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The Assistant [1957]
Seminar Handout, in collaboration with Martina Preis & Sofie Schulz

Section Index

  1. Short Biography
  3. Central Characters
  4. Style
  5. Thematic Issues
  6. Points for Discussion
  7. Bibliography

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1. Short Biography

Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud, American novelist and short-story writer, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and educated at the City College of New York and Columbia University. From 1961 he taught at Bennington College. Although his first novel, The Natural (1952), is a fantasy about a star baseball player, most of Malamud's writing - as in his second novel, The Assistant (1957) - is concerned with Jewish themes and reflects the sad, impoverished Brooklyn scenes of his childhood. The Fixer (1966), for which Malamud received a Pulitzer Prize, is a poignant novel (based on a true story) of the suffering of a Russian Jewish workman sentenced unjustly to prison; it is thus an allegory of the Holocaust. Like The Tenants (1971), which deals with inner-city tensions, it demonstrates how human beings can come through suffering to an affirmative view of life. Later novels are Dubin's Lives (1979), about a writer of biographies, and God's Grace (1982). Malamud's short stories mix an abiding compassion for Jewish life with subtle touches of wry humor. The works have been collected in The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), and Rembrandt's Hat (1971); a complete collection, The Stories of Bernard Malamud, was published in 1983. Pictures of Fidelman (1969) is a series of largely satirical stories about an unsuccessful Jewish artist.

(source: Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia 1995)


2.1. Morris / The Store


" [Morris:] 'For what I worked so hard for? Where is my youth, where did it go?' The years had passed without profit or pity. Who could he blame? What fate didn't do to him he had done to himself. The right thing was to make the right choice but he made the wrong. Even when it was right it was wrong. To understand why, you needed an education but he had none. All he knew was he wanted better but had not after all these years learned how to get it. Luck was a gift. Karp had it [..] Life was meager, the world changed for the worse. America had become too complicated. One man counted for nothing. There were too many stores, depressions, anxieties. What had he escaped to here?" [Malamud 249]

(The Store)

"In a store you were intombed. / A store is a prison." [Malamud 4/37]


"I gave away my life for nothing. It was the thunderous truth." [Malamud 273]


"The boss of the agency, a man with a broad back and a fat rear, holding a dead cigar butt between stubby fingers, had his heavy foot on a chair as he talked in a low voice to two gray-hatted Filipinos. Seeing Morris on the bench he called out, 'Whaddye want, pop?' 'Nothing. I sit on account I am tired.' 'Go home,' said the boss. He went downstairs and had coffee at a dish-laden table in the Automat. America." [Malamud 106f]


"For some reason that was not clear to him Karp liked Morris to like him." [Malamud 181]

2.2. Suffering / Jewishness

(Being a Jew)

"What kind of a man did you have to be born to shut yourself up in an overgrown coffin and never once during the day, so help you, outside of going for your Yiddish newspaper, poke your beak out of the door for say a snootful of air? The answer wasn't hard to say --- you had to be a Jew. They were born prisoners. That was what Morris was, with his deadly patience, or endurance, or whatever the hell it was" [Malamud 102f]

(Jewish Law)

"What I worry is to follow the Jewish Law [..] This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people. Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. We ain't animals. This is why we need the Law. This is what a Jew believes." [Malamud 149f]

(Suffer for Whom)

"[Morris:] 'If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don't suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.' 'What do you suffer for, Morris?' Frank said. 'I suffer for you,' Morris said calmly. [..] 'What do you mean?' 'I mean you suffer for me'" [Malamud 150]

(Morris' Jewishness)

"When a Jew dies, who asks if he is a Jew? He is a Jew, we don't ask. There are many ways to be a Jew. So if somebody comes to me and says, 'Rabbi, shall we call such a man Jewish who lived and worked among the gentiles and sold them pig meat, trayfe, that we don't eat it, and not once in twenty years comes inside a synagogue, is such a man a Jew, Rabbi?' To him I will say, 'Yes, Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with the Jewish heart.' Maybe not to our formal tradition --- for this I don't excuse him --- but he was true to the spirit of our life --- to want for others that which he wants also for himself. He followed the Law which God gave to Moses on Sinai and told him to bring to the people. He suffered, he endured, but with hope." [Malamud 276f]

(Prison Motif)

"Perhaps I use this metaphor [prison motif] for the dilemma of all men: necessity, whose bars 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, in other words. A man has to construct, invent his freedom. Imagination helps. A truly great man or woman extends it for others in the process of creating his/her own." [Bernard Malamud, quoted from: Daniel Stern. "The Art of Fiction: Bernard Malamud." Paris Review Ib (Spring 1975), 56. in: Abramson 30]

2.3. Frank & Helen

(Frank's Guilt)

