The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 5

This section explores the beginnings of love between Frank and Helen by showing us the awkwardness of their respective situations and the difficulties of rapprochement: Frank is a gentile, Helen a Jew; Frank is a clerk, Helen the boss' daughter. The improvement in Morris' business creates a certain relaxation and warmth between Frank and Morris and it also increases Helen's interest in Frank. In addition, Frank's thoughts about going to college and his thoughtful gifts to Helen show a sensitivity to her values and a desire to please her.

The improved relationship between Frank and Morris enables Frank to discuss with Morris the question of what a Jew is. The question has become important to Frank for several reasons. After Helen returned his gifts, he eased his hurt feelings by reflecting that marriage to Helen would have included "having to do with Jews the rest of his life," a thought he puts aside when renewed friendship between them prompts Helen's "Don't forget I'm Jewish" and his cutting "So what?" Frank's hopes for changing himself and for courting Helen are stimulated by his discovery that the redemptive suffering in Crime and Punishment does not involve Jews. He is still puzzled about the meaning of such moral suffering, even though it is becoming increasingly important in his own life.

When Morris explains the basic morality of Jewish law to Frank, Frank replies accurately that other religions have the same ideas, and he continues to press Morris about why Jews seem so attached to suffering. Morris enigmatically explains that men suffer for one another, an idea that is the reverse of the selfish and sadistic orientation of Ward Minogue. Although Frank receives no direct answer as to why Jews may be especially prone to suffering, Morris' comments are teaching Frank that Jews are as human and deserving of honor for basic morality and human interdependence as anyone. Frank's confession that once he didn't have much use for Jews leaves him still unhappy, for he has failed to confess to the holdup. To confess about the holdup, however, would be to admit the element of disregard for human integrity which lies at the root of all racial and ethnic hatred.

If one accepts Malamud's use of the Jew as a symbol for alienated and suffering man who must accept his responsibilities for other men as well as for himself, one might say that Frank is recognizing "the Jew" in himself and hence making himself ready to be acceptable as a lover to Helen. This situation is ironic when we consider Ida's fear of a relationship between Frank and Helen. Ida's values include the very narrow sectarianism that Frank and Helen are outgrowing. Ida encourages a relationship between Helen and Nat Pearl because Nat is Jewish. She is alarmed at Helen's interest in Frank and she would probably be oblivious to any suggestion that Frank is becoming, as it were, a better Jew than Nat.

But the growing relationship between Frank and Helen is not sentimentalized. Frank's plans for college are at least partly designed to impress Helen but they come from aspirations in him which resemble Helen's. Frank's difficulty with the great European novels that Helen recommends to him is an index to the imaginative poverty of his rootless background, but his successful struggle to read the books shows his native intelligence and a certain sacrificial dedication to Helen's values. Frank's response to the books also helps to suggest the possibility of mutual affection between people with different interests. It adds to the feeling that Frank and Helen share a warmth and sympathy about human beings, a disposition which goes beyond their different ethnic and intellectual backgrounds, and Frank's successful efforts with the books show that he might develop the imaginative and systematic thinking that Helen associates with higher education. Frank's sensation that he is reading about himself is germinal to his later realization that he has passed through redemptive suffering.

The gift of a scarf and a volume of Shakespeare's plays produces a crisis for Helen and Frank. Helen can no longer wonder about Frank's intentions: He wants to be more than a friend. Helen's refusing a date with Nat is akin to her refusing Frank's gifts. She turns Nat down because she knows that he wants to make only a physical claim on her. Unlike Frank, Nat pretends not to understand Helen's reasons for turning him down. Significantly, her phone conversation with Nat is followed by brief memories of the preceding evening when she found Frank's gifts. Helen's present reflections that she might have been more relaxed with Nat had she returned Frank's gifts before the phone call show that despite her plans to return the gifts, she recognizes in herself an urge to respond favorably to Frank. She is charmed by Frank's offerings because they are evidence that Frank appreciates her as a woman and as an intellectual. Helen realizes that Frank is falling in love with her. She fears his love and his presents; she is not ready to pay again with sex for "love" and presents. We know, however, that Helen is panicky and unsure. Her response to Nat's phone call and her memories of the love in Frank's eyes are proof that her rejection of him is not complete.

The renewal of a relationship between the two young people comes by subtle stages. The scene in which Frank feeds pigeons, some of whom perch on him, is the strongest identification yet between Frank and St. Francis. It serves to emphasize Frank's loneliness — he turns to the birds for companionship — and it shows that his tenderness is not embittered by Helen's rejection. A gentle rapprochement between them occurs when she agrees to accept one of his gifts, partly under the influence of Frank's implication that he will take her acceptance as part of "a little memory of a guy you once knew." This tentative understanding eases some of the tension and leads to an important turn in the plot: Helen will soon admit to herself that she is in love with Frank.

Just as the stage is being set for the flowering of love between Helen and Frank, the plot reveals the persistence of traits in Frank which will later lead to the violent interruption of that love. Frank's discussion of Judaism with Morris suggests his hopes about securing Helen, but his inability to confess his crime to Morris is a part of his persistent stealing of money from the grocery store. Morris' distress when he feels that Frank is stealing from him shows the great importance that Morris places on trust, thereby revealing that Frank's thoughtless selfishness and dishonesty are a deep violation of his friendship with Morris. Morris responds with a charitable increase in Frank's weekly salary, but his fear that Frank is dishonest prepares us for his later spying on Frank and ascertaining that he is stealing from the store. The long, cautious courtship between Frank and Helen will then be shattered.

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