The Shawl: A Story and a Novella, Cynthia Ozick
The Shawl: A Story and a Novella Cynthia Ozick
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Trudie Vosce) American short fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism of Ozick's short fiction collection The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989).
One of Ozick's most critically acclaimed works, The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989), consisting of the short story “The Shawl” and the novella “Rosa,” provides a devastating picture of the Holocaust and a survivor's life after it. Considered a departure from Ozick's previously cerebral and ironic tone, the fierceness and immediacy of The Shawl make it one of her most powerful works. The focus of these narratives is a woman who idolatrously worships the memory of her infant daughter who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
Plot and Major Characters
The Shawl tells the story of Rosa Lublin's life, both during the Holocaust and her existence afterwards in Florida. “The Shawl,” which first appeared in the New Yorker on May 26, 1980, depicts the death of Rosa's fifteen-month-old daughter, Magda, in a concentration camp and the shawl that sustained her when Rosa's breasts could not. “Rosa,” originally published in the New Yorker on March 23, 1983, is set some thirty years later in Florida, where Rosa has moved after burning down her store in New York. The torment Rosa still feels from her experience in the concentration camp can be seen through her interactions with Stella, a niece who shared her experience in the camp and now supports Rosa from New York, and Rosa's interactions with people in her immediate surroundings including Dr. Tree, who would like her to join a study on people who have been incarcerated and malnourished. The effects of Rosa's horrifying experience can be seen through her memories and her active imagination. Throughout the story, she brings her daughter back to life in order to invent different lives for her, which serve to allow the reader to see the intense psychological and emotional effects of having lived through such an odious event. It is only through a friendship she begins to forge with the unrelenting Simon Persky, also originally from Warsaw, that she may be able to escape the torment of her own experiences.
Although the Holocaust serves as a touchstone in much of Ozick's short fiction, for the most part her works examine the dilemma of being Jewish in modern Western society, particularly the United States. However, “The Shawl” focuses on the experience and the horror of the Holocaust itself. Despite its brevity, Ozick vividly conveys the unspeakable atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps. “Rosa” then focuses on the aftereffects of such an experience on Rosa. The loss of her daughter and Rosa's obsession with the shawl that Magda carried until just prior to her death come to symbolize one of the strongest themes of the collection, the extreme losses suffered by the Holocaust survivors. The shawl also points to a second theme that does not appear until the very end of the text, that of recovery. It is only when Rosa is finally reunited with Magda's shawl that the reader can see the possibility of Rosa letting go of the past and focusing on the present.
Since the publication of her first novel Trust (1966), Ozick has garnered critical acclaim for her attention to language and thought-provoking arguments about Jewish American culture. Reviews of The Shawl commend the powerful manner in which Ozick portrays the brutality of the Holocaust both in the camps themselves and in its aftereffects. Both “The Shawl” and “Rosa” won first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories and were chosen for Best American Short Stories. Much of the criticism of Ozick's works focuses on her identity as a Jewish woman and her representations of Jewish people in her texts. Although many critics are quick to find somewhat simplistic interpretations of both works, many others point to the complexity of the characters and situations created by Ozick. Ozick herself has warned against reducing her work to oversimplified themes; instead, readers need to examine the intricacies and accept the contradictions. Many scholars have focused their criticism on one of Ozick's major recurring themes—the contradiction between writing fiction and obeying Jewish law which forbids the creation of idols. The critical reaction to Ozick's argument that art can act as a form of idolatry has been sharply mixed.
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories 1971
Bloodshed and Three Novellas 1976
Levitation: Five Fictions 1982
*The Shawl: A Story and a Novella 1989
Puttermesser Papers 1997
Trust (novel) 1966
Art and Ardor (essays) 1983
The Cannibal Galaxy (novel) 1983
The Messiah of Stockholm (novel) 1987
Fame and Folly: Essays (essays) 1989
Metaphor and Memory: Essays (essays) 1989
What Henry James Knew and Other Essays on Writers (essays) 1993
Blue Light (play) 1994
Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (essays) 1996
Quarrel and Quandary (essays) 2000
*Includes the short story “The Shawl” and the novella “Rosa,” which is also termed a story by some critics.
(The entire section is 97 words.)
SOURCE: Kauver, Elaine M. “The Magic Shawl.” In Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention, pp. 179-202. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Kauver investigates how themes from Ozick's earlier writings both reoccur and change in The Shawl.]
