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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

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Study Questions

Discuss the importance of Saint Francis of Assisi in the text.

Saint Francis of Assisi represents the idea of pure goodness and love, which Frank Alpine is trying to obtain throughout the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Frank explains that Saint Francis is so innately good, that he makes Frank want to cry. Try as he might, however, Frank cannot act good most of the time. Frank's actions are characterized by dishonesty. Although he comes to the grocery to help Morris Bober, he ends up stealing from him. Although Frank feels genuine affection for Helen, his pursuit of her is governed by his lust. Frank struggles with his desires, but it is not until he is exposed as a dishonest fraud that Frank is able to take the necessary steps to sincerely become good. Saint Francis also testifies to one's ability to live a satisfied life even in the midst of impoverishment. As a monk in the Catholic Church, Saint Francis took the then unusual step of adhering to a life of poverty himself. The Catholic Church previously had been dominated by the accumulation of money and Saint Francis's suggestion that poverty represented the path to God and Christ's true vision was greatly disapproved of by his peers. The poor immigrant community where the Bobers live is an environment where most people sense that their impoverishment brings pain and suffering. Only Morris Bober is able to feel a sense of gratitude and peace within an impoverished state, seeing their situation as others do not. By the end of the book, Frank will be embrace a life of perpetual poverty like Saint Francis and Morris Bober, but will also have found inner peace.

Morris Bober and Julius Karp are Jewish merchants on the same block. Discuss the similarities and differences between the two men.

Morris Bober and Julius Karp are both Yiddish immigrants from Europe, but Morris is characterized by generosity and honesty, while Karp is characterized by self-interest. Karp plays an important role in the novel because many of his self-serving actions are what drive forward the plot. Karp's leasing of the other store to a grocer, for example, initiates Morris's period of extreme economic struggle. Karp's flight from the possible robbers, results in Morris being robbed himself. Karp wants to remain friends with Morris because he wants to remain under the favor of Morris's sincere goodness, however Karp himself does not act with goodness. Eventually, Karp even comes to reveal a lengthy plan through which he will be able to control part of Morris's grocery, by having his son Louis marry Helen Bober. With the plan, Karp preys upon the economic disadvantages of the Bobers for his own gain. In doing so, he reveals that he is a cold, calculating figure. While Morris is the more honest one, Karp is the more successful one and this fact suggests the irony of struggling within the American capitalist system. The good will not always succeed.

Why does Helen Bober want to go out with Nat Pearl? What does he represent for her? Why does she ultimately reject him?

At the beginning of the novel, Helen is a character very interested in a person's status and abilities. Nat Pearl is the one person in her impoverished community who will have a life outside of their current circumstances. With his college degree and future life as an attorney, Nat Pearl has the promise of making money and obtaining respect from American society. Helen initially falls in love with Nat because she is attracted to his ability to leave the painful and prison-like neighborhood in which they currently dwell. For much of the novel, Helen tries to ignore Nat, as she believes that he only used her for sex. After the death of her father, she returns to him for a while, probably due to her emotional distress, but eventually rejects him again. Toward the end of the book, Helen learns to truly love people for their self and not for what they represent. For this reason, she turns back toward Frank Alpine, whose character has become more honorable than Nat Pearl's.

Suggested Essay Topics

The novel exposes both immigrants and their children as they strive for the American dream. In what do the children of the immigrants exercise their privileges differently from their parents. How has been born in American affected them?

Discuss the character of Ida Bober. Is she presented in a sympathetic or unsympathetic light? What is her importance in the novel's plot?

Helen Bober lends Frank Alpine copies of Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and Madame Bovery. How do the plots of these novels relate to that of the Assistant?

Bernard Malamud offers numerous reflections upon the nature of Judaism. Using references from the text, discuss Malamud's perspective on Judaism and discuss how it differs or is similar to other opinions on the religion.

The Bober's deceased son, Ephraim, is mentioned several times in the text. Discuss his significance in relationship to the character of Morris Bober.

The Assistant takes place in an immigrant community. Examine the speech patterns of five different characters from this community with attention to what their speech indicates about their ethnicity and level of education.

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