Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2079
The Shawl combines Cynthia Ozick’s metaphorically complex and morally profound short story of the same title, about the horrors of the Holocaust, with her longer follow-up novella about the personal reverberations of those horrors some thirty years later.
“The Shawl” (1980) is a breathtaking story. In seven short, poetically terrifying pages, Ozick compresses the unspeakable experience of the Holocaust into a story that is as close to formal perfection as a story can be. The plot is thin to the point of nonexistence—a young Jewish mother loses her infant child to the barbarism of the Nazis. The characters are not so much real as they are highly compressed embodiments of tortured terror. It is therefore neither event nor persons that make this story so powerful, although history agrees that the event described is the most shameful in modern life, and the characters in the story suffer more pain in a moment than most human beings will in a lifetime. Rather, as is typical of great works of art, it is the voice and language of the speaker that make this miniature narrative such a powerful story. Therefore, it is not possible to summarize its events without also referring to the words used to describe them.
The style of “The Shawl” is a combination of short, unembellished descriptive and narrative sentences and nightmarish metaphors of human ugliness and transcendent beauty. The story opens with a march through a winter landscape toward a Nazi concentration camp. There are only three characters: Rosa, a young Jewish mother; her fifteen-month-old daughter, Magda; and her fourteen-year-old niece, Stella. The Nazi soldiers are monstrous mechanical abstractions that inflict pain and death rather than real human presences. Rosa is described as a “walking cradle” as she hides the baby between her breasts under her clothes. She feels in a trance, like a “floating angel.” While Magda is like a squirrel in her nest, Stella, her knees like tumors on sticks, is jealous of Magda’s cozy safety.
Ozick uses language to humanize and dehumanize her characters simultaneously. The face of the child is round, a “pocket mirror of a face”; one small tooth sticks up from Magda’s bottom gum like an “elfin tombstone.” The duct crevice of Rosa’s empty breast is like a “dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole.” For lack of physical nourishment, the child sucks on the shawl that gives the story its title—a shawl that Ozick calls magical, for it has nourished the child for three days and nights. Because Magda occupies herself with the shawl, never uttering a sound, she has so far been spared. On the horrifying day described in the story, however, Magda scurries into the prison yard crying loudly for her mother, for Stella has taken her shawl away from her. Although Rosa runs quickly to retrieve the shawl and quiet the baby, she is too late. When she returns to the yard, she sees Magda being carried over the head of a guard and thrown into the electrified fence of the camp: “She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine.” The story ends with Rosa stuffing Magda’s shawl into her mouth to stifle her own screams so she will not also be killed.
The story is so powerful that the reader can hardly bear it, which is Ozick’s point: Rosa, like the millions of others caught in the horror of the Holocaust, can hardly bear it. Yet bear it she must, and “Rosa,” the second story in the collection, recounts how Rosa has borne it. This story is quite different from the first. It is less poetic, less compact, and more discursive; it is more focused on character and consciousness than on visceral and poetic impact. Thirty or forty years after the event of “The Shawl,” Rosa is living in Miami, Florida. Just before the story begins, she has gone “mad” and destroyed her junk store in New York. She is now a middle-aged woman staying in a hotel that caters to the elderly. Her niece, Stella, who still lives in New York, sends her money.
The events of the story focus on a few days of Rosa’s life in which the following events occur: She meets an elderly man, Simon Persky, who is interested in her and wants to get to know her better; she receives a request from a sociologist, Dr. James Tree, who wants to interview her as part of a study he is doing on Holocaust survivors; and she receives the “magical” shawl that she has requested that Stella send to her. Rosa meets Persky, whose wife is in a mental hospital, in a self-service laundry, where he often goes to meet women. When Persky asks her, “You ain’t got a life?” she replies, “Thieves took it.” When Rosa goes home and discovers that she is missing a pair of her underpants from the laundry, she thinks that she has been the victim of another thief, believing that Persky has stolen them. While she is considering this violation of her privacy and person, she receives a more pointed invasion—a letter from Dr. Tree, who wants to treat her as a subject of study; he is developing a theory about survivors of the Holocaust.
Rosa’s search for her lost underpants takes her on a journey into the heart of darkness of the Miami night. Accidentally wandering onto the private beach of one of the large Miami hotels—an ironic image of a Nazi concentration camp but an enclosure that now harbors the analytical Dr. Tree—she cannot escape the barbed-wire compound that encloses her until she is thrown out by the manager. When she returns to her hotel room to find Persky waiting for her, and to find that her underpants have simply gotten mixed up with the rest of her laundry, she begins to accept Persky’s interest and to make connections to the world outside. She gets her telephone reconnected, and she allows Persky to visit her. The story ends with the lines: “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away.” This does not mean that Rosa is finally free of her obsession, but it does suggest that she has begun to allow real people to replace the magical shawl of her memory.
