“The Prison” is straightforward and matter of fact. Malamud tells it directly without moralizing or editorializing. Save for its final page, the story is told in the third-person singular, with an omniscient narrator, and it contains no dialogue.
Malamud successfully builds a foreboding quality into the story by referring obliquely to Tommy’s early illegal activities and to his Uncle Dom’s imprisonment. He gives few details about either but makes it apparent that the specter of imprisonment looms constantly. The irony of the story, however, is that Tommy, as his fate has decreed, is imprisoned as much as any convicted felon serving a sentence in the state penitentiary—and his is a life sentence with little hope of parole.
Readers get to know Tommy quite well. Malamud’s other characters in this story are not fully developed, although Rosa is revealed in some detail through Tommy’s interaction with her. The girl, who is central to the story, is described physically and through her covert actions. Her psychological motivation is unclear, nor does it need to be clarified. What is important to the story is Tommy’s psychological motivation in trying to save the girl from her thieving ways.
“The Prison” is one of four short stories that Malamud, who generally focuses on Jewish Americans, wrote about Italian Americans. It is also one of several he wrote about shopkeepers, who were also the focus of his later novel, The Assistant (1957). Clearly, Malamud understands the city and the little people who keep it running in their often frustrating daily occupations.