Frank Alpine’s name has two important connotations: It suggests an affinity with St. Francis of Assisi and also refers to mountain heights beyond the timberline, thereby suggesting aspiration. Frank has no memories of his parents but he remembers the Catholic orphanage and the several families he lived with. He is a man in need of a father; he needs someone to help him identify himself. Frank is not a practicing Catholic but his vivid memories of learning about St. Francis suggest that his moral compulsions and his sense of sin are related to his early Catholic training. Frank’s desire to be like St. Francis emphasizes one half of his divided character: He is a man who is both saint and sinner, and these good and bad aspects of Frank’s character have alter egos in the novel. Ward Minogue is his devil, and Morris and Helen Bober are his good angels. Possibly Morris represents his good heart and Helen his developing intellect.
Frank is a self-educated drifter whose native intelligence goes undeveloped and whose perspectives tend to be narrow. Frank realizes this about himself, but his efforts at improvement are limited until Helen Bober provides a model. However, his ideas of success remain — quite understandably — rather materialistic. Frank speaks a reasonably correct language, casually salted with slang but not very vulgar. He uses trite phrases, such as “why people tick” without self-consciousness, but there is a certain strained formality in his language when he tries to express complicated ideas. Frank claims more analytic knowledge than he possesses, as is shown in his elementary understanding of other people’s motivations and his puzzlement about the complex portrayals of situations and people in the novels that Helen asks him to read. But his ability to grasp some of the essentials in the novels and his improvement in understanding the Bobers show intellectual growth as well as natural shrewdness.
Frank’s divided nature, his disposition toward both good and evil, hatred and love, are the material from which his all-important redemption is woven. His earlier existence as a bum shows the strain of hopelessness in him, which stems from a rootless childhood. His hope of rising in the world as a successful criminal is thwarted when he commits his first robbery. As he and Ward rob Morris, he knows that he is incapable of violence and crime, and during his first conversation with Morris, his urge to confess is almost overwhelming. Frank is a kind of man who is known in Jewish folklore as a shlimozel, a term applied in the novel by Julius Karp to Morris Bober. A shlimozel is a person for whom nothing goes right, someone who is always unlucky, often as a victim of circumstances. But as a shlimozel, Frank contrasts with Morris. Frank’s bad luck is usually a result of his compulsive overreaching, a trait which spoils things for him. He knows and analyzes this failing in himself but he continues to suffer from it.
At one point Frank tells Helen that he is good even when he is bad, probably meaning that he sometimes violates his deepest and warmest impulses and that he is deeply ashamed. Frank is, to a degree, a saint because he learns to suffer for redemption and is at last able to give an almost demonic force to his persistent pursuit of growth and love. That he is innately compassionate is shown by his kindness and warmth toward many people: Morris Bober, the customers, and the needy family of Carl Johnson. As the novel presents Frank’s complex redemption, it does not simplify the accompanying difficulties and it allows ample time for the changes in Frank to emerge from struggle and to solidify slowly. Frank Alpine is a very human saint, and thus he is an example that all men might, as he does, experience change through suffering.