The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
Table of Contents
1. The Assistant: Overview
2. The Assistant: About the Author
3. The Assistant: Setting
4. The Assistant: Themes and Characters

5. The Assistant: Literary Qualities
6. The Assistant: Social Sensitivity
7. The Assistant: Topics for Discussion
8. The Assistant: Ideas for Reports and Papers
9. The Assistant: Related Titles / Adaptations
10. The Assistant: For Further Reference
The Assistant: Overview
The Assistant is a morality drama in which human kindness and honesty, despite appearance, triumph over
callousness and greed and transform lives. Morris Bober and his family live in poverty because he refuses to
exploit his equally impoverished neighbors. Honesty and morality prevent the realization of the American
Dream for him and his family. An attempted robbery at his store acts as a catalyst in forging a surprising
working relationship and friendship that transforms the arrogant and anti-Semitic attitude of a petty thief, who
learns to respect the Jewish values of integrity, honesty, and the redemptive power of suffering.
The Assistant: About the Author
Bernard Malamud was born on April 26, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish
immigrants, Max and Bertha Fidelman Malamud. Bernard Malamud's mother died when he was fifteen,
during the time when he worked helping his father in the small grocery store they had established in
Brooklyn. After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1932, Malamud entered the City College of
New York and was awarded his bachelor's degree in 1934. In 1942 he obtained a master's degree from
Columbia University. For nine years he taught evening classes at Erasmus Hall and Harlem High Schools.
Malamud married Ann de Chiara in 1945; her heritage inspired him to people his stories with a number of
Italians. In 1949, he joined the English Department of Oregon State College, Corvallis, where he taught for
twelve years, rising to the rank of associate professor. In 1961, he joined the faculty of Bennington College, in
Bennington, Vermont. Malamud died of natural causes in New York City on March 18,1986.
The Assistant 1
One of the outstanding writers of post-World War II America, Malamud began writing short stories at the age
of seventeen. Two of these were published in 1943, "Benefit Performance" and "The Place Is Different Now."
By 1950 his stories were appearing regularly in Harper's Bazaar, Partisan Review, and Commentary. In 1952,
Malamud's first novel, The Natural, was published. Unique among his works, this book deals with the
Arthurian legends transferred to American baseball—star players replace knights and the diamond is the field
of combat. With the publication of his second novel, The Assistant (1957), written in a more mature writing
style, Malamud embarked on subjects that would characterize his writing for the rest of his career: the
situation of Jews in the modern world as emblematic of modern men generally, and the necessity of suffering
and compassion in human life. He received the Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts
and Letters and the Daroff Memorial Fiction Award of the Jewish Book Council of America, both in 1958.
The short story collection, The Magic Barrel, 1958, won the National Book Award in 1959. His third novel, A
New Life, was published in 1961. In 1966 Malamud published The Fixer, a fictionalized account of a real
victim of persecution in Czarist Russia. The Fixer is considered by some critics to be Malamud's best work. It
received the National Book Award for Fiction and a Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1967. A film version was
made the same year. Throughout his career, Malamud was one of the most honored of contemporary
American writers, garnering several awards, including the Jewish Heritage Award of B'nai Brith (1976), The
Governor's Award of the Vermont Council on the Arts (1979), the Creative Arts Award for Fiction from
Brandeis University (1981), and the Premio Mondello, a major Italian award (1985).
The Assistant: Setting
Bober's grocery, where most of the action takes place, is in a section of the city (possibly Brooklyn though
never specified) that is almost a slum. The story occurs in a two-year span during which nothing happens to
improve the lot of the Bobers except slight increases in business after Frank Alpine, the assistant the title
refers to, allies himself with the family and becomes a clerk in Bober's store. A bleak grayness characterizes
the atmosphere of the book. The grocery is a prison in which Bober spends his exemplary life and to which
Frank Alpine will later commit himself. Bober's sense of morality makes escape from his dingy prison
The time of the novel, like its locale, is never specified. Trolleys are still operating in this city, and
supermarkets have cut into Bober's business, which seems to indicate that Malamud is depicting the period
sometime between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. Flashbacks take Bober back to the Jewish Pale in
Czarist Russia and Frank Alpine to his earlier life in the West. Time and seasonal changes do little to alter the
hopelessness of the Bobers' fate. Toward the end of his life, Bober tries to find employment in the city to no
avail. During his final days, it seems at last that he can sell the store, but thanks to another ironic twist of fate,
this hope proves illusory.