"He felt very bad. He wanted her but the facts made a terrible construction. They were Jews and he was not, [..] He had nothing, a backbreaking past, had committed a crime against her old man, and in spite of his touchy conscience, was stealing from him too. How complicated could impossible get? [...] So the confession had to come first --- this stuck like a bone through the neck." [Malamud 106f]

(Masks & Pretentions)

"He was not the kind of man she wanted to be in love with. She made that very clear to herself, for among his other disadvantages there was something about him, evasive, hidden. He sometimes appeared to be more than he was, sometimes less. His aspirations, she sensed, were somehow apart from the self he presented normally when he wasn't trying, though he was always more or less trying; therefore when he was trying less. She could not quite explain this to herself, for if he could make himself seem better, broader, wiser when he tried, then he had these things in him because you couldn't make them out of nothing. There was more to him than his appearance. Still, he hid what he had and he hid what he hadn't. With one hand the magician showed his cards, with the other he turned them into smoke. At the very minute he was revealing himself, saying who he was, he made you wonder if it was true. You looked into mirrors and saw mirrors and didn't know what was right or real or important. She had gradually got the feeling that he only pretended to be frank about himself, that in telling so much about his experiences, his trick was to hide his true self. Maybe not purposely --- maybe he had no idea he was doing it." [Malamud 145f]

(His Change)

"The stranger had changed, grown unstrange. That was the clue to what was happening to her [..] If he was hiding anything, she thought, it was his past pain, his orphanhood and consequent suffering. [..] She felt she had changed him and this affected her." [Malamud 157]


"Was it more important to insist a man's religious beliefs be exactly hers (if it was a question of religion), or that the two of them have in common ideals, a desire to keep love in their lives, and to preserve in every possible way what was best in themselves?" [Malamud 160]


"He just wanted to run. But while he was running, he wanted to be back. He wanted to be back with Helen, to be forgiven. It wasn't asking too much. People forgave people --- who else? He could explain if she would listen. Explaining was a way of getting close to somebody you had hurt; as if in hurting them you were giving them a reason to love you. [..] Oh, Jesus, what did I do? He moaned; had got instead of a happy ending, a bad smell. If he could root out what he had done, smash and destroy it; but it was done, beyond him to undo. It was where he could never lay hands on it any more --- in his stinking mind. His thoughts would forever suffocate him. He had failed once too often. He should somewhere have stopped and changed the way he was going, his luck, himself, stopped hating the world, got a decent education, a job, a nice girl. He had lived without will, betrayed every good intention." [Malamud 210f]


"The wrong he had done her was never out of his mind. He hadn't intended wrong but he had done it; now he intended right. He would do anything she wanted, and if she wanted nothing he would do something, what he should do; and he would do it all on his own will, nobody pushing him but himself. He would do it with discipline and with love." [Malamud 106f]


"To keep from getting nervous he took out a book he was reading. It was the Bible and he sometimes thought there were parts of it he could have written himself." [Malamud 296]

(The End)

"One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew." [Malamud 297]

2.4. Buddhism / Hinduism

(Suffering: Buddhism)

"Früher und heute, Mönche, lehre ich nur eins: Das Leiden und des Leidens Aufhebung." [Majjhimanikaya 22 I. quoted from: Schumann 115]

(Suffering/Equanimity: Hinduism)

"[..] Das unbeständige Erscheinen von Glück und Leid und ihr Verschwinden im Laufe der Zeit gleichen dem Kommen und Gehen von Sommer und Winter. Sie entstehen durch Sinneswahrnehmung [..], und man muß lernen, sie zu dulden, ohne sich verwirren zu lassen. / [..] Wer sich durch Glück und Leid nicht stören läßt, sondern in beidem stetig ist, eignet sich gewiß dazu, Befreiung zu erlangen." [Bhagavad-Gita 2.15-2.16]

2.4. Judeo-Christian Belief


"For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgement of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God's covenant; but you, by the judgement of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance." [2~Maccabees 7,32-36]


"And the Lord said to Satan, 'have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?' Then Satan answered the Lord, 'Does Job fear God for nought? Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.' And the Lord said to Satan, 'Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.'" [Job 1,9-12]

(Yoke upon Man)

"Much labor was created for every man, and a heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day they come forth from their mother's womb till the day they return to the mother of all." [Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 40,1]


"When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 'For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live." [Ezekiel 18,26-32]


"The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know thy name put their trust in thee, for thou, O Lord, hast not forsaken those who seek thee. / The Lod is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake." [Psalms 9,9-10 / 23,1-3]


"Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked; and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned." [Psalm 34,19-22]


"For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you are right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval." [1 Peter 2,19-20]

3. Central Characters

Both Frank Alpine and Morris Bober are the protagonists of the story. In the following, some remarks will be made on the central characters of this novel.

