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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817

Cynthia Ozick’s central intention in The Shawl is to blur the line between life and death in order to imply the continuity of life. She conveys this impression by presenting motherhood as equally biological and spiritual. As Rosa goes from being a mother to being a survivor and a madwoman,...

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Cynthia Ozick’s central intention in The Shawl is to blur the line between life and death in order to imply the continuity of life. She conveys this impression by presenting motherhood as equally biological and spiritual. As Rosa goes from being a mother to being a survivor and a madwoman, she faces conflicts that call into doubt the integrity of her past choices. Knowing that Magda is always near her in spirit, Rosa remains deeply self-righteous about those choices.

Ozick’s intention becomes clear only when the two stories are considered together. Taken alone, “The Shawl” leaves the reader with nothing except the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. One watches as the body of Magda is replaced in Rosa’s head by humming steel voices. After reading “Rosa,” however, one learns that for Rosa motherhood has not ended with Magda’s death; Magda has materialized as a phantasm, appearing to Rosa in many forms. Without the history of “The Shawl” as context, it takes the reader of “Rosa” much longer to discover that Magda exists only in Rosa’s imagination. Examined together, the two stories emphasize the continuity of life through the spiritual bonds offered by motherhood.

By calling herself a “madwoman,” Rosa links herself with a tradition in which angry or grieving women were silenced by being institutionalized as “mad.” In the case of Rosa, that tradition’s truthfulness is undercut by the sarcasm with which the narrator says that she is mad; she is as much a “scavenger” as a “madwoman.” Persky does not view Rosa as truly mad. For him, there is “a bad way of describing, also a good way.” When she says she does not like to lie, he tells her everyone must lie to get along.

By staging The Shawl as a Holocaust drama, Ozick raises the question of motherhood and madness to a feverish pitch. During the Holocaust, women were doubly victimized, their bodies the objects of physical and sexual violence. Rosa tries to console herself by imagining for Magda a legitimate paternity, but it is clear from the narrative that Rosa was raped—probably repeatedly—by German soldiers. Unable to internalize the sexual violence resulting in a child, Rosa must deny the death; if she does not, her persecutors have not only marginalized her but also have erased her altogether.

Motherhood is the only state that can achieve the purity of belief—or denial— necessary for birth or rebirth. Ozick’s two stories show how necessary that denial can be when one has lost everything. Rosa is typical of Holocaust survivors—she has lost her entire family (except Stella) —yet if the unimaginable horror of losing everything can be made worse, it was made so when she witnessed the murder of her own child. She lost her past and her future.

Rosa kept her baby’s shawl as a relic and a talisman. It was a true piece of her past, linking her in a personal way to the witnessing. Others in the post-Holocaust era depersonalize the Holocaust: through assimilation, like Stella; through psychologizing, like the “social pathologist” Dr. Tree; or through misdirected energy, like the old socialists around Miami.

Ozick is hopeful about the continuity of life. As unimaginable as her loss seems, Rosa chooses life over death. She might have identified herself as the child’s mother when Magda was exposed in the camp, ensuring her own death, but she stuffed the shawl into her mouth instead. Similarly, at the end of “Rosa,” she chooses the liveliness of Persky’s company over the phantasm of Magda. Still, Magda does not disappear for good. Ozick’s message is clear: Grieving takes many forms; denial is one such form. Yet life goes on. The instinct for self-preservation is stronger even than that of motherhood.

Ozick’s style is to write what she calls “liturgical” fiction, which is rich with character, irony, and poetry. In the sparse tragedy of “The Shawl,” the short sentences, concise syntax, and lugubrious and rhythmic repetition of such stinging words as “cold, cold, the coldness of hell” not only move the story along quickly and efficiently but also provide an immediacy that is direct and unrelenting. One does not know where one is going, but one is not surprised at the urgency, inevitability, and fragmentation of the imprisonment when one gets there.

In “Rosa,” much of the reader’s information comes through letters written by Rosa or sent to her by Stella or Dr. Tree. Ozick uses the writing-within-the-writing technique not only to convey the different voices of the characters and the different selves of Rosa but also to show how much Rosa lives in her mind. Even the shawl becomes Magda only in Rosa’s mind. Not until she searches for the lost underpants—which represent reality in all its commonness—does Rosa begin to recognize the need to regain meaning in life.

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