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...
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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...
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“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...
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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 capable of murder or cannibalism. One day, Stella takes the shawl, causing the baby to wail. Rosa must watch in silence as a camp guard lifts the baby up on his shoulders and hurls it into the electric fence.
The novella begins after Rosa has moved from New York to Miami in order to avoid prosecution for demolishing her antique store; she was frustrated because she was unable to explain to her customers the haunting images of the Holocaust. Rosa lives as if she is still imprisoned in a concentration camp, weaving imagery of the Holocaust throughout her descriptions of Miami.
Because of the heat and her self-pity, Rosa mostly stays in her room in a retirement hotel, composing letters. She writes to Stella in crude...
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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 member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
In choosing to place these universal questions into the life of a female Holocaust survivor, Ozick makes her contribution to the genre of women’s Holocaust fiction, of which the most famous contemporary examples are Norma Rosen’s Touching Evil (1969) and Susan Schaeffer’s Anya (1974). Such fictions represent the double victimization that women are forced to endure during times of war and intensifies it to the most sinister proportions. The Shawl shows survival to be the strongest instinct of all, denying the hopelessness of many male fictionalizations of the Holocaust, such as Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and...
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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 reworks each sentence until it is “comely and muscular.” Perfectionism, however, is not the entire explanation. Often devoting her art to religious purposes, Ozick fashions sentences as though they were ritual. Such an endeavor cannot be taken lightly, especially when writing about the Holocaust, which some thinkers have declared beyond the limits of art, as least the art of persons who were not victims.
“The Shawl” seems to exist outside of time, a quality appropriate to a story designed not merely to document the horrors of the Holocaust, but to convey the mind of a person trapped in that “place without pity.” It is fascinating to reread the fourth and fifth paragraphs and try to determine when the narrative arrives...
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The Great Depression Leads to Hitler's Rise
One of the major historical events of Ozick's lifetime was the Great Depression—the period of economic crisis and unemployment that began in the United States in October, 1929, and continued through most of the 1930s. Although she was born in 1928, one year before the start of the Depression, Ozick claims not to have been affected by it. She describes' 'the family pharmacy as giving a sense of comfort and prosperity," according to Joseph Lowin in Cynthia Ozick.
A series of events that seem to have had a far greater effect on Ozick's work occurred in Europe. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Gennan Reich. Several months later, he proclaimed a one-day boycott of all Jewish shops, followed quickly by the forced retirement of all non-Aryan civil servants, except soldiers. Hitler's persecution of the Jews had begun. He instituted the use of the term "Aryan" to designate members of what they believed to be a' 'master race" of non-Jewish white people, particularly those with Nordic features. Soon, kosher butchering was outlawed, as was the selling of Jewish newspapers in the street. In 1936, Jews lost the right to participate in German elections. In 1938, Jewish passports were marked with a "J," all Jewish businesses were closed down, Jewish students were removed from German schools, and Jews were no longer allowed to attend plays, movies, concerts, or exhibitions By 1939, Jews had to...
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Point of View
'"The Shawl'' is written in an omniscient third-person point of view. It is omniscient because the narrator can see things through the eyes of all the characters. For instance, the narrator tells readers that "Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl," and that "Rosa did not feel hunger"—things which could only be known by that character. The point of view is said to be third person because the narrator speaks about the characters from the outside, referring to them as "she'' or "he.''
"The Shawl" is notable for containing almost no dialogue. Rosa says nothing. Stella speaks twice: once when she calls Magda an "Aryan,'' and again when she says "I was cold'' to explain why she took Magda's shawl. Magda screams in the early part of the story, but soon gives that up. She makes no other sound until her shawl is taken from her; Rosa even thinks Magda is a mute. When Stella steals the shawl, however, Magda says what will be the only word she ever speaks: "Maaaa—." The characters' silence may represent the silence they had to maintain during the march and in the camp in order to protect their lives. Had any of them uttered one word or complaint that could have been overheard by a camp official, they would have been killed, as Magda was. Despite their lack of communication through speech, the plot is intense due to their tragic situation.
Ozick uses an extremely spare style in "The...
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Cynthia Ozick's writing style is powerful primarily because of its lack of direct reference to the horrific events her characters undergo. Initially, the reader is unsure what kind of calamity is unfolding. Ozick mentions cold and hunger and an endless march. Only obliquely does the reader view the Holocaust: via the star sewn into the coat, a grumbling electric fence, or a Nazi SS known only by the glint of his helmet or his domino-like body. Yet, this lack of direct reference is precisely what makes the reference even more powerful. Even Magda's death is described in an almost fantastical manner. Her death is artful, with her small body flying into the air and the growling and grumbling of the electric fence. In fact, it is only Rosa's pain that strikes the reader directly and makes all other oblique references real.
