Study Guide

Helen Bober in The Assistant

By Bernard Malamud

Helen Bober

The adult daughter of Morris and Ida Bober, Helen has put off her college education and dreams for the future in order to work a secretarial job. (Don't worry—we're rolling our eyes too.) The little money she makes keeps her family from falling into financial ruin.

Her parents want her to marry. Of course they do. Luckily (or unluckily) for her, the local Jewish boys are interested in sex, but not commitment. She's attractive to them, but she's too poor for their liking. Against her initial judgment, she begins a relationship with Frank Alpine. She keeps this a secret from her parents. What's her reasoning?

And if she married Frank, her first job would be to help him realize his wish to be somebody. Nat Pearl wanted to be "somebody," but to him this meant making money to lead the life of some of his well-to-do friends at law school. Frank, on the other hand, was struggling to realize himself as a person, a more worthwhile ambition. (6.1.7)

To her mind, helping Frank would be a more worthwhile commitment than helping Nat. In either case, however, you'll notice that she imagines her future responsibility as primarily to her husband's ambitions, not to her own. She believes her duty is first and foremost to assist others: first her parents and then her husband. She too is…wait for it….an assistant.

A Lover of Literature

Helen loves to read and spends a lot of her time at the library. She and grown-up Hermione Granger would be fast friends. Her mother tells her she's wasting her time with books because they won't do anything to help her get married (she's got to be kidding, right?), but Helen longs to return to college and complete her degree.

Her favorite books are philosophically intense Russian novels by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. As she gets to know Frank, she suggests that he read these books as well. According to her, in these works, you read everything you can't afford not to know—"the Truth about Life" (5.1.6).

World's Best Daughter

Helen loves her parents and sacrifices dearly for them. She takes pride in her Jewish heritage and relates to the history of her people. However, she feels distant from her folks. She keeps her deepest regrets, worries, and hurts to herself. She hides her relationship with Frank from them, even lying to her mother about where she's going (6.1.8). She doesn't confide in them, but keeps her troubles to herself, whether it's her disappointments with Nat and Louis or her self-loathing after being sexually assaulted by Frank.

A Regretful Dreamer

Her constant fear, underlying all others, was that her life would not turn out as she had hoped, or would turn out vastly different. She was willing to change, make substitutions, but she would not part with the substance of her dreams. (6.1.8).

Helen sees the regret her parents feel about being trapped with the failing grocery store. She believes she can escape the prison of the store, but she dreads the possibility that she'll end up in the same place, far from her dreams, far from what life could have been:

What am I saving myself for? she asked herself. What unhappy Bober fate? (2.3.96)

We don't know if she makes it, but when we leave her, she's returned to college and isn't putting up with foolishness from potential husbands. Like Morris, we can concede her a future, and hope she's able to live her dreams.