- “You should sell long ago the store.”
This remark is made by Ida to her husband at the beginning of the novel. Morris reminds her that when business is good, they didn’t want to sell, but when business is bad, nobody wanted to buy. The problem of what to do with the store is one of the central conflicts of the story. The line is typical of Ida, who is always shown nagging Morris and worrying for the family. Though irritating to Morris, Ida’s nagging shows that she cares. As with all the dialogue spoken by Ida, Morris, and the other recent immigrants, the phrasing in this sentence is not standard English, showing that Ida is not a native speaker and still thinks and often expresses her thoughts in Yiddish or a Yiddish-tinged English.
- “God bless Julius Karp, the grocer thought. Without him I would have my life too easy. God made Karp so a poor grocery man will not forget his life is hard. For Karp, he thought, life was miraculously not so hard, but what was there to envy? He would allow the liquor dealer his bottles and gelt just not to be him. Life was bad enough.”
Julius Karp, the liquor dealer, serves as a foil for Morris. He has done well with his business and has been able to buy a nice house for his wife and son. Louis will never lack for gelt (money). Morris, on the other hand, is unable to move his family from their miserable two-bedroom flat or pay for his daughter’s university. Karp seems to have all the luck, while Morris has none. And yet, Morris does not envy Karp, because Karp is not a good person. Morris would rather sell bread and milk and have to struggle than sell alcohol and profit from the addictions and suffering of others. In the novel, we see two poor families in which children starve because of alcoholism and are fed on credit from Morris’s store. This is highly significant in contrasting the lives of the two men.
- “Morris saw the blow descend and felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.
He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better.”
Morris is about to receive a blow to the head from Ward Minogue. As it falls, he feels he is defeated. The American Dream has let him down; he has let himself and his family down. He reflects wryly that it’s just his luck. We see in Morris the picture of many struggling immigrants to America who give up their lives in search of a dream.
We can also see Morris as representative of the luckless, bumbling schlemiel character of Yiddish folklore. Nothing he does turns out right, and yet he endures it all, resigned to his fate. The schlemiel character is a tragicomic one; we laugh at him while we pity him, and yet he has dignity.
- “ ‘Louis…what do you want out of your life?’
‘The same thing I got—plus.’
‘Plus more, so my wife and family can have also.’…
‘What if she wanted to make herself a better person, have bigger ideas, live a more worthwhile life? We die so quickly, so helplessly. Life has to have some meaning.”
This conversation between Helen and Louis Karp illustrates the contrast between the two characters while expressing one of the major themes of the book. Life must have a greater meaning than simply earning money. This is a truth that escapes the callow, materialistic Louis, but which Helen and Frank both instinctively understand. One must find a deeper meaning in life, lest our daily toil become a prison, a tomb, from which the soul cannot escape. The conversation makes clear that Helen can never marry Louis Karp. Like her father, she holds herself to a higher standard than the Karps do. She wants to make something of herself.
- “Her body was young, soft, lovely, the breasts like small birds in flight, her ass like a flower…. He felt greedy as he gazed, all eyes at a banquet, hungry so long as he must look. But in looking he was forcing her out of reach, making her into a thing only of his seeing, her eyes reflecting his sins, rotten past, spoiled ideals, his passion poisoned by his shame…. He let himself down silently. In the cellar, instead of the grinding remorse he had expected to suffer, he felt a moving joy.” (Chapter 3)
This expresses Frank’s thoughts as he sees Helen naked for the first time. In her body, Frank sees the beautiful possibilities of transcendent love, as symbolized by birds and a flower. But at the same time, he feels he is polluting her with his lust. As long as he looks at Helen in this way, spying on her in secret and viewing her as just a sex object, he will be unable to offer her true, pure love. The “moving joy” that Frank feels is his sudden feeling of possibility, his glimpse of the power that love could have to transform him.
- “When a man is honest he don’t worry when he sleeps. This is more important than to steal a nickel.”
Morris tells this to Frank after Frank asks him why he doesn’t cheat the customers now and again, as other grocers do. As an assistant or apprentice in Morris’s store, Frank is also an assistant to his way of life. Frank learns from Morris how important it is to be a good and honest person. However, he doesn’t take the lesson immediately. First, he steals for a long period of time. Finally by the end, Frank becomes as honest as Morris.
- “What kind of a man did you have to be born to shut yourself up in an overgrown coffin and never once during the day, so help you, outside of going for your Yiddish newspaper, poke your beak out of the door for a snootful of air? The answer wasn’t hard to say—you had to be a Jew. They were born prisoners.
That’s what they live for, Frank thought, to suffer. And the one that has got the biggest pain in the gut and can hold onto it the longest without running to the toilet is the best Jew. No wonder they got on his nerves.”
These two quotes from Chapter 4 illustrate Frank’s feelings toward Jews like Morris, Al Marcus, and Breitbart, whom he sees as pathetic and masochistic for suffering through tough times and enduring it all with “deadly patience.” Frank’s attitude is somewhat immature at this point. He fails to see the heroism in these men, their ability to persevere despite the strongest odds against them. He also scoffs at the pity they show for each other, thinking that they live to suffer. Later he learns that suffering for one another is a part of what it means to be human.
- “What do you suffer for, Morris?”
“I suffer for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you suffer for me.”
Frank wonders why Jews suffer so much. Morris replies that he believes that a Jew must suffer for the Jewish Law, which is to do right, be honest, and be good to others. We all suffer for one another.
- “There are many ways to be a Jew.”
These words are spoken by the rabbi at Morris’s funeral and express one of the major themes of the book: Jewish identity. To Malamud, being a Jew does not necessarily mean just one thing. It is not dependent on whether a person goes to synagogue or refrains from eating ham. It only requires that a person “want for others that which he also wants for himself.” Morris was a true Jew to the rabbi because he cared for others, and because “he suffered, he endured, but with hope.”
- “Those books you once gave me to read…did you understand them yourself?”
These words are spoken by Frank to Helen in the last chapter of the book. The books Helen gave Frank to read—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—are about people who sin and pay the consequences. Reading these great novels should have taught Helen sympathy for those who make terrible mistakes. It should have taught her of the possibility for redemption. However, it is evident from her treatment of Frank that Helen never understood the great literature she attempted to teach to Frank. It is not until the end of the chapter that she finally sees how he has changed and realizes the possibility for redemption is real.
The Assistant: Top Ten Quotes