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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter Five

Chapter Four

Chapter Six, Part One

Summary

Business at the grocery keeps improving. Morris lets Helen keep more of her check and wants to pay Frank more sometime soon. Helen feels jealous of Frank's past travels, which she has never managed, and feels excited that he will attend college in the fall. To help him prepare, she insists that he read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and Madame Bovary. Frank reads them all, but feels confused as to why Helen enjoys reading about other people's misery. The books make Frank wonder if one error in a man's life can change his future forever, with no possibility of amending it.

One night, Helen is sneaking up to Frank Alpine's room to say something to him when Nat Pearl telephones. He asks her on a date, but she declines and will not even let him come over right then for a chat. He tries to find out why she is shunning him, but she says nothing. After she hangs up, her mother criticizes her treatment of Nat and warns her that she is not getting younger. Finally when Helen is able to leave, she goes to Frank's room. She has brought two presents that he gave her earlier in the day: a black scarf with gold in it and a red leather covered collected Shakespeare. She insists that she cannot accept them because they are too much for her. He reluctantly takes them back. Later, Helen reflects upon her need to give the presents back because men usually expect something for them.

The next day on her way to work, Helen sees the scarf and Shakespeare book in the garbage can on the street. Astonished by the waste, she takes them out and places them in the cellar. The next day, she asks Frank why he did not return the presents instead of throwing them out. He states that he lost the receipts and did not want them anymore, but she insists that she will return them on his behalf so that he shall not waste money, he will give her the receipts.

Helen visits Betty Pearl, Nat's sister, with whom she has been friends since high school. Betty asks why Helen never sees Nat anymore, but Helen declines to discuss it. Betty recently has got engaged to an accountant and they offer to take Helen out for a drive, but she refuses and heads home.

Helen is walking through the park and sees Frank Alpine feeding some birds. Helen approaches him and discusses the presents once more. Frank apologizes for giving her something that she did not want, but requests that she keep at least one of them and he will return the other. She decides to keep the Shakespeare. Frank then asks her to a movie and she accepts. As Frank and Helen's relationship continues, Ida senses something is happening, but can discover nothing. She complains to Morris, but Morris tells her not to worry.

The next day, Morris and Frank are peeling potatoes and Frank asks Morris what a Jew is anyhow. Morris says that a Jew is someone with a good heart who believes in the Torah, the Law. Morris thinks that things like eating kosher are not important, which is why he does not do it. What is important is for Jews to do what is right, honest and good. When Frank asks Morris why Jews suffer so much, Morris says that Jews suffer just as everyone does and if one does not suffer for the law, in order to be good to others when will one suffer. After the conversation, Morris feels worried that Frank's interest might have to do with Helen.

Morris notices the next day that his hair has grown long, so he goes to the barber. As he is getting his hair cut, he sees three customers go into the store and come out with heavy looking bags. Morris feels happy thinking that he has made some good sales. When he returns, he finds that only three dollars has been rung up. Morris feels stunned and upset. With the next customer, Morris sees that the register is working and decides that Frank has been stealing from him. Although Morris feels sick about it, he says nothing to anyone. He watches Frank carefully for the next few days, but sees no sign of dishonesty. Morris feels unsure about his suspicions and then decides that if Frank has been stealing it was because they were not giving Frank enough money. He decides to start paying Frank fifteen dollars a week, without telling Ida. Frank seems surprised and argues against the raise, but Morris insists. Frank leaves the store looking down.

Analysis

Frank's relationship with Helen, Morris, and himself continue in this chapter. Helen continues to remain blinded to Frank's true identity. As she starts to spend more time with him, she insists of making him into the person whom she wants him to be. She imagines that if they do ever get married, her goal would be to make him into a person who really is someone. She envisions him, with his nose straightened, his hair shorter, and being well versed in literature. Helen is structuring her love for Frank upon her own images and expectations that shall not measure up to who Frank truly is. She is falling in love with an image.

Helen tries to create this image by giving Frank several novels to read. These novels are significant because all of them involve characters, like Frank, who commit "crimes" that affect their lives. Both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary have romantic affairs that ruin them. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment may be the most like Frank as he commits a crime whose moral consequences he cannot outrun, a vicious murder. Raskolnikov ultimately will achieve redemption after a lengthy stay in a prison camp during which time he achieves a sense of peace. Frank is on a similar quest to find peace in himself, but even after reading the novels is not sure that redemption is possible. Ironically, Frank seems to understand the true essence of the novels better than Helen, who although book savvy, still is unlearned in the way of humanity.

The image of Frank in the park surrounded by birds again evokes Saint Francis of Assisi and his correlating goodness. In the scene that follows though, Frank's quest for goodness obviously falls short. After Helen refused his presents, Frank entertained less than charitable thoughts, wondering if Jewish girls were not just too much trouble— a thought revealing both callousness and racism. Next the exposition of his internal thoughts shows the insincere nature of his pursuit of her. While Helen longs for love, Frank longs for physical gratification, in part. After Helen keeps badgering Frank about the presents, Frank thinks that he may still "have a chance." This chance is for sex, not love, as his thoughts make clear. Thus, while Frank may be trying to change himself, his thoughts show coldness in his heart that is not characteristic of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Frank's relationship with Morris continues as well. When Frank asks Morris what a Jew is, Morris describes Judaism as a code of ethical behavior rather than a system of religious rules. Morris believes that a Jew is a Jew if he follows the true law, which requires compassion and honesty for all people. Strict dietary laws noted in the Torah as less important to him. Again, during this lecture Morris appears as an instructor of morals. Furthermore, although Morris is speaking about Judaism his philosophy also seems to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Like Christ, Morris suggests that he suffers for everyone in the world, including Frank. In Morris's world, people suffer for one another and in doing so provide the moral cushion that makes a harsh existence possible. Frank does not understand, but this lesson from Morris is one of the more valuable ones.

While Morris continues to teach Frank, his suspicions about Frank's honesty also arise in this chapter when Morris suspects that Frank might be stealing from him. Morris's reaction to the theft follows in his characteristically charitable vein—he blames himself for not paying Frank enough and he offers Frank more money. Morris's suspicions foreshadow his eventual exposure and confrontation of Frank's thievery in the chapter to come.

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