The Assistant is a novel is written by Bernard Malamud.
- Morris Bober - The protagonist of the novel. Morris Bober runs the grocery that is central to the novel and is the character who represents the heart of the novel. Morris is an honest, thoughtful compassionate man who serves other people even though the world constantly delivers bad luck to him. His character is held up as the model of morality and it is what Frank Alpine attempts to emulate. In a community characterized by social and economic troubles, Morris stands as a bedrock of moral support. His store provides the milk and bread that nourishes the community, just as his ethics help to treat all people in a humane manner.
- Ida Bober - The wife of Morris Bober and the mother of Helen Bober. Ida is a slightly worrisome older Jewish woman, but she is a good person who appears to have a good soul. Ida worries most about Frank Alpine, a gentile, becoming involved with her daughter. Her bias toward her ethnicity is such that she weeps upon finding out that Helen actually kissed Frank. Still, although Ida views Frank suspiciously throughout the novel, she is not unkind to him. Like Morris, she does not consider Frank a bad man for taking milk and bread because he was starving. Additionally, although she would like him to leave, she also pays him more money because she feels that it is only fair given their increased profits. While Helen worries, she has a gentle character that is without malice. Her constant Yiddish style of debating and arguing with her husband provides a light comic touch to the novel.
- Helen Bober - The daughter of Ida and Morris Bober. Helen bears a classical name and in many ways appears to be a classical character. She lacks the Yiddish dialect of her parents and speaks in educated English. She longs to read and become a great scholar and learn the classics, but her limited access to college makes her very frustrated. For this reason, Helen becomes a dreamer who does not always perceive people and situations correctly. For example, she initially fails to perceive that Nat Pearl is not seriously interested in her, which later crushes her after she has sex with him. Next, she places her own perceptions of Frank upon him, thereby not entirely reading his character correctly. Helen undergoes a character development of her own that mirrors Frank's in some ways, making her a more realized creature at the end of the novel.
- Frank Alpine - The stranger who appears in the Bobers' neighborhood and eventually takes over their grocery. Frank Alpine's struggle to control his self and his character is the driving conflict of the novel. Frank is torn between his tendency to do bad and his desire to do good. He idolizes Saint Francis of Assisi as a model of good, yet even while he fantasizes of being like the Saint he continues to steal from the grocery. Frank initially appears to be the assistant to Morris's techniques of running the grocery, but in truth becomes an assistant to his way of life. By the end of the novel, Frank will have fully come to embrace Morris's ethical system.
- Julius Karp - The liquor storeowner down the street from the Bobers. Julius Karp is a Yiddish- speaking immigrant to Brooklyn like Morris Bober, but Karp is a far less compassionate character. Financial considerations almost always influence Karp's actions. Karp leases the tailor shop to a grocer, even though he realizes that the move will possibly ruin Morris Bober's business. Karp wants his son to marry Helen Bober, but only does so because he wants to expand his economic empire to include Morris's store. Karp is the most prosperous merchant on the block, but he is too cheap to buy a telephone and always uses Morris. Karp likes to be around Morris and likes Morris to like him, but Karp has little moral conscience of his own. Karp is an immigrant who managed to have initial success in America, but who does nothing to support his fellow immigrants around him.
- Louis Karp - The lazy son of Julius Karp. Louis never has achieved anything on his own and makes his living running his father's store. Louis has no ambition for anything greater in life. Even as an employee in his father's store, Louis steals from his father. When Julius Karp has a heart attack at the end of the novel, Louis decides that the liquor store will be closed because he is too lazy to take care of it while his father recovers. Louis's actions stand in sharp contrast to those of Frank Alpine, who effectively is the foster son of Morris Bober and who works diligently to keep the store running.
- Ward Minogue - The son of Detective Minogue and the true bad person in the novel. In the pairing of sons and fathers, Ward Minogue represents the wicked son. Although his father is a detective, Ward Minogue has long violated the law. His father takes Ward's failings as a son and a human seriously, beating him, and ejecting him from his household. Although the seriousness of Ward's father might seem slightly harsh and although Ward is a character who suffers, mostly from Diabetes toward the end of the book, he is not a very sympathetic person. He is racist and cruel. He tries to violently rape Helen and he hits Morris Bober out of spite and complete malice. Ward Minogue is an evildoer, with no redeeming qualities.
- Detective Minogue - The father of Ward Minogue and the detective who investigates the crimes on the Bobers' block. Detective Minogue is portrayed as a sympathetic character, who treats the Bobers kindly and genuinely tries to help them with no discrimination. Detective Minogue is a strict father, but his desire to maintain the law seems appropriate. Although Detective Minogue beats his son after his son robs Karp's liquor store, if he did not, his son would be put in jail. Detective Minogue's troubled relationship with his son testifies to the theme of father-son relationships that Malamud explores in the novel.