3.1. Frank Alpine

  • Frank is not sure about his place in the world, but somehow he comes to feel it is with this Morris Bober. At first he stays there because of feeling guilty for the holdup, but then he gets in contact with Helen and thus has an additional motive for staying. Although the things he does are not always thought through nor good, he nevertheless means well and has to fight his inner conflict. He has to synchronize his thoughts with his actions --- and he often has to learn it the hard way.

  • Throughout the story, Frank transforms into a good guy and experiences all possible stages of joy and suffering, hope and desperation. He is tried and tempted, but at the end he prevails. So is Morris. It is a story shaped somehow after the Book of Job.

  • Although he knows about the ethic value or non-value of his deeds, he still is confused about what emotions they start within him ("curious pleasure" [Malamud 82])

  • Frank is an assistant in three ways: firstly, for Ward Minogue (to take part in the holdup), second, to Morris, and third, to Ida and Helen.

  • Frank could be seen as an anti-hero as he lacks some combination of traditional virtues and is often inept, cowardly, ignorant and dishonest. But Malamud creates greatness from and within him where none would be supposed to exist, thus he evokes the sympathy of the readers.

3.2. Morris Bober

  • Morris Bober is a Jewish shopkeeper, his grocery story being at the brink of financial catastrophy. He is an old man, the grocery business has been his life. He rarely gets out of his house and store; this is his private little universe. To the neighbors he has little or no contact, he sees the other shopkeepers around him as concurring with him and tries to avoid contact. The closest thing to a friend and an enemy he has is Louis Karp, who owns a liquor store right beside his. He thinks Karp has ruined his life, he wishes him to eperience his, Morris', own misery --- but still somehow, on a deeper level, cares for him, while he also despises him.

  • Morris is a very decent person, his calmness and inner peace being the only things which let him survive. He endures all the misery which befalls him, the poverty and the desperation around him do not change his steadfastness and honesty. He is a true mensch.

  • While Morris sees his store as a tomb, he also cares for it and wouldn't really want to miss it. The chances he might have had to change his life he let pass --- he let them pass because he wanted them to pass. This shop is his destiny, it is a microcosm. No further truth is needed for him.

  • Morris' character can best be understood by how he reacts to the events and persons around him. He willingly provides Frank Alpine with food, shelter and work; and even when he eventually understands Frank's past, he doesn't give him up. Only when he discovers that Frank is stealing, he fires him. He does so less because of rage but because of disappointment. Frank seems to be kind of a pet project of his, he tries to transform him into a good guy, or rather he wants to cultivate the good within his assistant.

  • As much as Frank is Morris' assistant, Morris assists Frank as well --- he provides him with a kind of spiritual guidance, he is assisting him in matters of humanity. This he doesn't do in obvious ways but through his living example.

  • Morris dies after having shoveled away the snow in front of the store. But he dies with an inner happiness, all his problems having faded away in an instant after Karp's offer to buy his store. As he doesn't come to know the opposite, he dies a happy and rich man. He has prevailed against the forces of darkness, his suffering had not been in vain.

3.3. Helen Bober

  • Helen is lonely, and she is lost. The boyfriends she has had have all been a disappointment, she wouldn't settle for less and so she waits. Frank then is different from the others --- he actually does something for her while others just talk. The moment she realizes that it is his night-time job, which he has taken in addition to his work in the store, that finances both the store and their living, she knows he is much better than she suspected before.

  • Helen is trapped within the restrictions of her family ties and her being Jewish. This trap however enables her to sharpen her senses, to be more careful with selecting a future mate --- she also shows her loyalty to the family not because of tradition but because she wants to. She is good-hearted though a little bit stubborn, which Frank has to get to know in quite some detail.

3.4. Ida Bober

  • Morris' wife has quite an emancipated position in the family. She might not go out for work, but she is able to run the store. Her husband wouldn't hinder her from helping him except when he thinks it would be too strenuous for her. But she generally has a very strong influence on Morris, but not with Frank. But as soon as Morris is unable to work, she does the same Morris would have done --- she relies on Frank.

  • But Ida also reflects a fearful approach to the new world of one who has never become able to become a part of it --- her fear has made her a confirmed materialist and has take on the corrupt values of the American world, for instance as she pushes Helen towards Nat. She also has quite a narrow view of Jewishness.

3.5. Julius Karp

  • Karp is one of Malamud's "reality instructors" --- he lectures Morris about worldly things although Morris despises his doing so. There is, however, something about Morris which Karp admires --- he recognizes the fundamental morality behind the much more superficial financial failure.

  • Karp is Morris' antagonist --- he always seems to be lucky, even when his store burns. But unlike Morris, he is a secular man, the destruction of his store via Ward Minogue being full of irony.

