The Assistant | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Assistant | Symbols


Milk and Bread

Milk and bread are explicitly mentioned numerous times throughout the novel, and they play an integral role in the plot. These foods symbolize the care Morris has for his neighbors and his role as a provider, which Frank then steps into. Morris sells bread to the people of the neighborhood, and Frank steals milk and bread to live while he is hiding in the Bobers's basement. It is while lifting milk that Morris nearly passes out, necessitating Frank's help. Later, Frank takes Morris's place selling bread and milk to the neighborhood.


When Helen learns Frank is going to go to college, she gives him a set of novels she has enjoyed reading. This gift represents her hope that Frank could become something more than he is currently; she talks about imagining him as a different person, more refined and cultured than he is, when she meets him. The novel also speaks to Helen's desire to escape her own life and imagine a new future for herself. Literature thus represents change, or the desire to change, even if that change is never fully realized.


Flowers appear throughout the novel, both as objects themselves and in descriptions of things. Frank imagines Helen throwing a flower to him, and she throws one on her father's grave. Frank also carves Helen a wooden flower and likens her backside to one. Flowers represent the desire for pure love and people's struggle to achieve it. In his dream of Helen throwing a flower to him, Frank is imagining her giving him her love, which she instead gives to her father after his death. Frank also tries to give her his love with the carved flower, which represents the flawed love he is then trying to offer her.

Questions for Symbols

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