Significance of the Shawl

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1473

There are many ways to approach a work of fiction, to decide what that work has to offer you. You can look at the plot: the events that happen and the order in which they occur. You can examine the characters who people the story: what can you learn from...

(The entire section contains 7222 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Shawl study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Shawl content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

There are many ways to approach a work of fiction, to decide what that work has to offer you. You can look at the plot: the events that happen and the order in which they occur. You can examine the characters who people the story: what can you learn from who they are and what they do? You can study the story's language, or the images—both obvious and suggested—that the writer uses.

In Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl," the images and language the author uses bring certain ideas to mind. This discussion will lead us to one of the things "The Shawl" imparts: a suggestion about how strong the human will to survive is and the lengths to which human beings will go to ensure their survival. The first and most obvious thing to consider upon finishing "The Shawl" is the shawl itself. It is clearly important, since the story is named after it. The shawl is also one of the most widely discussed parts of the story. It seems as if each critic who considers this story has his or her own interpretation of the shawl.

In his article "Holocaust Responses I: Judaism as a Religious Value System," Alan L. Berger claims that the shawl "is a literary symbol of the tallit," or Jewish prayer shawl. To wrap oneself in the tallit, he says, is to be surrounded "by the holiness and protection of the commandments." Berger believes that one message of "The Shawl" is that "Jewish religious creativity and covenantal symbolism can occur even under the most extreme conditions." In his interpretation, the shawl protects first Magda and later Rosa from the horrors that surround them in the same way that the Jewish religion protects the souls of Jews from the horrors of the world.

In an article in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Suzanne Klingenstein says "the shawl functions in place of speech for both infant and mother and also as a kind of umbilical cord between the two characters.'' Klingenstein stresses the mother/daughter relationship in ' "The Shawl'' and believes that this relationship is the heart of the story. The shawl is important because it represents the constant link between mother and daughter.

Andrew Gordon believes the shawl is a "transitional object," an object that helps an infant make the transition from the state of being one with its mother to the recognition that it is an individual, separate from its mother. He states that Rosa, Stella, and Magda,"in their need to possess the shawl can be considered as infants suffering extreme oral deprivation and in need of a mother.'' Gordon reads "The Shawl" as "a story about delusion as a defense against an overwhelming reality, against loss of control, and against traumatic loss." In Gordon's interpretation, the shawl represents that delusion: it is an "illusion" which "allows for magical thinking as a defense against anxiety in traumatic circumstances.'' Rosa can believe that the shawl can nourish and hide her baby.

While each of these interpretations has merit, it is possible to view the role of the shawl in the story in a less complicated way and have those views regarded as completely valid. To do this, simply examine what happens in the story and how the shawl relates to those events.

Death is omnipresent in "The Shawl." Death is introduced in the opening paragraph, when the narrator explains that Rosa's breasts do not have enough milk to feed the baby Magda—who sometimes screams because there is nothing for her to suck except air—that Stella is also ravenous, and that Stella has knees that are "tumors on sticks" and elbows that are "chicken bones." Later, twice in quick succession it is stated that Rosa thinks Stella is waiting for Magda to die. Readers are repeatedly told that Magda is going to die, and her death moves closer as the story progresses. First, Rosa knows Magda is going to die very soon, then today, then now Finally, in one long scene that takes up nearly half the story, we watch as Magda dies Death fills "The Shawl."

The role of the shawl when we examine its relationship to death is to thwart death. It saves Magda from starvation. Throughout the story, as long as Magda remains hidden under the shawl, she remains alive. It is only when the shawl is taken from her that Magda dies. When Magda is murdered, Rosa stuffs the shawl into her own mouth, stifling a scream. If Rosa had screamed, the guards would have killed her, too.

Another prominent idea in "The Shawl'' is the idea of hell. Hell is brought up in the first sentence where we are told that Stella feels "cold, cold, the coldness of hell." We do not usually think of hell as being cold. It takes some thought, and perhaps some research, to realize that Ozick might be referring to Dante's Inferno, where the coldness at the center of hell is reserved for those who commit the worst of sins: betrayal.

