Discussion Topics

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How do historical events such as World War II or the Holocaust influence Cynthia Ozick’s fiction?

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What points does Ozick make about the immigrant experience?

Discuss how Ozick shows the corrupting influence of power, whether acquired through political patronage or through money.

What effect does the secular society of the United States have on the Jewish community?

Why does Ozick often people her fiction with adult orphans and exiles?

Other Literary Forms

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Cynthia Ozick is the author of poems, articles, reviews, and essays, as well as short stories. She has also published several novels, including Trust (1966), The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), and The Messiah of Stockholm (1987). Her poems have appeared in journals such as Epoch, Commentary, The Literary Review, and Judaism. Her other short works have been published frequently in journals such as those mentioned above and also in a wide variety of others.

Achievements

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Often characterized as difficult and involved in syntax and idea, Cynthia Ozick’s works have, nevertheless, received many awards. The short fiction especially has been judged prizeworthy, winning for her such prestigious awards and honors as the Best American Short Stories award (several times), the National Book Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, the O. Henry Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Jewish Book Council Award. Immediately consequent to the publication of “Rosa,” one of her prizewinning stories, Ozick was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard University, and she became the first person to receive the Michael Rea Award for career contribution to the short story. She has received a number of honorary degrees from schools like Adelphi University, Williams College, Brandeis University, and Skidmore College as well as Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Other literary forms

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Cynthia Ozick’s forte is short fiction, especially the novella; two of her novels, The Cannibal Galaxy and The Puttermesser Papers, were in fact developed from shorter pieces. Many of her stories have been collected in volumes such as The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories (1971) and The Shawl (1989). Although her literary reputation depends primarily on her fiction, Ozick has also published dozens of essays, largely dealing with the same major theme found in her fiction—that of Jewish identity. Both her essays and her short stories have appeared in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Harper’s, Partisan Review, and Salmagundi. Her essays have been collected in a number of volumes, including Art and Ardor (1983), What Henry James Knew, and Other Essays on Writers (1993), Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character, and Other Essays on Writing (1996), and Quarrel and Quandary: Essays (2000). Her poetry, which is also accomplished, has appeared in such publications as Commentary, The Literary Review, and Epoch. Her one play, Blue Light (based on Ozick’s highly acclaimed short story “The Shawl”), had a staged reading in 1993 and a full production in 1994.

Achievements

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Cynthia Ozick has consciously reflected a major literary debate that has been ongoing since the mid-twentieth century. Although she began as a self-confessed worshiper at the shrine of art for art’s sake and the formalistic standards represented by American novelist Henry James, in middle life she rebelled against that view. Increasingly, she asserted that an author should be actively engaged in judgment and interpretation and that a story should “mean” and not merely “be.” In particular, she hopes to create a midrash, or fictive commentary, on Jewish life in the Diaspora. She sees the overvaluation of art as a form of “idolatry,” a violation of the Second Commandment, and therefore a contradiction to “Jewish sensibility.”

Ozick’s fiction is thickly textured, allusive, and highly imaginative. Short accounts of her work do not do justice to her verbal energy and powerful range of reference. Regarded as one of the world’s finest short-story writers, she has accumulated many honors, including the National Book Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the O. Henry Award. In 2006, Ozick was on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize. Ozick has the unique honor of being the first writer to be awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story. Her work has been translated into most major languages.

Bibliography

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Alkana, Joseph. “’Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?’ Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies 43 (Winter, 1997): 963-990. Argues that Ozick takes a stance against universalism in the two stories, the tendency to level human suffering under an all-inclusive existential or theological quandary.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. An excellent collection of essays, including brief book reviews as well as lengthy articles. Much of value for both the beginning student and a scholarly audience involved in an examination of complications of idea and form.

Burstein, Janet Handler. “Cynthia Ozick and the Transgressions of Art.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 59 (March, 1987): 85-101. One of a number of articles on Ozick appearing in major scholarly journals. Concludes that Ozick is the most provocative of contemporary Jewish American voices. Her intelligence and stature provide her with an authoritarian voice as she speaks of literature and art and the didactic moral purpose art must display.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Places Ozick in the context of the Jewish comic tradition but argues that levity in her fiction must serve a higher purpose than laughter for laughter’s sake, usually the satiric purpose of attacking vices, follies, and stupidities.

Fisch, Harold. “Introducing Cynthia Ozick.” Response 22 (1974): 27-34. A very early article concentrating on analyses of the novel Trust and the story “The Pagan Rabbi.” Tries to show connections between theme and techniques in both genres.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. A critical study of Ozick, which includes a bibliography and an index.

Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Examines the sources and contexts of Ozick’s fiction, focusing on tensions between Hebraism and Hellenism, Western culture and Judaism, artistic imagination and moral responsibility; discusses Ozick’s relationship to psychoanalysis, feminism, and postmodernism.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. New York: Twayne, 1988. This excellent overview of Ozick’s canon includes an annotated bibliography and full notes. Most valuable for beginning students whose knowledge of Holocaust literature and Ozick is limited. Offers perceptive and lucid analyses of all the major works.

Lowin, Joseph. “Cynthia Ozick, Rewriting Herself: The Road from ‘The Shawl’ to ‘Rosa.’” In Since Flannery O’Connor: Essays on the Contemporary American Short Story, edited by Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1987. Contends Ozick paints not the thing itself but, like the French Symbolists, the effect produced by the thing; each of the three characters in the story uses the shawl as a life preserver.

Ozick, Cynthia. “An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Interview by Elaine M. Kauvar. Contemporary Literature 26 (Winter, 1985): 375-401. Contains references to Ozick’s religion, history, intelligence, feminism, postmodern techniques, and philosophy of art. A good introduction to her views, personality, and level of intelligence.

Ozick, Cynthia. “An Interview with Cynthia Ozick.” Contemporary Literature 34 (Fall, 1993): 359-394. Ozick discusses Jewish culture, other Jewish writers, her own fiction, and the Holocaust with her friend Elaine M. Kauvar.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fiction of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987. A brief analysis of major works, including several of the more important short stories. Excellent for a reader new to Ozick’s fiction. Emphasizes postmodern aspects of Ozick’s work, particularly self-referential elements and the use of fantasy.

Strandberg, Victor. Greek Mind, Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Argues that Ozick’s work derives from her conflict between hating Western civilization and taking pride in the Jewish foundation of that civilization. Claims that she is an Orthodox Jewish feminist who reveres the ancient law but demands an equal rights amendment to the Torah.

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Critical Essays