The Assistant | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Assistant | Themes

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Ethnic Identity

Ethnic identity—and specifically Jewish identity—is a central theme in much of Malamud's work. In The Assistant, ethnic identity is something that both brings people together and separates them. Ida Bober, in particular, is hesitant to welcome Frank Alpine into the shop because he is not Jewish; she is even more upset when she guesses that he and her daughter Helen are beginning a relationship. Their Jewish identity makes the Bobers a target of Ward Minogue, who uses anti-Semitic slurs when talking about them, and the fact that the competing grocery store is owned by a Norwegian family is something the Bobers discuss often. Frank converts to Judaism at the end of the book, having undergone a significant moral transformation. This suggests that, while identity is central to who people are and how they see themselves in the world, people can find ways of belonging in cultural groups that allow them to grow and change with time.

Fathers and Sons

The nature of father-son relationships is a recurring theme throughout the book. Ward Minogue and his father, Detective Minogue, have an abusive and confrontational relationship. Detective Minogue is a cold man, while his son is a cruel criminal. Julius and Louis Karp are also dysfunctional; Julius looks out for his son to the point of Louis being all but useless, lazy, and lacking in work ethic. Morris does not have a son, but Frank fills that role in some ways. Morris has the opportunity to teach Frank about Judaism and morality, and Frank steps up to care for Morris's shop when Morris is unable to do so. These relationships have the power to be transformational when wielded with care, compassion, and thoughtfulness. Yet they can also be harmful.

Atonement

Frank Alpine's primary motivation throughout the novel is his desire to atone for the robbery of the Bober grocery store he took part in. He desperately wants to serve Morris and his family in order to repay them for what he did to them, and in doing so, he considers deeper questions about morality and how to be a good person. However, he also struggles with his impulses; he steals from the register out of a misplaced sense of need and rapes Helen after being caught stealing. His desire to do good is tempered by his lack of self-control. Malamud does not offer a clear answer to the question of whether one is capable of fully being absolved of past wrongdoings. Instead, although Frank's wrongs are still part of his past, Helen starts to see that he can be more than the sum of what he has done to others, offering a complex view of morality and character.

The American Dream

A subtle question that hangs over the novel is that of the American dream. The 1950s, when the novel is set, was a time of rapid economic growth and the development of the so-called American dream—a family, a house, a stable job, a car. These things became synonymous with success, but they were not available to everyone. Morris Bober and his family are an example of those who were not part of the growth of this era; they struggle to make ends meet, particularly in comparison to their neighboring store owners, the Karps.

Prison

Throughout the novel, the Bobers's grocery store is likened to a prison in which they and Frank can become trapped. Although Ida sees the store this way, Morris does not. Frank meets people who warn him against becoming too invested in the store, lest he too become trapped. But the true prison is in the mind; Frank and Morris both understand the service they can provide their neighborhood is vital, and they do not see the store as a cage in which they are forced to live. Instead, it is an outlet for their moral obligation to others.

Questions for Themes

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