The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 8

Section Seven ended with a sense of unresolved tension. Morris lies in the hospital but once home he will have to fire Frank and then face, in his weakened condition, the competition of Taast and Pederson. Helen must return to the frustration of her job and her loneliness, with little hope for the future. Morris and Ida are as concerned about Helen's future as about their own. Frank must face Helen's rejection of him and also face the likelihood that Morris will fire him again. Morris, Ida, and Frank try desperate stratagems to extricate themselves from these situations, but the focus of Section Eight is on the deteriorating condition of the Bober family.

Morris almost gives up; he yields to the temptation of staying in bed and giving as little thought as possible to what is going on in the grocery. Now, rather than a constricting prison, the store seems to have become a grave. It is the grave of Morris' hopes for a decent survival and of Frank's hopes for a rebirth through change and love. But Morris is not a man to turn away long from his family's miseries. He confronts Frank and acts as his conscience demands that he do.

The first stratagem of the Bober family to escape their situation is explored in their conversation about the prospects of auctioning the store and selling the building. The futility of these plans show that the Bobers seem truly trapped, for their debts and the comparative worthlessness of the store and the building will bring them no charity from their creditors nor from prospective buyers. Morris recognizes the hopelessness of the situation but feels compelled to make whatever efforts he can to improve their condition. His proposal that after selling, they buy a candy store somewhere is obviously the stuff of dreams, and Ida's declaration that she won't sell penny candy suggests that stich a change, besides being unlikely, might be for the worse.

Ida's hope that Helen might marry Louis Karp is akin to her hope that Julius Karp will help them sell the store to the refugee, Podol sky. Her suggestion to Helen that she marry Louis is coldly practical. Ida shares the simple-mindedness about values and about human relationships that Louis displayed when he proposed to Helen on the Boardwalk at Coney Island. Ida may not be quite as blunt as Louis but we feel that the pressures of material want now reinforce her tendency to see relations in material terms, a view presumably accompanied by the feeling that other values will take care of themselves. When Ida tells Julius Karp that Helen is lonely and "wants to go out with somebody," Ida is not really truthful, but her anxieties blind her to both this fact and to the impossibility of a relationship between Louis and Helen.

Julius Karp's whistling through his teeth when Ida drops in to tell him of their troubles is an index to his character. His whistling implies that the Bobers' tough luck is what they get for lacking Karp's wisdom. Karp's statement that maybe he will call Podolsky sometime, followed by an inquiry about Helen's marital prospects, is a nasty dig at the Bobers' situation and implies that Karp doesn't do favors for people-especially incompetent people — without the return of favors. In this case, Ida is to return the favor by making arrangements between Helen and Louis.

When at long last the prospective buyer arrives, the situation that greets him is even worse than it would have been when he was first expected — several months ago — for despite all of Frank's efforts, the Bobers' store is failing. Indeed, Podolsky's inspection of the store increases the pathos of Morris' situation by showing how desperately difficult it would be for him to lie in an attempt to improve his prospects. Morris' inability to hoodwink Podolsky is not important, though, for the sad condition of the store is all too obvious; yet it does show us again Morris' innate honesty and inability to exploit others to relieve his own misery.

The hopelessness of selling to Podolsky is, we discover, no greater than the hopelessness of Morris' finding a job; both are pursued with uneasiness and self-mockery, for the Bobers know that their advice to Podolsky about conducting and improving the business would do no good and they know that, in all likelihood, Morris cannot secure another job. Morris' job-seeking becomes progressively more uncomfortable. His memory of how Charlie Sobeloff cheated him out of a former business and founded a fortune reminds us that Morris' failure is based on naïveté; on a kind and trusting heart. Charlie's crooked career resembles that of Breitbart's thieving brother, and Breitbart's family devotion resembles Morris'.

Morris' other attempts to get a job are futile; he is a lost person in a highly competitive world and kindness has no part in rescuing the forlorn. Morris' visits to Breitbart's home and to Al Marcus' are the last gasps of his hopes; he seems to have no clear idea of why he visits Breitbart's home (perhaps it is to see a person as lost and as loyal to his family as himself) and his hope that Al Marcus can help him find a job is as likely as Marcus' surviving the final stages of cancer.

Morris' last hope of rescue is the macher's offer to burn down the store and building for the insurance money. The macher is a desperate temptation to Morris' despairing self. The macher's heavy Yiddish accent, old-world Jewish dress, and references to Jews as poor and the insurance companies as rich suggest an alienation from and a cynicism toward the modern world of business. The macher is evidence that being Jewish is no bar to being a gross criminal, that alienation and corruption are not exclusive. The macher and Morris are not a dishonest Jew and an honest Jew; they are a dishonest man and an honest man.

Morris' declaration that he likes neither fires nor monkey business shows his concern for both people and principles. But Morris is not above all temptation. His own attempt to set a fire shows that his desperation has almost maddened him and that when the corrupt aura of the macher's presence is gone, he himself can consider dishonesty. Although he is able to start a fire, however, his conscience will not let him go through with such a crime. At this moment, Frank's sudden appearance in the cellar to rescue Morris is a partial reversal of roles, Frank representing Morris' best self.

Concerning this idea of "the better self," Frank goes through with his plans to protest to Morris that he has changed and to confess his part in the holdup, but the much-wished-for confession comes too late. Morris does not force Frank to leave because of his stealing from the cash register or because of his interest in Helen. Morris declares that it is not the stealing, and several of his comments and observations show that both he and Ida no longer consider Frank a threat to Helen because Helen shows no interest in him. The only remaining explanation, its likelihood reinforced by Morris' telling Frank that Frank knows why he must leave, and by Morris' reflection that "he did not want a confessed criminal around" (a reflection which comes after the revelation that Morris had figured out Frank's guilt before the confession), is that Morris now finds Frank's participation in the holdup to be unforgivable.

The dislike of a confessed criminal may seem to emphasize the legal aspects of the crime — Frank's being a potential criminal — but, more likely, the accumulation of Frank's betrayals are too much to bear. Frank's confession, like his contrition toward Helen, his desire to replace all of the stolen money, and his realization that he had never thought of borrowing from Morris instead of stealing — all have come too late. Thus although Frank's sudden appearance at the end of Section Eight saves both Morris' conscience and his life, it is too late to restore Frank to Morris' acceptance and forgiveness. The sudden concluding act of rejection may suggest that Frank deserves his punishment.

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