There is more than meets the eye with Malamud’s The Assistant.
At the simplest level the story is about a struggling grocer and the assimilation of a stranger Frank Alpine into their Jewish lives.
However, Malamud explores many other subjects of antisemitism, big business, and women’s rights throughout the book. Malamud does not point out these subjects clearly to you. Instead he embeds them into the actions of the characters and the objects around them.
Morris is constantly worrying about the antisemitism of those around him. When the store space next door goes up for rent he is concerned another grocery store will move in, and that it will be owned by Germans. Malamud never states “because of antisemitism” but Morris has obviously had to deal with this all of his life and does not look favorably on Germans. In the blox the antisemitism is referenced by the reflection of the swastika in his glasses.
The books that are being read by the characters are one way in-which Malamud expresses the underlying desires and feelings of the characters. The books also help the characters discover things about each other.
One of Frank’s first observations of Helen is her books. When he sees her in the street, she is always carrying them. In a desperate attempt to talk to Helen, Frank “[mentions] the book he is reading” (88). One night he goes to the library in hopes of seeing her, and fortunately she walks in. Helen notices Frank also and glances to see what he is reading. She is expecting to see Popular Mechanics, but instead he is reading a biography. Helen’s expectation to see Popular Mechanics, reveals her current thoughts of Frank. She guesses that he is just an uneducated man that is only interested in vocational skills. As she leaves for home, Frank catches up to her. As they walk along, she realizes “that there might be something more to him than she had imagined” (95). While, this change in feelings might have been developing for a while, she finally comes to the realization after she sees him reading a book.
The books create layers and dynamics for each character.