Describe the setting of the story in "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick takes place during World War II.  The Holocaust supplies the historical context for the story.  The Nazis have taken over much of Europe with most of the Jewish population in concentration or death camps.

The first part of the story takes place on a forced march to a concentration camp.  As the story begins Rosa, the mother of a small baby, and her niece Stella walk along in the miserable cold. All of them were starving.

How they walked on the roads together; Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts, Magda wound up in the shawl.  Sometimes Stella carried Magda. But she was jealous of Magda. A thin girl of fourteen, too small…Magda took Rosa’s nipple, and Rose never stopped waling, a walking cradle.  There was not enough milk…

During the long walk to the camp, the reader is introduced to the “shawl.”  This object enables the baby Magda to survive to the age of fifteen months. When her mother no longer had milk in her breasts, Magda would suckle the shawl to satisfy herself until her next meal.  It seemed to be a magic shawl.  It serves as a symbol of survival for the baby until it is taken from her by a jealous cousin.

When the trio arrived at the camp, surprisingly Magda thrives.  The barracks of the camp were surrounded by an electrified fence which could be heard as the women and men stood around in the yard.  The words used to describe the barracks included excrement; slow;  stinking with a maroon waterfall that slunk down from the upper bunks; and the stench which infiltrated the air of the burning of human fat. 

The barracks that the characters were assigned to was one of many that were exactly the same except for the different occupants.  In the barracks, there was row after row of bunk style beds with straw covered thin mattresses.  It was surprising that Rosa was able to hide Magda.  When she slept, Magda slept on top of her. Magda learned never to make sounds. 

Stella was cold and took Magda’s shawl from her.  Magda began to hunt for her shawl.  When her mother was not looking, the baby wandered out into the yard outside the barracks door.  Suddenly, Magda found her voice and cried out…  “Maaaaa---“

Rosa searched for the shawl and found it covering Stella. She took it from her and went to try to entice the baby back into the barracks. It was too late. 

As Rosa looked out the door of the building, she saw:

On the other side of the fence [electric]…there were green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets; beyond them, even farther, innocent tiger lilies, tall, lifting their orange bonnets.

What a contrast to the other side of the fence with its mud and lice filled buildings.

The baby had been picked up by a Nazi soldier who carried her over his shoulder like a sack of flour.  Finally, as though he were throwing a rock, the soldier flung Magda into the fence.  She splashed against the barrier, which created many excited sounds in the fence. Magda fell to the ground burned beyond recognition.

Rosa stuck Magda’s shawl in her mouth to keep from screaming.  Then, she sucked Magda out of the shawl.

The story certainly speaks to the theme of man’s inhumanity to man.  The child was murdered with no more thought than throwing a rock into the wind.  No mother should watch her child being electrocuted to death.