At the opening of the story, Stella's coldness seems external. Her body is cold. As the story progresses, Stella's coldness is one of the things that causes her lo steal Magda's shawl. We are told that after the theft and Magda's death, Stella is "always cold, always. The cold went into her heart: Rosa saw that Stella's heart was cold." The repetition of the words "cold" and "always" helps to ensure that the reader notices the coldness. That repetition occurs immediately following the only place in the story where we actually hear Stella's words, as she explains that she stole Magda's shawl because "I was cold." This single short patch of dialogue also serves to draw the reader's attention to the coldness.

Because the coldness is so closely associated with Stella, it might be easy to conclude that the hell only relates to her. But we are also told that the concentration camp they are in is "a place without pity" and that "all pity was annihilated"—a word associated with death—"in Rosa." The hell is all around them and inside them. The closing scene, where we watch step by step as the baby Magda is electrocuted, is surely an image of hell.

The role of the shawl when we examine its relationship to hell is to comfort, and perhaps to make this hell a little less wretched. At the story's beginning, Magda is comforted by being in her mother's arms, "wrapped in a shawl... rocked by the march." Rosa is also somewhat comforted, since her baby is safe for the moment. The shawl also represents comfort to Stella, though it is not comforting to her at this moment. She envies Magda for being wrapped in the shawl and rocked in her mother's arms. She wishes the comfort represented by the shawl could be hers

The shawl's ability to hide Magda at this point saves her life. The shawl saves her life in another way too—it is a magic shawl which can "nourish an infant for three days and three nights." Its ability to stave off starvation is another source of comfort for Magda and Rosa. As Magda becomes older, the shawl comforts the girl in another way. It becomes her "baby, her pet, her little sister." It even causes her to laugh "when the wind blew its comers." Stella still envies Magda's shawl, which she is now not even allowed to touch.

Stella's desperate need for some bit of comforting, however small, is one of the reasons she finally takes Magda's shawl for herself. She covers herself with it—perhaps gaining some tiny measure of warmth along with the security of being covered by the magic shawl—and falls asleep. Magda, having lost her comforter, wanders into the barracks square screaming. She is discovered by the Nazi guards and immediately killed. As this occurs, Rosa runs to the barracks and retrieves the shawl. The thought that she might be able to use it to somehow save Magda comforts her momentarily. But she cannot save Magda. Now the shawl's role of saving people returns: Rosa fills her mouth with the shawl, stifling her scream. If she had screamed, she too would have been killed.

The shawl is not a great or impressive item. Yet, at least in the minds of the characters in this story, the shawl is able to save and to comfort. Perhaps the shawl can be seen as an object used to show us how strong the human will to survive is. It is a small thing, but it is the only thing available to these people in this situation. They turn to it, reaching for whatever chance for survival it might offer.

Source: Tery Griffin, "Overview of "The Shawl'," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998 .

Function of the Shawl

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2738

Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl" (1980) is a Holocaust story about a mother struggling heroically but in vain to save her baby in a death camp. Brief and poetically compressed—two thousand words, just two pages in its original publication in The New Yorker—it has a shattering impact. Ozick manages to avoid the common pitfalls of Holocaust fiction: on the one hand, she does not sentimentalize, but on the other, she does not numb the reader with a succession of horrifying events. She works largely through metaphor, "indirection and concentration'' [according to Joseph Lowin, Cynthia Ozick, 1988]. For example, the words "Jew," "Nazi," "concentration camp,'' or even "war'' are never mentioned; these would arouse the kind of immediate, unearned responses Ozick eschews. We do not know what year it is or what country. As the story opens, we only know that three female characters —Rosa, her fifteen-month-old baby Magda, and a fourteen-year-old girl named Stella (only in a sequel story, "Rosa" [1983], do we learn that Stella is Rosa's niece)—are being marched, exhausted and starving, toward an unknown destination. Two details—the word "Aryan" and the mention of yellow stars sewn into their coats —allow us to fill in the rest. The historical and political context disappears, and the focus narrows to the feelings of three characters as they struggle to survive moment by moment in extreme circumstances: "They were in a place without pity." Rosa, the central character, could be any mother who wants to keep her baby alive against impossible odds. This is a story about the oppression of women: there is no mention of Magda's father, and the only male referred to is the guard who murders Magda, a faceless monster described in terms of a helmet, "a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots."

