Free Study Guide for The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

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At present times are good for the grocery store. Receipts are up. While Morris knows that there are several reasons for this increase, he prefers to attribute it to Frank. If the increase in income continues, Morris plans to give more to Frank. Morris does not wait to see if their good fortune will continue before telling Helen that she can keep more of her salary for herself. But, if the improvement continues, he plans to possibly let her keep her whole salary for herself.

Helen feels that Frank is better than she at first thought he was. Helen's improved impression of Frank comes partly from the situation with the store, but it also comes from seeing him frequently at the library. When they run into each other at the library, they usually return home together, but Frank is not pushy about it. On these walks home, he tells her more about himself. As she hears about all the places he has been, she compares his experiences to that of her father and herself.

When Frank mentions that he will definitely be going to college in the fall, Helen begins to think of ways to help him be prepared for it. She picks out some books for him to read, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina. Frank notices how strongly she feels about the books. He makes an effort to read them, but finds it difficult. Nevertheless, he struggles through them. When she finds out that he has finished the books, Helen suggests that he read more by the same authors. He reads two more, getting the feeling at times that he is reading about himself. This depresses him.

One night Nat calls Helen. But, she is past her interest in him. She puts off seeing him until some later time.

Helen then returns to Frank two gifts that he gave her the previous evening. She had not opened them in front of him. When she had gotten to her room and opened them, she knew that she could not keep them. They were each tied with a red ribbon. There was a long black wool scarf with gold threads in it and a copy of Shakespeare's plays bound in red leather. Helen had known immediately that she could not keep the gifts. Gifts like that come with strings. She did not want to be beholden to him. Frank is upset by her refusal to accept the gifts.

The next morning, Helen finds the gifts in the trash at the curb. She rescues both the gifts. For several days she tries to make contact with him so that she can discuss the discarded gifts with him, but cannot find him. Finally, they meet and she tells him that she rescued the presents and want to give them to him so that he can return them and receive a refund. She knows that Frank will be needing every penny for college in the fall. When he refuses, she asks for the sales receipts so that she can return them. He tells her that he lost the receipts.

Days later, Helen notices Frank feeding pigeons and approaches him, bringing up the subject of the gifts once more. Frank agrees to return one if she will keep one. She will keep the book of Shakespeare if he will return the scarf. After the agreement is reached, they go to a movie. As they are walking toward the movie theater, she thinks of her mother. Then she reminds him that she is Jewish. "So what?" is Frank's response. After saying this, he feels good, as if he has overcome a hurdle.

As Helen knows, her mother is worried about the possibility that her daughter might become interested in Frank. She is worried because he is not Jewish. Ida spies on Frank, trying to find out if they are seeing each other secretly. At first only Ida worries, but, she manages to get Morris worried, too.

Frank and Morris have another of their conversations in which Morris teaches Frank what he knows, like a father conversing with his son. The subject is what it means to be Jewish. Morris says that things like eating kosher are not important. What is important is believing in the Jewish Law. Frank mentions that he has never heard of Morris going to the synagogue and that Ida has said that he keeps the store open on Jewish holidays. Morris inserts that he never is open on Yom Kippur. Frank says that other religions have laws about being honest and being good. He tells Morris that what he would really like to know is why Jews suffer so much.

Soon it is Morris' turn to ask questions. What he wants to know is why Frank is asking these questions. Morris is concerned that Frank's interest in Judaism might be prompted by an interest in Helen. Frank skirts the issue by telling him that once, before he knew Morris, he did not really like Jews.

The following day, Morris goes across the street for a haircut. As he is sitting in the barber's chair, he sees customers leaving the store with bags full of groceries. But, when he returns and checks the register, there is not as much money there as he had expected there to be. The possibility that Frank might be stealing from the cash register makes Morris feel ill. Another customer comes in and Morris learns that the cash register is not broken. Over several days, Morris watches Frank carefully, but does not find any discrepancies. Morris tells Frank that from then until summer, when Frank is to leave, he will give him fifteen dollars per week instead of the five plus commission that he has been receiving. Frank argues against the raise, saying that the business cannot afford it. Morris, who knows that Ida would raise a fuss if she found out about the raise, decides to keep it a secret from her.


Helen's ideas about Frank are mixed and easily changed, but, that is also the way Frank really is. Frank is one minute good, one minute not so good. Helen's opinion of Frank is one minute good, one minute not so good.

If you have not read the three books that Helen recommends to Frank, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, you can find reviews of them at the Pink Monkey web site. A review of Don Quixote, the book Nat noticed Helen reading on the subway in the first chapter, and The Idiot, which Helen mentioned that she was reading in the fourth chapter, are also available there.

Notice the frequent mention of the color red. In the fourth chapter, Helen has a red scarf. In this chapter, the ribbons on Frank's gifts to Helen are red as well as the leather cover on the book of plays by Shakespeare. Later in the story, there will be more mentions of the color red.

In the second chapter, Frank told Morris that he always liked Jews (p. 43). In this chapter, he tells Morris that, in the past, he “didn’t have much use for the Jews” (p. 151).

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