Humanity shines through all the sufferingThe second novel by Bernard Malamud, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner, which was originally published in 1957, is considered by many critics to be his best. A “Crime and Punishment” for modern times, “The Assistant” addresses universal themes of suffering, humanity and compassion.
In the book, Morris Bober, a Jewish grocer in Brooklyn, and his family are missing out on the post-war economic boom. He and his nagging wife, Ida, struggle against cutthroat competition to eke out a marginal living. One night, two robbers pay a visit. But then things take a turn for the better when broken-nosed Frank Alpine becomes his assistant. But there are complications: Frank, an Italian hoodlum, lands a job to atone for his sins. His reaction to Jews is ambivalent; he falls in love with Morris’s daughter Helen at the same time he begins to steal from the store.
The first pages of Morris’s struggles might seem slow and boring, but his story picks up quickly. Morris suffers and endures with dignity and hopes for a better life for himself and his family. He endures all the misery that falls upon him. The poverty and the desperation around him do not change his humanity and honesty.
At a certain point in a novel, Frank asks Morris, “Why is it that Jews suffer so much? It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they? What I mean, they suffer more than they have to.” Morris replies, “If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew doesn’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.” To a puzzled Frank, Morris adds, “I suffer for you. That means you suffer for me.”
Morris finally experiences freedom from the claustrophobic store that kept him for most of his life, after someone offers to buy his business, but it doesn’t last long. He dies while shoveling snow, but leaves the world with happiness, all his problems having faded away in an instant after the buyer’s offer. He prevails against the forces of darkness; his suffering had not been in vain.
Throughout the story, Frank transforms into a good guy and experiences all possible stages of joy and suffering, hope and desperation. He is tried and tempted, but at the end he prevails. Frank is not the only one who changes for the better in the end; it is all who read this book.
by Kim Hae-young