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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter Four

Chapter Three

Chapter Five

Summary

After just a little more than two weeks upstairs, Morris is anxious to get back to work. Since Morris is returning to work, Ida wants Frank to leave. Morris, on the other hand, wants Frank to say, since he believes that Frank is the reason for their recent success. Morris proposes that Frank move into the small room upstairs near Nick and Tessie's apartment and keep working until the summer. Ida mentions that she is worried about Frank and Helen, but Morris calms her. Frank agrees and everyone is happy.

Morris Bober feels his mood lighten as he works with Frank. The two men share stories as they work. Frank grew up in California primarily in an orphanage, but also in some rough foster families. After his foster parents forced him to work as a twelve year old, Frank started to go his own way. Morris grew up in Russia but fled just after being conscripted into the army. After arriving in America, Morris originally considered being a pharmacist, but he met Ida and he had an opportunity to buy the grocery so he did. Morris tells Frank about the evolution of the grocery. In the olden days he had to package everything himself, and this made some grocers cheat their customers by fiddling with the quality of what they sold. When Frank suggests that those techniques might increase Morris's small profit, Morris looks surprised and asks why he should cheat his customers when his customers do not cheat him. Franks nods, but continues to steal himself from the grocery all the time. Sometimes he buys himself new presents and feels justified, but other times his behavior makes him sick. On some days, life in the grocery store also drives him crazy. He does not understand why Bober, why Jews, simply wander around suffering and acting like born prisoners of the world. Morris acted this way as did the other Jewish merchants such as Al Marcus, who sold paper bags, and Breitbart who came in each day as he was selling light bulbs. Morris explains the misery of these men by telling Frank that Marcus had been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer some time ago, but that Marcus kept working and pursuing life despite his eminent death. Furthermore, Breitbart's old business partner cheated him out of all his money and stole his wife, so Breitbart just took to selling light bulbs while supporting his half-witted son, Hymie. Frank decides that Jews only live to suffer.

Helen's presence still torments Frank and he wants to talk with her. Frank decides that he needs to confess his role in the robbery to Morris or Helen, in order to come clean. When Frank finds himself in a quiet store with Morris at the perfect moment, however, Frank says nothing. Instead, Frank tells Morris that he committed some mistakes in his younger years that he wants to make amends for. To himself, Frank reflects upon his not so distant past. Frank had given up on life and became a bum, eating from garbage cans, sleeping wherever he could. But one day, Frank woke up and decided that he did have something special inside of him and if he dedicated himself to a life of crime, this would become clear. So he got cleaned up, bought a gun, and moved east. After he arrived in Brooklyn, he met Ward Minogue and they decided to rob the liquor store. But when Ward hit Morris, Frank realized that he had made the biggest mistake of his life and that he had to make amends. Frank fantasizes about explaining his whole history to Helen, but then decides he would have no chance if he did so he does not.

In the last week of December, Helen and Frank randomly meet in the library where she has come to get a book and where he is reading a magazine. He walks home with her and they talk. Helen describes her dream of attending college and explains that she works as a secretary. Frank describes his life briefly for her and indicates that he pictures attending college in the fall as well. He also tells her about Saint Francis of Assisi, who when he had no wife to love shaped out of snow and called her his snow wife. Finally, he tells her a story about a girl he knew at a carnival who broke her neck in a car accident on the same day that they realized their love for one another. When they reach home, Helen thinks about Frank before going to bed and tries to figure out who exactly he is.

Analysis

The two most important relationships in the novel, between Frank and Morris and Frank and Helen, truly get underway in this chapter. Morris has returned to work and he and Frank interact daily. Morris believes that Frank is a good-luck charm, possibly because he brings in non-Jewish customers. As a result, Frank's presence makes Morris happy. While he moaned about the pain of his meager existence and painful life during the previous chapters, Morris feels hopeful and even happy now.

Morris's happiness to work with Frank in great deal relates to his ability to finally instruct a younger man, an ability that he lost when his son died. In some ways, this foster relationship could be compared to Joyce's similar pairing in Ulysses of Leopold Bloom, whose young son Rudy died, with Stephen Dedalus, though Leopold and Stephen are quite different from Morris and Frank. Marcia Booher Gealy also has recognized the idea of an older man tutoring a younger as a primary theme in Yiddish literature. As this chapter shows, Morris Bober has become an instructor not just in how to run the grocery, but also in a system of moral values. When Frank proposes that Morris cheat his customers, Morris is aghast. Morris's small lecture on ethical shopkeeping is just one of the first of many that he will deliver to Frank. Frank has become Morris's assistant, yes, but in becoming so he will become a student of Morris's entire way of life, not just his techniques for running the grocery store. Given the fact that both Morris and Frank are missing a son and father respectively, their relationship will also take on one of a foster parentage.

While Morris begins to instruct Frank in this chapter, it is clear that Frank is far from understanding Morris's perspective. Already, Frank has grown edgy in the grocery as he watches people suffer in the prison-like environment of the ghetto. He criticizes Al Marcus and Breitbart for their meager existences, but as Morris explains Frank entirely misreads the situation. While Frank thinks that Marcus is weak, Marcus is actually incredibly strong, insisting on working day after day despite the fact that he has terminal cancer. Furthermore, while Breitbart appears grim, he managed to pick himself up after being left in financial and emotional ruin by his business partner and wife. The unwillingness of these men to give up in the face of hardship should be emulated in Morris's ethnical system. Although Morris explains these values to Frank, Frank still is unable to truly understand.

By constantly showing the reader Frank's internal thoughts, Malamud continues to dramatize Frank's painful struggle to be a good person. Frank still entertain thoughts of being a purely good character, but his actions contradict his desires. Frank keeps stealing. Although Frank decides to confess his role in the robbery, he does not. His failure to do so is not truly surprising. Frank long has demonstrated his good intentions, but never followed through upon them with his actions. His learned behaviors restrict his abilities to be the person that he wants to be. Eventually Frank's behaviors will have to change if he wants to reach his ideal, but he is far from such a change in this first chapter of moral instruction.

Frank also starts to pursue Helen with increased fervor. Their relationship begins in the library, which seems an appropriate setting. Its appropriateness comes not simply because of Helen's interest in learning, but because the two will initially only be able to see themselves like two-dimensional images on a page, without full depth of character. Their tendencies to cling to certain preconceived notions become clear as they walk home together. Helen first has negative opinions of Frank because he is a gentile and her mother has always drilled into her head the idea that all gentiles possess a form of evil. Furthermore, she assumes that he lacks intelligence showing that she is an intellectual snob. When she sees him at the library, she assumes that he is reading Popular Mechanics, but actually he is reading a biography of Napoleon. Her misconceptions fall apart as they walk, because Frank describes his desire to go to college and tells her a story about Saint Francis of Assisi. The story of Saint Francis is, in itself, important and actually neither Frank nor Helen truly understands it. In the story, Saint Francis laments his desire to have a wife and children because he is a monk, therefore he shapes a family out of snow and feels better. What this story truly testifies to is Saint Francis's ability to supplant his physical earthy desire for lust and love with a pure love for God and his natural creatures. Frank likes this story, but is very far from understanding what a pure form of love is. Frank is trapped in his physical sexual desires, although he thinks that he is not. For Helen, the story suggests a level of intelligence and literacy that Frank does not truly have. Helen, the dreamer that she is, begins to spin fantasies about his ability to intellectually overcome the world. At this point in the novel, both Frank and Helen are trapped in their preconceived notions of the other and although they have a yearning to love, they both cannot because of limitations in their characters.

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