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The Assistant | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Assistant | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Robbery

Morris Bober and his family own a Brooklyn grocery store, which has been struggling in the face of increasing competition from a new neighborhood store. One day, late in the afternoon, Morris is held up at gunpoint by two robbers, one of whom assaults him and knocks him unconscious. Morris takes a week to recover from the attack, but on his first day back, he nearly passes out. He is caught by Frank Alpine, a young man who says he is looking for work. When Morris cannot offer him a job, Frank starts helping out for free until Morris becomes uncomfortable with him doing so and asks him to stop coming to the store.

Soon after, however, Morris notices that bread and milk are being stolen. He then finds Frank living in the basement, and Frank admits to being the one stealing the food. The two men reach an agreement; Frank can stay in the basement in exchange for working in the store. Although Ida, Morris's wife, does not agree with the Italian Frank working in their store because he is not Jewish, Frank works hard and makes clear that he can bring a lot to the shop.

Frank and Helen

Frank and Morris get along well, and the two talk about Judaism while working together. But Frank feels guilty about his role in the robbery and considers telling Morris everything. He also considers telling Morris's daughter Helen, to whom he is becoming more and more attracted, despite Ida's efforts to keep the two apart. When they finally have a chance to talk to each other alone after running into each other at the public library, Helen starts to reciprocate Frank's feelings for her, despite conflicts in their growing relationship.

As Frank and Morris talk more about Judaism, Morris starts to think Frank might be interested in Helen, something Ida has been concerned about for some time. Ida had followed Helen and saw her with Frank at one point, despite her efforts to keep the two separated. Morris is approached one day by Julius Karp, the owner of a nearby liquor store, to see about matching Helen with his son Louis. Morris is unsure, but the same day he catches Frank taking a dollar out of the register ahead of a date with Helen. Morris is unaware that Frank has been stealing from the register for some time. Before taking the dollar out of the drawer, Frank had put back seven he had taken earlier. Morris tells Frank to leave and tries to give him his final wages, but Frank refuses the money and leaves to meet Helen.

When Frank arrives at the park where they arranged to meet, he sees Helen being attacked by Ward Minogue. Frank is able to save her, but immediately after saving her from Ward, he rapes her. She curses him afterwards, marking the end of their relationship. Meanwhile, at the store, Morris goes up to their apartment to take a nap but accidentally leaves the gas to the radiator running, nearly killing himself. Morris has to stay in the hospital to recover, and during that time Frank runs the store, which is losing money to the newer grocery store owned by a Norwegian family. Frank starts putting his own money into the grocery store, something no one is aware of until Morris recovers and tells Frank to leave. Before he does, Frank admits that he was one of the robbers, but Morris tells Frank that he knew.

The Death of Morris

Not long after Frank leaves, Morris and Ida start trying to sell the store. They had tried previously but had turned down an offer. Now, their only potential buyer is not impressed with it, and he declines to purchase it. Morris is then approached by a man who offers to burn the building down so Morris can collect the insurance money. He explains that he uses cellophane, which burns up and cannot be traced. Morris says no, but later on he tries it himself. In the process, he sets himself on fire and is only saved because Frank turns up in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, Ward Minogue gets into a fight with his abusive father, Detective Minogue, who has been investigating the robbery at the Bobers's shop. After the fight, Ward breaks into the Karp liquor store, which is closed at the time, and gets drunk before starting a fire in the building. He is unable to escape because of the locked front door, and he dies while people watch the building burn. Morris reflects that, while he is the one who wanted to burn his building down, Karp is the one who had it happen and will now get the insurance money. But Karp approaches Bober and offers to buy the building their shop is in. The Bobers are thrilled, and Morris decides to shovel snow without a coat in his excitement. After doing so, he catches pneumonia, which eventually kills him. After the funeral, Ida and Helen learn that Karp has had a heart attack and, as a result, will be retiring rather than buying their building.

In Morris's absence, Frank steps in once more. He starts running the store, putting his own money into it, and eventually getting a second job to support Ida and Helen. During this time, Helen comes to terms with what happened to her at Frank's hand and reflects on the good he is doing for her family. Over time, Frank takes on the role Morris played in the neighborhood—feeding the same people, helping out in the same ways—and converts to Judaism.

The Assistant Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 The Bobers's grocery store is robbed.

Rising Action

2 Frank arrives and starts helping out as Morris recovers.

3 Morris offers Frank a job, and the two begin bonding.

4 Frank falls in love with Helen.


5 Frank is caught stealing and rapes Helen.

Falling Action

6 Morris catches pneumonia and passes away.


7 Frank converts to Judaism.

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