I want to consider the central symbol of the story, the shawl in which Magda is wrapped, which I believe functions in a way similar to what D. W. Winnicott would call a "transitional object'' [ Playing and Reality, 1971]. But the shawl serves not only as a transitional object for the infant in the story but also as the focus of the conflict, and while it passes from hand to hand among the three characters, it becomes a totem or fetish for the teenage Stella and the mother Rosa as well. The shawl suggests the necessity for illusion, for magical thinking as a defense against anxiety in traumatic circumstances, but also the ways in which healthy illusion can easily shift into unhealthy delusion. As Winnicott writes, "I am therefore studying the substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion, and yet becomes a hallmark of madness." Rosa, Stella, and Magda form a group on the basis of their shared illusion concerning [what is described in the story as] the "magic shawl." (Although the infant's use of the shawl is understandable, Rosa and Stella's belief in it is a sign of desperation, of regression and the breakdown of rationality in the face of extreme deprivation and loss. Transitional phenomena, Winnicott explains, eventually become diffused and spread "over the whole cultural field," including such generally healthy activities as play, art, and religion, but also such neurotic manifestations as "fetishism" and "the talisman of obsessional rituals." The shawl in Ozick's story, I believe, functions as a transitional object which later changes into an infantile fetish for the baby, and for the teenager and the mother it definitely becomes a fetish or magical talisman.

The transitional object, Winnicott explains, is the infant's "first 'not-me' possession," (1) something which is both found and created, both inner and outer, and stands in for the breast. The object, which may be a bit of cloth or a security blanket, comes at an intermediate stage of development between thumb-sucking and attachment to a toy or doll. It exists in an intermediate area "between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.'" 'The object represents the infant's transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation with the mother as something outside and separate."

If the transitional object is a form of defense against the loss of the breast and separation from the mother [Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticum: Theory in Practice, 1984], then all three characters in "The Shawl"—the baby, the teenager, and the mother—in their need to possess the shawl can be considered as infants suffering extreme oral deprivation and in need of a mother. Here is the opening paragraph:

Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell How they walked on the roads together, Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts Magda wound up in the shawl Sometimes Stella carried Magda But she was jealous of Magda A thin girl of fourteen, too small, with thin breasts of her own. Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep, rocked by the march, a baby, a round infant in arms. Magda took Rosa's nipple, and Rosa never stopped walking, a walking cradle. There was not enough milk; sometimes Magda sucked air, then she screamed Stella was ravenous. Her knees were tumors on sucks, her elbows chicken bones.

The keynotes of oral deprivation, inadequate mothering, and the desire to revert to infancy are established in this opening: Rosa is defined as a mother with sore breasts who can no longer adequately feed her infant. Magda is suffering from forced weaning. Stella too is starving—she has been turned into a thing resembling sticks or the skeleton of a chicken. Stella, a teenager, "in a stage between childhood and adulthood" [according to Margot Martin, in RE- Artes Liberates, Spring-Fall, 1989], longs to revert to infancy, symbolized by her desire to be wrapped in and mothered by the shawl that protects Magda.

By the second paragraph, Rosa's milk has entirely dried up and Magda has relinquished the breast and turned to the shawl as a surrogate breast: "The duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead." At the same time, Stella moves from desiring the shawl to seeming to want to devour Magda: "Stella gazed at Magda like a young cannibal.... it sounded to Rosa as if Stella had said 'Let us devour her'.... She was sure that Stella was waiting for Magda to die so she could put her teeth into the little thighs."

While the ravenous Stella regresses to a stage of oral sadism, the starving Rosa also seems to regress to infancy: "she learned from Magda how to drink the taste of a finger in one's mouth." The shawl becomes Magda's means of survival:"It was a magic shawl, it could nourish an infant for three days and three nights." Magda grows silent and guarded, she stops crying and never seems to sleep. Her silence and the shawl keep her alive1 "Rosa knew Magda was going to die very soon; she should have been dead already, but she had been buried away deep inside the magic shawl, mistaken there for the shivering mound of Rosa's breast" But Rosa fears that Magda has become a deaf-mute from the experience.

For Magda, this shawl has become everything: mother, food, clothing, and shelter.

