Free Study Guide for The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

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Morris Bober starts the morning in his grocery store the same way that he starts every morning. He brings in the bottles of milk and the rolls that have been left by delivery men. Then he waits on an old Polish woman who is his first customer every day. Every day she buys a roll on her way to work. For it she pays three cents. She is the main reason that Morris opens at six o'clock each morning. There are very few other customers at that hour.

Later, the daughter of a local alcoholic comes in requesting credit. Morris allows her to have some credit. Then, he hides the fact from his wife, Ida, who will be down the stairs and into the store later. When she comes down, she will be checking the cash register.

Morris sees his tenant, Nick Fuso, return to his place with a bag from Schmitz's grocery. It seems that all the neighbors are shopping there these days.

Breitbart, the bulb peddler, stops by and Morris prepares, for him, tea with lemon, which he drinks.

Ida comes downstairs to relieve Morris. First, they discuss the hope that someone will buy the store. Julius Karp, who owns the neighboring liquor store, knows someone who might buy it.

Karp is the one who rented to Schmitz the property where the other grocery is now located. This had upset Morris, but Karp had acted as though there was no reason for worry.

The scene changes to the subway and Helen Bober, who is the twenty-three year old daughter of Morris and Ida. She is returning home after a day working at Levenspiel's Louisville Panties and Bras. She is uncomfortable when Nat Pearl talks to her. She has known Nat for years. They grew up together. But things are more complicated now than when they were children. Recently, she slept with Nat, but afterward discovered that he only wanted to have sex, not a more meaningful relationship such as she herself wanted. Her reaction to this discovery was to avoid him whenever possible. Being on the subway together makes this impossible, however. Nat sees that she is reading Don Quixote.

The scene shifts back to Morris as he awakens from his nap and heads downstairs. Helen arrives home and gives her paycheck to her father. Every pay day, Helen gives her paycheck to her parents and receives back only a small amount. Morris, who feels badly about his inability to send Helen to college, offers to let her have more of her paychecks for herself, but she declines.

Karp stops by the store wanting to know if the potential buyer came by. Karp also mentions a car that has driven by repeatedly. Karp is afraid that someone is planning a robbery. Morris is to call the police when he hears Karp's voice. He leaves and later calls Morris, telling him to call the police. But, Morris doesn't get to the phone before two robbers enter his store. Morris tells them that he has no money, but one of the robbers, the one with the gun, calls him a liar and hits him in the face. The other robber gives Morris a cup of water. After they search the store and again ask for money, receiving an unsatisfactory response, the robber with the gun hits Morris a second time. This time, Morris passes out.


The robber who did not hit Morris is the title character, "The Assistant." When he and Morris meet again, Morris will not realize that he was one of the robbers.

There is an admonition to writers that says to write about what you know. That seems to be what the author did in writing this novel. His father, not unlike Morris Bober, was an immigrant and operated a grocery store when the author was young.

Notice that ethnicity is an important part of life within the setting of the story. Notice also that the neighborhood has a wide variety of ethnicities.

Morris and Ida Bober speak English with a sprinkling of Yiddish words, but continue to use Yiddish grammar. This is very helpful in giving their conversations an authentic feel.

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The Assistant by Bernard Malamud - Free Online Study Guide
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