Style and Technique

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Because Rosa’s version of truth is often at odds with other information presented in the story, it is clear that Ozick intends for the reader to question Rosa’s reliability. The discrepancies range from something as minor as two different accounts of Rosa’s age to the crucial question of whether Magda...

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Because Rosa’s version of truth is often at odds with other information presented in the story, it is clear that Ozick intends for the reader to question Rosa’s reliability. The discrepancies range from something as minor as two different accounts of Rosa’s age to the crucial question of whether Magda actually lives, and much ground in between remains open to interpretation. At times the charge of madwoman appears warranted, yet at other times Rosa’s faculties seem too accurately to record the cultural and spiritual wasteland around her for her to be anything but painfully sane. Even in acknowledging that some people live only in their thoughts, she seems ironically aware of her own delusions.

The net effect of these conflicting accounts, while demonstrating in an abstract sense the subjectivity of truth, is to establish between the reader and the story’s “reality” a tension parallel to that between Rosa and her environment. As he or she participates in Rosa’s isolation from an uncertain world with which she is out of step, the reader’s sense of reality, as defined by “fact,” is undermined.

Rosa’s unreliable accounts also cast doubt over the past from which she has “fallen,” however, and threaten the very underpinnings of her pride. She seems to protest too much, for example, offering so elaborate an explanation that Magda’s father was not a German Nazi that the reader may suspect the opposite to be true. Moreover, Rosa’s act of smashing up her antique shop—literally destroying “other people’s history”—speaks plainly enough not only of her own subjective view of the past but also of the inadequacy of factual (material) minutiae as a basis for truth. As Rosa fleshes out Magda’s “life” with conflicting details, the reader might well question how much of Rosa’s own reconstructed past is to be trusted. What, then, of Rosa is true?

This subverting of factual detail finally lessens the reader’s dependency on fact as a reliable tool for discovering truth and brings into focus, at the same time, the concept of Rosa’s truth as composed of universals—of fatal flaws and qualities of character, of fallen states and states of redemption, of the human need to be accepted, connected, and lovingly interpreted—the truths of myth and metaphor, and of lives taken on faith.

Historical Context

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Cynthia Ozick’s “Rosa” first appeared in the New Yorker in 1983. In 1979, a group calling itself the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) was founded by Willis Carto. Carto had also founded Liberty lobby, an anti-Jewish propaganda organization. Members of the IHR call themselves Holocaust revisionists. They claim that the Holocaust either never happened or has been greatly exaggerated by the Jewish people. The IHR and its claims have been denounced by historians, who cite the vast volume of documentation seized from the Nazis themselves, as well as firsthand accounts from survivors. Indeed, the Holocaust is one of the best documented events in history.

The establishment of the IHR occurred, ironically, just two years after the establishment of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights organization dedicated to apprehending Nazi war criminals and keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. In 1981, the center produced an Academy Award–winning documentary about the Holocaust entitled Genocide.

“The Shawl” and “Rosa” deal with the pivotal event of Rosa Lublin’s life, the death of her infant daughter, who was thrown against an electrified fence by a Nazi guard. This brutal killing was drawn from an actual event Ozick read of in William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Literary Style

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Setting

The setting of Miami, Florida, figures prominently in this story. The incessant heat and humidity add to Rosa’s suffering and make her even more reluctant to leave her room. “Where I put myself is in hell,” Rosa writes to Stella early in the story. The frequent mentions of the intense, suffocating heat confirm this impression. The heat is described as “cooked honey dumped on their heads,” and “burning molasses air”; the sun is “a murdering sunball.” When Rosa burns the letter from Dr. Tree, she thinks, “The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire! Florida is burning!”

In Florida, Rosa is surrounded almost entirely by other elderly people whose productive lives, like hers, are in the past. In the mirrors in the lobby, the elderly hotel guests see themselves as they used to be, not as they are now; they are arrested in time, just as Rosa’s life remains centered on the moment of her daughter’s death.

Metaphor

Metaphor is a technique which conveys a description of one thing in terms of another. Buttons, for instance, are a recurring metaphor in Ozick’s story. Simon Persky tells Rosa he once owned a button factory. Later, Rosa reflects on how trivial Persky’s life seems to her, “himself no more significant than a button.” Then she extends this metaphor to the city’s entire population: “All of Miami Beach, a box for useless buttons!” When Rosa flies into a rage after opening the package from Dr. Tree, she yells at Persky, “I’m not your button, Persky! I’m nobody’s button.” And finally, when the vision of Magda appears wearing a dress Rosa herself wore as a teenager, the buttons are so beautiful that “Persky could never have been acquainted with buttons like that.” Attached to cloth, buttons function as fasteners, creating connection, holding separate parts together; collected in a box, buttons are useless, meaningless. Buttons become a metaphor for these elderly people, collected in Florida, but detached and without function or purpose.

