The Assistant

by: Bernard Malamud

Chapter Eight

The next night, Ida and Helen go to a movie and Tessie and Nick Fuso go out. Morris finds an old celluloid collar and goes into the basement to light it on fire. The celluloid lights quickly and as it spreads, Morris tries to knock it out. Morris's sweater then catches on fire. Morris screams and begs for mercy and a large person—Frank Alpine—grabs him and throws him to the ground. After he is saved, Morris orders Frank out of the house.

Analysis

This chapter primarily concerns Morris Bober's character and his ambiguous struggle between life and death, feistiness, and surrender. His ambiguous feelings toward either living or dying can be seen right at the start of the chapter, in response to his illness. At the beginning of the novel, Morris felt unable to sit idly by in bed when he was supposed to recover from being struck in the head. Morris got up long before he was supposed to, to run the store. Times have changed and now Morris lies depressed in bed, dreaming of his childhood and his parents. He has little desire to get up and face the world. Morris even compares the quietness of his grocery downstairs to that of a cemetery, highlighting again his preoccupation with the possibility of death. Morris has survived the ordeal with gas and pneumonia, but he psychologically still seems unprepared to once again embrace the possibilities of life.

Finally though Morris does rise with persistence. He heads to the store and he orders Frank out. This effort shows Morris acting like himself once again. By asking Frank to leave, he is demonstrating his true character. Morris cannot allow Frank, who violated the sacred trust of their relationship, to stay and work in his store. Morris tells Frank to leave and in doing so indicates his own willingness to live.

Evidence of Morris's returned zest for life continues when he decides to go out to get a new job. Unfortunately, this quest is not a success, and Morris returns home cowed by the toughness of the world once again. When looking for a job, Morris finds himself outdated and too slow. First, he works at the supermarket of a business partner who once cheated him. At the end of the day, Morris's register is a dollar short from what it should be, suggesting Morris's inability to keep up with larger store's pace. The newer stores that Morris visits in Manhattan also rely on a speed and formality that Morris cannot master at his age. His return home is melancholy. He stops to see two of his oldest friends, Breitbart, and Al Marcus. His procession to these houses seems almost funereal, as if Morris is paying homage to other old men who have failed and will soon die, or as if Morris is saying good-bye to his friends before going home and dying himself. Al Marcus already is on his way to death, Morris finds, having been taken to the hospital after a long struggle with terminal cancer. Breitbart is not home. Morris, with characteristic goodness, leaves Breitbart's son two quarters. But still the melancholy tone of Morris's return home suggests his death to come.

The sequence of the old man who wants to burn Morris's house down is one of the more surprising sections of the novel and one that evokes the tradition of Yiddish folklore rather than realistic American fiction. This arsonist fits in the realm of Yiddish folklore because it does not seem possible that he is real. He appears out of nowhere in Morris's grocery in the middle of the night when the store is shut. He has red hands and hair and a long dark coat, with black hat. His clothes and his means of arrival suggest that he arrived like an evil demon from a folkloric hell, rather than from the streets of Brooklyn. His presence evokes the tradition of Yiddish folklore that underscores Morris and Ida Bober's ethnic background. At the same time, the character is a humorous one. He speaks in a ridiculous accent that provides a comic effect. The entire episode evokes a fantastic element that lightens the otherwise serious mood that exists as Morris and his grocery fail. Malamud's tendency to place a comic figure in one of the bleakest scenes again highlights his reliance upon the Yiddish style of irony that places both comedy and tragedy side by side.

Morris's attempt to actually burn down his house seems inconsistent with his previous morality. Still, while Morris may want to burn his house down, his good conscience with not let him. As soon as the fire starts, he tries to put it out. Morris's inability to follow through with an evil act demonstrates the way the goodness has permeated throughout his soul. Ironically, while Morris may be trying to do evil, Frank Alpine is increasingly successful in doing good. To some extent, Frank and Morris seem to have changed places. The strong, good Morris longs for deceitful action, but the deceitful Frank does moral deeds. Frank's willingness to finally confess his role in the robbery is a good deed, rewarded by Frank's hearing the singing of birds, a clear sign of Saint Francis of Assisi. Frank's character is becoming more like Morris as he embraces the grocer's teachings. Morris, unfortunately, seems to be resigning his firm grip on life.