The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 7

Despite its large number of scenes, Section Seven contains a rather small amount of action. It reveals an uncomfortable stabilization of various relationships after Morris catches Frank stealing from the shop and after Frank rapes Helen. In a sense, this section is a kind of purgatory for the main characters, a purgatory offering only attenuated hopes. The important developments are Morris' near-fatal accident with the gas, the opening of Taast and Pederson's delicatessen, and Frank's securing a job at an all-night restaurant. Morris' accident, probably brought about by an unconscious suicide wish, and his subsequent illness enable Frank to stay on for a while at the grocery, where he broods over his past and present, and makes vain efforts at a reconciliation with Helen. The opening of the delicatessen adds to the desperation of all four of the main characters. But Frank's job at the restaurant enables the grocery to survive, thus emphasizing the sacrificial aspect of his dedication to the Bobers.

The initial scene between Morris and Ida reveals the bitterness in their adapting to dreadful circumstances. As Morris tells her that he has fired Frank and reluctantly offers an explanation, the dialogue between them is sardonic and almost masochistically ritualized. Morris keeps the truth about Frank to himself because he feels some guilt about dismissing Frank but, more important, he does not want to give Ida a chance to curse him for his earlier disregard of her fears about Frank — a hesitation given ironic force by the reader's knowledge that Morris does not know the worst about Frank. Morris eases the situation with excuses, but his aggressive claims that he has done only what Ida desired indicate his despair about his situation has changed into hostility against Ida.

Ida's anguish and regret that she insisted that Helen date Nat serves two functions. It humanizes the women's former insensitive domination of her daughter's personal life, and it suggests how very intense Ida's outrage and retrospective self-justification would be if she knew about Frank's assault on Helen. For many reasons, including pride, shame, and a sense of partial responsibility, Helen tells her mother nothing about Frank's attack. But the reader, even though he is in possession of knowledge that Ida lacks, is unlikely to feel as Ida would. On the contrary, the reader tends to hope for a reconciliation between Frank and Helen, and believes in Frank's regeneration.

Frank's thoughts about himself are often the focal point of Section Seven. Most of these desperate thoughts develop ideas that have been already established in the novel. His recalling his thoughts and actions of the preceding night makes explicit the circumstances and feelings that culminated in his assault on Helen. These thoughts would have been out of place in Section Six because they would have robbed its conclusion of its impact through surprise and also would have weakened the emphasis on the terrible nature of Helen's experience. Coming now, these reflections solidify the reader's earlier intuitions about the motives for Frank's assault and begin to restore sympathy for Frank. Frank's impassioned reflection on how he has again ruined his life reinforce the metaphors of the secret self ("The self he had secretly considered valuable") and on death of the self ("He stank").

Frank's suffering finally leads him to a major revelation: "all the while he was acting like he wasn't, he was really a man of stern morality." What Frank discovers here is that the man of morality within himself is less a secret self than an essential self, one which he has kept in abeyance. He now sees the consequences of various wrong doings, and he regrets that he did not discover his better self earlier.

Frank's unhappiness when he is near Helen is now much greater than it was during his earlier yearning for her, for now he contemplates the loss of what he had within his grasp and what represented change and fulfillment. In this tortured situation, Frank imagines himself swearing to Morris to a complete change in himself. Frank's thoughts are becoming frenetic, and his imagined statement to Morris that if he ever steals again "I hope to drop dead on the spot" shows that he has learned at last about the unequivocal nature of morality: Either a man is true to his best nature or in some sense he is dead.

Frank dedicates himself to discipline and love, hoping to reconcile himself with Helen, but his rash action has destroyed all of Helen's hopes about him and confirmed all of her suspicions about his worst nature. The morning after the assault, she showers three times before she feels cleansed of Frank's filthiness. His single vile act has convinced her that his best qualities were fraudulent and not intrinsic. She has retreated to her mother's identification of propriety with being Jewish, thereby abandoning much hard-won knowledge. Frank's dream of Helen tossing him a flower that disappears as he sees her window sealed with ice identifies Helen, through the symbol of the flower, with spiritual awakening. His loss of the flower alters his whole world. Helen's disregard of him makes him seem "as if he didn't exist" because it judges him to be without an essential moral self.

Frank's encounter with the poverty-stricken family of Carl the painter produces a spontaneous burst of compassion; now, it would seem, he has broken through his selfish veneer. His desire to relieve Carl's family with his last three dollars shows the reverse of his impulse to steal, but his desire to help them is ironically frustrated by the return of Ward Minogue (now a symbol of Frank's past).

As Section Seven draws to a conclusion, Frank's physical and mental suffering are extreme. He manages the grocery all day and works all night at the cafe, but he almost revels in his misery as a source of salvation and he continues to hope for Helen's love. He experiences his nightmarish life in the store as a kind of devotion to a prison, but it is the kind of prison without which he could not be free to be his newly discovered essential self. His determination to stay even "when the walls caved in" is again proof that he identifies endurance and suffering with the struggle to remain in life by being his best self.

Frank's carving of a wooden bird and then a wooden rose is beautifully symbolic. These acts continue the identification of Frank and St. Francis but, more important, the bird represents Frank's still aspiring moral sense and the flower represents his continuing hope of a complete spiritual regeneration through love for and from Helen. The bird was "shaped off balance but with a certain beauty," a phrase which suggests Frank's incipient moral self and also recalls the symbolic suggestions of his broken nose. The flower becomes a rose starting to bloom, which suggests that only love can complete his spiritual rebirth. Helen's having tossed the wooden rose into the garbage symbolizes the continuation of Frank's purgatory. If suffering is to bring him fulfillment as well as spiritual salvation, he still has much suffering to experience.

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