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Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” connects the tones and moods of the story to particular types of days and particular types of natural settings. Another story that uses similar techniques – although with entirely different effects – is “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin.
Ozick’s story describes a Jewish mother, eventually imprisoned in a concentration camp after being forced to march there with her children, who is desperate to save the lives of her infant daughter (Magda) and also of her teenaged daughter (Stella). The settings in Ozick’s story are bleak and depressing, except for a very brief passage in which she imagines how beautiful the landscape must be beyond the confines of the camp. The mother in Ozick’s story is literally imprisoned in horrific circumstances, and at the end of the tale she watches as her youngest daughter is brutally killed.
Kate Chopin’s story also deals with a woman who feels imprisoned, but the imprisonment in Chopin’s story is only metaphorical. Louise Mallard feels imprisoned by her conventional lifestyle in general and, in particular, by her conventional marriage. When she learns at the beginning of the story that her husband has apparently died in a railway accident, she is at first devastated but then, upon reflection, begins to feel freed by his death.
Chopin emphasizes this sense of freedom by having Louise sit in a roomy armchair and look out an upstairs window:
She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.
There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.
Here the imagery is associated with vitality, springtime, sensual pleasure, appealing music, and “patches of blue sky” that seem to symbolize the promise of Louise’s life now that she is no longer married. Louise looks forward to “Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own.”
Of course, the meanings and effects of the two stories are entirely different. Chopin’s tale is often read as a celebration of liberation (a celebration ironically cut short when Louise herself dies at the very end of the story). Ozick’s tale is an implied lament for a situation that seems grim and hopeless. Nevertheless, both stories use imagery of times of day and especially of landscape to help emphasize their very different tones, atmospheres, and meanings.
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