The Assistant combines naturalism, realism, and symbolism. Naturalism may be concisely defined as pessimistic determinism, and realism as the accurate portrayal of life with the assumption that at least some people possess willpower and exert significant control over their destinies. Realism heavily outweighs naturalism in this novel, but the two are subtly combined. The sense of oppressive grayness and endless winter has a naturalistic tinge. The economic circumstances of the Bobers’ neighborhood with its grim gray and yellow tenements, its penury, and the working-class character of its inhabitants (a house painter, a car mechanic, a restaurant worker) suggest immobility.
Many of the characters seem to be in the grip of desire, frustration, and arrested development, though the characters can be placed in a hierarchy according to how thoroughly they remain victims of their heritages and their circumstances. At the bottom is Ward Minogue, a victim of his upbringing and now of his desires, his resentments, and his illness. Frank’s early history suggests that in his days of drifting he was also trapped by his heritage and circumstances, but as the novel progresses, we see Frank freeing himself from these. Both Morris and Helen are capable of choice and exert themselves to maintain their integrity, but circumstances tend to hold them in a vice. The persistence of morality, self-determination, and hope in Frank, Morris, and Helen are traits of the realistic novel and they are emphasized in the progressive inner-liberations of Frank and Helen.
The novel employs a very large number of symbolic devices. Some of these include matters discussed in the character analyses: name symbolism, archetypal character roles such as the combined saint and sinner, and the use of characters as alter egos. The parable qualities in plot and character create symbolic effects. A parable is a story told largely to make moral points and is often based on contrasts and comparisons between people. In parable terms, Ward Minogue shows that the wages of sin are corruption, illness, and death. Morris Bober shows that the wages of faithfulness and honor can be dignity and spiritual triumph amidst material failure. Frank Alpine and Helen Bober show that the wages of struggle, faith, and self-control can be redemption and love. In combination with the parable element are a number of mythic parallels, biblically and psychologically archetypal. Morris suffers like Job and preserves his soul. Frank serves as Jacob did for Rebecca, and his reward seems to be promised. The main psychological archetypes are the descent into the grave, the night journey, the winter journey, and the dark night of the soul, all of which lead to Frank Alpine’s rebirth.
The other symbolic devices, mostly featuring places, things, daydream imagery, and concise actions, can be usefully divided into what the critic Ursula Brumm has called “the cause-linked ‘realistic’ symbol, and the transcendent or magic symbol of the poetic novel.” By transcendent symbol, she means a symbol not closely related to or important in action or setting, but rather an image or association which conjures up elusive meanings merely by its presence and repetition. The chief realistic symbols, important parts of action and setting with expanding meanings, are the Bobers’ store, the cellar, the city atmosphere, the pains of winter, the tiny oasis of the library, the lost Ephraim (symbol of Morris’ faded hopes), Frank’s gifts to Helen, and Frank’s painful circumcision. Symbols tending to be transcendent rather than realistic are the air shaft (standing for the impersonality of voyeurism), the seasonal cycle with stress on April and the Passover, memories of and associations with St. Francis, metaphorical birds and flowers in Frank’s thoughts about Helen’s body, the idea of Helen as a wife fashioned from snow, the pigeons which Frank feeds, Frank’s carved wooden bird and wooden rose, and the birds and the rose in Frank’s final fantasy about St. Francis.
The progressive structure of the novel is hard to establish because of the overlapping and interlocking problems of Frank, Morris, and Helen. The division of the novel into a classical five-stage structure of situation, complication, turning point, climax, and resolution helps to show the centrality of Frank Alpine’s role and the relationship between his and the other characters’ fates. The situation covers the economic circumstances of the Bobers and Frank’s participation in the robbery. In the complication, Frank enters into the lives and hearts of Morris and Helen. The turning point, which actually leads to new complications, comes when Frank loses the loyalty of Morris and Helen by stealing from the store and by his assault on Helen. Morris’ death brings a partial climax and a new turning point by settling Morris’ problems and providing a chance for renewed struggle and hope for Frank. The resolution centers on Helen’s tentative change of heart toward Frank. This progression is accompanied by alternations of hope and despair for Morris and Helen and by a steady downward movement for Ward Minogue.
Style and manipulation of point of view are strikingly inter-related throughout the novel. The point of view method is selective omniscience, whereby the thoughts of Morris, Frank, Helen, Ward, and Julius Karp are revealed or reflected. The emphasis is on the thoughts of the first three, and these thoughts are skillfully blended with the narrative voice. The prose style is spare, concisely metaphorical, and energetic, these traits reflecting the constriction and abrupt events in the characters’ lives. The style is sometimes colloquial and ironic, qualities which help blend the narrative with the dialogue. The speech of Morris and Ida is heavily influenced by Yiddish and combines mordant irony with incorrect grammar to provide color and sometimes to show them groping for expression. This groping is paralleled in the combination of colloquial and formal language when Frank and Helen try to communicate their ideas. Style and tone show both consistency and some variation. This combination of style and tone supports the subtlety of the plot’s interweaving of the fates of Frank, Morris, Helen, and Ward.