Morris Bober awakens early on a cold, dark November morning to unlock his grocery store for his first customer, a Polish woman who comes every day to buy a three-cent roll of bread. Business is bad. As the day goes on, he sells very little, and even gives away some groceries to a girl whose mother is a drunk and never pays. Morris waits and waits for customers, then watches from the window as his upstairs tenant, Nick Fuso, betrays him by visiting a new grocery store across the street.
Morris is depressed and feels entombed in the grocery, which he has owned for twenty-one years. He wishes he could sell the store, but it seems an impossible idea. Suppliers come into the store to restock, only to find that Morris has been unable to sell what they brought last time. “Bad all over, Morris,” remarks the cake vendor. “Here is the worst,” Morris replies. He pours tea for Breitbart, the light bulb vendor, whose business is also bad. “The world suffers,” he thinks.
Morris’s wife, Ida, comes down. She is fifty-one years old, younger than Morris by nine years, and her hair is still black, but her face is lined. She catches Morris with tears in his eyes thinking of their son Ephraim, who died years ago. She nags Morris to stop smoking and to remember to oil the floor, reminding him that Julius Karp, the liquor store owner, has promised to send over a potential buyer for the store. Morris scoffs at this. He resents Karp, because Karp is the one who leased the building to the rival grocer across the street, an energetic German named Heinrich Schmitz, thus cutting his business in half. He also doubts that anyone will want to buy the store now that the business is so bad.
The two discuss their daughter, Helen. Morris feels guilty that Helen is unable to go to university and has had to take a job she dislikes instead. Ida hopes Helen will get married. She wonders why Helen is no longer seeing her former boyfriend Nat Pearl and wishes she would give a chance to Louis Karp, the son of the liquor store owner. Morris thinks that Louis is “a stupe, like the father.”
Morris goes upstairs and tries to sleep, but thoughts of his rival Schmitz keep him awake.
Next, we meet Helen. She is coming home from work on the subway, reading Don Quixote, when her former lover, Nat Pearl, boards the train. He asks her where she’s been, but she says little. We learn that Helen had a love affair with Nat, losing her virginity to him, but that she now feels Nat only used her for sex. Having graduated with high honors from Columbia University, and now in his second year of law school, Nat has rich friends and good marriage prospects, and no interest in marrying a poor girl like Helen. Helen leaves the subway without saying goodbye to Nat. She thinks of registering for classes at New York University.
On the walk home, Helen passes the candy store owned by Nat’s parents, Sam and Goldie Pearl. Sam smiles at her through the window, but she pretends not to see him. Then she passes the Karps’ liquor store, seeing Julius and his son Louis through the window. The Karps, Pearls, and Bobers are the only Jewish business owners in this neighborhood where no other Jews live. The Pearls have prospered due to Sam’s luck at the horse races, and the Karps have prospered too, but the Bobers have continued to struggle in poverty, due to Morris’s bad luck and stubborn honesty—he never cheats, yet too easily trusts cheaters.
Helen arrives home, and Morris awakes and goes to get a newspaper. The buyer has not come, but Ida is still hopeful. Helen gives her paycheck to her father. Morris thinks of how pretty his daughter is and wishes she were not so lonely. He tries to give her five dollars to buy some shoes, but she refuses.
There is a flurry of business in the evening, and then Julius Karp stops by to ask whether the buyer, a refugee named Podolsky, has come by. (He hasn’t.) Morris is irritated with Karp, who always comes over to dispense unwanted advice and who always seems to get luck while others like himself have none. The men bicker with one another, and then Karp says he is worried about a gray car that keeps passing by on the street. Soon after, he asks Morris to phone the police about the suspicious car, convinced the men inside it are “holdupniks.”
Morris is about to dial the police when the men enter his store, handkerchiefs over their faces, one of them waving a pistol. The man with the pistol hits Morris, not believing that the meager money in the cash register is all the grocer has. The other pities him, giving him a drink of water. They search the store, finding nothing. As they leave, the gunman strikes Morris a second time. Morris falls to the ground without a cry. The narrative comment echoes his thoughts: “It was just his luck. Others had better.”
Analysis of Chapter 1
The first chapter of the novel introduces the protagonist, Morris Bober, and his grocery. Although no reference is made to time or place, we can assume that the story is set in Brooklyn, New York, sometime in the 1950s. The neighborhood is not a Jewish one, but besides Bober’s Grocery, there are several other Jewish businesses there.
We see Morris opening the store in the early morning, which is “dark though night had ended,” and note how the wind claws at him as he drags the heavy cases of milk to the door. These details establish that Morris’s world is cold and dark, and that he is struggling to keep his business alive. As the first customer enters the store, we the readers enter, too. We wait with him through the day for the customers who never come, feeling sorry for Morris, who seems destined to suffer.
Morris is shown to be honest and kindhearted. He goes to some trouble to open the store earlier than necessary in order to serve the Polish woman, who only buys a three-cent loaf each day, and he gives butter, bread, and vinegar to the girl whose mother is a drunk and will never pay him back.
The first chapter also introduces the major characters who populate Morris’s world—his wife Ida and daughter Helen, and his neighbors, the Pearls and the Karps. Morris is contrasted with his neighbors, and shown to be the most honest of them, but the least successful. His dialogue with his wife, Ida, reveals much about the immigrant couple’s personalities and their relationship, while adding color and flavor to the narrative. It is written in English, but with the verb tenses and syntax of Yiddish, a language widely spoken by Jewish immigrants from Europe and Russia. Through their dialogue, Ida is shown to be more suspicious and cautious than her husband. However, she is also kindhearted, and through her nagging shows that she cares about Morris.
The end of the chapter contains the major inciting incident, the robbery that leaves Morris unconscious on the floor of his store, a fitting end to his miserable day. We are left with a bleak picture of an immigrant who sought the American dream, but has been sorely disappointed.
It’s worth noting that even in the most melancholy and tragic of moments throughout the novel, there is often a spark of humor or magic that lightens the mood. This mixture of tragedy and comedy typify Malamud’s work. So even as Morris lies on the ground knocked unconscious, we may see some wry humor in the phrase, “It was just his luck.” Morris’s defeatist attitude toward life makes him similar to a comic character in the Yiddish folklore of Eastern Europe, known as the schlemiel (or shlemiel). The schlemiel is a born loser, a hapless, ineffectual character with perpetual tough luck, who bumbles through life, stoically accepting whatever miserable fate befalls him. Other folkloric and magical realist elements recur in this novel, as in much of Malamud’s fiction.