The Assistant | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Assistant | Context


Mid-Century Immigrant Communities

In turn-of-the-century and mid-century cities across the country, communities of immigrants tended to cluster together out of a desire for camaraderie and safety from anti-immigrant sentiment. These communities provided safe places in which strong bonds were formed, but with them came animosity to other immigrant communities. Sometimes that animosity turned into racism or other violent manifestations of hatred, but most often it simmered below the surface or was expressed through a desire to "close ranks" and exclude outsiders. A great deal of The Assistant's tension is derived from these ethnic differences. Frank Alpine is Italian, which makes the Jewish Bobers hesitant to trust him or let him date their daughter. Ward Minogue, who planned and carried out the robbery of the Bobers's store with Frank, is regularly anti-Semitic and uses derogatory slurs for Frank as well. The Bobers's competition is from a Norwegian-owned store, something the Bobers focus on heavily throughout the story.

Post-World War II Jewish Culture

Much of Malamud's work is focused on the Jewish experience in the United States after World War II. For Malamud, suffering and Judaism went hand in hand, both as a reflection of the experience and loss of the Holocaust and of humankind's fate on Earth. The Bobers represent this focus; they suffer a great deal, and ultimately, their goodness does not protect them from those who want to hurt them. Malamud also explores anti-Semitism, or prejudice against Jews, which was still rife across the country in the years after World War II; the Bobers are routinely verbally attacked with anti-Semitic epithets.

A Changing Economy

The years following World War II were a time of rapid economic growth in the United States, giving birth to consumer culture and new ways of living. This period of time is most associated with the "American dream" of having a family, a house, a car, and economic stability. However, that dream did not include everyone, and Malamud explores the experiences of some who are not part of that economic growth. The Bobers and their neighbors struggle to make ends meet or to climb the socioeconomic ladder, a reminder that the less privileged and successful were also part of the fabric of this time.

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