Free Study Guide for The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

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In many of Bernard Malamud's stories we find the theme of a struggle by an unworldly fool to survive in a world ruled by worldly "wise" men and their rules. This is one of those stories. Julius Karp and Charlie Sobeloff are successful because they are worldly "wise" men. Morris Bober is the unworldly fool.

The struggle toward the realization of what one can be

The Assistant shows Morris Bober as a good example of what one can be. Frank is not like him in the beginning, although he does have a desire to be like him, a necessary preliminary condition. Frank has been deeply influenced in the past by stories about Saint Francis that he first heard in the orphanage in which he once lived. When this man, Frank, with these ideals finds someone, Morris, who actually lives according to them, he is attracted to him. Through much effort, Frank, by the end of the novel, succeeds in becoming like Morris.

The variations in father-son relationships

Woven through the story are the tales of three father-son relationships, beside the relationship of Morris and Frank, which is like the relationship of a father and his adopted son.

Sam Pearl with his son, Nat, is one father-son relationship. Sam, like Morris, is an immigrant shopkeeper. Nat is studying law and will become a lawyer, the professional son of an immigrant shopkeeper, a success, someone of whom his father can be proud. He can be labeled the "wise son."

Julius Karp with his son, Louis, is another father-son relationship within the story. Julius is also an immigrant shopkeeper, a very successful owner of a liquor store. Louis is content to live off of his father's success, working in his father's store and declining the opportunity to take over the successful store when his father becomes incapacitated. He chooses, instead, to work for someone else. He can be labeled the "lazy son."

Detective Minogue with his son, Ward, is the third father-son relationship within the story. Detective Minogue is firmly on the side of law and order, and is unable to accept his son's way of life, that of a petty hoodlum. Ward can be labeled the "wicked son."

Morris had a son in the past who died. His name was Ephraim. The death had a profound impact on Morris. He continues to think about Ephraim. But, in this story, Morris acquires an unofficial adopted son, who is Frank. Frank takes on the role of son by listening to Morris and accepting what he tells him. Morris not only teaches Frank how to be a grocer, but also teaches him how to live and what is really important.

The contrast between attainment of the American Dream and success

The story has characters, Julius Karp and Charlie Sobeloff, who attain the American Dream. They are, according to the criteria they themselves use to determine success, successful. But, the reader is led to question whether their form of success is true success.

The reader comes away from reading this story thinking that it is the Morris Bobers of the world who are the real successes.


Bernard Malamud is, at times, labeled a Jewish writer. He is Jewish and he is a writer. But, he is more than a Jewish writer. While he always remembered that he was Jewish, he likewise always knew that he belonged to the whole family of man. He wrote with that knowledge.


The rising action occurs between the first chapter and the sixth chapter. In these chapters Frank becomes close to Morris and to Helen. He helps run the store while Morris is laid up. He asks very little in return, although he does take a few dollars with the plan to repay it. Frank worries about telling Morris about his part in the robbery. He watches Helen, both through the store window and by spying on her as she disrobes for her bath. He gets to know her on walks from the library.

Morris suspects that Frank is stealing from him, but cannot be sure. Then he decides that, if Frank is stealing, it is because he doesn't pay him enough. He decides to pay Frank more.


The falling action takes place between the climax and the outcome, between the rape of Helen and the point at which Frank becomes good. An important point in the falling action is the death of Morris Bober. A final important point is when, after one final period of being bad, a moment of final suspense, Frank becomes good. This is when Frank finally quits peeking at Helen in the bathroom and when he quits cheating the customers.


The Assistant is written from a limited omniscient point of view. This allows the reader to understand what is going on in the minds of some of the characters.


The genre of this writing is novel, adult fiction.

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