The only real character in these two stories is Rosa, for it is her conflict and her loss that are the focus of the first, and it is her isolation and her anguished efforts to “reconnect” that constitute the longer story that bears her name. In “The Shawl,” the infant Magda is little more than the moon-faced creature of Rosa’s womb whom she hides between her dried-up breasts. In the second, Magda is the child of her fantasy, whom she imagines is now a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University and to whom she writes letters that she never mails. In “The Shawl,” Stella is an unfortunate fourteen-year-old child who clings to life; even if she decides that she must sacrifice the infant Magda, her situation is so extreme that she cannot be blamed. In “Rosa,” where the reader meets Stella only in letters and a telephone call, she serves as a reminder of the truth of the past to a Rosa who does not want to remember. Stella chastises Rosa for wanting to hold on to the past, as she wants to hold onto the talismanic shawl.
Because Rosa must bear so much, both as the symbolic Jewish mother of all those lost in the Holocaust in the first story and as one still stunned and entrapped in the past in the second story, she is more complex than any of the other characters, who exist primarily to reflect her complexity. Her efforts to protect her child and to survive, her inarticulate helplessness even to rage or grieve at the death of her child, her confused entrapment in the memories of the past, and her valiant effort to survive on her own terms without allowing those fears to violate her further make her the powerful center of both of these stories.
The most significant aspect of Rosa’s character is a stylistic one, for in the novella that bears her name she is not only a distracted and disoriented aging woman who is often irrational and neurotic, but also, when she writes to her imaginary daughter Magda, a sensitive and articulate spokeswoman of all that the Holocaust stole from its victims. Indeed, the sections in which readers are privileged to read Rosa’s letters to Magda, in which she invents fictions to retrieve her past, are the most powerful parts of the story.
It is difficult to articulate any single thematic meaning for “The Shawl.” Like Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery,” with its mixture of myth and reality and its shocking climax, Ozick’s story has an immediate visceral impact; moreover, it is structured with such consummate skill that it impresses one as a stylistic tour de force. When the story won first prize in the 1981 annual O. Henry Prize Stories, editor William Abrahams said in the introduction to that collection that “The Shawl” is one of those stories that suggests that its author has been inspired—has received the story and written it in a single go, without even pausing for the manipulations of craft. In reality, what makes the story so memorable is precisely that it is so well crafted that it has the force of a breathtaking work of art.
What Ozick has achieved so brilliantly in the story is to capture the horrors of the Holocaust in one unforgettable symbolic scene and horrifying image. Writers have long known that to try to reflect the persecution of the Jews under Adolf Hitler by realistically depicting its magnitude is futile. The very immensity of the tragedy numbs the mind and freezes the feelings. Ozick uses the power of language to capture the horror in its quintessential reality. Even though in reality the death of a single child represents only one inconsequential event in the midst of the murder of millions, in Ozick’s story all the accumulated sorrow and horror of that unbelievable historical tragedy is expressed by Rosa’s stuffing the shawl into her mouth to prevent her own screams.
The meaning of the longer story “Rosa” is easier to discuss, for it contains more exposition and more direct emphasis on the themes of violation, exploitation, memory, and the human attempts to hold on to the past yet escape it. “Rosa” is emphatic about the very power that makes “The Shawl” difficult to discuss—the power of language. When Rosa writes to the nonexistent Magda, the pen unlocks her tongue, for she is immersed in language. Writing for her is the power to “make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve! To lie!” By giving Rosa’s writing her own highly articulate voice, Ozick is able to present the writer as a maker of parables, one who tells fictions that have more truth-value than the accounts of history: The stories the writer tells are concrete, specific, and powered by emotion and desire rather than by facts, figures, or abstract ideas.
Cynthia Ozick is a Jewish writer in the tradition of Bernard Malamud, for her stories, like many of his, are a special blend of lyricism and realism; they create a world that is socially immediate and recognizable while also being mythically mysterious and distant. She is also a Jewish writer in the tradition of Saul Bellow, for her fiction, like much of his, is powered by an underlying political and cultural vision. Ozick is a skilled novelist and poet as well as a powerful essayist on Judaism, art, feminism, and other subjects both contemporary and eternal. It is probably her short stories, however, that most significantly reflect her genius. When “Rosa” won first prize in the O. Henry competition three years after “The Shawl” did, William Abrahams said he would not hesitate to name her one of the three greatest living American writers of short fiction. “The Shawl” is one of those magical stories that so capture the imagination they become instant classics. It has been widely published in college-level short-story anthologies, where—with its eerie and unreal imagery, its distanced and transcendent point of view, and its horrifying climactic event—it will continue to shock and astonish readers for many years to come.