In Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl,” imagination functions in various ways in the life of Rosa, a mother who is trying to look after her two daughters – Magda (an infant) and Stella (an adolescent) – while all three are Jewish prisoners of the Nazis during World War II.
Among the ways in which imagination functions in Rosa’s life are the following:
- At one point, as the three are being force-marched by the Nazis, the narrator reports this of the tired, famished, frightened Rosa:
Rosa did not feel hunger; she felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air, not there, not touching the road.
In this case, Rosa’s imagination helps her survive physically. She can endure the physical torments of the journey partly because she is not aware of them. Her imagination has helped lift her – at least momentarily – above and beyond physical pain. She even feels somewhat powerful (“alert and seeing everything”).
- Later, the narrator notes that “Rosa, floating, dreamed of giving Magda giving away in one of the villages.” Here Rosa’s imagination allows her to consider one possible way of saving her infant, but reality soon intrudes she considers all the practical reasons that giving the baby away would be impossible.
Later, when Rosa feels desperate to recover Magda’s shawl to prevent her baby's screaming from attracting the Nazis’ attention, Rosa imagines her own body commanding her to retrieve the shawl. These imagined commands help give her the strength to do what she needs to do.
- Later still, as Rosa races to the barracks to retrieve the shawl and then races back toward the “arena” where she left her baby, the narrator reports that
Rosa tore the shawl free and flew – she could fly, she was only air – into the arena. 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.
Once again, Rosa imagines herself flying, and once again imagination helps give her the strength to do what must be done. It gives her a sense of power and beauty that not only helps her survive but also helps her want to survive. The assumption that beauty exists beyond the confines of the camp helps give her a further reason (besides her love for Rosa) to want to try to live.
- However, although Rosa retrieves the shawl, she sees Magda being carried off and away by a German soldier. Rosa imagines that voices coming from the electrified fence are speaking to her:
The farther she was from the fence, the more clearly the voices crowded at her. The lamenting voices strummed so convincingly, so passionately, it was impossible to suspect them of being phantoms. The voices told her to hold up the shawl, high; the voices told her to shake it, to whip wit it, to unfurl it like a flag. Rosa lifted, shook, whipped, unfurled.
Once again Rosa’s imagination helps her do what seems to be necessary to try to save her daughter, but in this case the help is of no avail.
Ozick seems to imply, in this story, that our imaginations help us survive and act in circumstances in which our mere bodies might easily disappoint us.