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The Assistant by Bernard Malamud-Free Online Study Guide/Summary Notes
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This story is based on two medieval legends. One is the life of Saint Francis. Saint Francis is mentioned in several places in The Assistant and there are additional references to him as well. The characters in the second legend upon which this story is based are not mentioned by name like Saint Francis is. That legend is about the Waste Land and the grail knight, Percival, and the Fisher King, who is maimed.

In the Saint Francis legend, Saint Francis is like Frank and Christ is like Morris.

In the other legend, Percival is like Frank and the Fisher King is like Morris. The Waste Land is like the grocery store. The injury that Morris receives in the robbery is the equivalent of the maiming of the Fisher King


In many of Bernard Malamud's stories we find the theme of a struggle by an unworldly fool to survive in a world ruled by worldly "wise" men and their rules. This is one of those stories. Julius Karp and Charlie Sobeloff are successful because they are worldly "wise" men. Morris Bober is the unworldly fool.

The struggle toward the realization of what one can be

The Assistant shows Morris Bober as a good example of what one can be. Frank is not like him in the beginning, although he does have a desire to be like him, a necessary preliminary condition. Frank has been deeply influenced in the past by stories about Saint Francis that he first heard in the orphanage in which he once lived. When this man, Frank, with these ideals finds someone, Morris, who actually lives according to them, he is attracted to him. Through much effort, Frank, by the end of the novel, succeeds in becoming like Morris.

The variations in father-son relationships

Woven through the story are the tales of three father-son relationships, beside the relationship of Morris and Frank, which is like the relationship of a father and his adopted son.

Sam Pearl with his son, Nat, is one father-son relationship. Sam, like Morris, is an immigrant shopkeeper. Nat is studying law and will become a lawyer, the professional son of an immigrant shopkeeper, a success, someone of whom his father can be proud. He can be labeled the "wise son."

Julius Karp with his son, Louis, is another father-son relationship within the story. Julius is also an immigrant shopkeeper, a very successful owner of a liquor store. Louis is content to live off of his father's success, working in his father's store and declining the opportunity to take over the successful store when his father becomes incapacitated. He chooses, instead, to work for someone else. He can be labeled the "lazy son."

Detective Minogue with his son, Ward, is the third father-son relationship within the story. Detective Minogue is firmly on the side of law and order, and is unable to accept his son's way of life, that of a petty hoodlum. Ward can be labeled the "wicked son."

Morris had a son in the past who died. His name was Ephraim. The death had a profound impact on Morris. He continues to think about Ephraim. But, in this story, Morris acquires an unofficial adopted son, who is Frank. Frank takes on the role of son by listening to Morris and accepting what he tells him. Morris not only teaches Frank how to be a grocer, but also teaches him how to live and what is really important.

The contrast between attainment of the American Dream and success

The story has characters, Julius Karp and Charlie Sobeloff, who attain the American Dream. They are, according to the criteria they themselves use to determine success, successful. But, the reader is led to question whether their form of success is true success.

The reader comes away from reading this story thinking that it is the Morris Bobers of the world who are the real successes.

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