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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter Ten

Chapter Nine

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

During the week of mourning following the funeral, Ida and Helen stay upstairs, while Frank keeps the business running. Business is bad and Frank uses his other salary to keep the store afloat.

After a week, Frank gives Ida twelve dollars of rent although she has not asked for it. Ida has gotten a job sewing military epaulettes from her house, which brings in some extra money. Frank sees Helen in the hallway and tries to talk to her, but she shuns him. He asks her if she understood the novels she lent him.

Helen dreams that she cannot leave her house because it has become like a prison. Outside under the front streetlight stands Frank, who says, "I love you." Helen promises to scream if he says those words. Upon waking, Helen remembers her father and decides that she must earn her college degree to be worthy of him. Frank leaves Helen alone but observes that she looks lonely when he sees her. One day, he decides that he will somehow manage to get the money to send her to college, although he is not sure how.

To make more money, Frank starts selling hot food at lunchtime. He then learns to make pizza and lasagna, which customers like. Fighting between the Norwegians also helps bring some old customers back. Frank stays open almost all hours to bring in business.

In July, Frank does well. Even the Norwegians start to copy him by making pizza, but their pizza is not so good. Frank starts paying Ida ninety-nine dollars for rent. One night, Frank sits down and tries to figure out how he can pay for Helen to go to college, although given the costs he knows that it is virtually impossible.

One August night, Frank tries to find Helen on one of her evening walks. When he goes outside of the library, she appears. When she sees him, she tries to turn away but he pursues her. He tells her that he wants to pay for her college. She refuses, but he insists that he owes it to her father. When she asks him why she owes her father anything, he explains that he helped Ward rob the store. Her face contorts angrily and she storms away.

The store does well until after Christmas when times get tough. Frank still gives Ida ninety bucks per month, because he knows Helen has started night school and needs the money. Frank is so poor his clothes have holes in them. Working all night and all day wearies him, as does his concerns about Nat Pearl and Helen. Sometimes when they get home from a date, he listens to them kissing in the hallway. Since he feels miserable, he starts cheating some customers and climbs up the dumbwaiter to spy on Helen. After an unknown amount of time, he stops his dishonest behavior completely and becomes totally honest again.

Coming home late one night, Helen passes by the restaurant where Frank works nights and sees him asleep on the counter. She suddenly realizes what he has been doing to support her mother and her, and that he has changed. Helen decides that since Frank's heart has changed, he owes her nothing even though he once did her wrong. Helen stops in the store the next day to thank him. He proposes that she attend day college next semester and that he pay for it. She agrees to think about it. That night when she comes in with Nat, he hears them scuffle slightly and then hears Helen slap Nat. Nat calls her a bitch and leaves.

One morning after hearing the Polish woman rap on the door, Frank wakes to sell her a roll. He sees Nick Fuso, a new father, coming back to the building with a shopping bag from a different grocery. Breitbart soon appears carrying his light bulb boxes and Frank makes him some tea. Frank only has six customers all morning. He takes out the Bible, which he has been reading, and starts thinking about Saint Francis. He pictures Saint Francis take the wooden rose he once had carved for Helen and turn it into a real rose before giving it back to her.

One day in the following April, Frank goes to the hospital and has himself circumcised. The pain enrages and inspires him. After Passover, he becomes a Jew.

Analysis

This chapter brings the conclusion of the plot and in doing so brings about Frank Alpine's final evolution of character. Frank's final realization of character evokes his two mentors: Saint Francis of Assisi and Morris Bober. Like both of them, Frank has become truly poor and honest. Frank works his fingers to the bone trying to innovate new ways to make the grocery profitable. Frank stops spending money on himself and his clothes become threadbare. At one point in this chapter, Frank grows distressed and falls back into a pattern of spying on Helen and cheating people. But just as this wave of dishonesty came, so too does it stop. Frank suddenly is honest again, with little or no effort. The innate goodness that he has managed to draw up in his soul has overcome his darkness. He no longer cheats or spies. He is honest and poor, but good and spiritually satisfied.

In addition to becoming honest, Frank's character blossoms because he finally learns how to truly love. Frank's labor at the grocery is all undertaken because of his love for Helen. While only his physical desire for her flesh drove his loving activities in the beginning of the novel, only his pure desire for her soul drives his activities in the end. His momentary lapse into lust, as seen by his spying on her, disappears like his dishonesty because his sense of true love now thrives and overpowers the less noble physical needs. Frank now can control his amorous emotions. In his final vision of the novel, his previously unrealized fake love, as represented in his wooden flower, becomes true love as Saint Francis himself transforms the wood into a living rose. Frank's love has grown fresh and pure and he is now ready to have a sincere relationship with Helen.

Helen changes in this chapter as well, also growing in her ability to accurately perceive and to love another. In the beginning of the chapter, her opinion of her father starts to change when she awakes from a dream and decides that she must finish college for him. But it is not until the end of the chapter, when she sees Frank Alpine sleep at his night job, that Helen finally understands. When she sees Frank, she understands the extent of his efforts to sustain them. By truly by seeing Frank's dedication, what she is finally able to understand is her father and his related morality. Morris's goodness has touched Helen through Frank's expression of it and it transforms her. Helen's awakening can be seen in her almost immediate shift of behavior. While she had shunned Frank, she now thanks him for his efforts. While she had entertained Nat Pearl despite his dishonorable intentions, she suddenly turns against his advances resulting in him calling her a "bitch." While there is not a strict indication that she and Frank will get back together when the novel closes, the text leaves a strong suggestion of the possibility.

Finally, it should be noted that Malamud indicates Frank's transformation on the level of text as well as on the level of plot. The final section of the novel is almost a mirror image of the novel's opening. The identity of the grocer has changed from Morris Bober to Frank Alpine but the events are the same: the Polish woman buys a roll; Nick Fuso shops at the other store and the grocer feels bad; Breitbart drinks a cup of tea. Frank now reacts to all of these circumstances just as Morris once did. He has become Morris almost completely. To further indicate Frank's transformation, Malamud makes it so that Frank even occasionally thinks with the Yiddish phrasing that characterized Morris's speech. Frank also is now adept at using Yiddishisms with the visiting merchants. Frank now lives in the prison of the grocery, but he has grown spiritually. Frank, like Morris, now can live and suffer in life with both pain and pleasure. To complete his transformation, he converts to Judaism just after Passover, the Jewish New Year, and he begins again. His conversion opens the door for his future unification with Helen Bober, while fully conferring on him the status of Morris Bober's student and foster son.

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