Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494
Rosa and Stella can be seen as two "types" of survivors. Rosa, with one young child, places all of her efforts into keeping Magda alive. As long as Magda is alive, Rosa does not need to eat, for her nourishment comes from the safety of her child. Stella, however, has...
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Rosa and Stella can be seen as two "types" of survivors. Rosa, with one young child, places all of her efforts into keeping Magda alive. As long as Magda is alive, Rosa does not need to eat, for her nourishment comes from the safety of her child. Stella, however, has no other life to protect and has no maternal instinct to override the desperate self-preservation brought on by the Holocaust. The cold that descends upon her, permeates her very heart. Stella has found that she must harden herself to resist the Holocaust. Eventually, when she steals the life-giving shawl from Magda, her only explanation is that "[she] was cold".
There may be a tendency to judge Stella harshly for her callousness in taking Magda's precious shawl. But Stella, we are reminded, is only fourteen; she is on the brink of starvation. More tellingly, Stella wants to return to childhood, wishes she were young enough to be like Magda, wrapped in a shawl, like an external womb, safe from the horrific outer world. Stella is more to be pitied for her action, for she is in the most difficult position of all, being old enough to understand her position yet unable to put aside her still childlike needs. There is also a sense that Stella is a survivor—that she will emerge from the concentration camp. Indeed, when Ozick continues Stella and Rosa's story after the war, we find that it is Stella who has been able to resume some sort of a normal life and who in fact is helping support Rosa financially. Meanwhile, Rosa continues to have mental and emotional problems that prevent her from living independently.
Magda's character seems the most interesting and contradictory. Initially, it seems that she of all people is most blessed. She, unlike most Jews, was born with "eyes blue as air, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa's coat." Moreover, her silence ensures that she is smart enough not to resist, to remain in the comfortable womb that Rosa supplies for her. Ultimately, however, it is Magda who seems to undergo the greatest transformation. When Magda loses her shawl, she is thrust into the Nazi conflict just as Stella and Rosa are. While before a baby, Magda in some respects enters the adult world when her shawl is ripped away from her. Her reaction to this event is defiance, in a manner that no one else in the concentration camp dares to display. Her howling is more than a mere clamor for a lost shawl. It is a shout of defiance against her silence, her hunger, and her diminished position. "Magda's mouth was spilling a long viscous rope of clamor." It is a tiny uprising, a moment of triumph and freedom. When Magda dies, it is a death on multiple levels—a death of Magda's innocence and childhood and the death too of the reader's false sense of security and comfort.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450
Rosa's daughter, Magda, is a nursing infant hidden in her mother's shawl at the beginning of the story, and a fifteen-month-old child when she is killed. Magda is the center of Rosa's existence: Rosa gives Magda most of her own food and focuses much of her energy on worrying about what might happen to Magda and on keeping the child alive. Magda learns as an infant not to cry when she is hungry; instead, she satisfies her hunger by sucking on the shawl. The shawl becomes the center of her existence, her "own baby, her pet, her little sister." She hides under it to keep from being discovered by the Nazis, sucks on it to satisfy her hunger, laughs at it as it blows in the wind. Magda does not cry until Stella takes her shawl away. Her cries then, as she walks out of the barracks during roll call, cause her to be discovered and killed.
Rosa is a Jewish woman who, along with her daughter and niece, is imprisoned in a concentration camp. Rosa's one focus in "The Shawl" is how to keep her infant daughter Magda alive for as long as possible, even though she knows the child is doomed to die. As she is marched to the camp, Rosa thinks of passing Magda to a bystander in an attempt to save her, but she fears the person might intentionally or unintentionally drop the baby. She fears that her niece, Stella, is waiting for Magda to die so that she can eat her. Later, Rosa fears that someone in the camp will kill Magda for the same reason. She also fears the Nazi guards, who will kill Magda the moment she is discovered. Rosa knows that Magda will die, but she draws on every resource of her body, mind, and soul to delay that moment.
Stella is Rosa's fourteen-year-old niece. She is described as a girl who is "too small, with thin breasts," whose knees are "tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones." Such a description hints at the near-starvation conditions under which prisoners lived in the camp. Stella is always cold, always hungry, and jealous of Rosa's baby, who at least has the comfort of her mother and her shawl. Stella also accuses Magda of being an Aryan because the child has blond hair and blue eyes, two features of the Nazi's idealized race. Rosa fears that Stella is waiting for Magda to die so she can eat the child— not an unreasonable fear given the circumstances. Stella's most important action is to cause Magda's death by taking the child's shawl for herself. "I was cold," is all she says later, in explanation.