's reluctance to join Ward in robbing Morris, and Frank's memory that he had always known that someday he would be driven to confess some wretched crime committed against an innocent person, reveal that deep within himself Frank has always regarded his criminal tendency as a terrible violation of his true values but a violation he was fated to act out so that he might learn from the terrible consequences of crime how to discover his deeper moral self. Now Frank feels the need to confess to Morris as an escape from the past and as a part of his rebirth. His need to cleanse himself and enjoy a little peace and a little order parallels Morris' feeling that honesty assures peace and order. Yet Frank still thinks of Morris as "the Jew" and his conflicts about the scope of his being answerable for first robbing Morris and then stealing from the cash register show Frank unable to choose between his selfish and his loving impulses. Also, his remorse is partly selfish because it is associated with his desire for Helen.

Frank's conflicts come into clearer focus in the most important of his retrospective thoughts about his earlier life. Frank recalls his starved existence in cellars and gutters and his desperation to improve himself. His idea that "he was really an important guy" led him rapidly to the idea of a criminal career with the aid of a gun. At that time he thought that he would enjoy seeing others suffer as his own lot improved; this is akin to the psychology we see working in Ward Minogue. Frank dreamed that owning a gun would start him toward salvation through wealth and power but actually it involved salvation only as it led him to discard the criminal self whose great success he had fancied. The earlier, casual meetings of Frank and Ward, when Ward detects a gun on Frank and then encounters Frank at Coney Island, strongly reinforce earlier implications in the novel that Ward is, in a sense, a psychological double for Frank, that he represents and acts out Frank's worst impulses. We realize that Frank agreed to join Ward's holdup because "it was a Jew he planned to rob," an idea which again shows how thoughtlessly Frank has viewed other people — useful as victims, Jews especially. It is true that Frank's revulsion for robbing Morris shows that he knew he was not acting out of his true self, but he still seems unaware that his petty criminality is based on the idea of other people being objects, and now when he yearns for confession and restitution it is chiefly so he may win Helen.

The novel has by now revealed enough of the possibilities of kindness, sensitivity, and positive morality in Frank — no matter how opposed within himself by selfishness and vindictiveness — to make possible a relationship between him and Helen. Although Frank deliberately goes to the library hoping to meet Helen there, he is also motivated by sincere curiosity. Both he and Helen suffer from similar loneliness surrounded by almost desperate though quiet aspirations. Helen feels an initial antipathy toward Frank because of her mother's fear of a gentile entering her life, and she is troubled by his hungry gaze. Malamud sets up this situation so that he can show Frank altering Helen's view of himself during the course of their first meaningful conversation, after they leave the library.

Frank's memory of St. Francis' making a wife and children out of snow surprises and touches Helen. Frank's comments about St. Francis continue the earlier identification between Frank and St. Francis, especially as we recall Frank's homelessness, and this identification is reinforced at the end of this section when Helen wonders if Frank himself is making a wife out of the snowy moonlight. The dialogue between Frank and Helen does much to continue the characterization of him and to show differences as well as similarities between them. Helen guessed that Frank would be reading Popular Mechanics, but when she learns that he is reading a biography of Napoleon and that he thinks that novels don't contain the truth, we see that Helen is only half wrong. Frank's interest in Napoleon suggests that he sees aspirations as dependent on grand gestures and on a disregard for ordinary morality. His disdain for fiction indicates that he doesn't have a very sophisticated view of what is true and what is false.

Other ideas are important in this dialogue. Frank's protest that he helps Morris in order to repay him for kindness, and Frank's protest that he won't get stuck in a grocery store, are more than a little insincere, for he clings to Morris in hope of some kind of salvation, and his plans for the future remain very hazy. His assertion to Helen that he is thinking of starting college comes without any preparation in the novel and is partly genuine aspiration and partly an attempt to awaken interest in Helen — to show her in terms she can admire that he is not just an ordinary guy. His comment that an acquaintance of his started college late but is now "making his pile" shows that Frank cannot separate education and materialistic pursuits.

Helen takes no exception to his remarks. Her own financial needs contribute to her somewhat mixed ideas about the American success ethic. As she confesses to Frank her dislike of her job and her desire for some useful role in life — "some kind of social work or maybe teaching" — we learn that she too wants to escape. Helen is too sensitive to sneer at Frank's aspirations, and both are too gentle and perhaps not quite perceptive enough to notice the discrepancy between her view of life and Frank's. Frank's story about the carnival girl makes the reader, like Helen, wonder momentarily whether or not it is true, probably to conclude, as Helen does, that it is true and was recalled in a moment of loneliness. The story functions as a sort of half-conscious plea; Frank is asking Helen to believe and share his dreams. Later, Helen's thoughts about Frank's confusing image in his roles of clerk, ex-carnival man, and future college student are an accurate representation of Frank's confusion about himself. Helen's reflection that Frank is creating a wife out of snowy moonlight implies a certain skepticism, but it also suggests that she has a real interest in him. Malamud seems to be saying here that Frank and the Bobers live in a world where old-fashioned miracles do not happen but where subtle possibilities may lie in stray corners.

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