How does setting affect the plot of "The Prison" by Bernard Malamud?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Prison" is a short story by Jewish-American author Bernard Malamud from his 1958 anthology The Magic Barrel. In the story, a young man named Tommy Castelli feels stifled by his life and family, and tries to connect with a young shoplifter to warn her against making his mistakes.

The setting of the story is a candy shop that Tommy operates. His father arranged his marriage, and his wife changed his first name (from Tony). His attempt to flee the state for a more interesting life has failed, and now he works the candy shop every day, feeling trapped.

He thought about life. You never really got what you wanted. No matter how hard you tried to 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 said they didn't.
(Malamud, "The Prison," Google Books)

Tommy wants something more from life, but since people have made his decisions for him since he was a child, he doesn't know what, or how to go about it. The candy shop, which he hates, provides him both livelihood security and keeps him from moving or leaving. He feels an obligation to the shop, his family, and his wife even as he resents them, and in his daily grind, the shop represents his own failure to rise above his roots. 

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The Prison

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