The Assistant: Themes and Characters
Malamud was an acute observer of the human condition during his career as a writer. Suffering was for him
an inescapable part of human existence. He felt that all humans are afflicted with suffering and, therefore,
should view each other with deep compassion. Unfortunately, many of the more prosperous humans fail to do
this. Morris Bober's neighbor, Julius Karp, for example, exploits the poor of the area by making great profits
in a liquor store. Of no concern to him is the fact that alcohol only increases the misery of the poor.
Morris Bober seems to be a compulsively moral man and his Lincolnesque honesty prevents him from
cheating his customers and from adopting business practices that would come naturally to less scrupulous
men. His charity to others, which taps his already meager earnings, prevents Bober from realizing the life he
wants. His life is one that fails utterly in achieving the American Dream of wealth and prosperity. He deserts
the Czarist army in Russia because Jews were only too aware of the relentless persecution they faced in the
The Assistant: About the Author 2
ranks of that army. Coming to America, he attends night school briefly, hoping to become a pharmacist. He
never finishes his courses, but gets married instead and opens a grocery store in an impoverished
neighborhood. Nothing goes right for him. He has a daughter, Helen, who desperately wishes to get an
education and to better herself. She earns $25 a week as an office worker, all but five of which she gives to
her father to keep the store operating. Her mother, Ida, helps Bober in the store and complains constantly
about their miserable lives. She misses the old Jewish neighborhood where they formerly lived. Helen and
Ida—like Bober—are prisoners of the store.
Bober becomes the victim of a holdup, although the robbers had originally targeted Karp, his wealthy
neighbor. Bober is struck on the head by one of the holdup men, but before losing consciousness, the grocer
again reviews the predicament that characterizes his life.
He had hoped for much in America, and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had
less. He had defrauded them. He and the bloodsucking store.
He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck. Others had better.
Rather than depict Bober as a religious man who follows the dictates of his faith, Malamud creates a character
with an unshakable belief in the Jewish Law as he understands it and whose life and death become an allegory
for goodness. His clerk, Frank Alpine, has noticed that he does not follow the dietary laws of strict Judaism.
Bober gives Frank his credo.
Nobody will tell me that I am not Jewish because I put in my mouth once in a while, when
my tongue is dry, a piece of ham. But they will tell me, and I will believe them, if I forget the
Law. This means to do what is right, to be honest, to do good. This means to other people.
Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the
best, not only for you or me. We ain't animals. This is why we need the Law. This is what a
Jew believes.
The theme of Jewishness is dramatized throughout the book. Two other Jewish families live in the
neighborhood, the Karps and the Pearls. Julius Karp has made money the main goal of his life. Ed Pearl has a
candy store, but he makes more money by betting on horse races. Neither they nor their families have the
abiding faith in the Torah exemplified by Bober.
Frank Alpine, the principal character of the novel that is named for him, has been a petty criminal. Together
with Ward Minoque, he had robbed the store. Minoque is partly motivated by hatred of Jews, and at the offset
Frank does not particularly like them, either. But Minoque's attack on the grocer repels Frank, and he hangs
around the neighborhood waiting for a chance to atone for his crime. His capacity for guilt is proof that his
character has a potential for change. Raised in an orphanage on the West Coast, Frank had gradually drifted to
the East. For a brief time, he had thought crime might be the way of life for him. He discovers later that he has
no real talent for crime, or for much of anything else. During his first long conversation with Bober, he
explains that his life has been a series of failures. He is only twenty-five, and the grocer thinks ". . . I am sixty
and he talks like me." Despite different backgrounds, they have an affinity. Frank maneuvers his way into
Bober's confidence and into a job in the store. Ida Bober never loses her suspicion of him. Her daughter Helen
at first pays no attention to the young drifter.
