The Assistant: Character Analysis
The Assistant is a novel written by Bernard Malamud. It is a story set during the Depression. This story involves several key characters. The two protagonists are Frank Alpine, a drifter, and Morris Bober, a Jewish grocery store clerk. Morris’ wife Ida and daughter Helen are also heavily involved in the story.
Frank Alpine is the protagonist of The Assistant. He is a typical Malamud character. Frank is real and memorable. Malamud knows this character well, like he knows all his characters, and he keeps them free of theatrics and sentimentality. These qualities add to the character’s sense of realism and simplicity.
Frank is looking for a new life and finds it on the East Coast. It is there where he becomes a criminal. Frank and his friend Ward Minogue break into a grocery store, attack the aged clerk, and rob him. This is where we find Frank at the novel’s opening. He is not a good person, he is a criminal; but he feels guilty about his short life as a criminal. Frank wants atonement for his sin and he feels the only way to achieve it is to work for the man he robbed.
Morris Bober, the clerk, finds Frank living in his basement. Frank has been stealing milk and rolls for sustenance. Morris gives Frank a job as his assistant, which starts Frank’s character growth. He does not become a good person right away. Frank steals from the register and even watched Morris’ daughter, Helen, take off her clothes in the bathroom. However, character change takes time and Frank is willing to do what he must to change. Living with an honest Jewish family is a great influence on him. He works hard in the store when Morris is not feeling well.
Frank Alpine defeats himself after he has gained so much. One night Frank and Helen meet in the park. Helen is early and finds herself confronted by a rapist. Fortunately, Frank arrives in time to fight off the attacker but he ruins things for himself by picking up where the rapist left off. Again Frank seeks atonement for his sin. Morris has passed away and Frank sacrifices himself for the Bobers. He takes over all the responsibilities of the store and works off his sins against the family.
Frank could be seen as anything but a hero. He lacks the virtues that a hero should have and instead has virtues of a villain like cowardice, ignorance and, dishonesty. Malamud dispels this image by creating greatness from within Frank. He evokes sympathy from the readers and succeeds in creating a hero in Frank.
Morris Bober is the other protagonist in The Assistant. He is a Jewish shopkeeper, an old man, and a good man. The grocery business is his life; he rarely leaves the store. Morris is a decent man. His calmness and inner peace are his only qualities that let him survive. He endures all the misery that befalls him. The poverty and the desperation around him do not change his steadfastness and honesty.
The grocery store is Morris’ destiny. He could have sold it but he let that opportunity slip away. Any opportunity for change he let slip away. He let them pass because he wanted them to pass. Morris sees the store as his tomb but he cares for it and would not want to miss it.
The best way to understand Morris’ character is by observing how he reacts to the people and events around him. When he finds Frank in the basement, he willingly gives Frank food and shelter. When Morris begins to understand what kind of person Frank really is, Morris doesn’t give up on him. Instead, he tries to transform Frank into a better person. He tries to bring out the good in Frank that he knows is there. Morris fires Frank when he finds out Frank was stealing from him. He doesn’t do this out of anger, but out of disappointment. Morris helps Frank more than he knows. He offers Frank spiritual guidance and assistance on matters of humanity. Morris does this with subtlety, so much so that he doesn’t even realize that he is doing it. Morris is a living example of honesty and goodness.
Morris dies shortly after firing Frank. Against his wife’s will Morris shovels the sidewalk in front of the store. He dies with an inner peace and happiness. Karp, the liquor storeowner next door, offers to buy the grocery store. Morris is happy and financially well off because of this. He has prevailed against the forces of darkness and his suffering has not been in vain.
Helen is the daughter of Morris. She is attractive and instantly catches the eye of Frank, much to the dismay of Ida. She is a lonely person and doesn’t know what she wants for herself. She is trapped in her situation because her family does not have the money to give her more than they have. She is a good-hearted person and a bit stubborn.
Helen’s past boyfriends have all been disappointments. Instead of doing anything for her, they have either taken from her or just did nothing but talk. Helen did not want to settle for any of these people, she wanted much better for herself. So she waited. Her senses have been sharpened because of these past boyfriends and she is careful when it comes to selecting a future mate. At first she feels Frank is the same way the other boys, but then she realizes he is different. He sacrifices his evenings to work a second job. Frank uses this extra income to put money back into the store. This helps make up for the money he took out of the register, but Helen doesn’t know that.
Frank is different than other people, there is a good person struggling to get out and Helen sees this. This good person does not always come out. When Frank saves her from the rapist, he could have won her for life. Instead, he ruins all future chances with Helen by raping her himself.
Ida Bober is Morris’ wife and Helen’s mother. She has acted as Morris’ assistant in the past when it came to running the store. She is able to run the store, but she let Morris take care of it. Morris would not stop her from helping him unless he thought it was too much for her. She has a very strong influence on Morris, as any wife should.
Ida was against Frank’s presence in the store as soon as he arrived. He was stealing milk and rolls from them. Morris had to lie to Ida and tell her the thief had stopped just so she would stop nagging him. She was against Frank sleeping in the back room of the store. Ida was sure all the merchandise would be gone in the morning, and when it wasn’t she still did not trust him.
Ida tried very hard to keep Helen away from Frank, and she did a good job of it too. She gave Frank dinner before Helen got home in the evening. She let Frank have the nights off so he would not be around when Helen was. But her efforts could only go so far. A determined young male will always find a way to be with the woman he wants. Ida was crushed when she saw Frank and Helen kissing on a door stoop one night.
Malamud did a wonderful job in creating these characters. Frank Alpine is a believable and simple character, even with all his flaws. Everybody has flaws and can relate to him. By following his example we can strive to be good people even in the midst of our sins. Morris is also a simple man. He is a moral and does his best to help out his fellow man. He does not look for rewards for his actions; just knowing he did a good deed is reward enough. Helen has been hurt in the past and those wounds define who she is. She is careful of who she dates in case she would be hurt again. Ida is a realistic person, more concerned with the well being of her family than doing the right thing. She is a good wife and mother. Malamud used the right characters in telling his story, The Assistant.