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...
(The entire section is 2,398 words.)