The Assistant

by: Bernard Malamud

Chapter Three

Back at the store, Ida counts the money and leaves some in the till for the morning. Helen goes to take a shower. Frank goes into the basement and hides himself in the dumbwaiter and pulls himself up to the bathroom and looks at Helen's naked body. Helen has a delicate, attractive body. After Frank lowers himself to the basement, he feels a surge of moving joy.

Analysis

With this chapter, Malamud links the events of the previous two chapters while proposing the novel's conflict to come by shows that the sympathetic Frank Alpine is also a thief and one who even was involved in the robbery of Morris. Because of the way that Malamud has framed the exposition of Frank, her character appears to be a puzzle. This presentation is appropriate because Frank's character is a puzzle to Frank himself and it is Frank's attempt to unravel the puzzle and make sense of his character that drives the plot of the novel.

Frank appears to be a good soul at the beginning of this chapter as he did in the one before it. When Morris falls sick, Frank voluntarily runs the shop, with almost miraculous results. The first day he brings in fifteen dollars, much more than Morris had been earning. The rest of the week he does better as well. Frank's abilities astound Ida and she lets him stay, even though she does not approve of him because he is not Jewish. Frank's arrival from nowhere and his ability to improve the shop lends him an almost supernatural charm. For this reason, his figure evokes the tradition of Yiddish folklore. It is perhaps because Ida sees him as a good luck charm that arrived in their time of need, that Ida lets him stay.

While Frank starts the chapter as a miracle worker, he ends it by being exposed as a common criminal. First, we learn that he is stealing from the small revenues of a poor man, Morris Bober. Second, and perhaps worse, we learn that it was Frank who was involved in robbing Morris in the first place. Frank's deceitful deeds normally would make him appear as a purely evil character. However, because Malamud already exposed Frank as a sympathetic character who has had a rough life and who yearns to do good, his previous and current evil deeds simply seem curious. Frank explains his thefts from Morris's shop almost as a compulsion or a disease. Although he knows that it is wrong, he cannot stop slipping quarters into his pocket. Because Malamud exposes the war within Frank's conscience, it is difficult to think entirely poorly of him. Instead, one tends to want Frank to succeed in his quest to conquer his dark side. It is Frank's fluctuating struggle to be good and his tendency to do evil that is the driving force of the novel.

Toward the end of the chapter, the other weakness in Frank's character, his inability to control his fleshy desires, also becomes clear. Frank is physically and emotionally lonely, having no friends, and no girlfriend. Having seen the attractive, though hidden, Helen, he desires her. When he sneaks up the dumbwaiter to spy on her naked body, however, Frank exposes himself again as less than a sympathetic character. He wants to be good and love, like Saint Francis of Assisi, but actually his actions show that he does not really know how. Frank's quest to learn to love and to control his physical urges is a theme that will run concurrent to his desire to control his petty dishonesty. When Frank sees Helen's body, he admires its shape but also notices that her buttocks resemble a flower. Even the comparison of Helen's buttocks to a flower invokes the motif of Saint Francis of Assisi and the idea of freshness existing in the wasteland of the immigrant ghetto. The flower serves as an image to remind Frank of his true quest to learn to be a controlled individual. The flower also suggests the way that Frank will manage to bring light and joy to himself and the community. Through his dedication and love to Helen. At this point in the novel, however, Frank is unable to do so.