Discuss the lack of setting details provided by the author in "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick.

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Cynthia Ozicks’s short story "The Shawl," first published in 1980, depicts the suffering endured during the Holocaust by focusing on three characters—Rosa, Stella, and baby Magda—in two main settings: the march to a concentration camp and then life within the camp.

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Cynthia Ozicks’s short story "The Shawl," first published in 1980, depicts the suffering endured during the Holocaust by focusing on three characters—Rosa, Stella, and baby Magda—in two main settings: the march to a concentration camp and then life within the camp.

It is a short story of under 2,000 words, so every word is carefully chosen to create an image for the reader. As such, although there is not a lot of detail given with regards to the settings, there is sufficient information to gain a clear understanding of place and location. Furthermore, because there is so much evidence available about life in concentration camps, the writer knows that by giving some basic details, the reader can fill in the gaps themselves.

Of the walk to the camp, we know the characters “walked on the roads together,” and it was very cold (“the coldness of hell”). We also read that there are villages along the side of the road. There are no other physical descriptions of place, but by describing the coldness and emotions of the characters, the reader can easily create an image in their head of what the scene looks like.

Descriptions of the camp itself are again fairly minimal, but other means are used to create a sense of place—by talking about the characters and what they are experiencing, we connect emotions and moods with the place. There is mention of the barracks, “the square outside the barracks, in the jolly light,” and “the roll call arena” where the people have to gather. We don’t really gain a sense of the objective size of the arena, but the following lines tell us all we need to know: “How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side!” The electric fence is another important detail, for both the setting and the plot, and again, there is little information, but there is enough to describe its relevance and impact. Thus setting details are incorporated into the telling of the story and resonate with their relevance to what happens.

Likewise, the more detailed description of what lies beyond the fence contrasted with what is contained within its perimeter is telling:

The sunheat murmured of another life, of butterflies in summer. The light was placid, mellow. On the other side of the steel fence, far away, there were green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets; beyond them, even farther, innocent tiger lilies, tall, lifting their orange bonnets. In the barracks they spoke of “flowers,” of “rain”: excrement, thick turd-braids, and the slow stinking maroon waterfall that slunk down from the upper bunks, the stink mixed with a bitter fatty floating smoke that greased Rosa’s skin.

It reminds us of the past and gives hope for some kind of future, outside the current reality the women are experiencing. Similarly, in some ways, a main setting of the story could be understood as the shawl itself. This houses and holds the baby, outside and in, and creates a separate space, described in more detail, that to some extent exists outside of the rules of the camp.

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In “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, there are two settings in the story: the road that the women walk on toward the concentration camp and then, the camp. Both of the settings play an important role in the lives of the characters. 

In most stories, the setting plays an important role.  It determines the time period, the weather, the historical era, and location.  The setting serves as a backdrop for the characters and the events that impact their lives. 

The setting of this story lacks in-depth description.  It is assumed by the author that the reader can fill in the images of the actual places in his mind. 

The path to despair begins with the wintry road on which the women walk through villages. Rosa fantasizes about giving her infant Magda to one of the villagers to save her.  Little description is given, but the reader can see and feel the cold as the women march toward the death camp. 

The concentration camp’s depiction includes little actual images.  However, there is insight into the horror of the camp:

They were in a place without pity, all pity was annihilated in Rosa, she looked at Stella’s bones without pity.  She was sure that Stella was waiting for Magda to die so she could put her teeth into her little thighs. 

When Stella warms herself with the shawl, she begins a chain of events that leads to her baby cousin's death. She steals the shawl that was the most important thing in Magda’s life. Magda searches for the shawl and ends up outside the actual barracks. 

The writer provides the square outside the barracks with the most imagery. This is the place of death for little Magda. The area is filled with sunlight and Rosa calls the area an arena.

There was an electrified fence and, on the other side of the fence, there was a beautiful meadow with many kinds of flowers. The fence hums with its electricity. No more description is needed because Magda is thrown into the fence and electrocuted while her mother is forced to watch, never able to scream or run to her daughter's body.

The setting is ultimately important because nothing in the story would have occurred if the characters were placed somewhere else.  The details of the setting were primarily left to the imagination with the author assuming that through television and historical movies the reader would have a visual of the camp in their mind’s eye.

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