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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter Three

Chapter Two

Chapter Four

Summary

Morris has reopened the old injury on his head from falling. The doctor insists that he rest in bed for a few weeks. Ida cares for Morris all day, but later remembers Frank Alpine and goes downstairs to tell him to leave.

Frank looks clean and fresh when Ida enters and he shows her fifteen dollars in the register, saying that they had a busy morning. Ida does not like the idea, but tentatively suggests that Frank stay during Morris's illness and continue to sleep on the couch in the back. The next morning, he has done eight dollars of business and also cleaned the store and fixed a broken sink and light. Ida thinks that the store looks better. Even though she distrusts him, she shows him how to cut the meat. Ida then spends most of her time upstairs resting, looking forward to the time that Frank, a non-Jew, will be gone.

Frank finds life in the store relatively pleasant. He sells the Polish woman her roll at six and spends the day trying to improve the store while selling goods. He eats whatever he likes whenever he is hungry. The customers like him and so do the deliverers, even though they all warn him not to work for a Jew and that the grocery is a prison-like death tomb. Ida feeds Frank his meals and gives him fifty cents a day spending money, which he uses to see the movies. Frank meets Nick Fuso in the grocery and Nick invites Frank over for dinner after learning that he is Italian.

Ida always keeps Helen away from Frank, but he occasionally catches a glimpse of her and thinks of her. He finds her quite attractive. Because he is lonely and never sees her, one night he conjures a plan and calls her to the telephone even though no one is there. After she finds the line dead, she looks perplexed and he explains that he did not know what happened to the caller.

While Ida dislikes having a non-Jew running their store, she has to admit that his presence has driven up their revenues. Although they are still poor, Frank is bringing in five to seven more dollars per day than Morris had been. He also makes the customers laugh and even gets them to buy more. At the end of the next week, Ida insists on giving Frank five dollars in wages because of all he has done, despite Frank's protests. Frank then feels bad, because while the store had been making money, Frank had also secretly been pocketing some of it—about ten dollars over the two weeks. Frank reasons that he deserved some of the money, but also feels bad about taking it. He tries to get himself to stop, but it becomes a bizarre compulsion.

One night, Frank feels terrible about all the wrong he has done and decides to set things right. He remembers that it was he and Ward Minogue that robbed the grocery store. It had been Ward's idea to rob Karp's liquor store, but when Karp fled, Ward insisted that they rob Bober, since he was just a Jew as well. At the time Frank had thought that a Jew is a Jew, so they might as well rob him, but now he is not so sure. In his contemplation, Frank goes to a nearby bar and finds Ward Minogue. Minogue is feeling sick and laughs when Frank asks for his gun back. Minogue still wants to stick up the liquor store and laughs at Frank for working at Bober's. Frank explains that he did it to quiet his conscience and that he placed the money from the robbery in the register on his first day back. Minogue laughs and tells Frank to seduce the Jew's daughter.

Back at the store, Ida counts the money and leaves some in the till for the morning. Helen goes to take a shower. Frank goes into the basement and hides himself in the dumbwaiter and pulls himself up to the bathroom and looks at Helen's naked body. Helen has a delicate, attractive body. After Frank lowers himself to the basement, he feels a surge of moving joy.

Analysis

With this chapter, Malamud links the events of the previous two chapters while proposing the novel's conflict to come by shows that the sympathetic Frank Alpine is also a thief and one who even was involved in the robbery of Morris. Because of the way that Malamud has framed the exposition of Frank, her character appears to be a puzzle. This presentation is appropriate because Frank's character is a puzzle to Frank himself and it is Frank's attempt to unravel the puzzle and make sense of his character that drives the plot of the novel.

Frank appears to be a good soul at the beginning of this chapter as he did in the one before it. When Morris falls sick, Frank voluntarily runs the shop, with almost miraculous results. The first day he brings in fifteen dollars, much more than Morris had been earning. The rest of the week he does better as well. Frank's abilities astound Ida and she lets him stay, even though she does not approve of him because he is not Jewish. Frank's arrival from nowhere and his ability to improve the shop lends him an almost supernatural charm. For this reason, his figure evokes the tradition of Yiddish folklore. It is perhaps because Ida sees him as a good luck charm that arrived in their time of need, that Ida lets him stay.

While Frank starts the chapter as a miracle worker, he ends it by being exposed as a common criminal. First, we learn that he is stealing from the small revenues of a poor man, Morris Bober. Second, and perhaps worse, we learn that it was Frank who was involved in robbing Morris in the first place. Frank's deceitful deeds normally would make him appear as a purely evil character. However, because Malamud already exposed Frank as a sympathetic character who has had a rough life and who yearns to do good, his previous and current evil deeds simply seem curious. Frank explains his thefts from Morris's shop almost as a compulsion or a disease. Although he knows that it is wrong, he cannot stop slipping quarters into his pocket. Because Malamud exposes the war within Frank's conscience, it is difficult to think entirely poorly of him. Instead, one tends to want Frank to succeed in his quest to conquer his dark side. It is Frank's fluctuating struggle to be good and his tendency to do evil that is the driving force of the novel.

Toward the end of the chapter, the other weakness in Frank's character, his inability to control his fleshy desires, also becomes clear. Frank is physically and emotionally lonely, having no friends, and no girlfriend. Having seen the attractive, though hidden, Helen, he desires her. When he sneaks up the dumbwaiter to spy on her naked body, however, Frank exposes himself again as less than a sympathetic character. He wants to be good and love, like Saint Francis of Assisi, but actually his actions show that he does not really know how. Frank's quest to learn to love and to control his physical urges is a theme that will run concurrent to his desire to control his petty dishonesty. When Frank sees Helen's body, he admires its shape but also notices that her buttocks resemble a flower. Even the comparison of Helen's buttocks to a flower invokes the motif of Saint Francis of Assisi and the idea of freshness existing in the wasteland of the immigrant ghetto. The flower serves as an image to remind Frank of his true quest to learn to be a controlled individual. The flower also suggests the way that Frank will manage to bring light and joy to himself and the community. Through his dedication and love to Helen. At this point in the novel, however, Frank is unable to do so.

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