Helen’s name may be intended to associate her with the mythical Helen of Troy in order to stress her role as the most beautiful object in the world of the store. But if this association emphasizes too strongly her erotic appeal, the association can be modified by thinking of the tender qualities of the Helen in Edgar Allen Poe’s love poem “To Helen.” Helen Bober is like the birds and flowers which were loved by St. Francis, and which symbolize her natural beauty, love, and desire for harmony with the world.
Helen has spent most of her life in the drab neighborhood of the grocery store. She is a product of the American big-city high school, where intellectual excitement is often stimulated in the children of immigrants who themselves never developed intellectual interests, for many reasons, especially because of limited education and a bitter struggle for a livelihood. Now Helen’s satisfactions center on the local library and on the courses she can take at night at N.Y.U., where during the mid-1940s a three-credit course would cost $45 tuition — a very high price for the Bobers. Helen is a first generation semi-intellectual, not always modest in her hopes for and faith in the power of education, and unsure of the relative importance of personal development and economic success.
Helen shares with her father not only gentleness, kindness, and compassion but also a tendency toward fatalism, despair, and passivity. She has no real friends and seems to shuttle between the loneliness of her unsatisfying job and the loneliness of night classes and the library. She is not interested in dating the salesmen at her office, and the prospective companionships of Nat Pearl and Louis Karp offer little of what she wants. She is admirably courageous in going her own way. She is independent enough to give her favors to Nat Pearl and then to withhold them because she wants something more than a physical relationship.
Helen’s sensitivity and intelligence may owe something to her study and reading. She becomes aware of the conflicts and ambivalences in Frank. Frank himself gains greater knowledge of these tensions by reading such books as Crime and Punishment. She is drawn to Frank because in addition to love and striving for improvement, he seems to offer a whole personality rather than the social surface that Nat Pearl offers. The combination of wholeness in Frank (physical, intellectual, and moral concerns) with internal contradictions adds poignancy to Helen’s interest in him.
Frank’s disillusioning assault on Helen causes her to hate herself for having blindly believed in him, but at the novel’s end she is recovering from her dislike of him, and a more realistic view of him may make a rewarding relationship possible. In her last appearance in the novel, when Helen thanks Frank for his help, her finest traits are emphasized. She is decent, straightforward, and courageous. Her change of attitude toward Frank suggests that she, as well as he, has been growing.