Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised 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.)
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The shawl itself evokes the single most powerful theme of the story: the magical provision of safety, nourishment, and succor within a hostile environment. Magda is seen as special, a child to be saved from the Holocaust. She is protected by a "magic shawl" that shields her from the Nazis and nourishes her when her mother's breasts stop providing milk. It is a shawl that keeps Magda quiet when she must hide during roll call and protects her from the "bad wind with pieces of black in it, that made Stella's and Rosa's eyes tear". Yet perhaps what makes the story so horrifying is how the magical shawl is then twisted, corrupted from being an agent of deliverance into a device that delivers suffering.
While Rosa seeks to protect her only child, her niece Stella—still a selfish child herself—cannot stand the cold and the hunger. When she snatches the shawl from Magda, she snatches away not only Magda's comfort but her own. For after that point, "the cold went into her heart." Meanwhile, the shawl that once protected Magda has been stripped away, and Magda is now exposed to the world. She leaves the dark, quiet confines, which has kept her alive, and moves out into the sunlight. While the shawl has kept her mute, rendering her safe through silence, the absence of the shawl allows Magda to find her voice. As Magda begins to howl, the shawl itself becomes a symbol of desperation and also of defiance. It is the anchor of Rosa's world, her connection to her...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Underlying Ozick's story is the theme of survival. Rosa struggles with this constantly. During the march to the concentration camp, Rosa struggles over whether or not she should pass Magda to an onlooker, possibly ensuring her child's survival. Rosa decides against this, however, realizing that she would risk her own life in doing so and could not guarantee Magda's safety. Rosa chooses survival in the moment for both of them, rather than probable death for herself and uncertainty for her child. As Rosa struggles over what to do about Magda, Stella longs to be Magda: a baby rocked and sleeping in her mother's arms. Rosa also thinks that the starving Stella gazes at Magda as if she wishes to eat the child. Magda, though far too young to have any knowledge of what is happening to and around her, gives up screaming and quietly sucks on the shawl.
Life in the camp is a constant battle for survival. Rosa, apparently caring more about Magda's survival than her own. gives most of her food to her child. Stella, caring mostly about her own survival, gives no food to Magda. Magda herself turns to the shawl for comfort: it is her "baby, her pet, her little sister"; when she needs to be still—and stillness is necessary to her survival—she sucks on a corner of it.
Halfway through the story, Stella takes Magda's shawl because she is cold. It is, perhaps, the only one of her afflictions that she can do anything about. There is no...
(The entire section is 801 words.)