The Shawl (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Although it does not happen often (for short stories do not have the prestige or readership of novels), every once in a while an American short story appears that has such a powerful and immediate effect that it is destined to become a classic. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” with its bestial crime and its methodical detective, is such a story from the early development of the short-story form; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” with its inextricable mix of myth and reality and its shocking and unforgettable climax, is another from its more recent history. What characterizes such stories is either a visceral impact that seems to strike the reader directly, without the intermediary of thought, or such consummate craftsmanship that the story impresses one as a stylistic tour de force. “The Shawl,” by Cynthia Ozick, about a young Jewish woman in a German concentration camp whose infant is thrown into an electrified fence, is such a story. Although it is very slight, a scant two thousand words, it has the force of a physical assault on the reader. It is not solely the event that creates such an impact, however, as horrible as that event is; it is also the hallucinatory style with which the fiction is created.
“The Shawl” was included in Best American Short Stories, 1981 and won first prize that year in the annual a Henry Prize Stories competition; it has since been anthologized in numerous college-level short-story textbooks and thus widely read and taught. Yet it is so cryptic and sparse, so bleak and almost mute in its starkness, that it seemed to cry out for some consequence—not so much a sequel as a substratum, something that would provide a base of explanation or ordinary reality for such a nightmarish and inexplicable event. In 1983, Ozick provided such a follow-up with the longer, more discursive story “Rosa,” which focuses on the unfortunate mother in “The Shawl” some thirty years later, living isolated and alone in Florida with the memory of her experience. This second story, long enough to be classified as a novella, was included in the Best American Short Stories, 1983 and also won first prize in the annual a Henry Prize Stories competition in the year of its publication. Now, the two stories have been printed together by Ozick’s publisher, creating a thin volume that can be read in about an hour. It is an hour that the reader will not soon forget.
Cynthia Ozick is a Jewish short-story writer in the tradition of Bernard Malamud, for her typical story, an almost magical blend of lyricism and realism, creates a world that is both mythically distant and socially immediate. Although she is also a skilled novelist and poet, as well as the author of a number of essays on Judaism, art, and feminism, it is her short stories that most powerfully reflect her mythic imagination and her poetic use of language.
The magic of the story “The Shawl” is largely a result of its point of view, which, although it remains with Rosa the mother and reflects her feelings, also exhibits the detached poetry of the nameless narrator. For example, Rosa’s dried-up breast, from which the infant Magda cannot suck milk, is described as a “dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole”; the infant’s budding tooth is imaged as “an elfin tombstone of white marble.” The perspective of this grotesque poetry reflects the extremity of the horror of the Holocaust itself. When the reader sees the knees of Stella (Rosa’s teenage niece) as “tumors of sticks,” the Holocaust is seen as though no ordinary imagery were adequate to capture it, no ordinary voice capable of describing it.
To try to reflect the horrors of the Jewish persecution under Adolf Hitler in terms of sheer numbers is to create such a numbing effect that it becomes abstractly unreal. Consequently, Ozick captures the horror by focusing on a single limited event, an event that is insignificant in the overall scope of things, but that somehow captures the horror in its quintessential reality. Yet it is not merely the death of the infant that is so horrifying in “The Shawl,” for the story makes it clear that the child was sick and bound to die soon anyway—as indeed millions did die; nor is it the Jewishness of the infant that makes it so pathetic, for the story suggests that the child is the result of Rosa’s rape by a Nazi soldier and indeed is like “one of their babies.” As soon as the reader even thinks such things, however—that the child was doomed anyway or that...
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“The Shawl,” 1980 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Rosa Lubin, a young Polish refugee in a Nazi concentration camp with her infant, Magda, and her fourteen-year-old niece, Stella. They have been so brutalized that they are hardly recognizable as human. Rosa feels no hunger or pain, but rather light, as if she were an angel in a trance. Her only concern is to keep Magda concealed and thus alive. When Magda is discovered and her life is in danger, Rosa can do nothing but watch in horrified silence.
