The Prison by Bernard Malamud
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.
There is other symbolism in the story which may also be important. The candy store itself is a prison to Tommy. He spends every day in the store with the exception of Tuesday when he goes to the movies. Apart from that Tommy has no other avenue of escape which would suggest there is a paralysis in Tommy’s life. The mirror that Rosa hangs up in the store may also be symbolically important. A mirror is used to reflect something, usually a person’s own image and it is through the mirror that Tommy sees the young girl stealing the candy. An action that Tommy knows mirrors events from his own youth. When Tommy looks in the mirror and sees the girl stealing, he sees a reflection of himself.
For Tommy there is an obvious connection between himself and the young girl. How strong this connection is, is noticeable by how difficult Tommy finds it to warn her about stealing the candy. He is afraid to upset the girl and wants to advise her rather than give out to her. The reader aware that Tommy is drawing on his own life experience and trying to warn the girl not to waste her life doing the wrong things (stealing). If anything Tommy may be acting as a father figure to the girl. Hoping that he can save her from making the same mistakes that he made when he was younger. How important it is to Tommy to warn the girl is noticeable by the efforts he goes to. Making sure that he warns her in a nice way. He does not want to upset or scare the girl rather he wants to be as gentle as he can be. Something that the reader becomes aware of when Tommy signs the cardboard ‘Your Friend.’
The ending of the story is also interesting though some critics might differ on what Malamud’s intentions may have been. By hitting Rosa Tommy is exerting control for the first time in the story. Rather than doing as Rosa wants him to do, which Tommy has done throughout the story, he is doing what he wants to do. He is helping the young girl and minimizing what she has done. Though some critics might suggest he is acting like a thug and that very little has actually changed for Tommy since he was a teenager. Either way there is no doubting that Tommy’s priority throughout the story has not changed. He wanted to help the young girl and by defending her at the end of the story he has done so. It might also be a case that Malamud is suggesting that by hitting Rosa, Tommy is freeing himself from Rosa’s control. No longer is he answerable to her as he had been throughout the story.