Frank is the “Assistant” of the title. A twenty-five-year-old Italian-American drifter and petty thief, he comes to Morris for work. Unaware that Frank was involved in robbing his grocery a week earlier, Morris takes pity on the young man, who is homeless and starving, and allows him to perform odd jobs around the store for room and board. While working in the store, Frank falls in love with Helen, the grocer’s daughter, and spies on her in the shower. He also begins stealing from the grocer’s cash register. Despite his immoral behavior, we sense the good in Frank. Throughout the novel, Frank is inspired by stories about the Catholic Saint Francis of Assisi, which he recalls hearing during his childhood in an orphanage, and aspires to be like the saint. Under the influence of Morris, he learns the value of integrity. Frank’s struggle to redeem himself and become a better person is the central conflict of the novel.
Ida Bober is the long-suffering wife of Morris. At age fifty-one, her hair is still black, but her face is lined and her feet ache. Ida is bitter about their life, but does nothing more than nag. She resents Morris for taking her out of their Jewish neighborhood, but she also blames herself for convincing Morris to drop out of pharmacy school to buy the grocery in the first place. Ida is strongly opposed to Helen having a relationship with Frank, a “goy,” or non-Jew. She worries about Helen’s future, wanting her to marry a professional man like Nat Pearl or a rich one like Louis Karp. She wants to prevent her daughter from a fate like her own.
Helen is the Bobers’ only child, their boy Ephraim having died years before of a childhood illness. Now twenty-three, Helen still dreams of going to university and doing something worthwhile with her life, but is working a drab office job to help support her family, and contents herself with reading Don Quixote on the subway. She rebuffs the advances of Nat Pearl and Louis Karp, unwilling to compromise her ideals to accept less than what she wants in a husband. Aloof, blue-eyed Helen captures the attention of Frank Alpine, who begins visiting the library in hopes of making a connection with her. Helen at first wants to make Frank into her own ideal. She would like to see him get his master’s degree and become an engineer or chemist. By the end of the novel, she sees the value in what Frank has made of himself.
Morris Bober, the protagonist of the novel, is a sixty-year-old Jewish grocer. The character is based on Malamud’s own father Max, who owned a grocery in Brooklyn. Having emigrated from Russia as a young man to escape the pogroms, Morris is no stranger to suffering. Here in America, his bad luck, uncompromising honesty, and trusting nature have kept him and his family in poverty throughout his life. His business is failing, but his kindhearted and generous spirit leads him to give bread and butter to the family of a drunken woman whom he knows will never pay him back. It also leads him to give shelter to the “Assistant” of the title, Frank Alpine, a drifter and thief who unbeknownst to Morris, was involved in robbing his store. Ultimately, his model of an honest life transforms his assistant Frank.
The Assistant can be seen as a morality tale, with Morris as the hero. However, Morris is not a traditional hero. Rather, he is something of a tragicomic figure, one whom we pity and laugh lovingly at. He can be seen as the embodiment of the schlemiel, a hapless, bumbling character from Yiddish folklore who is comically luckless but who still has a certain dignity in his capacity to endure. Nothing goes right for Morris. He trusts cheaters who end up robbing him blind, he watches while less honest men prosper around him, and yet he sticks to his moral code, through which he triumphs in the end. Bernard Malamud once said, “A Malamud character is someone who fears his fate, is caught up in it, yet manages to outrun it. He’s the subject and object of laughter and pity.” This describes Morris perfectly, as well as his assistant, Frank.
Breitbart is the Jewish light bulb peddler who often stops for tea at Morris’s store. He’s had a tough life; his wife ran off with his brother, leaving him to care for their dim-witted son. Morris always buys from him, even when he doesn’t need any, because he feels sorry for the man.
Nick and Tessie Fuso
Nick and Tessie are “Italyener” immigrants to whom Morris rents an apartment. Morris is upset one day when Nick Fuso buys from another grocer. Later, Frank Alpine rooms with the Fusos.
Short, pompous Julius Karp owns a liquor store next to Morris’s grocery. Karp’s store does very well, causing Ida to become envious, but Morris considers it to be a “business for drunken bums.” Morris resents Karp for leasing out a neighboring building to another grocer. The competition with the other grocer causes Morris’s living to be “cut in impossible half.” Karp would like Helen to marry his son Louis. He would buy out Morris’s store and improve it.
The son of liquor store owner Julius Karp, Louis is a lazy and materialistic young man. He courts Helen, but she rejects him because he doesn’t share her dreams for a better, more worthwhile life.
Al Marcus, the Jewish paper products salesman, is dying of cancer. He refuses to quit working, explaining that he would rather be on the move than stay at home waiting for death to knock at his door. As a result, he has survived much longer than doctors predicted. Frank sees Al and Breitbart as examples of Jews who enjoy suffering, not recognizing the enduring strength in these men.
Police Detective Minogue is called on the scene to investigate the robbery of Morris’s store. Unbeknownst to him, the perpetrator is his no-good son Ward, whom he’s been on the lookout for. Detective Minogue is a fiercely moral person who beats his son badly each time he catches him stealing. He says that he will kill Ward if he sees him in the neighborhood again.
Ward Minogue is the antagonist of the story. In contrast with Frank, Ward is a truly evil character with no hope of redemption. As a boy, Ward used to terrorize the girls at Helen’s school by molesting them in deserted hallways. He later lost his job for stealing and was badly beaten by his father, after which he disappeared into a life of crime. Ward convinces the hard-up Frank to go with him and hold up the Karps’ liquor store, but they end up robbing Morris instead. The cold-hearted Ward strikes Morris several times on the head, ending by knocking him unconscious. In the climactic scene of the novel, Ward attacks Helen in the park. His fate at the end of the novel is harsh, but he brings it entirely upon himself.
Betty Pearl is the twenty-seven-year-old sister of Nat Pearl, and a friend of Helen’s. She is large-boned and plain, and her ideas are somewhat dull, but she has a nice nature. Helen and she do not have much in common, but they see each other once in a while. Helen envies Betty when she becomes engaged, and Betty encourages Helen to give her brother, Nat, another chance.
Nat Pearl, the son of Sam and Goldie, is a handsome, ambitious law student and former lover of Helen’s. Helen’s mother Ida had hoped her daughter might marry Nat, but after a passionate summer with him, Helen realized Nat was only using her: “he held back something—his future.” Sam Pearl notes that his son would like to marry someone with more money than Helen.
Sam and Goldie Pearl
Sam and Goldie own a candy shop on the same block as the Bobers’ grocery. They earn a good living due to Sam’s luck betting on horse races. Their children are Nat and Betty.
The “Poilisheh” Woman
The Polish woman is a steady customer who comes every morning before the store opens, waiting to buy one three-cent roll of bread. She complains if Morris makes her wait too long. Morris loses precious hours of sleep in opening the store just for her, but he does it anyway because it’s the right thing to do.
Schmitz is an energetic German grocer who opens up a shop around the corner from Morris. At first, Morris loses a lot of business to Schmitz, but later, customers come back to Morris when Schmitz falls ill and is unable to keep the store open as regularly.
A former business partner of Morris, Charlie Sobeloff embezzled money from their shared grocery, ruining the grocery and cheating Morris of his $4,000 investment. Sobeloff now has an enormous modern self-service market packed with customers, while Morris is barely getting by. Faced with losing his store, Morris is forced to ask Sobeloff for a job.
Taast and Pederson
When Schmitz becomes ill, he sells the store to these two Norwegians. They open a shiny new store and offer specials that Morris can’t match, all but destroying his business. Frank is able to compete with them by introducing new hot food into the grocery.