Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

Author Background

Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud - Bernard Malamud came into prominence in the 1950s and 60s with his novels and short stories at the centre of which stood the hero, invariably a young man, whose life is fraught by failed relationships, unfulfilled dreams and undeveloped emotions. Malamud’s stories are at the end of all this, an affirmation of life. The young hero has to get over many obstacles to reach maturity; at that point the story ends.

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.

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.


Tommy Castelli’s prison is his existence. He is married to a woman he does not love and runs a candy shop that he hates. He has had brushes with law; even now he tries to make money on the side by having a slot machine that is illegal. One day he catches a little girl stealing chocolates. She reminds him of his childhood when he too dabbled in petty crime. He wants to help the girl but isn’t sure how. Before he can do anything, she is caught by his wife. He tries to help her now but she is rude to him.

Summary - Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

For Tommy Castelli, his life is a prison. He is married to Rosa whom he does not love. He manages a candy shop set up by Rosa’s father. Tommy hates doing the same work day after day. He has nothing to look forward to. He toys with the idea of running away but knows he cannot go far as he does not have much money. Rosa controls his life tightly and nags him when he steps out of line, like when he takes too long a break in the afternoons.

His life was not always like this. He had wanted to escape the poor locality where he lived but he went about in the wrong way. He joined a gang of boys impressed by the money they flashed about. Their attempt to hold up a liquor store goes wrong and Tommy just escapes going to prison. His father arranges his marriage with Rosa as her father offers to put up the money for a candy shop. The idea does not appeal to Tommy so he runs away for a while. But he comes back and gets locked into a loveless marriage and a boring job managing the candy shop.

One day he catches a young girl cleverly stealing chocolates from the shop. He is reminded of his childhood days when he was exposed to petty crime by his Uncle Dom who is in now in prison. He wants to help the girl stop stealing but he does not know how to go about it. Tommy wonders whether he should speak to her but he lacks the courage for that. He keeps looking for excuses not to talk. In the end he decides to leave a note for her in the chocolate case next Monday which is the day she always comes to the shop. But the next Monday she does not appear in the morning.

Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

Disappointed, he goes for his afternoon nap. When he comes down later, he hears Rosa’s screeching voice. She has caught the girl stealing. Rosa is harsh with the girl so Tommy slaps her which shocks Rosa. Hearing the commotion, the girl’s mother comes in. Tommy wants to save her more punishment so he says that he let her have the chocolates. The girl tries to escape her mother’s anger by saying that one chocolate of the two she stole was meant for her. The mother threatens to punish her anyway for stealing. When she is dragged away by the mother, the little girl rudely sticks out her tongue at Tommy.

Metaphorical inferences

The life that Tommy Castelli is forced to lead is his prison. Right at the beginning, the author says that a prison need not be a grey building with watch towers and guards. Nevertheless, Tommy is in a prison from which escape seems unlikely.


The story is in third person narrative except for a short piece when the author uses second person when Tommy ponders about life. “You never got what you wanted…” The only dialogue in the story comes at the very end. The language is straightforward and matter of fact.

6 Important Quotes

1. He had been, as Tony, a kid of many ideas and schemes, especially for getting out of this thickly tenemented, kidsquawking neighborhood, with its lousy poverty, but everything had fouled up against him before he could.
It was after marriage that Tony became Tommy as his wife Rosa disapproved of his earlier name. He leads a painfully boring life now chained in marriage to Rosa who is a harridan.

Time hangs heavy on his hands and the job of running the candy shop is a bore. When he was a kid, Tommy had been full of ideas that would put money into his pockets and take him away from this poor district that was full of poverty and squawking children. But he never got a chance to do all that. Things went very wrong right at the outset.

Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

2. The next day the cops raided for slot machines and gave out summonses wherever they found them, and though Tommy’s place was the only candy store in the neighborhood that didn’t have one, he felt bad about the machine for a long time.
Tommy was often on the look out to make a little extra money. He liked the excitement it provided. He may have hoped to make a secret stash so that he could run away from his boring existence.