She watched like a tiger. She guarded her shawl No one could touch it, only Rosa could touch it Stella was not allowed The shawl was Magda's own baby, her pet, her little sister She tangled herself up in it and sucked on one of the corners when she wanted to be very still

At this point, it is appropriate to ask whether this shawl is truly a transitional object for Magda or instead an infantile fetish. According to Phyllis Greenacre, the transitional object is an aid to growth that results from healthy development when the child has a good-enough mother. But the infantile fetish results from a disturbance in development, when the mothering is not good enough or "the infant has suffered unusually severe deprivation" [International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1970]. The fetish "grows out of early inadequate object relations and, through its crystallization, tends to constrict their further development." It has some similarities to "the fetish in adult perversion." Considering the trauma that Magda has suffered—a terrorized mother, exposure to a hostile, constantly life-threatening environment, premature weaning and starvation—and the hysterical mutism that she develops, her attachment to the shawl seems to partake more of the neurotic fetish than of the healthy transitional object.

Greenacre mentions that fetishistic phenomena usually appear after weaning at the end of the first year, which corresponds to Magda's case. The fetish begins "at about the time that the transitional object may be adopted by infants most of whom seem less disturbed. The fetish here seems to represent the feeding function even more strongly than is true of the transitional object," which also holds in Magda's case: because she is starving, she has practically nothing to feed on but the shawl. Greenacre mentions an instance of infantile fetishism which strongly resembles Magda's behavior, in which a blanket was "of great magical effectiveness in quieting severe disturbances of infantile separation anxiety and even of physical pain." When head lice and body lice bite Magda and "crazed her so that she became as wild as one of the big rats that plundered the barracks..., she rubbed and scratched and kicked and bit and rolled without a whimper." Her silence is abnormal behavior for an infant, just as her relationship to the shawl seems far more intense than the healthy connection of a baby to a transitional object.

But one sunny afternoon, Stella appropriates the shawl for herself and goes to sleep beneath it in the barracks. She wants some of the mothering power associated with the shawl. "Thus, by losing her magical shawl, Magda loses the magical charm that apparently protects her from death for so long.''

Rosa is outside and sees Magda toddling into the sunlight, howling for the lost shawl, screaming "Maaaa—." It is the first sound she has made since Rosa's milk dried up, and the only word she speaks in the story. It seems a cry for both shawl and mother, which for her have become synonymous "Magda was going to die, and at the same time a fearful joy ran in Rosa's two palms": the joy comes from realizing that her baby can speak, the fear from the ironic fact that the noise has doomed Magda. Only her continued silence would have saved her.

Rosa finds the shawl and tears it away from Stella: the object of struggle has now passed among all three characters. Then, under the influence of "voices" she imagines she hears in the electrified fence (one can take this as another sign of her derangement, although a critic reads these voices as symbolic of the Jewish dead [Lowin 109]), Rosa runs outside again and waves the shawl like a flag to attract Magda's attention. The shawl is now a banner representing life and faith and hope. But it is too late: a guard has already seized the baby, carries her off, and abruptly tosses her to her death against the fence.

The few minutes leading up to Magda's destruction take up over half the narrative. The murder is described in slow motion and beautiful metaphors to intensify both the suspense and the horror. Magda's arms reach out to the shawl and to her mother, but she recedes into the distance, becoming a "speck" and "no bigger than a moth.'' When she is hurled at the fence, she turns into a floating angel: "All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine.''

Through metaphor, the moment of death becomes a moment of magical transfiguration. As she watches her baby murdered, there is nothing further Rosa can do without endangering her own life. The voices of the fence urge her to run to Magda. But "Rosa's instinct for self-preservation overcomes both her maternal instincts and any heroic urges she may have had" (Lowin 109). The final sentence of the story (which, for the sake of emphasis, is also its longest sentence) shows the shawl now becoming a transitional object for Rosa:

She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she toed to pick up the sticks of Magda's body they would shoot, and if she let the wolfs screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot, so she took Magda's shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolfs screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva; and Rosa drank Magda's shawl until it dried

By stifling her screams, the shawl becomes a means of survival for Rosa, as it had been for Magda. And the shawl nurtures her, filling her mouth, just as it had done for Magda. Finally, as the shawl had become a surrogate mother for Magda, so it becomes a surrogate baby for Rosa. "Magda's cinnamon and almond breath has permeated her shawl, which now become synonymous with her spirit." In drinking the shawl, she is devouring her dead infant [according to Barbara Scrafford, Critique, Fall 1989], although this is a symbolic cannibalism, unlike the butchery of the death camps or the lethal selfishness of Stella. To put it another way, Rosa is attempting to reincorporate Magda in order to mourn her.

