The Shawl Essay - Critical Evaluation

Cynthia Ozick

Critical Evaluation

Cynthia Ozick is part of a generation of Jewish writers who did not experience the Holocaust directly and struggled with the ethics of writing fiction about actual atrocities. Upon publication, the short story “The Shawl” drew fire from critics and readers who felt it was immoral to fictionalize the Holocaust. Fiction writers also had to decide whether to set their stories in ghettos and concentration camps, or to write about characters only indirectly affected by the Holocaust. Having set “The Shawl” in a death camp, Ozick, in Rosa, explores the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust through the perceptions of one survivor.

Rosa’s linen shawl keeps Magda alive by hiding her from soldiers, and it more magically allows Magda to suckle it. Stella indirectly causes Magda’s death after taking the shawl from her, leading the toddler to be seen by a German soldier as she goes outside. When Magda is murdered, Rosa stifles her own scream with the shawl, knowing she could be killed if she attracts attention. Years later, Rosa uses the shawl to trigger her vivid fantasies—that Magda is alive. The shawl also could be linked to the traditional Jewish tallit, a prayer shawl worn as a symbol of faith.

In the two works, Ozick is showing her concern with the nature of Jewish literature and the responsibilities of Jews to carry on their culture and faith. The Shawl, as a collection, examines Jewish identity through Rosa, an assimilated woman...

(The entire section is 609 words.)