Mirrors constitute another recurring metaphor in “Rosa.” Rosa’s antique shop, for instance, specialized in old mirrors, perfect for a character who spends her life gazing into the past. The mirrors in the lobby of Rosa’s hotel reflect the past as well, showing the elderly guests what they want to see and nothing more.

Point of View

“Rosa” is written in third-person subjective point of view, which means the reader has access to Rosa’s internal thoughts and feelings, but not those of others. Because Ozick moves from ordinary narration right into Rosa’s thoughts without any distinguishing punctuation, readers get the feeling they are constantly inside Rosa’s head. This feeling becomes especially important during Rosa’s moments of dementia, blurring the line between what is imagined and what is real.

Though the bulk of the story is told in the third person point of view, much of what we learn about Rosa’s background, and also about Stella, we learn from the long letters Rosa writes to Magda, which are of course written in the first person. There is a sharp contrast between the way Rosa writes and the way she speaks, because she writes in her native Polish. Letter-writing Rosa is articulate and well-educated; Rosa’s spoken English, however, “ain’t no better than what any other refugee talks,” as Persky says.

Unlike the usual prose written in the first person, the style of a letter is dictated in part by the recipient. Rosa’s letters to Magda are rife with endearments, rhapsodic in their description of Warsaw and her former life, and somewhat arrogant. She expresses her opinions and views openly and lies boldly because she knows there is no real reader to contradict or chastise her. She can ignore reality and paint a picture of life as she wishes it to be.

On the other hand, Stella’s two short letters to Rosa are caustic and critical, revealing the resentment she feels towards Rosa. She knows that though Rosa saved her life, Rosa would much prefer it if Stella had been the one to die, rather than Magda. She is jealous of the shawl, as if it were Magda herself. This is implied in her description of Rosa’s ritual of worshiping the shawl (“What a scene, disgusting!”) and also by her withholding the shawl, only allowing Rosa to have it periodically.

Finally, the letters written by Dr. Tree, in their highly clinical, emotionless language, portray him as unfeeling and arrogant. His repetitive use of the term “survivor,” a label that could be attached to any living thing, plant or animal, reveals his attitude towards the recipient of his letter. Rosa notes this immediately when she reads it: “Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being.”

Irony

Irony appears in “Rosa” on many levels; some almost humorous, some tragic. First there is the irony that Rosa has survived the Holocaust and the camps only to be “confined” in Miami with many of the same people for whom she had so much contempt in her earlier life. She is confronted again by barbed wire and by a scientist who wishes her to consent to an “experiment,” just as many Holocaust victims were used as experimental subjects.

Dr. Tree’s letters ironically speak of “Repressed Animation,” written by a man who has clearly repressed any human feeling or compassion towards the people he studies. He writes in the service of science, but he is unable to recognize the way he objectifies the subjects of his research. To further drive home the message that he sees Rosa on the level of any other laboratory animal, he refers her to a study entitled, “Defensive Group Formation: The Way of the Baboons.”

Finally, though Stella clearly resents supporting Rosa and tries to keep all contact with her as brief as possible, she guarantees continued and regular contact by keeping Magda’s shawl. She knows that as long as she keeps it, she and Rosa are connected by a bond much greater than the financial support she provides.

Compare and Contrast

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Early 1940s: Central and eastern Europe is the largest center of the world’s Jewish population by the start of World War II (1939–1940), with an estimated 9.5 million of the world’s 16.7 million Jews (following historical shifts from Palestine to Babylon in ancient times, then to Spain in the eleventh century until the Inquisition, when the center began shifting to central and eastern Europe).

Late 1970s: With about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population wiped out by the Nazis during World War II and the Holocaust, the center of Jewish population has shifted to the United States and Israel. An estimated 5.7 million Jews live in the United States, and 3.2 million in Israel.

Today: In 2000, the world’s Jewish population is estimated at 13.2 million, of which only 1,583,000, or twelve percent, live in Europe. Most Jews live either in the United States or Israel. In most recent years, the worldwide Jewish population has risen slightly but still remains at a statistical zero-population growth.