Thus I read "The Shawl" as a story about delusion as a defense against an overwhelming reality, against loss of control, and against traumatic loss. I see it as a story about separation, isolation, death, and thwarted mourning. The three characters are together, yet each suffers alone: Stella separates herself by her selfishness and Magda by withdrawing into the substitute womb of her shawl. Magda dies alone, and Rosa is powerless either to prevent her death or even to embrace her dead baby or mourn aloud her loss. In this environment, simply being human can condemn you to death, so you must suppress your humanity. The isolation and separation are also expressed metaphorically. Characters are never seen whole but reduced to body parts or things: Rosa is "sore breasts" and "a walking cradle," Stella has elbows like "chicken bones," Magda shows "one mite of a toothtip ... an elfin tombstone of white marble", and the guard is merely a helmet, "a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots." This is a vivid, terrifying world of part objects and fetish objects which never approaches the world of whole object relations.

Any infant is in a condition of helplessness and absolute dependence; through attachment to the transitional object, it begins to come to terms with reality and with the separateness of the mother as an object in her own right. If the mothering is insufficient or the environment hostile, the infant may instead latch onto a fetish object. As prisoners of the Holocaust, the teenage Stella and the grown Rosa are thrust back into the helplessness of infants, infants with a monster parent The Nazi state becomes a cannibal, annihilating and devouring its offspring. Finally, to survive such intolerable circumstances, these desperately needful characters resort to magical thinking. Each seizes upon Magda's shawl as a magical object, a substitute for the good mother, the only thing on which an assurance of survival or a sense of identity can be grounded. And for all three characters, the transitional object shades over into a fetish object and a healthy illusion becomes instead a neurotic delusion.

In 1983, Ozick wrote a sequel to "The Shawl" entitled "Rosa." This story takes place in Miami Beach thirty years after the events of "The Shawl''; Rosa has survived the Holocaust but is mentally unstable. She denies her daughter's death and fantasizes that Magda is a married woman, a successful doctor or professor. And she now worships as a religious relic the only object left from her daughter: the shawl. As Greenacre writes, "The relation of illusion to the fixed delusion might be roughly compared to that of the transitional object to the fetish."

Source: Andrew Gordon, "Cynthia Oziek's "The Shawl' and the Transitional Object," in Literature and Psychology, Vol XXXX,Nos 1 &2,1994, pp 1-9.

Nature's Silent Scream: A Commentary on Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

In her award-winning short story, "The Shawl," Cynthia Ozick reveals the mind of a mother slogging her way through the ashes of the dead. Set in a Nazi concentration camp, the story does not focus on the political decision to exterminate an entire race, nor on the crimes and their perpetrators, but on the mind of Rosa and her struggle to keep her infant alive, despite the fact that the child's only future is certain death. Ozick's short sentences and concise syntax move quickly and efficiently forward to tell the story with a minimum of rhetoric. The story is only a few pages long, and Ozick exposes Rosa's mind to her reader, capturing what might have been days or even weeks as if it were only a moment Her succinct story-telling gives us no direct information about Stella's relationship to Rosa and does not tell us explicitly where the story is set. Ozick focuses only on Rosa, Rosa only on Magda, and Magda only on the shawl. Containing no extraneous descriptions, scene-setting, or narration, the story is a skeleton of itself. All that is left is what gives it shape.

The story derives much of its power from ironic contrast. The setting is barbarous, a place built to end lives; the theme—motherhood—implies the continuity of life. Rosa struggles to keep her small daughter alive as long as possible, knowing all the while that the baby will not live. Although it would be easy for a writer to become sentimental with such material, Ozick does not blink in her rendering of the tale Flowers and turds, butterflies and electric fences, innocence and depravity move the story rhythmically forward to the final crescendo. Ozick never explains the world we enter with her. The reader is pulled into the march without knowing where the writer is taking him or her, just as the Jews marched to their deaths without being told their destination. A young girl's legs are tumors on sticks; a child's hair is as yellow as the star sewn to its mother's coat Then we know where we are headed.

The characters are Rosa, Magda, and Stella—a mother, her baby, and a young girl. Rosa and Magda take center stage, the shawl winding around mother and child like an umbilical cord.

