The Assistant | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Assistant | Quotes


God made Karp so a poor grocery man will not forget his life is hard.

Morris Bober, Section 1

Morris Bober's suffering and struggle are central ideas in the book, as is his ability to still be the best man he can be for his family and neighbors. However, he is not unaware of how hard his life is. Here, he sets himself up against his neighbor, Julius Karp, who is more successful. This suggests that Morris's ability to overcome his struggles does not mean he does not recognize his own suffering.


He knew by heart what he would say to the grocer once he got to say it.

Narrator, Section 3

Frank struggles to tell the Bobers about his role in the robbery that left Morris injured. He tells himself often that he will tell them and imagines himself doing so. Yet he is not able to tell them until he has been fired by Morris for stealing. This speaks to the dual impulses in Frank; he wants to do what is right, but he also wants to protect himself over all others.


Her constant fear ... was that her life would not turn out how she had hoped ...

Narrator, Section 4

The Bobers's financial struggles mean that Helen's future is tightly limited. She wants to pursue an education and see more than her own small world, but she also knows her family cannot provide that kind of future for her. Here, the reader sees how deeply she fears the life that lies before her, aligning her with her mother's fatalistic view of the shop as a prison.


If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want.

Morris Bober, Section 4

In this passage, Morris is responding to Frank's suggestion that people who suffer a great deal do so because they want to suffer. Suffering is a central idea in much of Malamud's work, and his outlook is expressed in Morris's response. Life, for Morris and the author, means that suffering is inevitable, and that while suffering is meted out unequally, it has nothing to do with the wants of those who experience it.


She pictured him in nice clothes, ... maybe his nose straightened, speaking a more careful English ...

Narrator, Section 4

Helen begins to have feelings for Frank, but those feelings are wrapped up in who she thinks he could become rather than who he is. She imagines him changed not just intellectually, but physically. This shows both her ambition and her inability to see and accept things for what they are, which speaks to her inability to be happy in the life she has been given.


I suppose I wanted to feel free, so I settled for sex.

Helen Bober, Section 6

Helen is a young woman of ambition who feels hemmed in by her life. However, in the past she had settled for the affection of men over the promise of something more. Here, she speaks to the fact that sex was something she tried to use to fill a longing in herself, the longing to escape her life and be free.


I want you to know I am a good guy in my heart.

Frank Alpine, Section 6

Frank is desperate to be a good man, and here he expresses that desire by saying that despite his actions, he is still a good person. However, he struggles to control his impulses, and his actions often contradict this statement.


I cry for the world. I cry for my life ... I cry for you.

Ida Bober, Section 6

Ida is the opposite of Morris in many ways. While Morris stoically accepts his suffering, Ida hates the store and feels it has trapped her in a life she does not want. When she learns that Helen and Frank are seeing each other, she responds by equating that relationship with the many wrongs that she feels are taking place—in the world, in the way her life played out, and ultimately in how her daughter is behaving.


... since misfortune was the grocer's lot, the stranger would shovel on more, not less ...

Narrator, Section 6

Earlier in the novel, the reader sees Morris's perspective on Julius: the success Julius has had underlines his own suffering. But here, Julius shows his view of Morris, seeing him as a man whom others will take advantage of. The stranger in question is Frank, whom Julius sees as compounding the hardships facing the Bobers.


... he had never borrowed, he had always stolen.

Narrator, Section 6

By this point in the book, Frank has been stealing from the register of the Bobers's store consistently. But it is only now that he sees clearly that while he may have told himself that it was a necessity for which he would atone, he was still stealing. Despite his efforts to make himself a better person after robbing the store, he has in fact been robbing it slowly the entire time he has been there.


Pain was for poor people ... the fire was a tragedy, ... for Ward Minogue, dead young ...

Narrator, Section 8

Morris expresses the gulf he feels between his life and the life of the Karps. Morris sees money as an insulating force against hardship, and those who do not have it are the ones who suffer. The Karps will be fine because of the insurance money and the success of their store, while Morris sees the tenants and Ward, who had robbed him, as being the ones who must bear the burden of tragedy.


If you only knew all the good things I want to give you, Papa.

Helen Bober, Section 7

Confronted by her father's illness, Helen promises that she will be happy in her life. However, she also expresses a desire to give her father more than she has. Before she can explain, however, Morris says that she has already given him a great deal, speaking to the importance of his family and of his appreciation for more than material items.


... Morris, his eyes heavy, said, "This I already know, you don't tell me nothing new."

Morris Bober, Section 7

When Frank finally tells Morris about the robbery, Morris says he already knew. This does not necessarily mean that Morris was aware that Frank was the other young man who robbed him, but rather speaks to Morris's goodness by suggesting that it makes no difference to either what Frank became to Morris or Frank's betrayal by stealing from the register.


... the grocer was the one who had danced on the grocer's coffin

Narrator, Section 9

This is an interesting line that hints at Frank's transition into Morris's role and the complex journey he had to take to get there. During Morris's funeral, Frank falls into the grave; as a result, he emerges from the grave of the man who had become his mentor. Ida and Helen see this as disrespectful, but in this passage, they hear him running the store and do not stop him. Instead, they see him as the grocer, one who is both replacing the one who is gone and who disrespected him in myriad ways.


The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.

Narrator, Section 10

Suffering can take many forms, only one of which is physical pain. Yet in this final line of the book, Frank embraces that form of suffering just as he has the other hardships that he adopted in the wake of Morris's death. The pain of circumcision is something that he feels fully but that he also finds strength in; this is much like Morris, who was aware of his struggles but did not let his sense of suffering define his actions. In this final line, Frank converts to Judaism: the fulfillment of his journey toward becoming more like Morris.

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