The Prison English – II


English-II                                                        LLB II 5 YEARS

The Prison

Relevance of the Title

The prison in this story is Tommy Castelli’s life. For many people, prison does not mean grey buildings with guards and watch towers. Tommy is locked into a drab life that he shares with a woman he has never loved, doing work that has no meaning with no hope of any redemption. Every day is like any other. Catching the young girl stealing adds a spark to his life because there is something new about it. He sees something of his early life in her actions and that prods him to do something to save her before it is too late. But he fails miserably here too.

The title “The Prison” is appropriate on a myriad of levels, for Tommy is trapped in a series of mental and sociological prisons, one nesting snugly within the next. First, he feels trapped in his life — in the boring, daily grind of working in the candy store, of living a routine life with no variation. “Time rotted in him,” Malamud writes; Tommy cannot escape the tight, ever-present pull of banal responsibility. It’s an inescapable cycle, forced upon him to a certain extent by himself — he quit his vocational school at sixteen and took up with unsavory types, types that happened to be prolific in his underprivileged neighborhood.  And, as he asserts near the end of the story, when contemplating the multigenerational consequences of this sort of a cycle,

“You never really got what you wanted. No matter how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn’t get past them. You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didn’t know what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t.” 

The candy store itself it a type of physical prison, but what it represents is also a prison: the economic constraints of a working-class existence, those invisible barriers that prevent a person from pursuing higher goals or validating him- or herself on a personal level.

Which brings us to another type of prison — that of an unequal society. Tommy, as a boy, had had dreams of “getting out of this tenement-crowded, kid-squawking neighborhood, with its lousy poverty,” but at the time the story takes place he is still in that very same neighborhood, running a candy store with a woman his father arranged for him to marry, staying out of trouble because he doesn’t have the time or the energy to repeat the antics of his younger years. He never had the opportunity to escape the life of poverty and need that had circumscribed his childhood. “Everything had fouled up against him before he could.” This is an inherent flaw in our current society — those who have little and need much are crowded into housing projects and forced into poorer areas, where opportunities for vertical mobility are slim and the temptation to fall into illegal habits compounds with the desperation to make ends meet and the resulting high availability of said unsavory jobs and habits. This forces individuals into a steady cycle of poor opportunity, desperate choices, and poverty. This is the cycle Tommy has fallen into — he is to a certain extent a product of his environment, and only by the luck of having the right connections is he not in jail and instead running a candy store, even if it is “for profits counted in pennies.”

It is this cycle Tommy sees the little girl falling into when he discovers her stealing candy, and he feels a strong compulsion to talk to her, to prevent her from messing up her own life as he messed up his. And yet he cannot bring himself to speak to her because he doesn’t want his lesson to be misconstrued, which demonstrates yet another prison in which he finds himself — he is paralyzed with anxiety and indecision, scared to be perpetuating the cycle himself through an inability to not get through to the little girl, such that his inaction ultimately leads to a messy and nonconstructive confrontation.

So, while Tommy may be free, or at least not be in jail like his old friend Dom, he is stuck in a multitude of prisons nonetheless — the prison that is poverty and miscreant behavior, the prison that is indecision, the prison that is routine. And all these prisons feed off each other, and all these prisons are perpetuated over generations. And what’s worse is that all these prisons are willfully ignored by both the individuals who suffer in them and the individuals in power who could take steps to deconstruct them, thus contributing to their perpetuity.

The ten year old girl thief and her mother.

In the story, Tommy discovers that the girl has been stealing candy from his store; yet, his initial anger turns into concern for the girl’s future prospects. He fears that, if she continues in her thieving habits, her life will include both a literal and metaphorical prison sentence that will destroy her hopes and dreams.

He found himself thinking about the way his life had turned out, and then about this girl, moved that she was so young and a thief. He felt he ought to do something for her, warn her to cut it out before she got trapped and fouled up her life before it got started.

Again, the prison motif is very apparent. Tommy wants to save the girl from being trapped by her bad choices. However, she is already ensnared in the prison of a dysfunctional relationship with her own mother. After enduring physical abuse from Rosa, the little girl has to further endure a terrible blow across the face from her own mother. Her pitiful ‘One was for you, Mother,’ is answered by a harsh ‘You little thief, this time you’ll get your hands burned good.’ Both Rosa and the little girl’s mother pronounce her a thief; at this point, her future is uncertain and does not look hopeful.

To summarize, Malamud’s short story shows that the misery endured in unhappy relationships often lead to great suffering, degradation, and hopelessness. Both Tommy and the little girl are dependent on a significant personal relationship to maintain self-preservation. Tommy has to endure his wife’s shrewish ways to protect his likelihood. After all, his store has been financed by his father-in-law. Likewise, the little girl is also dependent on her mother for survival despite her mother’s abusive ways.