Magda, Rosa’s infant daughter, who has the swollen belly of the starving. Because she can get no nourishment from Rosa’s dried-up breasts, she sucks on the corner of a shawl, which seems to have some sort of magic power to comfort and sustain her. Because of her Aryan appearance, it seems clear that Magda is the result of Rosa being raped by one of the Nazi guards. Rosa loves her nevertheless and tries desperately to hide her. Magda maintains absolute silence until Stella steals her shawl to warm her own body; Magda stumbles into the open camp yard crying out for it. In a horrifying poetic passage, with Rosa watching in anguish but unable to do anything, a Nazi guard throws Magda into an electrified fence. She dies instantly.
Stella, Rosa’s fourteen-year-old niece, the indirect cause of Magda’s death when she takes away her shawl. She is so close to death from starvation and exposure that she can think of no one but herself.
“Rosa,” 1983 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Rosa Lubin, now a fifty-eight-year old woman. She smashes the contents of the secondhand furniture store she ran in New York City and moves to Miami, Florida, to live alone in a tenement hotel. More than thirty years after the death of her infant daughter Magda in the concentration camp, Rosa tries to stay isolated from others. Her only communication is with the imagined Magda and the hated Stella, to whom she still refers as the “Angel of Death.” After a nightmarish journey in Miami, looking for a pair of underpants lost when doing her laundry, she, with the help of the elderly Mr. Persky, tries to free herself of her fantasies about Magda and the magic shawl and begin human relationships again.
Magda, Rosa’s infant daughter, who was killed by a Nazi prison guard in “The Shawl.” Rosa imagines that she is still alive and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York.
Stella, who is now forty-nine years old. She remains unmarried and lives and works in New York. She sends money to Rosa and tries to make her give up her fantasy of Magda still being alive and her conviction that the shawl is somehow magical. At Rosa’s request, Stella mails the shawl to her.
Simon Persky, a seventy-one-year old interested in Rosa. He flirts with her and tries to bring her out of her isolation. At one point, Rosa mistakenly thinks he has stolen a pair of her underpants from a laundromat. At the end of the story, in a gesture of new communication, Rosa allows Simon to come to her hotel room. This gesture drives away the fantasy of Magda.
Dr. James Tree
Dr. James Tree, a sociologist who wants to interview Rosa for a study he is doing of survivors of the Nazi camps.
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The short story and the novella that constitute The Shawl were published separately in The New Yorker. Taken together, they present a powerful narrative about one woman’s attempt to maintain sanity in the face of the tragedy of the Holocaust. In “The Shawl,” a rhetorically minimalist short story, Rosa and her niece Stella walk, with Rosa’s silent infant Magda wrapped into the shawl around Rosa’s chest, the long cold roads to the death camp. Although Rosa’s breasts are dry, the infant finds nourishment in the shawl itself, sucking it instead of screaming. Rosa is certain that her niece resents Magda’s warmth and security inside the shawl; through richly suggestive images, she suggests that Stella is...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Like Ozick’s previous stories, The Shawl provides a Jewish woman’s perspective on social and historical issues. While Ozick often presents the universal human condition through the eyes of women, she claims to be a “social” writer, exploring connections between people rather than their differences. Her “classical feminism” denies any separate psychology on the basis of sex. She writes about the ordinary as women experience it. Perennial issues of the intrinsic worth of all human beings, the conflict between traditions, and the contest between the imaginary and the rational are central in her work. Her skillful attention to these issues won her a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982 and caused her to be elected a...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Shawl” remarkably applies lyrical language to the Holocaust. From the sixth sentence, in which Rosa calls herself “a walking cradle,” Ozick repeatedly uses metaphor to convey the intensity of her perceptions. Her language is also precise. The series of images at the start of a sentence about Rosa’s milkless breasts—“The duct-crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole”—shows Rosa struggling to say exactly what she means. This sentence also illustrates the compression of which Ozick is capable. She squeezes into a dozen words what some writers would extend through several sentences. In her essay “The Seam of the Snail,” Ozick describes herself as a “pinched perfectionist” who scrupulously...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
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 (Winter, 1997): 963-990. Discusses Ozick’s use of the midrashic approach in The Shawl to emphasize the irreconcilable cultural and historical tensions that resulted from the Holocaust. Combining fiction and parable, Ozick’s novel preserves personal, social, and historical experiences to create a recounting of the Holocaust.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views:...
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