Helen, a lovely young woman, functions as a sort of love goddess. The sons of the other storekeepers are
drawn to her and so is Frank. Nat Pearl, a law student who has graduated summa cum laude from Columbia
University, has an affair with her that she terminates. She dates Ed Karp, but he is not ambitious enough to
take her out of the neighborhood. Frank wins her trust and it seems that she loves him. She even plans to help
him get an education. After preventing Ward Minoque from raping her, Frank, on a desperate impulse, rapes
The Assistant: Themes and Characters 3
her himself. His talent for bungling every real opportunity in his life has again left him with nothing but
additional guilt. His redemption, however, forms the principal theme of the novel. He persists in his
determination to help the Bobers, and he finally replaces Bober in the store, taking it over completely after the
grocer's death. Bober, without ever intending to do so, becomes Frank's model, and by taking over Bober's
hopeless poverty, Frank realizes his desire to become a human being, a mensch who succeeds in living
according to the dictates of his conscience. He supports the Bober family and helps Helen get the education
she has always wanted.
The Assistant: Literary Qualities
Malamud sustains a tone of sadness throughout the novel. The critic Mark Shechner, in his essay "Sad
Music," observes that this tone characterized the works of Jewish writers in the decade following World War
II when the full extent of the Holocaust was realized. The impoverished sons of immigrants living during a
worldwide economic depression, they felt that sadness was the only emotion that fitted their era. However,
Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and other writers moved on to more varied situations for their characters. Not
Malamud. He could not express himself in any other way and The Assistant, his second book, is a dirge that
commemorates the inescapable misery of the human condition. He places his characters in a dismal limbo
area from which they cannot escape. His minor characters fit their environment precisely. Breitbart, ill and
crippled, peddles light bulbs from store to store, dragging himself painfully along. Al Marcus, dying of
cancer, continues to sell his paper bags although he has had a good business. Malamud describes him as
looking "as if he had lapped up cyanide." One figure, "The matcher," is a professional arsonist who appears to
Bober on one occasion, offering to burn down the store. He demonstrates how easily this might be done. The
grocer refuses, but the grotesque redhead has presented a temptation that Bober decides to try. As a result, he
almost incinerates himself. His uncharacteristic act is a painful fiasco.
The Matcher is seen as a demonic counterpart to Bober. Malamud shows skill in presenting Dostoyevskian
doubles in the story. Ward Minoque is what Frank Alpine might have become had their partnership in crime
continued. Ward dies in a fire he set in Karp's liquor store, destroying the business.
Contrasting fathers and sons are featured as well. Ward Minoque's father is a police detective who has only
one method of dealing with his son: he beats him mercilessly. Nat Pearl will doubtlessly far surpass his
father's prosperity when he begins to practice law. Ed Karp is too simple to match his father's business
acumen. After the liquor store is destroyed, his soft life comes to an end, and he finds a routine job. Morris
Bober had lost his little son Ephraim years before, but acquires another one in Frank Alpine. Bober never
comes to realize this, but Frank becomes an almost exact replica of Bober after the older man dies. He runs
the grocery, continues to treat his customers very charitably, and sacrifices his life to care for Helen and Ida.
His transformation from petty criminal to a kind of secular saint is an ironic touch in a novel permeated by
Malamud enhances his text with a variety of styles in the dialogue of his characters. The older Bobers speak a
dialect of English that reads like a translation from Yiddish, the language of Jewish immigrants. Their speech
patterns are well suited to the ironic events that make up the plot of the novel. Their tone is typically wry,
tinged with sarcasm and commentaries on the unexpected twists of the characters' lives. Malamud grew up
hearing Yiddish spoken by his parents, and understood it well, although he never spoke it. Morris and Ida, of
course, know no other way to express themselves. Helen speaks standard English. Alpine's English is in the
highly colloquial American vein.
