Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Father and Son Relationships
Four father-son relationships exist in The Assistant, three biological and one created. The created relationship exists between Morris Bober and Frank Alpine. Morris's biological son, Ephraim, died at a young age, but Frank arrives to learn Morris's trade and philosophy. Frank will be the one to inherit the grocery when Morris dies, which a son would normally do. The other sons and fathers demonstrate the difficult nature of passing on one's ethics and values to one's child. Jeffrey Helterman proposes that Malamud's presentation of four-father son relationships evokes the tradition of evoking four kinds of sons during the Passover Seder: the wise son (Nat Pearl), the wicked son (Ward Minogue), the foolish son (Louis Karp), and the son who has wits not to ask (Frank Alpine). Frank eventually does learn to ask the right questions and in doing so becomes more of a son to Morris Bober than the other sons are to their fathers. The way that these various relationships are explored in the novel touches on the relative difficulty of passing a historical legacy from father to son, as well as one's philosophy of system of laws.
Transcendence of One's Self
Frank Alpine spends the novel learning to transcend the ignoble desires of his self and learn to be a good person. Frank's general tendencies, as exhibited in the beginning of the novel, lean toward dishonesty and lust for Helen. He desires to become like Saint Francis, a model of goodness, but it is only through a fierce struggle that he is able to do so. Morris Bober is a person who has learned how to transcend his self and proceed with grace. Morris Bober fully accepts the idea of suffering. He sees that it is necessary to his self and the world. Through his acceptance, Morris is able to transcend the imprisoning effect of his suffering and liberate his self. Frank Alpine's eventual transformation in the novel allows his to achieve similar spiritual freedom.
Struggle for the American Dream
All of the characters in the novel are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. In the belly of New York City, they all struggle for the American Dream. Malamud suggests that this struggle is difficult, but also acknowledges its possibilities. Some immigrants, like Julius Karp, have managed to become rich. Although Julius is not an honorable person, his economic success came in part from his own hard work and his willingness to take advantage of the opportunities before his eyes. Nat Pearl represents another success story in the community. Although his parents still speak Yiddish, he managed to attend Columbia and now attends Law School. While there are these successes, there are also many difficulties. The Bobers barely subsist even though they own their own business. Carl, the Swedish painter, has children who appear to be constantly hungry. Even the tendency for customers to leave the Bobers' store for better prices seems reasonable given their economic struggle. Malamud exposes the possibility of realizing the American Dream as a new immigrant, but also its harsh reality by exposing the lives in an immigrant community in Brooklyn.
Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi reappears throughout the novel mostly when Frank Alpine discusses him. When Frank was an orphan, the priest used to read portions of Saint Francis's book Saint Francis's Little Flowers to the boys. Frank always longed to achieve the goodness that Saint Francis embodied. The constant reappearance of Saint Francis in the text, or through the images of flowers and birds, constantly reminds Frank of his desire to be good, even though he continues to always do wrong. Saint Francis also was an eclectic monk who preached that poverty was the way to reach God and was Christ's true message. The Catholic Church of his time considered Saint Francis's ideas incorrect and dangerous, since their ability to collect funds from their parishes kept them rich. Morris Bober, however, shares Saint Francis's perspective and accepts his impoverishment as a way that he has remained spiritually afresh. Eventually, Frank Alpine will come to accept impoverishment as well and despite living in it, will be able to spiritually transform.
The idea that the grocery where the Bobers' work is a prison occurs often throughout the novel. Helen Bober always thinks of her home as a prison and once even dreams of it as such. The merchants who find Frank Alpine working in the shop warn him to leave or he will get stuck there too, in a prison-like death tomb. The idea of prison relates to Malamud's discussion of suffering and redemption. When asked about the prison motif in his work, Malamud once stated, "I use it as a metaphor for the dilemma of all men: necessity, whose bare we look through and try not to see. Social injustice, apathy, ignorance. The personal prison of entrapment in past experience, guilt, obsession—the somewhat blind or blinded self. A man has to construct, invent his freedom." Within The Assistant, the only character who does not think of the grocery as a prison is Morris Bober. Although he is not happy there, he has come to accept the grocery store and he also does not see it as the sole factor imprisoning him in his life. As Frank Alpine changes, he will willingly come to live in the prison of the grocery despite everyone's warnings. His doing so is possible because his changed self as altered the nature of his imprisonment, as his soul has been freed.
Phrases and words from the Yiddish Language dominate the way that Morris and Ida Bober speak. Malamud emphasizes their native language by placing Yiddish words directly in the text such as: "landsleit" (countrymen), "parnusseh" (livelihood), and "gesheft" (business). The use of Anglicized Yiddish terms also demonstrates their native language, such as the Polish woman being a "Poilisheh," the Italian tenant being an "Italyener," and the possible robbers being "holdupnicks." Most importantly, Malamud directly translates from the Yiddish into the English, with the parts of speech not appearing in their normal American locations. For example, Ida's inquiry of Morris, "You said to him something not nice," might normally be expressed in American English as, "You said something not nice to him?" The Yiddish phrasing helps to ground the characters' ethnic backgrounds. It also plays an important textual role in indicating Frank Alpine's evolution. Toward the end of the novel, Frank too occasionally thinks in Yiddish phrasings, indicating his full embrace of Morris Bober's philosophy.
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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