Why does the author describe the other side of the electric fence in "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” tells the story of three characters caught in the horror of the Holocaust. The characters involved are Rosa; the baby, Magda; and Rosa’s niece, Stella, a fourteen year old.

As the story begins, Rosa and Stella are walking with other Jews on the way to a concentration camp.  Rosa carries Magda, who is trying to breast feed although Rosa’s milk has dried up.  To satisfy herself, the baby sucks on the shawl that Rosa uses to hide Magda. The shawl is described as magic because it sustains and satisfies the baby.

The story moves forward about a year to the camp.  Rosa has hidden Magda all this time from the Nazis. Magda is able to walk but is starving to death despite Rosa giving all of her food to her baby.  Magda’s stomach is bloated and her eyes widened from severe dehydration and starvation.  She clings tightly to the shawl for her warmth and security and satisfaction.

Stella has started to envy Magda.  She wants the shawl. Eventually, she takes it from Magda.  When Rosa is not paying attention, Magda wanders out onto the grounds where she can be seen by the soldiers.  Until now, Magda has been mute; but as she goes out into the air, she begins to howl.  Rosa runs back into the barracks and grabs the shawl from Stella.

When she returns to the door, Rosa sees that Magda has been picked up by the soldiers who carry her down a little way and throw her into an electric fence which instantly kills the child. 

The author used descriptive images to supply the reader with an understanding of the horrors of the concentration camp. The horrendous life within the camps seemed disconnected to the beauty of the world outside the electrified fences. 

As Rosa looked out into the sunshine from the dark barracks, the heat from the sun brought to mind another life and time.  The author described what could be seen on the other side of the electric fence: pleasant meadows, butterflies, meadows luscious with dandelions and purple violets; and farther away, could be imagined tiger lilies stretching their faces toward the sun.

In comparison, the barracks were filled with the smell of excrement.  In the air was the greasy smoke, which came from the crematoriums.

The symbolic scene of the stunning landscape amplified the killing of the child to the most heinous of crimes. How could a child not matter at all to the black embodied shirts and boots of the soldiers?

As Rosa watches, the Nazi soldier throws her baby onto the electric fence to be shocked and her body burned black.  A mother watching her child electrocuted on a beautiful summer day with the idyllic pastoral scene in her peripheral vision--this was Rosa’s daytime nightmare. 

All at once Magda was swimming through the air.  She looked like a butterful touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and ballonish belly splashed against the fence, the steel voices in the fence went mad in the growling, urging Rosa to run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence…

What could she have done to save the child? If she had let on in any way that the child was hers, then she would have died along with Magda.  Rosa takes the magical shawl and to keep from screaming aloud she stuffs it into her mouth and sucks all of Magda out of it.