Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

Both the story "The Shawl'' and the later collection by the same name were very well received by critics. In a September 10,1989, article in The New York Times Book Review , Francine Prose finds that Ozick "pulls off the rare trick of making art out of what we would...

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Both the story "The Shawl'' and the later collection by the same name were very well received by critics. In a September 10,1989, article in The New York Times Book Review, Francine Prose finds that Ozick "pulls off the rare trick of making art out of what we would rather not see." Barbara Hoffert, reviewing the story for the August, 1989, Library Journal, praises the work as "a subtle yet morally uncompromising tale that many will regard as a small gem." Reviewer Irving Halperin, writing of the collection in the December 15, 1989, issue of Commonweal, states that "In a time when the memory of the Holocaust is being trivialized by slick fiction, talk shows, and TV 'documentaries,' ... Ozick's extraordinary volume is a particularly welcome achievement of the moral imagination."

In "The Shawl," Ozick continues to develop the body of work based on Jewish characters and themes that she has concentrated on for most of her writing career. According to Elaine M. Kauvar in Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention (1993), however, "The Shawl" represents the first time Ozick tells a tale "directly from the consciousness of a Holocaust survivor." Rosa, Stella, and Magda are fictional characters, but Ozick places them in a story filled with "facts gleaned from history and events derived from memoirs," Kauvar states. Ozick takes the reader into the minds of fictional characters, but these fictional characters walk in shoes we can easily imagine to have been inhabited by Jews living in Europe during Nazi rule. The effect is different from that of reading "about" the Holocaust; it is closer to the effect of walking through it. Kauvar believes that this is one element of "The Shawl" which makes it "undeniably of great importance" to Holocaust literature. Kauvar claims that this basis of history and memoir allows Ozick to penetrate "the individual psyche by apprehending the historical occurrences that shaped it." In another time and place, Rosa, Stella, and Magda might have made different decisions and acted differently than they do in "The Shawl." But they do not live in another time and place. This allows Ozick to demonstrate the extent to which human beings are affected by, even formed by, the time and place in which they live.

Kauvar also discusses the ways in which Ozick merges biography and fiction. Many Holocaust survivors have written biographical accounts of their experiences. Readers approach these accounts with the knowledge that, whatever these people have been through, the events occurred in an increasingly distant past, and the author whose work we are reading survived. While some may empathize with and attempt to understand the writer, the barrier of time makes it difficult for others to walk in the Holocaust survivor's shoes. Biography presents events. It might describe, it might analyze, but it rarely evokes. To evoke is to do what almost anyone who has taken any writing class has been told: to show rather than tell. Ozick does not talk about Rosa; she puts readers in Rosa's shoes. She does the same, though to a somewhat lesser extent, with Stella and Magda. The barrier of time disappears. Readers walk as the victims—both survivors and those who did not survive—walked: step-by-step, facing one decision at a time, never knowing what is to come.

"The Shawl'' is often discussed in tandem with "Rosa," its sister story, which picks up on the stories of Rosa and Stella some thirty years later. "Rosa" is, again, evocative, dropping readers into the life of Rosa Lublin in the United States. The two stories share more than characters. They share themes and imagery: as Rosa's life in the camp was hell, her life thirty years later is a different form of hell, and the shawl that sheltered Magda appears again in the latter story. As one might expect, critics have examined the role of the shawl in these stories from the viewpoints of many schools of criticism Though it plays a lesser role in "Rosa," the shawl as a symbol is, perhaps, the most-discussed aspect of "The Shawl."

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