Skip over navigation

The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter Two

Chapter One

Chapter Three

Summary

After Morris's injury, he stays in bed for a week. For one day during that week, the store is shut completely, but during the other days Ida and Helen manage to keep it open. During the same week, a skinny, sad eyed stranger appears on the block. He frequently sits in Sam Pearl's candy shop drinking coffee and tells them that his name is Frank Alpine and he has just moved to New York from the west. One day, Frank shows Sam Pearl a picture of Saint Francis of Assisi that Frank just found in a magazine. Saint Francis is Frank's hero, of whom Frank frequently heard when he was a child in an orphanage.

A week after the robbery, Morris opens his store. The Polish woman returns the next morning to buy a roll and Morris sells her one as he has for years, even though he knows she is slightly anti-Semitic. As Morris goes to bring in the milk, he almost swoons from dizziness but a man catches him. It is Frank Alpine. Frank unloads the milk. He drinks coffee with Morris. Frank explains that he wants to find a job working in a grocery somewhere and Morris gives him some suggestions on where to go.

For the next two mornings, Frank Alpine appears again to help with the milk. On the second day, the two men talk over cups of coffee. Frank grew up in an orphanage after his mother died and his father abandoned him. After some rough foster homes, he left the West to start again on the East Coast. Frank asks about Morris's bandages and Morris describes the robbery. Frank suggests that they should kill the robbers and then asks if Morris is a Jew. Morris says yes. Upon Frank's questioning, Morris explains that he has a daughter and had a son who died of an ear infection. Frank leaves but reappears a few hours later to wash the windows. When Morris confronts him, Frank explains that he wants no money but that he just wanted to pay Morris back. He proposes that Morris let him assist in the grocery, for free, so that Frank can learn the trade. Ida comes down during the discussion and does not like the idea, so Morris says no and Frank leaves.

The narrative cuts to Helen Bober and Louis Karp who are walking on the Coney Island boardwalk. Louis pestered Helen numerous times for a date, so she went to Coney Island with him. Louis is a lazy, young man who rides on the money from his father's liquor store. Upon being questioned, Helen explains that her life has not yet turned out as she wants it to since she is twenty-three and has not gone to college. Louis tells Helen that he would like to marry her, but Helen is not interested, even though they kiss momentarily. He drives her back to the grocery.

The next morning, Morris finds a bottle of milk and two rolls missing from his delivery. He does not tell Ida, but the theft of a quart of milk and two rolls continues for two more days. Morris then starts waking early before six to see if he can observe the robber, but he does not although the food keeps disappearing. The grocer questions some people who might be involved, but finds out nothing. After five days, he tells Ida and they call the police. Detective Minogue, who is investigating the holdup, comes to question them. Detective Minogue lives in the area and his son, Ward, went to Helen's school, but later got in trouble for molesting girls there and stealing from his job. In response to Ward's crimes, Detective Minogue had beaten his son and made him leave him. Morris feels sorry for Detective Minogue. After the detective asks them about the thefts, he asks if they have seen his son, but they have not. Later that night, Morris closes the store early and impulsively visits his cellar. He finds a dirty and tired Frank Alpine there, sleeping on the floor. Frank confesses to stealing the milk and rolls due to hunger. Morris takes Frank upstairs and feeds him. Ida comes down and, upon seeing Frank, guesses that he stole the milk and bread. Although Ida wants Frank to leave and fears he will steal, Morris insists that Frank sleep at the back of the store for that night. The next morning, Morris rises to sell the Polish woman her roll. When he grabs the milk crates, he slips on ice, hits the ground, and passes out. Frank rises, carries Morris inside, gets Helen to notify Ida, and places Morris's apron around his own neck.

Analysis

This second chapter introduces one of the most important characters in the novel, Frank Alpine. Frank appears mysteriously just after Morris Bober's unfortunate robbery. He has come from the West and appears to be a poor man. The only things that are known about him are those that he shares: he has had a rough life and appears to be looking for a second chance. Frank is a sympathetic young man. He is skinny and rough shaven and these factors, along with his eventual theft of the milk and bread suggest that he is a man of need for whom one should have compassion. Both Morris and Ida Bober have compassion for Frank, even though Ida does not wish him to stay. Morris could turn Frank away or even have him arrested upon finding him, but in a typically humane move, Morris instead feeds him. As do Ida and Morris, the tendency is to sympathize with Frank at this point even though he has done something bad by being a thief. This tendency to feel for Frank will continue through the entire novel even as Frank's dishonest acts grow more egregious. Malamud maintains the sympathy by constantly demonstrating Frank's own belief in his culpability, just as he does here by having Frank immediately confess to his crime while begging forgiveness. Malamud also shows Frank's struggle for goodness by letting the reader see the contents of Frank's mind.

The image of Saint Francis of Assisi appears for the first time in this chapter and will reappear as one of the novel's main motifs. Frank Alpine admires Saint Francis because Saint Francis's innate goodness is so pure that it brings Frank to tears. Frank's own desire to attain such innate goodness in his self will drive the novel's plot. Furthermore, the image of Saint Francis provides an important commentary upon the possibilities of spiritual success amidst true impoverishment. Saint Francis, as Frank tells Sam Pearl, believed in poverty for spiritual purposes and maintained to bring freshness to impoverishment that most do not see. Saint Francis's ability to see through poverty and create a spiritual life within it will also be Frank's challenge in the novel. The neighborhood of the grocery, for example in Helen Bober's perspective, exists as a wasteland full of ruined dreams and difficult lives. Within such a difficult environment, Morris Bober manages to maintain a spiritual sense of goodness, and Frank Alpine's arrival will attempt to bring in an additional freshness in Saint Francis's style. The motif of Saint Francis will re-appear with references to birds and flowers, the creatures that the Saint once preached to, as well as by mentions of the Saint himself.

The interlude of Helen Bober and Louis Karp draws out their characters in more detail. Helen is one of the three most important characters, with her father and Frank Alpine. Helen bears a classical, non-Yiddish name that evokes images of Greek myth. Helen Bober, like Helen of Troy, is desired by many men and in the novel serves unifying role in her multiple relationships. This chapter shows Helen as a dreamer who yarns for something better that her financial situation cannot provide. While Helen is an intelligent dreamer, Louis Karp, is an uninteresting mope. With his father's money, Louis could do what Helen longs to do, attend college, but Louis has neither the interest nor the diligence. Louis is content simply to make do on his father's achievements. Speech patterns again are important in this chapter and demonstrate Louis and Helen's relative perspectives. Louis relies heavily on casual American slang—"Say, baby, let's drop this deep philosophy and go trap a hamburger. My stomach complains"—while Helen's articulate grammar exceeds that of the other characters. The exposition of both of these chapters is important, as Helen will play a crucial role in the text and Louis, although not a major character, fits into Malamud's important theme of father-son relations. Louis and his father, Julius, are one of the three biological father-son pairs that exist in the novel that will serve a comparative basis for the symbolic foster fathering that will take place between Morris Bober and Frank Alpine.

The ability for Morris to give people milk and bread symbolically suggests his position as a sustainer in the community. As the book continues, his ability to sustain others on a spiritual and moral level will become clear. The food that Morris gives others nourishes them and provides for them, as does his beneficent generosity. Ironically although he gives nourishment, he does not reap financial gain from his efforts while Karp, a seller of destructive alcohol, does. This irony testifies to another theme in Malamud's book, the struggle for the American dream.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us