A writer who resists finality is a writer whose imagination is given over to a habit of many sidedness and multiplicity. Having concluded The Cannibal Galaxy and “The Laughter of Akiva” in Miami, Florida, with Joseph Brill and Reuben Karpov inhabiting at the end of their lives a metaphoric hell of their own devising, Ozick begins “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” which she wrote during the same period, with Rosa Lublin first in the demonic hell of the Nazi death camps and then in the continuing hell of their aftermath. Initially published separately—“The Shawl” in 1980 and “Rosa” in 1983—before they appeared in a single volume in 1989, the two stories are wed thematically, yoked by corresponding images, and unified by a commanding metaphor; the tales flow seamlessly together. Ozick duplicates their imagery, pairs their events, and then allows them to coalesce so as to see them with double sight. In its emphasis on the relationship between mother and daughter, in its engagement with the significance of silence, in its involvement with the idea of cannibalism, The Shawl bears marked resemblances to...
(The entire section is 13321 words.)
SOURCE: Gordon, Andrew. “Cynthia Ozick's ‘The Shawl’ and the Transitional Object.” Literature and Psychology 40, nos. 1 and 2 (1994): 1-9.
[In the following essay, Gordon examines the shawl as a transitional object, as defined by D.W. Winnicott, and as the focus of the conflict in “The Shawl.”]
Cynthia Ozick's “The Shawl” (1980) is a Holocaust story about a mother struggling heroically but in vain to save her baby in a death camp. Brief and poetically compressed—two thousand words, just two pages in its original publication in The New Yorker—it has a shattering impact. Ozick manages to avoid the common pitfalls of Holocaust fiction: on the one hand, she does not sentimentalize, but on the other, she does not numb the reader with a succession of horrifying events.1 She works largely through metaphor, “indirection and concentration” (Lowin 107). For example, the words “Jew,” “Nazi,” “concentration camp,” or even “war” are never mentioned; these would arouse the kind of immediate, unearned responses Ozick eschews. We do not know what year it is or what country. As the story opens, we only know that three female characters—Rosa, her fifteen-month-old baby Magda, and a fourteen-year-old girl named Stella (only in a sequel story, “Rosa” , do we learn that Stella is Rosa's niece)—are being marched, exhausted and starving, toward an unknown...
(The entire section is 3178 words.)
SOURCE: Kremer, S. Lillian. “The Holocaust and the Witnessing Imagination.” In Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women's Writing as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgari, pp. 231-46. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
[In the following essay, Kremer compares The Shawl to Touching Evil by Jewish American writer Norma Rosen, while exploring the violence brought upon Jewish women in the Holocaust.]
Writing by Jewish American women focusing on women's Holocaust experience portrays Jewish women doubly cursed in the Nazi universe as racial pariahs and sexual victims, brutalized while the world remained silent. Although the primary motives of the Nazis' commitment to the destruction of the Jewish people were rooted in political, racial, and religious beliefs, women experienced the Holocaust in ways unique to their gender. Beyond the starvation, disease, hard labor, and physical violence endured by all victims, women were subject to gender-based suffering and degradation. They were sexually abused and subjected to medical experiments; pregnant women were killed or forced to undergo abortions; infants were systematically destroyed at birth; and young mothers were routinely murdered with their children rather than selected for slave labor. When the survivors returned to civilization, silence about their experience was often both internally and externally imposed. Some sought to...
(The entire section is 6807 words.)
SOURCE: Alkana, Joseph. “‘Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?’: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, The Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 4 (winter 1997): 963-90.
[In the following essay, Alkana argues that Ozick presents a “more complex post-Holocaust literary aesthetic” than previous authors writing of the Holocaust have offered.]
For American Jewish writers, the Holocaust remains a compelling subject for fiction; and their work constitutes an ongoing reply to Theodor Adorno's famous claim “that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87). The task of telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfictional or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories, particularly stories of life after Auschwitz. A work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus features a self-conscious narrative style that addresses this as an imperative while highlighting the sense that conventional literary forms may be inadequate to the task. Such anxiety is evident in the trajectory of American Jewish literary attitudes toward the Holocaust, and the career of Philip Roth exemplifies changing literary responses to the Holocaust.
The characteristic American Jewish response during the years following...
