Morris Bober represents the moral center of the novel. Morris is a kind and generous figure who believes that people should treat each other compassionately and not cheat one another. Morris is an ironic hero because while he is the champion of the novel, he does not achieve anything significant or win any great battles. Morris's temperament is governed by quiet resignation to the hand that he has been dealt. It is a hand that is characterized by suffering, due to economic deprivation and the death of a loved son, but Morris accepts it without much complaint. For Morris, suffering is an unfortunate but necessary part of life. Through it, one is able to spiritually transcend the pain and see the meaningful beauty of life. Morris lives these values everyday. Although he is not happy being trapped in an unsuccessful grocery, he thanks God for the presence of Julius Karp because Karp's presence reminds Morris how much more valuable it is to be poor and realized, than rich and foolish.
Morris's behavior is also characterized by his kindness to other people. Morris wants to shovel the snow in front of the shop for the Christians going to church. Morris chases after a customer who leaves change in the store. Morris opens his shop at six am just to sell the Polish woman a three-cent roll. It is Morris's insistence that he always act well to others, in fact, that creates some of his suffering. While other merchants make money by cheating their customers, Morris remains poor but triumphs spiritually because he remains good. Morris may have died a modest man who felt like a failure, but his true success as a human being can be measured in the transformation of Frank Alpine. It is under Morris's influence that Frank turned from being a man of moral degeneration to a good man who has accepted another's burden of suffering out of a commitment to love, compassion, and responsibility. On the level of morals and ethics, Morris succeeds, even if others think that he failed in life.
Frank Alpine is perhaps the most important character in the novel since he is the assistant named in the novel's title. It is Frank's transformation from a dishonest character to one marked by goodness and grace that motivates the novel's movement. Having acted in a robbery against Morris Bober, Frank arrives at the Bober store in an effort to "make it up" to the grocer. At the same time, Frank's behavior has a slightly masochistic edge, where he is trying to punish himself for bad deeds done. Although Frank is trying to be good, his dishonesty cannot stop. His continual thievery from the store demonstrates the extraordinary difference between what he longs for and what he actually does. Although Frank occasionally feels guilty, his need to steal resembles a disease where he almost involuntarily keeps slipping change into his pocket while receiving a mild thrill from the theft. Frank's pursuit of Helen follows an equally ambiguous pattern. On the one hand, Frank wants to love someone purely, but on the other hand he simply lusts after Helen's body. Frank cloaks his desire for Helen under the guise of true love. To some extent, Frank believes that he is in love, but his eventual inability to control his lust slips out as he forces Helen to have sex despite her resistance. Frank initially tries to emulate Saint Francis of Assisi in his pursuit for goodness, but after working with Morris Bober begins to take up Morris's philosophy for his own. It is not until after Frank's exposure as the dishonest person that he is that he is able to truly patch his life together in the way that he wants it. He has become the assistant to Morris Bober and has learned from him a peaceful way of life that will not grant him riches, but will grant him the patience and goodness to survive. When his transformation is complete, Frank finally is able to fully love Helen.
Helen Bober has a classical name that does not reflect her Yiddish background. Helen's name evokes the idea of ancient Greece. Like Helen of Troy, Helen Bober is a figure that many men become interested it. Furthermore, Helen's name suggests her desire to study the classics herself, a desire that has been thwarted by her family's poverty. Helen is the character who links the owners of the grocery to the other people in the neighborhood. Helen leaves the grocery everyday and heads out to work as a secretary somewhere in New York. Helen has had relationships with Nat Pearl and Louis Karp. It is through her interaction with those men that their true natures become known and it is also through her interaction with their families that Malamud is able to explore their family dynamics. Despite her ability to leave the grocery each day, Helen is perpetually unsatisfied. She spends her hours dreaming of a better life. She clings to novels and visits the library several times a week, in an effort to use literature as a means to flee the mediocrity of her life. Because Helen is a dreamer, she does not always accurately understand people when she meets them. Her strong longing to flee poverty initiated her love of Nat Pearl. As a future lawyer, Nat represented someone with a possibility. Regardless that his character was not all charming, Helen fell in love with him for what he represented to her. When Helen realized his true desires—sex—she shunned him. Helen also initially loves Frank Alpine even though she is not able to see him for who he is. She believes that he really will attend college because it is what she wants and fails to imagine that the presents he gives her were stolen because she does not want them to be. It is only after Frank's vicious treatment of her and Morris's death that Helen slowly comes to a new realization about Frank and Nat. With her realization, she is finally able to love more than she an image that she has created.