Overview (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Shawl combines Cynthia Ozick’s metaphorically complex and morally profound short story of the same title, about the horrors of the Holocaust, with her longer follow-up novella about the personal reverberations of those horrors some thirty years later.
“The Shawl” (1980) is a breathtaking story. In seven short, poetically terrifying pages, Ozick compresses the unspeakable experience of the Holocaust into a story that is as close to formal perfection as a story can be. The plot is thin to the point of nonexistence—a young Jewish mother loses her infant child to the barbarism of the Nazis. The characters are not so much real as they are highly compressed embodiments of tortured terror. It is therefore neither event nor persons that make this story so powerful, although history agrees that the event described is the most shameful in modern life, and the characters in the story suffer more pain in a moment than most human beings will in a lifetime. Rather, as is typical of great works of art, it is the voice and language of the speaker that make this miniature narrative such a powerful story. Therefore, it is not possible to summarize its events without also referring to the words used to describe them.
The style of “The Shawl” is a combination of short, unembellished descriptive and narrative sentences and nightmarish metaphors of human ugliness and transcendent beauty. The story opens with a march through a winter landscape toward a Nazi concentration camp. There are only three characters: Rosa, a young Jewish mother; her fifteen-month-old daughter, Magda; and her fourteen-year-old niece, Stella. The Nazi soldiers are monstrous mechanical abstractions that inflict pain and death rather than real human presences. Rosa is described as a “walking cradle” as she hides the baby between her breasts under her clothes. She feels in a trance, like a “floating angel.” While Magda is like a squirrel in her nest, Stella, her knees like tumors on sticks, is jealous of Magda’s cozy safety.
Ozick uses language to humanize and dehumanize her characters simultaneously. The face of the child is round, a “pocket mirror of a face”; one small tooth sticks up from Magda’s bottom gum like an “elfin tombstone.” The duct crevice of Rosa’s empty breast is like a “dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole.” For lack of physical nourishment, the child sucks on the shawl that gives the story its title—a shawl that Ozick calls magical, for it has nourished the child for three days and nights. Because Magda occupies herself with the shawl, never uttering a sound, she has so far been spared. On the horrifying day described in the story, however, Magda scurries into the prison yard crying loudly for her mother, for Stella has taken her shawl away from her. Although Rosa runs quickly to retrieve the shawl and quiet the baby, she is too late. When she returns to the yard, she sees Magda being carried over the head of a guard and thrown into the electrified fence of the camp: “She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine.” The story ends with Rosa stuffing Magda’s shawl into her mouth to stifle her own screams so she will not also be killed.
The story is so powerful that the reader can hardly bear it, which is Ozick’s point: Rosa, like the millions of others caught in the horror of the Holocaust, can hardly bear it. Yet bear it she must, and “Rosa,” the second story in the collection, recounts how Rosa has borne it. This story is quite different from the first. It is less poetic, less compact, and more discursive; it is more focused on character and consciousness than on visceral and poetic impact. Thirty or forty years after the event of “The Shawl,” Rosa is living in Miami, Florida. Just before the story begins, she has gone “mad” and destroyed her junk store in New York. She is now a middle-aged woman staying in a hotel that caters to the elderly. Her niece, Stella, who still lives in New York, sends her money.
The events of the story focus on a few days of Rosa’s life in which the following events occur: She meets an elderly man, Simon Persky, who is interested in her and wants to get to know her better; she receives a request from a sociologist, Dr. James Tree, who wants to interview her as part of a study he is doing on Holocaust survivors; and she receives the “magical” shawl that she has requested that Stella send to her. Rosa meets Persky, whose wife is in a mental hospital, in a self-service laundry, where he often goes to meet women. When Persky asks her, “You ain’t got a life?” she replies, “Thieves took it.” When Rosa goes home and discovers that she is missing a pair of her underpants from the laundry, she thinks that she has been the victim of another thief, believing that Persky has stolen them. While she is considering this violation of her privacy and person, she receives a more pointed invasion—a letter from Dr. Tree, who wants to treat her as a subject of study; he is developing a theory about survivors of the Holocaust.
Rosa’s search for her lost...
(The entire section is 2079 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
“The Shawl”: Rosa Lublin is freezing and starving on a forced march to a Nazi concentration camp. She is carrying her infant daughter, Magda, wrapped up and hidden in a linen shawl. Rosa’s teenage niece, Stella, walks alongside her and sometimes carries Magda, who sucks on a corner of the shawl when Rosa can no longer nurse her. She thinks about offering her daughter to one of the village women she passes along the way, but she also knows that if she steps out of line she will be shot.
Now at the camp, Magda is beginning to walk. Rosa hides her in the camp barracks by keeping her covered in the shawl. One day, Stella takes the shawl and falls asleep wrapped in it; Magda toddles outside into the sunlight, crying in her first attempt at speech. Rosa stops to find the shawl before running to catch Magda. She sees a German soldier in the distance, carrying Magda toward the electrified fence surrounding the camp. Rosa stuffs the shawl into her own mouth to keep from screaming, as the soldier throws Magda into the fence, killing her.
Rosa: Forty years later, Rosa, now fifty-eight years old, lives in a filthy one-room apartment in Miami. She had owned a second-hand shop in Brooklyn, New York, but vandalized it herself, using a hammer to destroy everything in it. Her niece, Stella, lives in New York and supports Rosa financially. The two women communicate in letters; Stella threatens Rosa with commitment to a mental institution, while Rosa thinks Stella is the...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Rosa, a Polish Jew who has been captured by the Nazis, desperately secures her baby, Magda, in a shawl, but Rosa’s fourteen-year-old niece, Stella, covets that comfort. The three are part of a group of starving people who are being forced to march—presumably to a concentration camp. Rosa worries what might become of her child: If Magda is regarded as “Aryan,” Rosa may give her away in a village. Because Rosa’s body cannot supply the milk that would sustain Magda, Rosa considers the shawl that hides the baby to be magic. Magda seems to live by sucking it, and her breath smells of cinnamon and almonds.
Some time later, Magda, miraculously still alive, is old enough to walk, and she, Rosa, and Stella are in a concentration camp. Concealing Magda is more difficult now. Rosa even suspects that Stella might devour the infant or that another prisoner might inform on Rosa for concealing a child or steal and eat Magda. Magda is not stolen or eaten, however, but meets her death after Stella steals the shawl. Magda runs out of the barracks, into the light of the open space where the prisoners assemble for roll call. To Rosa’s surprise, Magda is howling—revealing that she is not deaf but also dooming herself by drawing the authorities’ attention to her. Rosa hesitates: should she first try to retrieve her child, or go first to get the shawl with which she hopes she will be able to conceal her?
Having decided that it would be futile to...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Shawl” is a brief story that has a lasting impact upon its reader. Ozick’s most anthologized work condenses within seven pages the horrors of the infamous Nazi concentration camps. This prizewinning fiction reverberates with images and themes common in Ozick’s work: the Holocaust, World War II refugees, and secret enmity. Chilling imagery leaves the reader’s senses buzzing like the electrified fence against which Rosa’s fifteen-month-old child, Magda, is thrown. Through Ozick’s powerful, yet uncharacteristically simple language, the reader shares the spiritually elevating love that Rosa, a young mother, has for her infant daughter as well as her forbidden despair over Magda’s barbaric murder.
(The entire section is 387 words.)