(The entire section is 10325 words.)
SOURCE: Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “The Languages of Memory: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl.” In Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, pp. 313-26. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Wirth-Nesher examines how fiction acts as collective memory and the specific instance in The Shawl of the fictional account of a Holocaust survivor's remembrance.]
There is One God, and the Muses are not Jewish but Greek.
Since the coming forth from Egypt five millenia ago, mine is the first generation to think and speak and write wholly in English.
The first of Cynthia Ozick's epigraphic assertions concerns the relationship between Judaism and artistic representation; the second concerns the means of representation and of communication within Jewish civilization. The first concerns what Jews may say; the second, how they say it. It is clear in the first statement that there is an ethical imperative, that certain forms of representation are antithetical to Judaism. Ozick has repeatedly argued that invented fictional worlds are forms of idolatry, reenactments of paganism. Ozick's only recourse out of the paradox of inventing...
(The entire section is 7598 words.)
SOURCE: Rosenberg, Meisha. “Cynthia Ozick's Post-Holocaust Fiction: Narration and Morality in the Midrashic Mode.” Journal of the Short Story in English 32 (spring 1999): 113-27.
[In the following essay, Rosenberg investigates how Ozick's use of the midrashic mode, which finds its origins in “to search” or “to inquire,” allows her to approach the topic of the Holocaust.]
Cynthia Ozick's writings can be viewed in light of a midrashic mode by virtue of her need to sustain Jewish tradition in the wake of great devastation—the Holocaust. What is the proper mode of representation for an event that is arguably unprecedented, not only in the history of the Jews, but in the history of humankind? Figurative discourse about the Holocaust has experienced considerable objections,1 haunted as it still is by Theodor Adorno's famous pronouncement that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This despite the fact that Adorno later qualified his statement.2 Writers and artists today are still wary about approaching the subject, for fear that works classified as fiction about the Holocaust will only fuel the arguments of the all-too-prevalent Holocaust deniers.3 Fiction and art that is not rooted to historical reality can create distortion, saccharin morality tales about the “triumph of the human spirit”, and at the worst, obfuscation and denial. One has to be...
(The entire section is 5968 words.)
SOURCE: Hattenhauer, Darryl, Shay McCool, and P. K. McMahon. “Ozick's The Shawl.” The Explicator 57, no. 4 (summer 1999): 238-9.
[In the following essay, Hattenhauer, McCool, and McMahon, in a close reading of the “The Shawl”'s conclusion, suggest that a complex reading is more appropriate than a simplistic one.]
Critics have pondered the indeterminate plot resolution of Cynthia Ozick's “The Shawl,” which ends with a Nazi throwing an infant onto an electrified fence. Many critics contend that the murder is affirmative because the infant's death somehow surmounts the suffering of the Holocaust—that her death saves the infant Magda from further suffering, or that her death delivers others from suffering. For example Amy Gottfried claims that Ozick “grants the most powerless of victims a final moment of transcendence […]” (42).
Indeed, some of the air imagery suggests transcendence. Rosa, Magda's mother, seems like an angel. She feels “light, like someone in a faint […] someone who is already a floating angel […] in the air” (33). When Rosa chases after the wandering Magda, Rosa is so light that she can fly: “Rosa […] flew—she could fly, she was only air—into the arena” (34). Magda is even more angelic. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, she is the typical image of an angel. Her hair is like feathers, and her breath smells like...
(The entire section is 709 words.)
Friedman, Lawrence S. “Bloodshed and Three Novellas and The Shawl: A Story and a Novella.” In Understanding Cynthia Ozick, pp. 88-121. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Investigates Holocaust imagery and representations of Holocaust survivors.
Rosen, Alan. “The Specter of Eloquence: Reading the Survivor's Voice.” In Celebrating Elie Wiesel: Stories, Essays, Reflections, edited by Alan Rosen, pp. 41-56. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.
Rosen compares the use of early and late testimony in Art Spiegelman's Maus to Ozick's Rosa.
Yalom, Marilyn. “Cynthia Ozick's Paradoxical Wisdom.” In People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity, edited by Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, pp. 427-38. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
Yalom examines the complexity of Ozick's representation of the Jewish experience.
Additional coverage of Ozick's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Bestsellers, 1990:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 7, 28, 62, 155;...
(The entire section is 224 words.)