Malamud writes a supple, unadorned prose, as unadorned as Hemingway's writing but with occasional lyrical
touches. One instance of this lyricism comes when Frank's reaction to Helen's nude body is described as he
spies on her. Another poetic touch is provided by Frank when, in his imagination, St. Francis of Assisi, his
The Assistant: Literary Qualities 4
lifelong idol, presents Helen a rose. These touches occur more commonly in Malamud's short stories and call
to mind the pictures of the famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Malamud uses an omniscient style of narration
for the most part in his books, a style that enables him to view each of his characters with ironic detachment.
The novel is at once a realistic picture of urban poverty and, on another level, something of a fable in which
Malamud expresses his beliefs about what constitutes a truly good human character.
The Assistant: Social Sensitivity
The Assistant demonstrates Malamud's deep compassion for suffering humanity and his conviction that good
rather than evil is the basic human quality. An old-fashioned moral man is contrasted to other people who
believe his honesty is out of place in contemporary America. While the novel takes place in post-depression
America, the Bobers seem to live in a neighborhood still frozen in the hopelessness of the 1930s, untouched
by the prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the country.
The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle complained that his society was dominated by "cash nexus," the belief
that the only viable relationships among people are determined by money. Malamud does not use this term,
but he does say that morality and ethical behavior are seen in our time as ideals that have failed, and those
who try to practice them are hopelessly lost. The choices of the lifestyle by which Morris Bober and Frank
Alpine live condemn them to the fate of imprisoned victims. Malamud's sympathy is clearly with those few
individuals who try to hold up the ideal with which America began. This ideal values average human beings
by their importance as persons, rather than their financial success.
The Assistant: Topics for Discussion
1. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment was one of the books that influenced Malamud when he wrote The
Assistant. Frank reads Crime and Punishment at the suggestion of Helen Bober but does not like the book
much. Why?
2. Malamud has admitted that Charlie Chaplin's character the little tramp had an impact on this novel. Does
Frank Alpine resemble the tramp? To what extent?
3. Critics have seen Helen Bober as a rather divided person, torn between the desire to realize the American
Dream of a successful life and the idealism of her father. Do you see Helen this way?
4. St. Francis of Assisi is possibly the most attractive of medieval saints. He has a generosity of spirit lacking
in some other great ascetics. To what extent does Morris Bober resemble him?
5. Ward Minoque is a petty criminal who has none of Frank Alpine's aspirations to become a better person. Is
this the result of his father's brutality?
6. The seasons in The Assistant come and go during the two-year time span of the novel. What significance do
they give to the lives in the story?
7. Morris Bober is human enough to envy the financial success of Julius Karp but also holds him in contempt.
Why is he so conscience stricken when Karp's liquor store burns down?
8. The Bobers live in a neighborhood inhabited by other people who have migrated from Europe—Greeks,
Poles, and Italians. Does the fact that Malamud places his Jewish families here rather than in a Jewish
neighborhood give his novel a distinctive touch?
The Assistant: Social Sensitivity 5
9. Mark Twain is considered a master in reproducing dialects in his works. Is Malamud equally skillful in
capturing the speech patterns of his characters?
10. Anti-Semitism still lingers on despite all efforts to put an end to it. What is it in their character that causes
people like Ward Minoque to become anti- Semites?
The Assistant: Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the Jewish culture and religion and write about your findings regarding the religious beliefs,
rituals, diet, etc. of this culture.
2. Research the Great Depression of the 1930s. What was life like then? How did people get by? How was life
in Brooklyn in particular during this time?
3. Many people immigrated into the United States from all over. How was life for them once they reached
American soil? Why did they come to America? How did they get here?
4. What is the American Dream? Do you believe many people in America are living this dream? How do
people reach that goal? What are some of the positive and negative consequences of reaching this goal?
5. How does Malamud maintain the mood of his novel from beginning to end? Do any of his other novels
present such a bleak outlook for his characters?
