Study Guide

The Shawl

by Cynthia Ozick

The Shawl Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although Magda dies, “The Shawl” affirms the miracle of courage. Rosa doggedly conceals and sustains her child during the exhausting march and then under the horrible conditions in the camp. As agonizing as the final paragraph may seem, it emphasizes the steadfastness and fortitude that enable Rosa to survive the death of her child as well as her persecution by the Nazis.

Much can be learned from this brief story about the mass persecution of Jews and other Europeans that has become known as the Holocaust. In her autobiographical essay “Washington Square, 1946,” Cynthia Ozick says that she “lived in the narrow throat of poetry” until she was “at last hammer-struck with the shock of Europe’s skull, the bled planet of death camp and war.” The early paragraphs of “The Shawl” evoke the exhaustion, starvation, and terror of prisoners forced from their homes by the Germans. One notices the infamous yellow stars that were sewn onto clothing to brand Jews. From Rosa’s concern that her baby has blue eyes and blond hair, which may reveal Magda to be one of their babies, it appears that Rosa probably has been raped by her captors.

Later, the sunlit roll-call arena suggests the terrorizing tactics of the camp guards, and the “flowers” and “rain” of excrement and urine establish the disgusting conditions inside the prisoners’ barracks. The electrified fence indicates the technologically efficient and impersonal means...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

The Shawl Themes

The shawl itself evokes the single most powerful theme of the story: the magical provision of safety, nourishment, and succor within a...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

The Shawl Themes

Survival
Underlying Ozick's story is the theme of survival. Rosa struggles with this constantly. During the march to the...

(The entire section is 801 words.)