Rosa knew Magda was going to die very soon; she would have been dead already, but she had been buried way deep inside the magic shawl, mistaken there for the shivering mound of Rosa's breasts, Rosa clung to the shawl as if it covered only herself. No one took it away from her

Rosa, of course, symbolizes the maternal instinct. A walking cradle, she desperately hides her baby from its predators, secreting her in the barracks and nursing her with dry breasts—"dead volcanoes."

Through the breast motif, Magda is strongly associated with nourishment. Her mother's breasts extinct, she learns to milk a corner of the shawl and teaches Rosa to drink the taste of a finger. Her mother gives her share of the food to Magda who, in turn, provides spiritual sustenance for Rosa. Magda's hair is like feathers; she is variously described as a moth and a butterfly, and her breath, suggestive of the spirit, is flavored with cinnamon and almond. But Magda is also the center of the ominous theme of cannibalism. Rosa seems obsessed by the idea that "someone, not even Stella, would steal Magda to eat her." "Aryan," Stella says. But Rosa hears, ''Let us devour her."

It seems odd, does it not, that the story of Rosa and Magda should begin with a paragraph devoted mainly to Stella?

Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell. How they walked on the roads together, Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts, Magda wound up in the shawl Sometimes Stella earned Magda But she was jealous of Magda. A thin girl of fourteen, too small, with thin breasts of her own, Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep, rocked by the march, a baby, a round infant in arms. Magda took Rosa's nipple, and Rosa never stopped walking, a walking cradle. There was not enough milk, sometimes Magda sucked air; then she screamed. Stella was ravenous. Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones.

Although Rosa and Magda are also introduced in this paragraph, each reference to the mother and child is countered with comments on Stella's character. Cold Stella. Jealous Stella. Ravenous, tumor-kneed, chicken-elbowed Stella. She says little and seemingly performs only one function in the story—the stealing of little Magda's shawl, which leads to the death of the child. Although she is responsible for Magda's death, she is not in this sense necessary to the story. Anything could have happened to the shawl. Another prisoner could have taken it; it could have blown away on the ash-stippled wind. Why, then, did Ozick include her? Stella does not emerge as a character in the way that Rosa and Magda do. We are not privy to her emotions. She does not laugh, cry, suck. The narrator allows us to see Magda crazed by lice, calmed by the shawl's linen milk, furious when she finally loses her little pet. We see Rosa's dried nipples, see her withered thigh hold the child secure through the night. Usurper of the shawl, tumor-legged Stella is also the focal point of Rosa's fears that Magda will be eaten. Stella—the first word in the story— means "star," but Stella is not a radiant shining star, giving off energy of its own. Ozick tells us that she is cold, and the rhythm of the sentence "Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell" has a dirge-like quality. Stella, then, is a burned-out—a dead— star. Rather than giving off light, she reflects the light of others.

Implicit in Stella's name is the idea of reflection. We know so little of her—only through Rosa's perceptions. Stella functions as a mirror of the larger situation. In the first paragraph, Rosa and Magda are described in terms of the struggle of their oppression—the long walk, the sore breasts, and the dearth of mother's milk-—-while Stella is described in terms of the results of a struggle lost. She has become jealous of an infant, and, while the author speaks of Magda's attempt to suckle and nourish herself, Stella shows the results of starvation: "Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones."

Twice in the story the narrator refers to the other inmates of the camp through references to Stella. Rosa is afraid that "someone, not even Stella, [will] steal Magda to eat her" (emphasis added). Later, when she speaks of her imagined voices in the humming electric fence, Rosa says that "even Stella said it was only an imagining" (emphasis added). In both these sentences, the use of the word "even" preceding Stella's name implies the reflection of the other inmates in Stella's impulses and perceptions.

A forerunner of the cannibalism motif is the imagery of nourishment introduced in the first paragraph: thin, dry breasts; a hungry babe; a walking cradle; tiny lips sucking air. Rosa's mother-love forces her to give to Magda beyond her physical and emotional capabilities. She has become lighter than air, a "floating angel... teetering on the tips of her fingernails." She is in a trance-like state, a state in which one's intellect is suspended and one's instincts take over. Rosa never considers her own needs but lives only for her child Although she is afraid of the pitiless Stella, Rosa is also without pity when she looks at the young girl:

They were in a place without pity, all pity was annihilated in Rosa, she looked at Stella's bones without pity She was sure that Stella was waiting for Magda to die so she could put her teeth into the little thighs.

