The American Dream
Malamud’s novel examines the American Dream of prosperity through hard work, showing that for many immigrants, the dream fails to come true. While some in the Jewish community of Malamud’s book, such as Julius Karp and Nat Pearl, have certainly prospered, others like Morris Bober have been passed by. Morris risked his life to escape from Czarist Russia and come to America, but as Frank observes, “That was the big jig in his life but where had it got him? He had escaped out of the Russian Army to the U.S.A., but once in a store he was like a fish fried in deep fat.” According to the rhetoric of the American Dream, hard work should bring prosperity. But Helen notes of her father that “The harder he worked…the less he seemed to have.” Meanwhile, from working so hard, Morris has no joy in his life. He realizes that since coming to America, he rarely sees the sky, being “entombed” in his store. When Morris gets struck over the head, he mourns all the wasted years: “He had hoped for much in America and got little.” Toward the end of the book when he is faced with losing his store and goes out to find work, Morris finds that he’s too old and too behind the times to get a job. He thinks: “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?” Ultimately we realize that for far too many immigrants, America does not bring the promised dream of success. However, there is hope for the next generation. Helen will achieve a university education and be able to reach for what her father never had.
Frank asks Morris, “what is a Jew anyway?” This is a central question of the novel. Frank thinks that being a Jew means being a victim—in his own words, “they were born prisoners” who “lived…to suffer.” This irritates Frank. Slowly he comes to realize that although they do embrace suffering, the Jews like Morris are not victims, but heroes. They suffer not for themselves, but for others. As Morris tells Frank, “I suffer for you…you suffer for me.” It is Morris’s opinion—and Malamud’s—that being a Jew means to “do what is right, to be honest, to be good…to other people.” Whether one attends synagogue or eats pork or not is unimportant for Malamud. Being a Jew means to be a fully realized human being, to have compassion for others, a capacity which we all have inside us. “All men are Jews, whether they realize it or not,” Malamud said. When Frank converts to Judaism at the end of the novel, it is the final step in his transformation into a moral and compassionate human being.
Redemption/Rising Above Oneself
The central conflict, or struggle, of The Assistant is Frank’s effort to redeem himself, to rise above his weaknesses and become a better person, like his idol Saint Francis of Assisi. Frank’s very name—suggesting honesty and great heights—is symbolic of his quest. It is a difficult struggle for Frank. He knows that it is wrong to steal from Morris, but he has a hard time stopping because he keeps justifying his actions to himself, thinking that the store wouldn’t be making as much if he were not there. He also has trouble controlling his sexual urges toward Helen, spying on her at first, and then later pressuring her for sex, to the point where he completely loses control and rapes her. When Frank reaches his low point at Chapter 6, the reader wonders if he will ever be able to turn his life around, but it is at this point when Frank begins his path upward. Watching and learning from the steadfastly honest Morris, Frank has learned a new way of life. His love for Helen inspires him to become more disciplined. By the end of the novel, Frank is fully transformed. “It was a strange thing about people—they could look the same but be different,” Helen realizes while looking at Frank. “He had been one thing, low, dirty, but because of something in himself…he had changed into somebody else.” By redeeming himself, Frank also redeems Morris, giving Morris’s life, which he thought was wasted, a greater meaning and purpose.