Once when Rosa was away at her mother’s, Tommy had a slot machine installed. When Rosa discovered the machine, he tried to explain it away as a legal way of making money. But she was not convinced and kept up her screaming. When her father got wind of the slot machine, he came in and wrecked it with a hammer.

The very next day the police raided the locality for slot machines; Tommy’s candy shop was the only shop that did not have a slot machine. He had had a lucky escape and it rankled for a long time.

3. He cursed the place and Rosa, and cursed, from its beginning, his unhappy life. The best time of the day for Tommy was mornings when Rosa was too busy cleaning up to nag him. There were few customers and in the quiet, Tommy would laze near the fountain counter scanning the newspapers or chat with the cellar-club guys about the day’s race.

Often he would laze away the mornings with a cup of coffee contemplating running away with his secret stash of fifty-five dollars. But there were days especially after the slot machine was gone when time hung on his hands; he hated his existence then. Nothing had gone right for him and he cursed Rosa and the candy shop for ruining his life.

Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

4. He felt he should do something for her, warn her to cut it out before she got into a jam and fouled up her whole life. The urge to do so was strong, but when he went forward she glanced up frightened because he had taken so long.
Tommy catches the little girl stealing chocolates by chance. She had waited for an opportunity when Tommy went to the back of the shop to fetch the colored tissue paper.

Rosa had hung a mirror precisely so that it was possible to observe the front of the shop while she or Tommy was at the rear of the shop. When Tommy sees the girl lifting the chocolates, he is at a loss for words. His first reaction is to want to give her a good shake. But he later reasons that what he needs to do is talk to her to reform herself while there is opportunity and time. He wants to warn her that crime can ruin her whole life.

Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

5. You could never see the sky and the ocean because you were locked in a prison, except that nobody called it a prison, and if you did, nobody knew what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t. A pall settled over him. He lay motionless, without thought or sympathy for himself or anyone. Tommy is disturbed about the girl who comes in every Monday asking for colored tissue paper and stealing chocolates when he goes to the rear of the shop.

Tommy has never been felicitous with words and he turns over several options before finally deciding on leaving a note for her in the counter telling her to quit stealing before it catches hold of her life. Unfortunately, she does not turn up that Monday morning. He is depressed that he has missed an opportunity to reform the girl. Tommy ponders on life. He feels that for some nothing good ever happens and you remain trapped.

Analysis of 'The Prison' by Bernard Malamud

6. She pawed at the girl, grabbed her arm and yanked her out. The girl, like a grotesque ballerina, half ran, half fell forward, but at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue. When Rosa discovers the girl stealing chocolates, she is wild with fury. She shakes her till her head lolls about like that of a doll. This angers Tommy and he slaps his wife. The commotion brings in the girl’s mother who wants to know what the fuss is all about.

In order to save the girl from more punishment, Tommy declares that he had let her have the chocolates. To mitigate her crime, the girl declares that one chocolate she stole was for her mother. But the mother is infuriated and drags her away home. As she leaves, she looks back at Tommy and rudely sticks out her tongue at him.


1. “He wouldn’t spit on a candy store, and Rosa was too plain and lank a chick for his personal taste, so he beat it off to Texas and bummed around for three months in too much space, and when he came back everyone said it was for Rosa and the candy store, and it was all arranged again and he, without saying no, was in it”. In what way does the candy store become a symbol for Tommy’s life?

2. Why does Tommy feel bad about the slot machine?

3. “He had to sit down. He kept trying to make the urge to speak to her go away but it came back stronger than ever.” What preceding event has upset Tommy? Why was it significant for him?

4. “It said, “Don’t do this anymore or you will suffer your whole life.” He puzzled over whether to sign it A Friend or Your Friend and finally chose Your Friend.” What is ‘It’? Why does he choose ‘Your Friend’ rather than ‘A Friend’?

5. “You could never see the sky and the ocean because you were locked in a prison, except that nobody called it a prison, and if you did, nobody knew what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t”. These words are the key to Tommy’s angst. What do they convey to the reader?

6. “The girl, like a grotesque ballerina, half ran, half fell forward, but at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue”. Do you think that the girl like Tommy will turn out to be a ‘prisoner’? In what whey is she different from Tommy?