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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter Seven

Chapter Six, Part two

Chapter Eight

Summary

Morris feels unhappy the morning after the incident with Frank. Frank left his fifteen dollars pay in the grocery. When Ida comes to relieve Morris at midday, he tells her that their good business was due to Schmitz's illness. He also explains that the Norwegians will be coming and that he asked Frank to leave. Ida feels elated that Frank is going. She sends Morris upstairs to nap. When he gets upstairs, Morris turns on the radiator, but cannot find a match to light it. He naps and dreams that the Norwegians, speaking German, take over his store and then he and Frank start wrestling with each other on the floor while Helen screams.

Frank Alpine wakes feeling pained about what he did the night before. He remembers that he had left the park briefly before Helen came in order to grab some pizza. When he returned, he saw Ward attacking her. Frank saved Helen, but then felt overcome by his love for her and his fear that he would not see her again given his recent fight with her father. He felt that he needed to make love to her so he had.

Helen wakes traumatized and takes her third shower since the night before. Her dress and coat are ripped and she decides to get the latter sewn while she is at work. She feels dirty and disgusting and leaves early for work.

When Nick Fuso gets home from work, he smells gas in the hallway. Nick gets Frank, and the two rush into Morris's apartment. The gas from the unlit radiator has flooded the apartment. Frank pulls Morris out of bed, while Nick opens all the windows. Helen and Ida appear and start screaming, Helen screaming partially because Frank is there. After the situation calms, everyone leaves the Bobers. Frank runs the store for the rest of the day until Ida makes him stop. That night an ambulance brings Morris to the hospital because of a high fever.

The next morning, Frank runs the store all day even though Helen and Ida do not know since they are at the hospital. The day after, the Norwegians open their market and Frank works at the store. Ida comes downstairs and is surprised, and slightly angry, to find Frank there. After Frank shows her forty-one dollars that he earned the day before, she feels less resentful. Ida does not know why Morris had asked Frank to leave, believing that it was about Helen as Frank suggests. Ida lets Frank stay, although tells him directly that Helen is not for him.

The store is slow all week after the Norwegians open their grocery. By Saturday, the store has earned roughly one hundred dollars less than usual. Frank takes twenty-five dollars out of his personal savings account and adds it to the store total so that the losses do not seem so poor.

Morris comes home ten days after being in the hospital. Frank thinks of visiting him upstairs to talk, but does not. Frank rarely sees Helen, but they pass one day in the hall and she yells at him. He dreams that she tosses a white flower out of her icy window and he catches it, but as soon as he does he sees that the flower was never there and the window never actually opened.

Business in the store is getting much worse. The Norwegians keep having specials and Frank cannot match their prices. He gives all his savings to the store, keeps it open all night, and repaints the whole place, but still it makes no money. Helen still feels terrible about everything and decides to skip Betty Pearl's wedding as a result, claiming grief over her father's illness. Ida weeps daily in the kitchen over Morris's illness and their poverty.

One day, Frank decides that he could get money by collecting an old debt from Carl, the Swedish painter. Upon reaching Carl's house however, he finds the painter asleep. Carl's wife is dishing out a small quantity of food to very hungry children. Frank says nothing about the debt, but instead goes home, collects his last three dollars, and prepares to give it to Carl's wife. On his walk to Carl's however, he runs into Ward Minogue who says that he is sick. Frank gives Ward the three bucks for Frank's old gun, which Frank then promptly drops into the gutter.

Frank takes a book out about Judaism and reads all about the long struggle of the Jewish people. One night he stops in a restaurant and asks for a night job. He gets a job as a counterman working from ten pm to six am. He starts working all day and all night with small naps in between. At the end of each week, he adds his thirty-five dollars from the counterman job to the cash register. This money along with Helen's paycheck keeps the Bobers from going under.

One day, Frank decides to reach out to Helen. He carves a wooden flower and leaves it at Helen's door. She takes it to her room, but the next day he sees it in the garbage can on the street.

Analysis

In this chapter, which follows the storm that exploded in the last, all of the characters recover. Morris feels overcome by sadness. Helen understands her previous affection for Frank as disillusionment and feels disgusted at his treatment of her body. Frank cannot leave his room because of his despair in having his evil tendencies so overcome his burning desire to be good. It is in the pit of their despair, however, that the characters begin to change.

Both Frank and Morris show signs of changed characters in this chapter. Frank's changes are for the better. Morris's changes are slightly for the worse. Up until this point, Morris has been the brave character who has always been willing to persist in the face of poverty. After his debacle with Frank, however, and with his failing business, Morris contemplates yielding to the pressures in the world by dying. With this possibility of death, Morris suggests that he is giving up the fight to live in the face of so much hardship. This giving up under tough circumstances is not consistent with the character he previously voiced.

It is impossible to know if Morris's near death due to the exposure to gas was a suicide attempt or an accident. He knows when he went to bed that he did not light the radiator, but no thoughts in his mind, that are shown to the reader, demonstrate his suicidal intentions. The dream that Morris has, however, suggests that Morris harbors a subconscious desire to give in to those trying to conquer him. The Norwegians that compete with his store have taken it over completely, clearly showing how threatening Morris finds their competition to be. Furthermore, these two Norwegians are speaking German. For a Jewish person in the post-Holocaust world, German is a threatening language that represents the past persecutions by the Germans against the Jews. The presence of German in the dream suggests the extent to which Morris sees the world conspiring against him. The Norwegians and Frank act against him, just as the Germans acted against his people. The use of gas in this scene again is symbolic because Morris has created his own gas chamber, which was the primary way that Germans killed the Jews in the Holocaust. Morris's creation of his own gas chamber coupled with his symbolic dream indicate that he has decided to give up fighting for life. Morris's willingness to yield is uncharacteristic of him and follows in his extreme dismay in find Frank was not the good luck charm that Morris believed him to be.

While Morris's personality may be cracking under the strain, Frank's is beginning to change for the better. In this chapter, Frank becomes able to give with a sense of goodness. Frank's first gift comes when he rushes into Morris's apartment and saves Morris's life. This act is notable because it is the first good act that Frank conducts with no consideration of its consequences. Previously Frank had done good deeds but always for some reward. He came to help at the grocery to relieve his guilt about the robbery; he helped Helen because he wanted sex. By saving Morris, Frank does something good on instinct. After saving Morris's life, Frank continues a trend of goodness by keeping the store open, putting his own money in the store, and even getting another job so that store will not fail. With these deeds, Frank is beginning to live up to what he has long wanted: to be good and giving like Saint Francis. Frank's new charity can most clearly be seen when he instinctively decides to give all of his money to Carl's impoverished family. Frank's action stems from his compassion for Carl's hungry children. It is an act worthy and characteristic of Morris Bober, who was a poor man always giving to those poorer than himself. With it, Frank shows the way in which he sincerely has started to change. He is becoming like his mentor, while his mentor, regrettably, is coming something like him.

Frank's relationship with Helen is in tatters primarily due to Frank's mistreatment of Helen's body. Now that Frank has committed a crime against her, however, he is able to start loving her afresh. The dream that Frank has about Helen throwing a flower to him demonstrates his realization that what existed between them before was not true love. Although Frank thinks that Helen has thrown him a flower, symbolizing her love, when he looks down he realizes that she never did. Sincere love never existed between them. The flower motif continues when Frank carves a wooden flower for Helen. The wood that this flower is made of suggests that despite Frank's desire, his love for Helen still is not pure and real. He still is learning how to love, but until he can reach that pure emotion, the wooden flower belongs where Helen placed it—in the garbage. She will wait to receive a real flower of love when Frank finally is able to produce it.

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