Another effective technique is the intermingling of innocent and horrific images. For instance, Magda's first tooth, which traditionally would evoke ideas about beginning childhood, is in Ozick's story compared to "an elfin tombstone of white marble". Rosa's breasts, normally equated with motherhood and safety, become "cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole." In both cases, the physical detail, normally equated with the beginning of life, is connected to death.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
1. How could it be argued that Stella's stealing the shawl is not evil?
2. Why do you think that Cynthia Ozick never refers directly to the Holocaust?
3. What is the effect, if any, of Magda's having blonde hair and blue eyes?
4. What do you think Magda is supposed to represent? Is Magda meant to be a pitiable figure?
5. Each character in the story has a different reaction to the Holocaust. What, if anything, does each reaction tell you about the meaning of being a survivor? About defiance and defeat?
6. How should Rosa react to Stella after Magda's death?
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"The Shawl" is about a mother Rosa, her niece Stella, and Rosa's child Magda, as they struggle to survive in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Magda is barely old enough to walk and is surviving only because of a magical shawl that nourishes and protects her. While Rosa has the ability to sacrifice everything, even her own food, to keep her daughter alive, fourteen-year-old Stella cannot endure the same sacrifices as her aunt: "Stella gazed at Magda like a young cannibal"; Rosa, in an attempt to save her young child, "learned from Magda how to drink the taste of a finger in one's mouth." Eventually, Stella's bitter cold and her own childlike need to survive causes Stella to take Magda's shawl from her to warm her own body. While in search of the shawl, Magda wanders into the open space of the concentration camp, where she suffers a horrific death at the hands of the Nazis.
Although Cynthia Ozick is not a Holocaust survivor, one of Ozick's primary concerns is the attenuation of the Holocaust through excessive study of its principles and the subsequent objectification of its survivors. While others have reduced the concept of the survivor to an objective, distant subject, Ozick's writing refocuses the reader on the true horror and brutality of the experience in part by wrapping the most horrific events within the confines of what is traditionally a soothing item—a mother's shawl. Ozick uses the Jewish tradition of memory to inform her writing...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: Adolf Hitler's persecution of the Jews in Germany begins in 1933. Discrimination gives way to the loss of all their rights as citizens. In 1938, the Nazis destroy the country's synagogues and begin imprisoning Jews and others in concentration camps, like the one depicted in "The Shawl." The Final Solution escalates throughout World War II, ending only in 1945 when the camps are liberated by the Allies.
1980s: The historical reality of the Holocaust is questioned by the largely discredited fringe organization, the Institute for Historical Review, through articles in the Institute's publication, The Journal of Historical Review.
1990s: New information about the Holocaust continues to make headlines. In 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) admits its ' 'moral failure" to come to the aid of the Jews during the Holocaust. In 1997 the organization releases its wartime files Among the files is an exchange of letters from May, 1940, in which the World Jewish Congress asks the ICRC to investigate reports of the mass murder of Jewish prisoners of war. The ICRC responded several months later that the reports were unfounded. Also in 1997, Swiss banks release information on the dormant accounts opened by Holocaust victims before World War II. The banks are accused of hoarding the money of Holocaust victims.
1940s: The horror of the Holocaust is reflected in the diary of a young...
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Topics for Further Study
Imagine that Rosa and Stella both survived the concentration camps and are alive today. Pick one controversial social issue, such as abortion or welfare. Discuss the position you think each character would take on this issue and why.
Rosa stuffs the shawl into her mouth to keep herself from screaming when Magda is killed. Discuss the significance of this act.
"The Shawl" is written from the third-person omniscient point of view. Why do you think Ozick chose that point of view9 Do you think that first-person narration might have worked better? Why or why not?
Read another contemporary Jewish tale, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool," or Ozick's "The Pagan Rabbi." How are these stories influenced by Jewish religion, lore, tradition?