Stella is a reflection of the others in the camp, and Rosa's feelings toward her extend to those who share her fate. Her mothering instinct is her only surviving drive. Her milk is gone; her body is going, she is reduced, a "walking cradle," to instinct alone. As her daughter enters the arena screaming for her shawl, Rosa does not react with her mind but with her body. A "tide of commands" hammers in Rosa's nipples, the physical emblem of motherhood. "Fetch," they tell her, "get, bring!," reducing language to its simplest form, suggestive of the way a trainer speaks to animals. The "grainy sad voices crowd her," telling her "to hold up the shawl, high;... to shake it, to whip with it, to unfurl it like a flag," in one last attempt to satisfy Magda's needs. At the moment of Magda's impact, the voices of instinct—in a mad, frenzied growling— urge Rosa to the little pile of bones But this time the voices that signify maternal instinct conflict with another instinct in Rosa, one she is for the first time free to respond to—the instinct of self-preservation. She does not run to her dead child's body "because if she ran they would shoot," and if she screamed, they would also shoot. The wolfs screech ascending through her body and the instinctive reaction of a mother to the death of her young oppose the will to survive as she stifles her scream with the magic shawl. She says she is "swallowing" the wolf's screech, but she also seems to be trying to ingest the shawl, tasting her daughter's saliva, drinking it dry.

In this powerful final picture, all of the story's themes and images coalesce. Rosa is now reduced to a wild animal, a howling wolf, suggesting the previous bestial images: a vulnerable baby squirrel in a nest that becomes a lice-crazed rat, a grinning tiger. We are reminded also of Magda's sucking of the shawl, and "the shawl's good flavor, milk of linen." Rosa sucks the shawl until it dries, just as Magda drinks all that Rosa's withered nipples can offer. Magda's cinnamon and almond breath has permeated her shawl, which now becomes synonymous with her spirit. Stella and the cannibalism Rosa associates with her are also implicitly present in this scene The young girl symbolizes the ashes of the death camps. She belongs to those who have lost their humanity and who, like biological creatures only, struggle merely to stay alive. These are cold stars, who have no life of their own. They bring only their bodies to their imprisonment. Rosa is obsessed by the fear that Stella will cannibalize Magda, but she also knows that others also want what she suspects Stella of wanting.

As Rosa stuffs the shawl into her mouth, drinking the "cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva," the cannibalism motif is revealed not to be the desperate act of a degraded and debased fourteen-year-old, but a symbolic final frantic attempt by Rosa to protect her offspring. Rosa is reduced to complete primitivity, the voices of instinct growling within her. Like a cornered wild animal, she devours her young in the form of the shawl Many animals, when cornered by a predator, do the same, for if the mother dies, the young will suffer a far worse fate at the jowls of the attacker. Rosa's motherhood is her total existence. The only parts of her body described for us are her breasts and her thighs. Her every move is dictated by the needs of her child, to the exclusion of all others She feels no pity for her fellow prisoners, not even Stella. A "walking cradle,'' she lives only for the survival of her young.

In "The Shawl," Ozick gives us a mother frantically trying to nurture her child in the ashes of the dead. Like a panicked animal, she desperately tries to hide her little squirrel from the predator. She knows Magda will not live, yet she protects her with the magic shawl, gives her own meager offerings of food to the silent little mouth, and guards her at night with her own body. Stella and the others, reflections of the massacred six million, fade into the shadows, as the author hones in on Rosa to show us what it is like to be a mother in the time of the hunted.

Source: Barbara Scrafford, "Nature's Silent Scream: A Commentary on Cynthia Ozick's 'The Shawl'," in Critique Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Fall, 1989, pp. 11-15

Holocaust Responses I- Judaism as a Religious Value System

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939

Cynthia Ozick has written that "stories ought to judge and interpret the world. "But universal meaning can only be derived from particularistic experience, "Literature," she has written, "is the recognition of the particular.'' Responding to the Holocaust requires not only an encounter with, but a struggle to redeem from, evil. Ozick's "redemptive literature" is embedded in biblical, rabbinic, and mystical symbolism....

