The Shawl: A Story and a Novella Cynthia Ozick
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Trudie Vosce) American short fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism of Ozick's short fiction collection The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989).
One of Ozick's most critically acclaimed works, The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989), consisting of the short story “The Shawl” and the novella “Rosa,” provides a devastating picture of the Holocaust and a survivor's life after it. Considered a departure from Ozick's previously cerebral and ironic tone, the fierceness and immediacy of The Shawl make it one of her most powerful works. The focus of these narratives is a woman who idolatrously worships the memory of her infant daughter who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
Plot and Major Characters
The Shawl tells the story of Rosa Lublin's life, both during the Holocaust and her existence afterwards in Florida. “The Shawl,” which first appeared in the New Yorker on May 26, 1980, depicts the death of Rosa's fifteen-month-old daughter, Magda, in a concentration camp and the shawl that sustained her when Rosa's breasts could not. “Rosa,” originally published in the New Yorker on March 23, 1983, is set some thirty years later in Florida, where Rosa has moved after burning down her store in New York. The torment Rosa still feels from her experience in the concentration camp can be seen through her interactions with Stella, a niece who shared her experience in the camp and now supports Rosa from New York, and Rosa's interactions with people in her immediate surroundings including Dr. Tree, who would like her to join a study on people who have been incarcerated and malnourished. The effects of Rosa's horrifying experience can be seen through her memories and her active imagination. Throughout the story, she brings her daughter back to life in order to invent different lives for her, which serve to allow the reader to see the intense psychological and emotional effects of having lived through such an odious event. It is only through a friendship she begins to forge with the unrelenting Simon Persky, also originally from Warsaw, that she may be able to escape the torment of her own experiences.
Although the Holocaust serves as a touchstone in much of Ozick's short fiction, for the most part her works examine the dilemma of being Jewish in modern Western society, particularly the United States. However, “The Shawl” focuses on the experience and the horror of the Holocaust itself. Despite its brevity, Ozick vividly conveys the unspeakable atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps. “Rosa” then focuses on the aftereffects of such an experience on Rosa. The loss of her daughter and Rosa's obsession with the shawl that Magda carried until just prior to her death come to symbolize one of the strongest themes of the collection, the extreme losses suffered by the Holocaust survivors. The shawl also points to a second theme that does not appear until the very end of the text, that of recovery. It is only when Rosa is finally reunited with Magda's shawl that the reader can see the possibility of Rosa letting go of the past and focusing on the present.
Since the publication of her first novel Trust (1966), Ozick has garnered critical acclaim for her attention to language and thought-provoking arguments about Jewish American culture. Reviews of The Shawl commend the powerful manner in which Ozick portrays the brutality of the Holocaust both in the camps themselves and in its aftereffects. Both “The Shawl” and “Rosa” won first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories and were chosen for Best American Short Stories. Much of the criticism of Ozick's works focuses on her identity as a Jewish woman and her representations of Jewish people in her texts. Although many critics are quick to find somewhat simplistic interpretations of both works, many others point to the complexity of the characters and situations created by Ozick. Ozick herself has warned against reducing her work to oversimplified themes; instead, readers need to examine the intricacies and accept the contradictions. Many scholars have focused their criticism on one of Ozick's major recurring themes—the contradiction between writing fiction and obeying Jewish law which forbids the creation of idols. The critical reaction to Ozick's argument that art can act as a form of idolatry has been sharply mixed.