Malamud, “The Prison” (1950)

bernard malamud the prison

The Lexington Candy Shop on the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue, opened in 1925. (Untapped Cities)

Tommy is one of Malamud’s Sisyphean characters, married to the sort of woman who goes so far as to change his name. He was once Tony. He did not stop her from changing it to Tommy. That was his first mistake. He runs a candy store with her, working from eight in the morning to midnight six days a week, going to the movies by himself on the seventh day. “No matter how hard you tried you 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 they said they didn’t.”

A 10-year-old girl is in the habit of buying two rolls of colored tissue paper every Monday, and, as Tommy discovers after his wife installed a surveillance mirror (she trusts no one), stealing two candy bars. The story is a study in the psychology of discipline: Tommy’s own as he tries to control himself before confronting the girl, and the notion of disciplining a 10-year-old thief: how do you do it? How far do you take it? Tommy ponders. He doesn’t want to frighten her. His compassion gets the better of him. Week after week his plans to confront her fail him. He finally decides to put an anonymous note in one of the bars. But she doesn’t appear the Monday he wanted to try the note. Somehow he ends up at home upstairs for a nap and when he goes back down, his wife has caught the girl and is thrashing her, as is the girl’s mother. The girl runs off, and “at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue.”

“You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison.”

Commentary, September 1950, “The Magic Barrel,” 1958