Cynthia Ozick’s central intention in The Shawl is to blur the line between life and death in order to imply the continuity of life. She conveys this impression by presenting motherhood as equally biological and spiritual. As Rosa goes from being a mother to being a survivor and a madwoman, she faces conflicts that call into doubt the integrity of her past choices. Knowing that Magda is always near her in spirit, Rosa remains deeply self-righteous about those choices.
Ozick’s intention becomes clear only when the two stories are considered together. Taken alone, “The Shawl” leaves the reader with nothing except the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. One watches as the body of Magda is replaced in Rosa’s head by humming steel voices. After reading “Rosa,” however, one learns that for Rosa motherhood has not ended with Magda’s death; Magda has materialized as a phantasm, appearing to Rosa in many forms. Without the history of “The Shawl” as context, it takes the reader of “Rosa” much longer to discover that Magda exists only in Rosa’s imagination. Examined together, the two stories emphasize the continuity of life through the spiritual bonds offered by motherhood.
By calling herself a “madwoman,” Rosa links herself with a tradition in which angry or grieving women were silenced by being institutionalized as “mad.” In the case of Rosa, that tradition’s truthfulness is undercut by the sarcasm with which the narrator says that she is mad; she is as much a “scavenger” as a “madwoman.” Persky does not view Rosa as truly mad. For him, there is “a bad way of describing, also a good way.” When she says she does not like to lie, he tells her everyone must lie to get along.
By staging The Shawl as a Holocaust drama, Ozick raises the question of motherhood and madness to a feverish pitch. During the Holocaust, women were doubly victimized, their bodies the objects of physical and sexual violence. Rosa tries to...
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