Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

Despite his checkered early years, Tommy Castelli is basically a decent person trapped in a boring job, sharing his life with a woman whom he has never loved. His incarceration, like that of many working people, does not involve sprawling gray buildings with watchtowers and barbed wire. Rather he is trapped in a way of life that he cannot abide. As the monotony of his routine weighs on him, he is forced to acknowledge that this is his life and that it is unlikely ever to change significantly. Catching the ten-year-old in her petty theft adds a bit of interest to Tommy’s otherwise banal Monday and adds a moral dimension to his life. Bernard Malamud’s choice of the day is calculated: Monday marks the beginning of the week. For Tommy, beginnings are not happy events because what stretches out beyond them is incredible sameness. The word that best describes Tommy’s life at this point is drab.

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When Tommy spots the young girl stealing candy, he fleetingly sees a mirror image of his younger self. The mistakes of his early life have resulted in his being in his depressing, dead-end situation. Sensing in the girl an opportunity to save someone from a similar fate, he sets up his act of salvation secretly and with calculation. He writes the note, puts it inside the wrapper of the strategically placed candy bar, and awaits the new beginning that he envisions.

However, in life as Tommy generally perceives it, any plan to do good is scuttled inevitably by chance happenings, quite in keeping with the conventions of literary naturalism. Rosa shatters Tommy’s plan, but her intrusion is a mere shadow of what Rosa has done to Tommy’s life. She obviously dominates him; he accepts her domination passively, as indicated by his accepting a new name at Rosa’s behest.

When Tommy intervenes between Rosa and the girl, he is neither on his wife’s side nor on the side of right as society normally defines it. His slapping Rosa hard on her mouth represents his venting of a lifetime of frustration; the girl has provided Tommy with the excuse that he needs to retaliate against Rosa’s years of control over him. However faint, that slap is Tommy’s primal scream. Malamud does not suggest, however, that the event he describes marks a turning point for Tommy. Quite the opposite. The girl whom Tommy seeks to rescue is so oblivious to his intended kindness that she defiantly sticks out her tongue at him as her mother drags her away. Humans, Malamud seems to suggest, fail to understand or appreciate kindness. He also makes one wonder to what kindness might lead. Tommy’s prisonlike candy store is, after all, a manifestation of Mr. Agnelli’s intended kindness to him and his daughter.

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