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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

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Symbols

Symbols

Flowers

Flowers reappear throughout the text as a symbol related to the motif of Saint Francis of Assisi. Helen's naked behind is compared to a flower; Frank dreams of Helen throwing him a flower; Frank carves Helen a wooden flower; and Helen tosses a flower into her father's grave. Real flowers represent the realization of pure love that characterized Saint Francis. For most of the book, Helen and Frank are not able to love one another. The symbol of the wooden flower shows Frank's desire to love Helen, but also his inability to transcend a concrete image of what this love would equal and fully embrace it. At the end of the novel when Saint Francis transforms Frank's wooden flower into a real one, his love has become fully realized and pure.

The Novels Frank reads

After learning that Frank wants to go to college, Helen makes Frank read Anna Karenina,Madame Bovary, and Crime and Punishment. Helen's desire that Frank read these books highlights her desire to transform him into something that she wants him to be. Helen is beginning to fall in love with him, but not with who he truly is, but with the man she believes she can make him into. On one level, these books suggest Helen's inability to properly love. On the level of text, the books all contain plots that mirror Frank Alpine's own struggle. In all of the novels, the main characters commit a "crime" that changes their entire life: both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary have affairs; and Raskolnikov commits a murder. Given Frank's guilty conscience, these books all make him consider whether or not he will be able to redeem himself in the future. Ironically, although Helen gave Frank the books, she barely understands them herself and as the novel continues she is not able to forgive Frank even though he committed a crime just like her revered heroes and heroines.

Milk and bread

Morris Bober receives crates of milk each morning from the deliverymen, which sit outside his door until he drags them in. He also receives two bags of rolls that he sells throughout the day. This milk and this bread symbolize Morris's importance as a sustainer of the community. These two products provide physical nourishment for the neighborhood. When Frank Alpine is starving and sleeping in the basement, he survives alone on milk and rolls. Morris's tendency to sell products that support his customers is consistent with his status as a moral supporter for the community. While Julius Karp makes much more money by trading in alcohol, Morris Bober is content to sell people health and nourishment through his marketing of these more wholesome goods.

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The Assistant (SparkNotes Literature Guide)