Overview (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Shawl combines Cynthia Ozick’s metaphorically complex and morally profound short story of the same title, about the horrors of the Holocaust, with her longer follow-up novella about the personal reverberations of those horrors some thirty years later.
“The Shawl” (1980) is a breathtaking story. In seven short, poetically terrifying pages, Ozick compresses the unspeakable experience of the Holocaust into a story that is as close to formal perfection as a story can be. The plot is thin to the point of nonexistence—a young Jewish mother loses her infant child to the barbarism of the Nazis. The characters are not so much real as they are highly compressed embodiments of tortured terror. It is therefore neither event nor persons that make this story so powerful, although history agrees that the event described is the most shameful in modern life, and the characters in the story suffer more pain in a moment than most human beings will in a lifetime. Rather, as is typical of great works of art, it is the voice and language of the speaker that make this miniature narrative such a powerful story. Therefore, it is not possible to summarize its events without also referring to the words used to describe them.
The style of “The Shawl” is a combination of short, unembellished descriptive and narrative sentences and nightmarish metaphors of human ugliness and transcendent beauty. The story opens with a march through a winter...
(The entire section is 2079 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
“The Shawl”: Rosa Lublin is freezing and starving on a forced march to a Nazi concentration camp. She is carrying her infant daughter, Magda, wrapped up and hidden in a linen shawl. Rosa’s teenage niece, Stella, walks alongside her and sometimes carries Magda, who sucks on a corner of the shawl when Rosa can no longer nurse her. She thinks about offering her daughter to one of the village women she passes along the way, but she also knows that if she steps out of line she will be shot.
Now at the camp, Magda is beginning to walk. Rosa hides her in the camp barracks by keeping her covered in the shawl. One day, Stella takes the shawl and falls asleep wrapped in it; Magda toddles outside into the sunlight, crying in her first attempt at speech. Rosa stops to find the shawl before running to catch Magda. She sees a German soldier in the distance, carrying Magda toward the electrified fence surrounding the camp. Rosa stuffs the shawl into her own mouth to keep from screaming, as the soldier throws Magda into the fence, killing her.
Rosa: Forty years later, Rosa, now fifty-eight years old, lives in a filthy one-room apartment in Miami. She had owned a second-hand shop in Brooklyn, New York, but vandalized it herself, using a hammer to destroy everything in it. Her niece, Stella, lives in New York and supports Rosa financially. The two women communicate in letters; Stella threatens Rosa with commitment to a mental institution, while...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Rosa, a Polish Jew who has been captured by the Nazis, desperately secures her baby, Magda, in a shawl, but Rosa’s fourteen-year-old niece, Stella, covets that comfort. The three are part of a group of starving people who are being forced to march—presumably to a concentration camp. Rosa worries what might become of her child: If Magda is regarded as “Aryan,” Rosa may give her away in a village. Because Rosa’s body cannot supply the milk that would sustain Magda, Rosa considers the shawl that hides the baby to be magic. Magda seems to live by sucking it, and her breath smells of cinnamon and almonds.
Some time later, Magda, miraculously still alive, is old enough to walk, and she, Rosa, and Stella are in a concentration camp. Concealing Magda is more difficult now. Rosa even suspects that Stella might devour the infant or that another prisoner might inform on Rosa for concealing a child or steal and eat Magda. Magda is not stolen or eaten, however, but meets her death after Stella steals the shawl. Magda runs out of the barracks, into the light of the open space where the prisoners assemble for roll call. To Rosa’s surprise, Magda is howling—revealing that she is not deaf but also dooming herself by drawing the authorities’ attention to her. Rosa hesitates: should she first try to retrieve her child, or go first to get the shawl with which she hopes she will be able to conceal her?
Having decided that it would be futile to...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Shawl” is a brief story that has a lasting impact upon its reader. Ozick’s most anthologized work condenses within seven pages the horrors of the infamous Nazi concentration camps. This prizewinning fiction reverberates with images and themes common in Ozick’s work: the Holocaust, World War II refugees, and secret enmity. Chilling imagery leaves the reader’s senses buzzing like the electrified fence against which Rosa’s fifteen-month-old child, Magda, is thrown. Through Ozick’s powerful, yet uncharacteristically simple language, the reader shares the spiritually elevating love that Rosa, a young mother, has for her infant daughter as well as her forbidden despair over Magda’s barbaric murder.
Initially, the shawl provides warmth and protection as it hides the secret child. When Rosa can no longer suckle, the shawl magically nourishes Magda with the “milk of linen.” In its third life-giving role, the shawl provides companionship, as Magda silently laughs with it as if it were the sister she never had. Without the shawl, Magda, separated from her source of life, is completely vulnerable. Her secret existence is instantly discovered, and her brief life brutally extinguished.
The central metaphor, the shawl, wraps baby Magda and the story in many layers of interpretation. Ozick has crafted her three characters in the fashion of a fifteenth century morality play. In a morality play, each character represents moral qualities...
(The entire section is 387 words.)
"The Shawl" opens with a description of three people, suffering tremendously, who are walking. The narrator notes that Rosa has a yellow star sewn into her coat, and Magda has blue eyes and yellow hair, like one of "them." Soon it is clear that Rosa and Stella are Jewish women who are being marched to a concentration camp. Magda, an infant, will be killed if she is discovered, so Rosa considers giving Magda to someone by the side of the road. But Rosa fears that she will be shot if she leaves the line, or that the person she tries to pass Magda to might not take her, or might drop her, killing her instantly. She continues to hide the baby inside her shawl.
In the camp, Rosa manages to keep Magda hidden for some time. Rosa knows, however, that Magda will die. She fears that someone, perhaps Stella, will kill Magda to eat her, or that she will be discovered somehow. As Rosa protects Magda, Magda protects her shawl. It is "her baby, her pet, her little sister." She hides in it, laughs at it when it blows in the wind, and sucks on it for sustenance.
One day, Stella steals Magda's shawl to put over herself. Searching for the shawl, Magda toddles into the square outside the barracks, screaming "Maaaa—.'' Rosa cannot run to Magda or they will both be killed. Instead, she runs to get the shawl, hoping to return to the courtyard in time to catch Magda's attention and stop her screaming before she is discovered. But Rosa is too late. She watches as...
(The entire section is 319 words.)