Relevance of the Title

The prison in this story is Tommy Castelli’s life. For many people, prison does not mean grey buildings with guards and watch towers. Tommy is locked into a drab life that he shares with a woman he has never loved, doing work that has no meaning with no hope of any redemption. Every day is like any other. Catching the young girl stealing adds a spark to his life because there is something new about it. He sees something of his early life in her actions and that prods him to do something to save her before it is too late. But he fails miserably here too.

Main themes

The imprisonment people suffer even when seemingly free is the main theme of The Prison. When he was young, Tommy’s dream had been to break free from “the thickly tenemented, kidsquawking neighborhood, with its lousy poverty” but it does not quite turn out that way. He quit the vocational school that could have taken him somewhere, began hanging out with the boys who seemed to have money to blow. The attempt to hold up a liquor store goes wrong and he is lucky not to get caught. He briefly escapes to Texas but comes back and gets married to Rosa.

The banality of his present life affords him no escape; everyday is the same. There is the candy store where he sells the same toffees and cigarettes and there is plain ol’ Rosa for whom he has no love. When he catches the little girl pinching chocolate, there is something new, something interesting in his life. He wants to reform her because he knows her life too could go his way. But his noble intentions don’t go the way he wants.

In The Prison by Bernard Malamud we have the theme of freedom, regret, connection, helplessness, control, escape, paralysis and hope. Taken from his The Complete Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Malamud may be exploring the theme of freedom. Throughout the story there is a sense that Tommy feels trapped, not only because he has to work in the candy store but he also appears to be trapped inside a marriage that he does not want to be in. Despite having left New York to go to Texas, Tommy returns and marries Rosa though at no stage in the story does the reader feel that Tommy is in love with Rosa.  If anything there is a sense that Tommy is helpless when it comes to his relationship with Rosa. She is in complete control of the relationship something that is noticeable by her changing Tommy’s name from Tony to Tommy. Similarly Rosa’s father exerts control over Tommy when he breaks the slot machine in the shop. Tommy again can do nothing about it. Not only is Tommy stuck working in the shop, which he doesn’t want to be but he is also stuck in a loveless marriage.

Malamud also appears to be exploring the theme of regret. Tommy can remember a time in his life when he was happy. When he was fishing with his Uncle Dom. This memory may be important as Malamud may be suggesting that Tommy longs for a time when his life was simpler. How important Dom is to Tommy is also noticeable by Tommy’s wish to try and find him even though it has been several years since he last saw him. If anything Tommy wishes to reconnect with Dom. To renew the connection he had with him when he was a child. Even though he knows it may be impractical due to the passing of time and the fact that he doesn’t even know if Dom is alive. The fifty five dollars that Tommy has hidden away may also be symbolically important as for Tommy it represents hope and freedom. Rosa is unaware that he has saved the money and by making reference to it in the story on several occasions Malamud may be highlighting just how unhappy Tommy is and how strong his desire to escape from Rosa and the candy store is.

Characters – Analysis of ‘The Prison’ by Bernard Malamud

Tommy Castelli

The reader gets to know Tommy Castelli quite well. His is the only character which fully developed in the short story. Tommy is a decent fellow in spite of his checkered early days. His incarceration stems from his early brush with crime when he partakes in an attempt to hold up a liquor store. He escapes being caught by law but he effectively loses his freedom when he marries Rosa, a match his father arranges to keep him on the right side of law. Life in the small town with no escape in sight jars so he twice plans to make a little money on the side but both ventures are failures.

It’s when he is thoroughly bored with his life that he catches the little girl stealing chocolate from the counter. He is confused about what to do but she is so young he has this strong urge to help her break out of it. He remembers his childhood when he would go out with his Uncle Dom who was adept at cheating. But Uncle Dom is now in prison for his crimes. Before Tommy can carry out his plan to warn the little girl she is caught by Rosa who thrashes her. Rosa’s fury angers Tommy and he slaps her. Tommy tries to save the girl from Rosa’s fury by saying he had let her have the candy. The girl is hardly thankful; she sticks her tongue out at him in disdain.


We get to know of Rosa from Tommy’s thoughts which are hardly complimentary to her. Rosa has a waspish tongue and a worse temper. She nags him when he does things that she does not approve of. To her credit it must be said that she does not like him flirting with law. When Rosa is angry, she screeches. She screeches at him so loudly when he brings in the slot machine that her father goes at it with a plumber’s hammer. When she catches the little girl stealing chocolate she flies off the handle, provoking Tommy to slap her. This shocks her as Tommy has meekly taken her tantrums till now.

The little girl

From the story, it does not seem like she is a first time thief. She times her moves well and as Tommy goes inside the back room to fetch the tissue paper, she dips her hand into the case and extracts two chocolates. When Rosa catches her stealing, she thrashes her. When her mother comes in hearing the commotion, the girl tries to wriggle out of the mess by claiming that one chocolate was for the mother as though that exonerates her. Tommy tries to help her escape punishment by declaring that he had let her have the chocolates. But the girl is not grateful; while leaving with her mother, she rudely sticks her tongue out at him.

Other links:

Allama Iqbal Law College Website

Other Notes

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