The Prison

Bernard Malamud

There are few stories in this collection as irredeemably bleak as Bernard Malamud’s The Prison. The tone is set by the lexical field of the first few lines: ‘screaming bore’, ‘unendurably slow’, ‘endless drivel’, ‘lousy poverty’, ‘fouled up’. This language sets the mood for a narrative of restricted opportunities, the failure of dreams, violence and the snuffing-out of any flickers of redemption.

The Bottom of Society’s Heap

The dense first paragraph forms an important flashback, illustrating the grim struggles of Tommy Castelli, a character born into and restricted by life in the lower parts of society’s heap. Malamud presents his current life as dull, making very little money from running a candy store, which gives Tommy the ‘sick-in-the-stomach feeling of being trapped’, an important image of restriction and limitation, all the more striking when compared with his younger self’s ‘many dreams and schemes’. However, in showing how Tommy got to his current state, the flashback shows how ‘dreams’ in this world are impossible to sustain.

The social milieu is deftly depicted in the two phrases ‘tenement-crowded, kid-squawking’ – the words themselves are jammed closely together and the onomatopoeia furthers the claustrophobia with noise. Tommy’s progress has a dead inevitability – the abandonment of education, falling in with the wrong crowd and ending up involved in ‘the holdup of a liquor store’. While the deal done between his and Rosa’s fathers rescues him from arrest, it is a further restriction of his own freedom, which not even a period when he ‘bummed around’ Texas can prevent. The disappearance of the boy with ‘dreams and schemes’ is confirmed symbolically when Rosa changes his name from Tony to Tommy, obliterating his former identity.

The Thieving Girl

The key action of Malamud’s story centres on the ‘ten-year-old girl’ who comes into the candy store ostensibly to buy tissue paper for her ‘rock-faced mother’. In the small portrait of the girl and her mother, the reader sees a continuation of the desolate lives of the economically disadvantaged. The narrator’s sardonic comment on the mother emphasises this: while she ‘looked as if she arranged her own widowhood’, the irony that she now spends time looking after ‘some small kids after school’ makes the reader fear for those children, even more so once the end of the story is reached. They are a version of Tommy’s own former self, which is perhaps the reason for his attitude to the girl. While the partial third person narration allows the reader access to some of his thoughts, he himself is puzzled why, once he has discovered her thefts, he doesn’t end up ‘grabbing her’ and ‘socking till she threw up’. The verbs show Tommy’s immediate impulse towards violence, but instead he puzzles over a route to redemption for the girl, in spite of the fact that ‘the role of reformer was strange and distasteful to him’.

Memory and Prevarication

Malamud gives the reader a clue to the reasons for Tommy’s care for the girl in the flashback memory of Uncle Dom. It is a simple tale, but its tone is unlike anything else in The Prison. While there is continuity in the getting the better of the law in the shape of the cop, it is an innocent story of companionship, in a natural setting away from the city, and ends with laughter, a sound which is alien to the rest of the story. The innocence of the story suggests other possibilities and its effect on Tommy is equally remarkable: ‘tears filled his eyes.’ By this uncharacteristic sign of emotion, Malamud signals that Tommy sees something of himself in the girl. When he wants to ‘warn her to cut it out before she got trapped and fouled up in her life’, the reader recognises that the phrase ‘trapped and fouled up’ can be applied to his view of his own life. However, the unaccustomed nature of the action he wants to take prevents him from taking it: Malamud devotes a page and a half of the narrative to his prevarications. The stress is clear in him smoking ‘a full pack of butts’, his inability to act is caught in the metaphor of ‘his feet felt nailed to the floor’, and his inability to speak is presented in the image of him standing ‘tongue-tied’. His final plan of the note under the wrapper sounds naïve, but again expresses his understanding that he has ‘suffer[ed his] whole life’ and his signature of ‘Your Friend’ is revealing.

Violent Climax

This preparation, and the frail sense of hope that Malamud has created, are brought to a shocking, violent climax. Not only is the girl caught stealing by Rosa, but Rosa’s response is one of uncontrolled violence, ‘shaking her so hard the kid’s head bounced back and forth like a balloon on a stick.’ The reader is reminded of the girl’s youth by the word ‘kid’ in the middle of the sentence, but also by the subverted playful simile of the balloon. After a brief interjection of aggressive, short dialogue, Tommy ‘slapped’ his wife ‘across her mouth’, furthering the violence to such an extent that ‘her teeth were flecked with blood.’ The fury does not end there, however; Malamud pushes it further with the entry of the girl’s mother. The reader may expect the mother to protect her daughter, especially when she claims to have stolen one of the candies ‘for you, Mother’, but she ‘socked her’ daughter ‘hard across the face.’ The lexis throughout this section communicates hard violence: ‘shaking’, ‘tore’, ‘slapped’, ‘harder crack’, ‘gasp’, ‘blood’, ‘socked’, ‘pawed’, ‘grabbed’, ‘yanked’. After Malamud’s substantial section focusing on Tommy’s thoughts and prevarications, this 25-line conclusion is sudden and appalling in its violence.

The deep pessimism of Malamud’s vision does not end with the violence, however. The final image seals it, with the girl, even in the fierce grip of her mother and reeling from her blow, totally rejecting Tommy’s attempts to help her. The last sentence confirms this, as she ‘thrust out at him her red tongue.’ The gesture is childish, but defiant.

Narrative methods to consider:
  • Partial third person narration
  • Social realism
  • Structure
  • Flashback
  • Characterisation