Places: The Assistant

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedGrocery store

Grocery Assistant, Thestore. Morris Bober’s family store in Manhattan. As an economic and social barrier, the store resembles a bit of European ghetto transported to New York, though it could be located in any large city in which European refugees gather. Having escaped Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Morris has nevertheless contrived a prison of his own making, one which threatens to kill the spirit of his wife, Ida, and his daughter, Helen. Poverty ceaselessly grinds them down. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. Morris crawls out of bed to give the “Polish woman” her three-cent roll, even though she threatens to spit out anti-Semitic insults at him. For hours thereafter, no customer is likely to come into the store. Most of his customers have deserted him for “the German,” who has opened a fancy delicatessen around the corner. When the German becomes ill, his business is bought and refurbished by Norwegians–more Nordic types–and Morris’s misery continues. At the end of the day, the cash register seldom holds enough money to pay the day’s expenses. Only Helen’s paycheck as a secretary keeps the family going.

In this scene of suffering, the street person Frank Alpine makes his appearance. In an apparent example of gross black comedy, Morris’s store is the one that Frank and a companion choose to rob. After being bumped on the head, Morris fails to recognize Frank in the holdup. However, something about the store and Morris’s dignified suffering fascinates Frank, something beyond his immediate needs. He later breaks his way into the store’s cellar and takes up residence there, stealing from the milk and rolls left in the morning. During Morris’s illness, he insinuates himself into the store as an unpaid “assistant.” Even though he continues to steal from the cash register, the store’s income rises slightly because of his energy and new ideas. However, the honesty, patience, and kindness that Morris embodies in his store work upon Frank, who determines to stop his pilfering of the cash register and confess his part in the holdup in order to make himself worthy of the love of Helen. When Morris finally succumbs to his final illness, Frank is there to sell the business and to claim Helen’s hand. Throughout, the image of the grocery is closely tied to the moral action of the story.


*Manhattan. New York City borough in which the story is set; a place notable for its distinct neighborhoods and famous landmarks. However, given the specificity with which the grocery store is described, it is odd that readers are not told exactly where the store is. Is it uptown or downtown, East Side or West Side? Readers are told that the grocery is in a “mixed neighborhood” and that only three Jewish families live on its block; otherwise, readers must drift in a strange placelessness. This mood seems appropriate to the obsessions of the characters, who recognize little beyond their immediate circumstances.

Library and park

Library and park. In the sense of abstract placelessness in which the grocery exists, two locations are especially important and can be accurately called symbols. The library, where Frank and Helen escape to meet each other, represents the desire of both to reach out and to make something of themselves. The park as well is a place where they can temporarily experience the freedom they cherish, and their love can flourish.

Suggested ReadingsAlter, Isaka. “The Good Man’s Dilemma: The Natural, The Assistant, and American Materialism.” In Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud, edited by Joel Salzberg. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Focuses perceptively on the social criticism in Malamud’s fiction that most critics generally ignore.Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, eds. The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977.Field, Leslie, and Joyce Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.Freedman, William. “From Bernard Malamud with Discipline and Love (The Assistant and The Natural).” In Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field. Rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Analyzes how Frank Alpine, through submitting to the will of Morris Bober and his own conscience, undergoes a spiritual and psychic conversion. Frank is transformed from an “uncircumcised dog” to a “man of stern morality.”Helterman, Jeffrey. Understanding Bernard Malamud. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. A highly readable guide. Chapter 3 discusses the themes, use of language, points of view, structure, and symbolism of The Assistant. The annotated bibliography is especially useful.Hershinow, Sheldon J. Bernard Malamud. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Offers a comprehensive analysis of The Assistant, discussing the themes of suffering and redemption, how Malamud relates to the American Dream of success, his use of Jewish humor and irony, and the skillful use of language in the novel.Richman, Sidney. Bernard Malamud. Boston: Twayne, 1966. Chapter 3 provides an excellent, detailed analysis of The Assistant. The author concludes that The Assistant brought to literature a sense of awe for humanity’s capacity to endure and for humanity’s enigmatic powers of creation.
Categories: Places