- Nat Pearl - Represents the most socially and educationally successful son in the novel. Nat Pearl has managed to become a college graduate and a law student as a first generation American, something that none of the other immigrant children have done. Despite his achievements, Nat is not a kind and compassionate man. Although he will study the law, he treats Helen without true fairness by using her for sexual favors, although he will not marry her due to her poverty. Nat, like Julius Karp, is another person who acts out of self-interest with little care and attention to the needs of others.
- Betsy Pearl - Nat's sister and Sam and Goldie Pearl's daughter. Betsy is a minor character who serves as Helen's one friend. Compared to Helen, Betsy is unintelligent and uninteresting, but there is no evidence that she is unkind.
- Al Marcus - The seller of paper bags who frequently visits the Bobers' grocery store. Al Marcus represents life and the unwillingness to suffer and yield in the face of difficult circumstances. Although he has a terminal form of cancer, he keeps working diligently as a paper bag salesman, not willing to simply give up and die. Because of his attitude, he is able to live much longer than the doctors believe that he shall. Frank thinks that Marcus represents suffering, but actually Marcus represents the desire for life and living that people in difficult circumstances manages to embody.
- Breitbart - The seller of light bulbs. Breitbart rarely speaks in the book, but he too is a man who persists in the face of difficult times. Although Breitbart's partner defrauded him and ran away with his wife, Breitbart goes on. He does not seem happy and he suffers, but his life continues. Through his struggle, he embodies the possibilities of life. His sale of light bulbs carries a metaphorical connotation in that he is giving people the instruments that will light up their lives, symbolically suggesting the possibility that he is giving them the tools that will allow them to illuminate themselves.
- Sam and Goldie Pearl - Nat and Betsy's parents who own the candy store on the block. They are relatively successful and Sam manages to make money betting on the horses. Little is known about them, but they help demonstrate the ways that immigrants in America have struggled.
- Nick and Tessie Fuso - They rent the upstairs apartment from Morris Bober. Little is known about them. Nick and Tessie are Italian and poor immigrants. Their presence helps to show the diversity of the neighborhood and the way that people of all different ethnic backgrounds struggle in the city after they first arrive.
- Ephraim - Morris and Ida Bober's deceased son. Ephraim died of an ear infection at an age that is not specified. Little is known about Ephraim's personality, but his death has created a void in Morris Bober's life that creates much of his sadness. The fact that Morris Bober has been left without a son is important in the plot, however, because Frank Alpine is able to fill the space that Ephraim one held and become a foster child.
- Schmitz - German owner of the grocery store across the street. Schmitz never acts in the novel, but is a subtle presence because the presence of his store negatively affects the Bobers' store. Schmitz's German ethnicity is noteworthy because of the persecuting role that German's played on the Jews during the Holocaust. On an allegorical level, the way that Schmitz pushes Morris out of business and into deeper poverty can be compared to the way that Germans made Jews suffer in Europe.
The Assistant tells the story of an immigrant grocer, Morris Bober, who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Bober emigrated from Russia in his teenage years and met his wife Ida in New York. Their grocery recently has fallen on hard times because a new store has opened across the street and is taking their customers. To stay afloat, the Bobers also rely upon the wages of their daughter, Helen who works as a secretary.
On the opening day of the novel, two men rob Morris's grocery and knock him unconscious with a blow to the head. Following his injury, a man named Frank Alpine arrives in the neighborhood. Frank has come from a rough life in the West to start again. When Morris re-opens the store, Frank appears each morning to help him drag in the heavy milk crates. Eventually, Frank asks if Morris would let Frank work for free so that Frank could learn the trade. Morris says no and Frank disappears. Soon after Morris observes that a quart of milk and two rolls are stolen from his deliveries each morning. After a week, Morris alerts the police because he cannot find the culprit. On the next day, Morris finds Frank Alpine sleeping in his cellar. Frank admits to stealing the milk and bread out of hunger. Morris feeds Frank and lets him sleep in the grocery for the night. The next morning, Morris slips while dragging in the milk and passes out. Frank rescues him then puts on the grocer's apron and starts working in the store.
During the two weeks that Morris recovers, Frank manages to bring in much more money than Morris had done. When Morris returns, Frank moves upstairs to a small room off an apartment that an Italian couple, the Fusos, rent. Because business is so successful, Morris eventually wants to pay Frank. Frank feels guilty about being paid because unknown to the grocer, Frank has been stealing money. Furthermore, it was he and Ward Minogue, a boy whose father is a local detective, who had robbed the grocery.
