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Imprisonment by life’s circumstances is the main theme of “The Prison: A Story,” by Bernard Malamud. Although there are allusions to Tommy’s past, when he was Tony, as a petty teenaged criminal, he was never incarcerated formally for his actions. His father attempts to arrange a marriage for him with a local girl, Rosa, who is too plain for him. If Tony will marry her, the father-in-law will establish a small candy shop in their New York City neighborhood where he and Rosa will eke out a living. He leaves New York to go to Texas in search of an independent, productive life. When his new life in Texas does not prosper, he returns to New York, to his “prison.” He marries the bossy, verbally abusive Rosa, loses his identity as Tony, becomes Tommy, and works long hours in the candy shop. His only relief is going to the movies or to a bar to watch a fight, alone. There is no way out of the life that he is living. When a young girl begins stealing candy bars from the shop, he devises a plan to inform her that he is aware of the secret candy-stealing scheme. Instead of dealing with her as a thief, he tries to help her but once again Rosa intervenes in her loud, bossy way. Perhaps he sees himself in the little girl and hopes for a better life for her. Even in his kindness, he finds frustration. He releases his anger on Rosa, which only further complicates his already confining life.
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