"The Shawl" (1980), ... is a unique story because it directly confronts the horrors of a death camp experience. The tale, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, concerns three Jewesses; Rosa, her infant daughter Magda, and her adolescent niece Stella. The story centers around Rosa's unsuccessful attempt to keep Magda—who is wrapped in a mysterious shawl—alive. In the brief space of two pages Ozick paints the familiar but no less terrifying landscape of death and torment which was the fate of Europe's Jews; forced marches, starvation, dehumanization, the filth of death camps, murder, and the indifference of the world. She spares no detail of Jewish misery. For example, Rosa contemplates giving Magda to a stranger during the course of their march toward certain death. Rosa thinks, however, that if she left the line of prisoners she would be shot. But supposing she managed to hand the shawl-wrapped infant to an unknown woman, would the stranger take the precious package? Or would she drop it, splitting Magda's head open? Countless thousands of Jewish women had to confront this dilemma, one which makes King Solomon's decision seem a pale thing in comparison.

Both on the march and in the camp itself, the shawl provides life-giving sustenance. When Rosa's own sore breasts were dry, Magda sucked on the corner of the shawl and "milked it instead," with the smell of "cinnamon and almonds" emanating from Magda's mouth. Ozick twice describes the nurturer as a "magic shawl"; one which could ' 'nourish an infant for three days and three nights '' Although pitifully undernourished, Magda lived long enough to walk. Rosa gave the child almost all of her own food. Stella, on the other hand, was envious of Magda whom she gazed at' 'like a young cannibal," and to whom she gave no food. Rosa's premonitions about Magda's impending death grew increasingly strong. The Jews were, writes Ozick, "in a place without pity." Toddling across the roll call area without her shawl Magda is murdered by a guard who throws her onto the camp's electrified fence. Rosa, watching from a distance, is helpless; able only to stuff the shawl into her own mouth in order to swallow "the wolfs screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton." Rosa tasted' 'the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva," drinking the shawl dry.

Ozick has masterfully combined covenant Judaism and a mystical parapsychology as responses to the pervasive hopelessness of the death camps. The magic shawl is a literary symbol of the tallit. Although women were freed from the so-called time-bound mitzvot (commandments), such as wearing a prayer shawl, Jewesses have donned this ritual object. The Talmud tells, for example, that Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah (second century C. E.), affixed tzitzit (tallit fringes) to his wife's apron (Menahot 43a). Wrapping oneself in a prayer shawl is tantamount to being surrounded by the holiness and protection of the commandments; as well as conforming to the will of God. The wearer of the tallit is a member of the covenant community. Ozick's shawl/tallit is a talisman which protects both Rosa and Magda when they either wear or hold it. Separated from the shawl, Magda dies. The shawl saves Rosa as well. If she had screamed at her daughter's murder she would herself have been murdered since the Nazis, amplifying the edict of Pharaoh, had decreed that having a Jewish child was an offense punishable by death.

Rosa is also portrayed as being literally above the earth, or able to overcome history. Ozick employs a variety of words to suggest that Rosa, like her subsequent literary heir Feingold in "Levita-tion," can fly. For example, Rosa, while on the march, was "already a floating angel." Magda's mother "flew, she could fly, she was only air." Magda, for her part, is also described in flight imagery. Riding on the shoulders of her Nazi murderer, she is "high up, elevated." She appeared— hurtling toward the death fence —as a "butterfly touching a silver vine." Rosa is also clairaudient; she hears "grainy sad voices" coming from the fence. What do these phenomena signify?

Ozick strongly implies that the camps, designed to turn Jews into matter and then to destroy that matter, although successful to an awesome and staggering degree, were not able to achieve complete domination of the Jewish soul. The peculiar aroma of cinnamon and almonds, itself so out of place in the midst of death, corpses, and wind bearing the black ash from crematoria, evokes a quasimystical image of the besamim (spice) box. Jews sniff the besamim at the havadalah ceremony which marks the outgoing of the Sabbath, thereby sustaining themselves for the rigors and tribulations of the profane or ordinary days of the week. By utilizing the prayer shawl and spice box imagery, and paranormal phenomena usually associated with the mystical element of Judaism, Ozick's tale conveys the message that the bleakness of the historical moment is not the final chapter m Jewish existence. Jewish religious creativity and covenantal symbolism can occur even under the most extreme conditions....

Source: Alan R. Berger, "Holocaust Responses I- Judaism as a Religious Value System," in Crisis and Covenant: The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction, State University of New York Press, 1985, pp 39-90

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Shawl Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Overview


The Shawl: A Story and a Novella, Cynthia Ozick