Frank becomes interested in Helen Bober. Helen recently lost her virginity to Nat Pearl a local Jewish boy whose parents own a candy store and who is attending Law School, but she shunned him after learning that he only wanted sex. The other local Jewish boy on the street, Louis Karp, suggests that Helen marry him, but she is not interested. Frank courts Helen by meeting her at the library, which she visits twice a week. Eventually, they start spending a lot of time together and even kiss. When Frank suggests that they touch more, Helen tells him that she cannot have sex with someone unless she is sure that she loves him. Frank tries to control his urges.
Morris Bober enjoys working with Frank and the two men tell stories to each other during the day. One day, Morris starts to suspect Frank of stealing because revenues do not equal what Morris thinks that they should be. He starts watching Frank closely. Frank, at the same time, is overcome by his guilty conscience and decides to repay all the money he has stolen. He places six dollars back in the register one day, but when he realizes that he will need some money for that night, he steals a dollar back. Morris catches him and is heartbroken. Still, he orders Frank to leave.
The same night, Helen goes to meet Frank late in the park. She has decided that she loves him and will have sex with him. When she gets to the park, a drunk Ward Minogue, whom she knows from primary school, tries to rape her. Frank appears and rescues her, but proceeds to rape her himself.
The following day, Morris Bober falls asleep in his apartment with the radiator unlit, flooding his rooms with gas and almost killing himself. Frank and Nick Fuso save him. Morris contracts pneumonia and has to go to the hospital. Frank keeps the store open for the weeks when Morris is sick. Business is terrible because two Norwegians have just reopened the competing grocery and all the customers have gone there. Frank gives all of his personal savings to the grocery and works all night long at a different job to keep it afloat. Still, when Morris returns to the shop he makes Frank leave. Morris himself then tries to save the business by finding another job, but he cannot. A mysterious man appears one night offering to burn the store down so that Morris can collect the insurance money, but Morris turns him down. Later Morris tries to light such a fire himself, but nearly burns himself to death before Frank appears and rescues him. Morris again orders Frank out.
One night, Ward Minogue, who has been diagnosed with diabetes and who is acting desperately, sneaks into the Karp's liquor store through a broken back window. After getting drunk, Ward accidentally sets the store on fire. Karp's store and building are ruined. The next day, Karp, who has insurance, offers to buy Morris's store and grocery so that he can reopen. Morris feels happy and goes out to shovel snow for the pedestrians, although he fails to wear his coat. Later that night, he falls sick and dies three days later from pneumonia.
After Morris's death, Frank Alpine starts running the store. He works all night at a different job and tries everything to make the store work, but times are tough. Still, he decides that he wants to pay for Helen to attend college. At the end of the book, Helen has become friendlier to Frank and seems ready to accept his offer of tuition. Frank himself has changed utterly becoming completely honest and very much like Morris Bober, whose store and philosophies he now embraces. In his final act, Frank Alpine goes to the hospital, has himself circumcised and after Passover becomes a Jew.
Flowers reappear throughout the text as a symbol related to the motif of Saint Francis of Assisi. Helen's naked behind is compared to a flower; Frank dreams of Helen throwing him a flower; Frank carves Helen a wooden flower; and Helen tosses a flower into her father's grave. Real flowers represent the realization of pure love that characterized Saint Francis. For most of the book, Helen and Frank are not able to love one another. The symbol of the wooden flower shows Frank's desire to love Helen, but also his inability to transcend a concrete image of what this love would equal and fully embrace it. At the end of the novel when Saint Francis transforms Frank's wooden flower into a real one, his love has become fully realized and pure.
The Novels Frank reads
After learning that Frank wants to go to college, Helen makes Frank read Anna Karenina,Madame Bovary, and Crime and Punishment. Helen's desire that Frank read these books highlights her desire to transform him into something that she wants him to be. Helen is beginning to fall in love with him, but not with who he truly is, but with the man she believes she can make him into. On one level, these books suggest Helen's inability to properly love. On the level of text, the books all contain plots that mirror Frank Alpine's own struggle. In all of the novels, the main characters commit a "crime" that changes their entire life: both Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary have affairs; and Raskolnikov commits a murder. Given Frank's guilty conscience, these books all make him consider whether or not he will be able to redeem himself in the future. Ironically, although Helen gave Frank the books, she barely understands them herself and as the novel continues she is not able to forgive Frank even though he committed a crime just like her revered heroes and heroines.
Milk and bread
Morris Bober receives crates of milk each morning from the deliverymen, which sit outside his door until he drags them in. He also receives two bags of rolls that he sells throughout the day. This milk and this bread symbolize Morris's importance as a sustainer of the community. These two products provide physical nourishment for the neighborhood. When Frank Alpine is starving and sleeping in the basement, he survives alone on milk and rolls. Morris's tendency to sell products that support his customers is consistent with his status as a moral supporter for the community. While Julius Karp makes much more money by trading in alcohol, Morris Bober is content to sell people health and nourishment through his marketing of these more wholesome goods.