3.6. Ward Minogue

  • Ward Minogue, the bad guy of the story, acts as a catalyst to bring Frank to Morris. After that he remains an ongoing, a latent threat as he tries to blackmail Frank. But he cannot withstand his own evil self --- he is being destroyed by it, he breaks while his victims don't.

4. Style

  • Malamud uses a simple, transparent, easily accessible language. But this is just a mask, he might write in a common style for common men, but occasionally he lets certain stylistic elements shine through which sort of elevate the novel on a much higher level. What once seemed simple then gets infinitely complex.

  • The novel has no obvious partition into chapters.

  • There are some German-origined words in the text, illustrating the Jiddish background of the family: "he felt every schmerz" [Malamud 5], "Vey is mir" [280], "Italyener" [6], or words mimicking other ethnic backgrounds: "Polisheh" [36], "holdupniks" [27]

  • Malamud makes use of a laconic style and anti-climaxes, e.g.:

    "Was the snow still falling?" [Malamud 273]

    "But on the way he met Ward Minogue. His face was yellow and shrunken, as if he had escaped out of a morgue. 'I been looking for you,' said Ward. He pulled Frank's revolver out of a paper bag. 'How much is this worth to you?' 'Shit.' 'I'm sick,' sobbed Ward. Frank gave the three bucks to him and later dropped the gun into a sewer." [Malamud 231],\\ in which the above mentioned threat is being erased in the most casual and sarcastic manner, further concluded in the next quote:

    "Ward, lit like a flaming tree, flailed at himself. Screaming, he ran through the back and tried to get out of the window but was caught between the bars and, exhausted, died." [Malamud 231]

  • His casual style often illustrate simple facts, like after things changing in the store, illustrating a change of Frank's attitudes as well as a change of actual conditions, a realization: "his place" [Malamud 231]

  • He is also leaping forth and back in time, thus focussing on the event and making the reader hesitate for a moment; this device is used when something important happenes: "Saturday night, about one A.M., Karp's store began to burn. In the early evening, Ward Minogue ..." [Malamud 258]

5. Thematic Issues

  • Suffering and endurance are central themes within the novel. It is through suffering Malamud believes human beings may develop morally, which also is being underlined by religion (see the specific quotes). Allusions to Dostoyevski further illustrate that through suffering, redemption can be achieved. Also, the novel seems to be inspired by the story of Job, which is carried mostly by the issues of suffering, redemption, atonement, temptation, trial, hope, questioning and deliverance. Frank then learns to link suffering and love. The important aspect is to take this uncomfortable but unavoidable condition of life and turn it into something positive, but into something morally. So Morris adds, "I suffer for you" [Malamud 150]

  • Failure is another critical issue --- the central irony lies in the fact that Morris considers himself a failure. He wishes that America were the sort of place where morality could lead to practical success. But where Morris fails is just the secular world --- his Jewishness and his morality remain intact, thanks also to Frank. The values of Jewishness and modern America are contrasted against each other. It is shown that honesty and integrity do not lead to success in America, where money confers a status beyond material wealth. Even those close to him see him as a failure in a certain respect because he must live a lesser life in material terms.

  • Jewishness is being defined in a broader way, deprived of all external traditions it is being reduced to its religious and ethical core. Morris does value the Jewish Law, the Law of God, while the secular law, which others would adore, makes people like Karp and Nat Pearl spiritually and morally empty, and it destroys people like Ward Minogue.

  • The issue which is recurring throughout the entire book is that of imprisonment in this little grocery store. But instead of fleeing it, Frank remains in this prison, having realized that imprisonment is necessary if he is to achieve his moral and spiritual ambitions.

  • Morris is a victim of society because he doesn't agree about systems of power, instead he lives for charity and brotherly love.

6. Further Points for Discussion

  • how to define the novel --- love story, city novel, Jewish novel, ?

  • The Assistant as a city novel (ethnic diversity, vicinity, other shops, isolation; big city -- small range)

  • Why is a Jewish author supposed to be writing about Jewishness? What relevance does a category like that of Jewish-American literature have, where is it applicable and where not?

  • the shop as a microcosmos / "There is no more truth out there than in the world I created for you, the same lies, the same deceit." (The Truman Show. Peter Weir, 1998)

  • Why stay in the store? (endurance / inertia / fate ?)

  • What does it mean to be a Jew, how is Jewishness being constructed?

  • Similarities / differences to other religions (Christianity, Buddhism)

  • living an exemplary life

7. Bibliography

  • Edward A. Abramson. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers 1993
  • Bernard Malamud. The Assistant. New York: Avon Books 1980
  • A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Bhagavad-Gita wie sie ist. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International 1987
  • The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition
  • Hans Wolfgang Schumann. Buddhismus. Stifter, Schulen und Systeme. München: Diederichs, 1997
  • American Literature on the Web: Bernard Malamud:

July 5th / 9th, 1999 [HTML Version]

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