The Assistant By Bernard Malamud Summary and Analysis Section 9

The conclusion of Section Eight leaves the reader uncomfortably anticipating how Frank will continue his relationship with the Bobers and, consequently, how he will solve his quest for salvation. The rift between Morris and Frank seems irreparable. With great skill, however, Malamud interweaves resolutions for the painful destinies of Ward and Morris, and introduces new hope for a situation in which Frank can continue his struggles.

Ward has lived with an almost complete disregard of consequences, focusing always on the pleasures of the moment and the sordid joys of sadistic revenge, both traits which are residual in Frank and which have been acted out in his relationship with the Bobers, and which appeared in Ward's attempt to rape Helen. Ward's illness leads him to seek momentary relief in drinking. The fact that he must first down enough liquor to get beyond the point of nausea emphasizes his disregard for his health. Ward's final confrontation with his father is an agonizing contrast to the relationship between Morris and Frank. As a surrogate son, Frank has pursued Morris and struggled to atone for the wrongs he has done Morris. Ward is in continual flight from his father, but the fact that he has remained in the neighborhood where his father works suggests that Ward wants to bring shame to his father in terms of his father's brutal and puritanical characteristics: Ward wants most to be the opposite of what his father expects, possibly as revenge against his father's attempts to mold him into a rigidly moral person, a person whose first regard is for the image and letter of the law rather than for the spirit of the law. The "spirit" of the law, it should be noted, is at the heart of Morris' devotion to the law. When Ward rushes into his father's arms to plead for safety, his gesture is a cry for a measure of father-son love, a love almost non-existent in this case because of hatred and vindictiveness on both sides. Detective Minogue's last words to his son, threatening that he will kill him if he doesn't stay out of the neighborhood, emphasize the father's shame and how thoroughly he has rejected his son. Ward gains momentary happiness by guzzling liquor and momentary revenge by smashing bottles in Karp's store but these desperate actions cause his death.

Malamud uses the burning of Karp's liquor store to devise a situation in which Morris' former optimism can be restored. Morris' last days bring him some happiness but the hope they bring of improved material circumstances eventually turns out to be poorly founded. Nevertheless, that hope is continued in both Frank's and Helen's refusals to abandon their dreams.

Watching Karp's store burn, Morris fears that his curse on Julius Karp has been realized, but it turns out that there will be little loss for Karp, who is protected by his insurance, and that there promises to be luck for Morris in his chance to turn his failing establishment into cash that will lead him to new opportunities. Morris' successful bargaining with Karp brings him a brief triumph and perhaps Morris is lucky not to live long enough to see the collapse of this new dream. Morris' bad luck seems to have often occurred because of his stubborn honesty. Now this streak of stubbornness causes his death; afterward, a whim of fate withdraws Karp's financial offer, but Morris does not live to see this reversal. The ironies of Morris' lot are exemplified in his response to a heavy snowfall on the last day of March, a season whose possible threat Morris denies as he sets his heart into the mood of approaching spring. Thus the expansiveness in Morris brought about by his new luck contributes to the mood which leads to his fatal exertions while shoveling his sidewalk. His desire to be free of the store for a while is prompted by his new luck, and his bickering with Ida about his exertions and his health causes him to decide not to go upstairs to get his coat before he goes outside to shovel. His death, then, results not only from the irony of fate but from the testy relationship with his wife which has been created by the constricting circumstances of the store.

Before he dies, Morris' affectionate talk with his daughter and his dream about his dead son help us understand the successes and failures of his life. The gentleness and warmth between Morris and Helen suggest that his failure to give her much materially is offset by the character traits she has absorbed from him. Yet Morris' sense of failing his family remains strong, and Morris' last thoughts in the novel, as he dreams of his dead son and as he reflects on this dream, are tragic and painful. The images of Ephraim in Morris' dream remind us that much of Morris' suffering has come from the fatality of circumstances; there was nothing he could have done to save his son's life. Morris' final reflection, "I gave my life for nothing," is followed by "It was the thunderous truth," which may still reflect Morris' viewpoint or may be an authorial comment, but in any case it can be taken to apply only to those material circumstances which the novel as a whole insists are not of first importance in the ultimates of success and failure: love and integrity.

Morris' thoughts before he falls asleep and dreams of Ephraim show that the good luck of being able to sell the store and start a new business is not as fortunate as it may seem, for Morris is worried about the emotional upheaval of leaving a place to which he is greatly accustomed and he is worried about the possibility of another failure. This passage strongly contributes to the sense that it is too late for Morris to remedy the mistakes and unhappiness of the past. The weariness of spirit which accompanies his hopes suggests a physical exhaustion, and the restfulness of death seems an appropriate end to his sufferings.

In the rabbi's sermon, we should note that important elements are not accurate. Morris was honest, kind, and hardworking, but he did not have friends and he was not a good provider. The presence at the funeral of friends not seen for years by the Bobers reminds us that in burying himself in the store Morris withdrew from many of his old friendships. The rabbi's mention of Jewish neighborhoods reminds us of Morris' loneliness and of the painful, as well as the joyous, results of ethnic sectarianism. More important in the sermon, however, is the rabbi's insistence that Morris was a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience and had a Jewish heart. In the full context of the novel, this passage is reminiscent of the exchange between Morris and Frank about what it means to be a Jew — in which Morris' main emphasis was that the truest morality leads men to suffer for one another. When the rabbi concludes his praise of Morris by declaring "he wanted for his beloved child a better existence than he had. For such reasons he was a Jew," we realize that the traits being praised occur in all warm hearts no matter what their religion or ethnic stock. Yet this passage holds in marvelous balance the ideas of the values and the alienations that exist with all ethnic classifications. This theme is emphasized in Frank's reflections, following the sermon, about Jewish identity. He is still troubled by what he sees as a Jewish penchant for suffering, but his reflection about Jews that "there are more of them around than anybody knows about" shows that he is coming to understand that Judaism is a version of universal humanity whose apparently ethnic traits may appear in anyone, including himself. This passage prepares us for Frank's conversion at the end of the novel.

Section Nine continues other themes. Nat's concern for Helen throughout the funeral shows both possessiveness and tenderness, but Nat's already established exploitative attitude toward Helen will take from his concern any genuine effect on Helen's sadness and loneliness. Nat's suaveness is in sharp contrast to Frank's clumsiness at the funeral but the contrast suggests that the fool is holier than the slick operator.

The most important theme presented at the funeral and its aftermath is Frank's continuing assumption of Morris' identity. Frank sees the scar on Morris' head and is again reminded of his part in injuring a man who became his spiritual father. Frank falls into the grave because he leans to see where Helen's rose has fallen, almost as if it were a symbol of his hopes and ought to sanctify the coffin of the man Frank wishes to replace. Frank's fall may be a symbol of burial and resurrection, in which case Section Nine's concluding remark that "the grocer was the one who had danced on the grocer's coffin" combines the idea of a kind of triumph by Frank over Morris with a feeling that the ritual of Morris' burial contains an element of gaiety and hope, a celebration of the continuance in life of Morris' best qualities.

If those qualities are to continue in Frank, they must still withstand and originate from the kind of suffering which afflicted Morris. Morris' death brings a relief from some tension but it leads to what will be increased suffering for Frank. The dull ring of the cash register as Helen and Ida go upstairs is proof that the force of circumstance has given them little choice about Frank's continuing in the store. The surviving major characters all seem close to despair, but the survival in Frank's heart of Morris' best traits gives hope for a better future for all of them.

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