Bernard Malamud's short story highlights the complexity inherent in intimate relationships and the unhappiness strained relationships engender. The story also shows that being in an unhappy relationship is similar to being in a metaphorical prison.
Tommy and Rosa Castelli
Tommy is unhappily married to Rosa. First of all, he only marries her because he is out of luck and without any other option in life. Desperately trying to redeem his past from the bad choices he has made, he consents to marry Rosa, even though she is 'too plain and lank a chick for his personal taste.' Rosa is not above nagging and screaming at her husband when she is unhappy with his actions.
Tommy finds himself wavering between placating his difficult wife and resenting her at other times. When he tries to put in a slot machine in their little candy store, Rosa is furious. Apparently, it is against the law to do such a thing, and Rosa loses no time in screeching at her husband for this affront against their reputation. Not to be bested, Rosa's father also comes into the store to engage in his own shouting session against his hapless son-in-law. For good measure, he chops the machine apart with a 'plumber's hammer' before he leaves.
In the story, Tommy's unhappy situation in life is likened to being in prison. His marriage is a prison of sorts; his 'screaming bore' of a life is equated with a 'sick-in-the-stomach feeling of being trapped.' The slot machine fracas leaves a bad taste in his mouth and 'Time rotted in him.' This metaphorical description of his captivity reinforces Tommy's state of impotence. He is a man forgotten by time, wasting away in a meaningless existence.
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.