Endurance and suffering in Bernard Malamud's "The Assistant"
Endurance and suffering are main themes as projected through the two lead characters in Bernard Malamud's "The Assistant," a heartwarming mentor-student story set in early 20th century Brooklyn.
As is the case with many of his stories, "The Assistant," By Bernard Malamud, tells the story of a simple man trying to make his life better through a struggle against bad luck. Through his characterizations in The Assistant, Malamud makes his themes of endurance and suffering.
Malamud, perhaps best known for "The Natural," which turned into a 1980s film starring Robert Redford, takes a turn at writing about those not in the limelight this time.
The Assistant," Malamud's second novel, which some consider his best work, was published in 1957. Set against the backdrop of the Depression era, it tells of a Jewish grocery-store owner and his Italian assistant is like a morality play.
Malamud's first theme of suffering in order to attain a higher moral stature is apparent in the character of Morris Bober, the shopkeeper and also through Frank, the assistant.
Malamud makes clear references to Dostoyevski, whose philosophy was that through suffering, one can be redeemed, and there are parallels throughout the story to the Book of Job in the Bible.
Frank also links love and suffering as he works in the store for Bober. Bober thinks one should turn suffering, a condition we are all forced to take, and turn it into something positive. "I suffer for you," Bober tells Alpino.
Another theme through characterization is failure; but even as Bober thinks he is a failure, he is not. He has inner conflict with being Jewish and having success because of the innate role that Jews are doomed to uphold and that is one of suffering. It is shown that Morris believes that honesty doesn't pay in the United States and that money is king.
Friends of Bober don't even really see him as successful because he doesn't live to possess material goods. Bober's wife constantly tells him he's a financial failure, after all, the store is failing despite his hard work and there is disappointment that it won't bring in enough money to put daughter Helen through college.
Frank Alpino, a drifter who is Italian-American, learns much from Bober. He is an orphan who was raised in a Catholic children's institution and is a small-time thief. He has never loved a woman, in fact, he's never even had a real relationship of any kind. Alpino becomes the assistant in the shop and wants to understand the family and their Jewishness, eventually finding in his heart the sympathy for Bober.
Bober stands for and is a lovely example of suffering (Jewish) humanity; through him and with him -- voluntarily sharing his fate -- Frank Alpino becomes a mensch. The Sisyphean moral burden of Jewishness is passed on from one generation to another and what is good, what is fundamental, survives." 1.
Bober is an old man who has been in the grocery business all his life. Alpino, who stumbles into the store one day represents the only contacthe has with the outside world for the most part. Bober sees the other storeowners, but keeps his distance. Although he hates Louis Karp, the liquor store owner, deep down he actually cares about him. But regardless of the much-hated lectures Karp is constantly delivering to Bober, Bober is buoyed by his inner calmness through which he can endure the misery in his life.
All he knew was he wanted better but had not after all these years learned how to get it. Luck was a gift. Karp had it [..] Life was meager, the world changed for the worse. America had become too complicated. One man counted for nothing. There were too many stores, depressions, anxieties. What had he escaped to here?" 2.
In The Assistant Malamud uses being a good Jew as a metaphor for the embodiment of suffering. His question is basically is "What is a Jew?"
It appears his answer comes through the character of Bober, who teaches Alpine that to be a real Jew it is to endure the suffering, personal suffering as well as the suffering of the Jewish people whose history is inundated with persecution and tragedy. Bober would never inflict suffering on another person.
The Bober character is a great illustration of a seasoned selflessness. He gives Alpine shelter and food and never gives up on him until he discovers Alpine has been stealing. Although he fires him, it is more from disappointment than it is from anger. Alpine represents almost a hobby for Bober, who hopes to get through to the drifter and bring out the best in him.
Bober, for example can be interpreted from both traditions. Some critics have pointed to Morris Bober being a version of the schemiel, a traditional archetype from Yiddish folklore who acts as an ironic hero, using light humor and irony to soften an otherwise harsh world. At the same time other critics have suggested Morris Bober as the embodiment of the existential "I-THOU" philosophy described by Bober's close namesake, Martin Bober. Both of these interpretations seem fitting and they demonstrate that Malamud's novel reflects his ethnic familial background, while also maintaining the intellectual tradition in which he was trained. "3.
While Frank is Morris' assistant, Morris is more of an assistant on a spiritual and moral level - to Frank. Bober helps Frank learn matters of humanity and being a human being. Bober is not preachy, but he acts as an example through his actions.
The store is his whole life, and represents his tomb. Bober cares for the store and knows he may have had opportunities in his life to do better, but the shop is his destiny and there is no further mark he would have liked to have made in the business world. It is reward enough that he lives knowing he is doing the right thing in making a living to get his daughter through college and that he treats people right.
The fact that Bober dies after having shoveled away the snow so people can walk in front of the store shows his heart is in the right place. Although he does not die a rich man, he knows all his problems have gone away since Karp's offer to buy the store. The author would like us to believe that Bober has won and has beaten the problems of his life and that his suffering was not for naught.
When a Jew dies, who asks if he is a Jew? He is a Jew, we don't ask. There are many ways to be a Jew. So if somebody comes to me and says, 'Rabbi, shall we call such a man Jewish who lived and worked among the gentiles and sold them pig meat, trayfe, that we don't eat it, and not once in twenty years comes inside a synagogue, is such a man a Jew, Rabbi?' To him I will say, 'Yes, Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with the Jewish heart.' Maybe not to our formal tradition - for this I don't excuse him - but he was true to the spirit of our life - to want for others that which he wants also for himself. He followed the Law which God gave to Moses on Sinai and told him to bring to the people. He suffered, he endured, but with hope."4.
The Alpino character also is familiar with suffering, yet needs a lesson in endurance. Alpino starts off as 'Jewish' because he too has had a rough road. But as he stays with Bober, he learns to avoid his vengeful and rough tendencies that he felt were justified because of how he had been treated by the world. Alpine, the assistant, on whom the novel is titled, undergoes a tremendous transformation by book's end. He moves from dishonest to a character full of goodness. Participating in a robbery against the store, the perpetrator returns to the scene of the crime to "make it up" to the grocer.
For some reason, Frank feels his place in the world will be assured by having interaction Morris Bober. Although at first he remains there because of feeling guilty for the holdup, he then meets daughter Helen and finds her an additional reason for staying.
Frank is innately good, despite his actions to the contrary. We are led to believe that Frank is fighting an inner conflict. He needs to put his thoughts into coordination with his actions, for although he thinks good thoughts his actions are almost automatically bad.
While Alpino tries to be good, his bad ways are unstoppable. His constant stealing from the store shows the contrast between what he really wants and his actions. Although Alpino feels guilty, his need to steal is like a disease where he keeps slipping stealing to get a…