Early 1940s: The legal rights, property, homes, businesses, social freedoms, indeed all aspects of human community life for Jewish citizens is systemically taken away by the Nazi government (in Germany itself and in Nazi-occupied European states from France in the West to occupied Russia in the East) without legal or political opposition. The depth of this political powerlessness is ultimately expressed by the Holocaust, the government-sanctioned and -operated extermination of some 6 million European Jews, along with millions of others, such as Christian sympathizers, political dissenters, homosexuals, and physically or mentally handicapped persons.

Late 1970s: The state of Israel, in the three decades since its founding as a sovereign nation by Jewish nationalists in 1948, has ascended to become a regional power through factors including the following: its powerful modern economy, its defeat of neighboring Arab countries in armed conflicts in 1967 and 1973, its strong economic and political alliances with the United States government and private constituencies, and its possession of nuclear weapons.

1990s: The 1990s have seen a resurgence of Nazi ideology. Neo-Nazis uphold such beliefs as anti-Semitism and a hatred of foreigners. Neo-Nazi doctrine tends to draw young people in countries around the world to participate in these hate groups.

Early 1940s: From 1943 to 1945 at the Auschwitz death camp, Dr. Josef Mengele performs hundreds of gruesome medical experiments on the camp’s inmates. Ostensibly the goal of these experiments is genetic research aimed at creating a super-race of defect-free Aryans for the Reich. In truth, there is no scientific value to Mengele’s experiments; using the pretext of science, they are in fact extraordinary instances of individual and group sadistic torture, mutilation, and murder. Operations are routinely performed without anesthesia, including amputations and transplants.

Late 1970s: In November 1977, in Great Britain, the first successful in vitro fertilization is performed on Lesley Brown, a woman formerly unable to conceive due to blockage of her fallopian tubes. After months of careful monitoring, Brown delivers a healthy baby girl on July 25, 1978. The birth of Louise Brown not only gives hope to thousands of infertile couples, it also raises a host of questions regarding the ethical and moral implications of creating life in the laboratory. Issues such as surrogate mothers, the morality of discarding some embryos in favor of others, the possibility of sex selection and genetic engineering are all hotly debated long before the baby is even born.

Today: In the early 2000s, in vitro fertilization is a fairly commonplace procedure that helps infertile couples worldwide.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Bawer, Bruce, “Bookshelf: Change of Pace for a Pair of Heavyweights,” in Wall Street Journal, September 29, 1989.

Halperin, Irving, Review of The Shawl, in Commonweal, December 15, 1989, pp. 711–12.

Ozick, Cynthia, “Rosa,” in The Shawl, in Vintage International, 1990, pp. 14–70.

Prose, Francine, Review of The Shawl, in New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1989 .

Stavans, Ilan, Review of The Puttermesser Papers, in Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 1999.

Sutherland, John, Review of Quarrel and Quandary, in New York Times Book Review, October 8, 2000.

 

Further Reading

Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Frankl took nine days in 1945 to write this little book, assuming it would be published anonymously. Instead, the book brought its author worldwide fame. Using his own experience in a Nazi labor camp, Frankl demonstrates his extraordinary theory that human experience holds meaning, even in its most miserable state, and that humans are capable at all times of finding beauty in their circumstances.

Grove, Andrew S., Swimming Across: A Memoir, Warner Books, 2001.

Andris Grof (later Andrew Grove), born in Budapest, Hungary, survived in hiding during the Nazi occupation and escaped to the United States shortly before the Communist take over in 1956. The author subsequently became one of the founders of Intel and held the position of chairman in that U.S. company.

Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Levi pronounced himself lucky to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. His late arrival made his survival until liberation more likely. This memoir by the Italian chemist includes the difficulties that confronted survivors immediately after liberation and the challenges they faced then in finding their way back home.

Shermer, Michael, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It, University of California Press, 2002.

An in-depth study of the Holocaust deniers, their motivations and their claims. Each claim is carefully examined and refuted.

Spiegelman, Art, Maus—A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, Pantheon, 1986.

A Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel (essentially a long comic book for mature readers) telling the story of Spiegelman’s father and his persecution by the Nazis in World War II. In this tale, the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, and the Americans are dogs.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Kauver, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, eds. Three Contemporary Women Novelists: Hazzard, Ozick, and Redmon, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Strandberg, Victor H. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Walden, Daniel, ed. The Changing Mosaic: From Cahan to Malamud, Roth, and Ozick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Walden, Daniel, ed. The World of Cynthia Ozick: Studies in American Jewish Literature. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.

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