Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

Cynthia Ozick is part of a generation of Jewish writers who did not experience the Holocaust directly and struggled with the ethics of writing fiction about actual atrocities. Upon publication, the short story “The Shawl” drew fire from critics and readers who felt it was immoral to fictionalize the Holocaust....

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Cynthia Ozick is part of a generation of Jewish writers who did not experience the Holocaust directly and struggled with the ethics of writing fiction about actual atrocities. Upon publication, the short story “The Shawl” drew fire from critics and readers who felt it was immoral to fictionalize the Holocaust. Fiction writers also had to decide whether to set their stories in ghettos and concentration camps, or to write about characters only indirectly affected by the Holocaust. Having set “The Shawl” in a death camp, Ozick, in Rosa, explores the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust through the perceptions of one survivor.

Rosa’s linen shawl keeps Magda alive by hiding her from soldiers, and it more magically allows Magda to suckle it. Stella indirectly causes Magda’s death after taking the shawl from her, leading the toddler to be seen by a German soldier as she goes outside. When Magda is murdered, Rosa stifles her own scream with the shawl, knowing she could be killed if she attracts attention. Years later, Rosa uses the shawl to trigger her vivid fantasies—that Magda is alive. The shawl also could be linked to the traditional Jewish tallit, a prayer shawl worn as a symbol of faith.

In the two works, Ozick is showing her concern with the nature of Jewish literature and the responsibilities of Jews to carry on their culture and faith. The Shawl, as a collection, examines Jewish identity through Rosa, an assimilated woman who does not identify as a Jew. Rosa’s parents had thought of themselves as middle- or upper-class Poles; Rosa’s mother even had considered converting to Roman Catholicism. The family made a point of speaking Polish rather than the Yiddish typical among European Jews. Rosa takes pride in her beautiful, literary Polish, speaks no Yiddish and only broken English, and looks down on Simon Persky because he speaks and reads Yiddish. Rosa is actually prejudiced against Jews; as a young girl she thought observant Jews in Warsaw were superstitious and backward, and she could not understand why the Nazis counted her family among them. In spite of her horrific victimization as a Jew, she feels herself separate from them. At the same time, she cannot understand how her niece, Stella, and other Jews can be indifferent to or ignorant of the Holocaust, missing details of American life, such as barbed wire at the top of a fence around a private beach or a striped dress that reminds Rosa of the death-camp uniform.

Both stories convey Rosa’s inner turmoil, contrasting language and images that signal life and death. She must protect Magda and so cannot acknowledge that the Nazi guards will inevitably discover her. Magda’s first steps are taken in the death camp, and her first words attract the attention of the soldier who kills her. The camp is surrounded by fields and flowers, and Rosa sees Magda flying toward the electric fence as a butterfly, a symbol of life. For Rosa, the Miami sun recalls the sunlight that revealed Magda to the soldier who had killed her, as well as the heat of death-camp crematoria.

The Shawl is an example of Holocaust fiction written by women that focuses particularly on women’s experiences. Rosa had been raped repeatedly; she conceived Magda while imprisoned (apparently in a brothel), tried in vain to protect her baby daughter, and witnessed the child’s murder. Her psychological suffering decades later stems from her continued isolation; no one can share in the horror of losing a child as she did, no one wants to remember the Holocaust, and no one will let her speak about her past.

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