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Cynthia Ozick is influenced by both Henry James and E. M. Forster. Her first novel, Trust, was in fact criticized for its obviously heavy reliance on Henry James. Later, Ozick was also influenced by Chekov, but her own writing style began to evolve as she learned to seamlessly incorporate the influences of others without sacrificing her own manner. Ultimately, Ozick values the idea of impersonation. Ozick believes that to be a good writer, one must incorporate the character of others to grasp the heart of a character. Doing so requires becoming involved in life—something Ozick contends most writers fail to do. Her fundamental belief is that writing cannot be honest without an honest, heartfelt life experience. In short, those who impersonate life will end by writing in the same false manner in which they live. Perhaps this idea was gleaned from Forster's The Longest Journey, in which characters pay a price for their attempt to imitate life without experiencing it. staged readings in New York at Playwrights Horizons. The final, full-blown production took place under the direction of Sidney Lumet at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre. In 1996, another production was presented off-Broadway, at Playhouse 91 of the American Jewish Repertory Theater. In addition to its theater production, The Shawl was read by actress Claire Bloom on National Public Radio. This series was eventually transferred to an audiocassette version.
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Ozick has published poetry and novels as well as short stories. Among her other works are The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Art and Ardor: Essays (1983), The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Metaphor and Memory: Essays (1989), "The Shawl" (1989), Epodes: First Poems (1992), Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (1994), Fame and Folly (1996), The Puttermesser Papers (1997) and Quarrel and Quandary: Essays (2000).
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After many years of contemplating bringing "The Shawl" to the stage, Ozick finally wrote two plays, The Shawl and Rosa, based on her stories of the same names. The Shawl was originally scheduled to be performed at the American Repertory Theater but was canceled. Eventually, the play received two staged readings in New York at Playwrights Horizons. The final, full-blown production took place under the direction of Sidney Lumet at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre. In 1996, another production was presented off-Broadway, at Playhouse 91 of the American Jewish Repertory Theater. In addition to its theater production, The Shawl was read by actress Claire Bloom on National Public Radio. This series was eventually transferred to an audiocassette version.
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"The Shawl" was adapted as a play by Cynthia Ozick. Directed by the well-known film director Sidney Lumet, the play was performed (as Blue Light) in 1994 at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, and in 1996 at the Jewish Repertory Theater, New York City.
An audio version of "The Shawl," read by actress Claire Bloom, is available on the National Public Radio series "Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond."
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What Do I Read Next?
Ozick's works of nonfiction—Art and Ardor, published in 1987, Metaphor and Memory, published in 1989, and Fame and Folly, published in 1996—discuss literature, Ozick's feelings about her art, and her ideas about the relationship between art and history.
Ozick's story "Rosa," published in The New Yorker in 1983, then in a short story collection paired with "The Shawl," picks up the story of Rosa and Stella some thirty years after the final scene of "The Shawl." It carries over some of the themes and images from the earlier story.
Elie Wiesel's memoir Night (1960) portrays Wiesel's own experiences as a teenager imprisoned in two concentration camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. At least one critic, Elaine Kauvar, believes there are allusions to Night in "The Shawl."
Anne Frank's The Diary of Anne Frank describes the life of a Jewish family trying to elude capture by the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II. It is written by a young Jewish girl, a girl of about the age that Stella is in "The Shawl."
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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: Cynthia Ozick. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This volume of essays gathers together a representative selection of the best criticism so far available of Ozick’s fiction, arranged by subject in chronological order of its original publication.
Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Offers an overview of Ozick’s use of comedy in her short fiction. Chapters focus on single or multiple works, including The Shawl. Includes a selected bibliography of other critical works.
Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Halpenn, Irving "The Shawl," in Commonweal, Vol.116, December 15,1989, pp 7-11.
Hoffert, Barbara "The Shawl," in Library Journal, Vol 114, August, 1989, p 165.
Kauvar, Elaine M Cynthia Ozick's Fiction. Tradition & Invention, Indiana University Press, 1993.
Klmgenstem, Suzanne "Destructive Intimacy: The Shoah Between Mother and Daughter in Fictions by Cynthia Ozick, Noraia Rosen and Rebecca Goldstein," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 11, No 2, Fall, 1992, pp 162- 73.
Prose, Francine A review of "The Shawl,'' in The New York Times Book Review, September 10,1989, p 1, 39.
Chartock, Roselle and Jack Spence, eds The Holocaust Years- Society on Trial, Bantam Books, 1978.
One of many histories of the Holocaust, Chartock and Spencer's book is notable for its clear chronology of the events in Europe from 1933 to 1945, its discussions of prejudice and scapegoating, and behavior under stress, and many essays in the words of witnesses and of Nazis themselves.
Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art- From Levity to Liturgy, Indiana University Press, 1994
Cohen concentrates on Ozick's use of irony in her work
Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick, Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Lowin's book provides an excellent overview of Ozick's life and work. It includes a...
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