6. Is Helen Bober a convincing character? Compare her to some of Malamud's other heroines.
7. The Assistant has been compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. What is the basis of this
comparison? To what extent are Frank Alpine and Rodion Raskolnikov similar?
8. Why didn't Malamud use a character like Nat Pearl as his hero? Does he in any of his novels present
successful characters as his protagonists?
9. The Bobers and their neighbors are first or second generation immigrants. Malamud knows immigrants
very well. Compare his presentation of people in a new world with those found in the works of other writers,
for example Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers or Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories set in America.
10. The critic Alfred Kazin is also a product of Brooklyn, New York. Kazin's A Walk in the City presents
scenes from his old home. Malamud's novel never specifically mentions Brooklyn, but Malamud spent his
maturing years there. What do the fictional Bobers and the real life Kazins have in common?
11. Compare the more fanciful scenes in The Assistant—the ones involving St. Francis—and Malamud's use of
such moments in his short stories, "The Magic Barrel," for example. Compare these with some of the
paintings of Marc Chagall.
12. What is a fable? Critics have called The Assistant this type of story. Does the book have similarities to
Aesop's tales, Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, and Voltaire's Candide? What do these works have in common?
13. Malamud has set his story in a neighborhood that is very close to being an urban slum. He does not,
however, exclude nature from the story? What use does he make of it?
The Assistant: Topics for Discussion 6
The Assistant: Related Titles / Adaptations
Most of Malamud's works focus on the problems of the Jews. A New Life, his third novel, also has a Jewish
hero. The Fixer, partially based on history, is set in the final years of Czarist Russia when anti-Semitism was
part of the government's policy. The leading character, Yakov Bok, is arrested and tortured for allegedly
making a blood sacrifice of a Christian child. Despite this, during his two years of imprisonment, he becomes
a wiser and stronger human being.
The reader might find Malamud's short stories equally interesting. Some critics have maintained that
Malamud is a better short story writer than a novelist. The Magic Barrel, his first collection of stories, won the
National Book Award in 1959. The title story blends realistic details with fantasy touches something like the
"magic realism" made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Assistant: For Further Reference
Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. This booklet
evaluates Malamud's vision in relation to his work as a whole, which was impossible when Richman's book
for Twayne's American Authors was published in 1966. The work contains a judicious critique of all of
Malamud's works and a good bibliography.
Alter, Iska. "The Good Man's Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud." In AMS Studies
in Modern Literature, vol. 5. New York: AMS Press, 1981. Alter offers a convincing critique of American
materialism in his analysis of The Assistant.
Chense, Alan, and Nicholas Delbanen. Talking Horses: Malamud on Life and Works. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1996. This book contains interviews with Malamud and essays written by him during his
career. It also includes "A Note to My Norwegian Readers on The Assistant" and explains his method of
Field, Leslie, and Joyce W. Field. Bernard Malamud and the Critics. New York: New York University Press,
1970. Critics write on themes in Malamud's works up to and including The Fixer. This book includes Ihab
Nassan's article on The Assistant, "The Qualified Encounter." Hassan shows that Morris Bober and Frank
Alpine are "heroes of irony," rather than tragic heroes.
Rajagopalachari, M. Theme of Compassion in the Novels of Bernard Malamud. New Delhi, India: Prestige
Books, 1988. This study stresses Malamud's humanitarianism and his sympathy for those who suffer, an
inescapable fate for all men.
Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966. Richman admits that his
book is tentative because Malamud was still a productive writer. The book traces Malamud's development as a
writer through 1966.
Salzberg, Joel. Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987. This book is a good
source of reviews on all of Malamud's works. Eleven essays survey the entire range of Malamud's
development as a writer.
Alter, Iska. "The Good Man's Dilemma: Shechner, Mark. "Sad Music." Review of The Stories of Bernard
Malamud. Partisan Review, vol. 51, 3 (1984): 451-58. This review of Malamud's stories analyzes the tone of
ironic sadness in his novels and his short fiction.

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