The Shawl

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Although it does not happen often (for short stories do not have the prestige or readership of novels), every once in a while an American short story appears that has such a powerful and immediate effect that it is destined to become a classic. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” with its bestial crime and its methodical detective, is such a story from the early development of the short-story form; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” with its inextricable mix of myth and reality and its shocking and unforgettable climax, is another from its more recent history. What characterizes such stories is either a visceral impact that seems to strike the reader directly, without the intermediary of thought, or such consummate craftsmanship that the story impresses one as a stylistic tour de force. “The Shawl,” by Cynthia Ozick, about a young Jewish woman in a German concentration camp whose infant is thrown into an electrified fence, is such a story. Although it is very slight, a scant two thousand words, it has the force of a physical assault on the reader. It is not solely the event that creates such an impact, however, as horrible as that event is; it is also the hallucinatory style with which the fiction is created.

“The Shawl” was included in Best American Short Stories, 1981 and won first prize that year in the annual a Henry Prize Stories competition; it has since been anthologized in numerous college-level short-story textbooks and thus widely read and taught. Yet it is so cryptic and sparse, so bleak and almost mute in its starkness, that it seemed to cry out for some consequence—not so much a sequel as a substratum, something that would provide a base of explanation or ordinary reality for such a nightmarish and inexplicable event. In 1983, Ozick provided such a follow-up with the longer, more discursive story “Rosa,” which focuses on the unfortunate mother in “The Shawl” some thirty years later, living isolated and alone in Florida with the memory of her experience. This second story, long enough to be classified as a novella, was included in the Best American Short Stories, 1983 and also won first prize in the annual a Henry Prize Stories competition in the year of its publication. Now, the two stories have been printed together by Ozick’s publisher, creating a thin volume that can be read in about an hour. It is an hour that the reader will not soon forget.

Cynthia Ozick is a Jewish short-story writer in the tradition of Bernard Malamud, for her typical story, an almost magical blend of lyricism and realism, creates a world that is both mythically distant and socially immediate. Although she is also a skilled novelist and poet, as well as the author of a number of essays on Judaism, art, and feminism, it is her short stories that most powerfully reflect her mythic imagination and her poetic use of language.

The magic of the story “The Shawl” is largely a result of its point of view, which, although it remains with Rosa the mother and reflects her feelings, also exhibits the detached poetry of the nameless narrator. For example, Rosa’s dried-up breast, from which the infant Magda cannot suck milk, is described as a “dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole”; the infant’s budding tooth is imaged as “an elfin tombstone of white marble.” The perspective of this grotesque poetry reflects the extremity of the horror of the Holocaust itself. When the reader sees the knees of Stella (Rosa’s teenage niece) as “tumors of sticks,” the Holocaust is seen as though no ordinary imagery were adequate to capture it, no ordinary voice capable of describing it.

To try to reflect the horrors of the Jewish persecution under Adolf Hitler in terms of sheer numbers is to create such a numbing effect that it becomes abstractly unreal. Consequently, Ozick captures the horror by focusing on a single limited event, an event that is insignificant in the overall scope of things, but that somehow captures the horror in its quintessential reality. Yet it is not merely the death of the infant that is so horrifying in “The Shawl,” for the story makes it clear that the child was sick and bound to die soon anyway—as indeed millions did die; nor is it the Jewishness of the infant that makes it so pathetic, for the story suggests that the child is the result of Rosa’s rape by a Nazi soldier and indeed is like “one of their babies.” As soon as the reader even thinks such things, however—that the child was doomed anyway or that the child was Aryan—as a way to palliate the horror, he or she is caught in the moral madness...

(The entire section is 1900 words.)

“The Shawl,” 1980

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rosa Lubin

Rosa Lubin, a young Polish refugee in a Nazi concentration camp with her infant, Magda, and her fourteen-year-old niece, Stella. They have been so brutalized that they are hardly recognizable as human. Rosa feels no hunger or pain, but rather light, as if she were an angel in a trance. Her only concern is to keep Magda concealed and thus alive. When Magda is discovered and her life is in danger, Rosa can do nothing but watch in horrified silence.


Magda, Rosa’s infant daughter, who has the swollen belly of the starving. Because she can get no nourishment from Rosa’s dried-up breasts, she sucks on the corner of a shawl, which seems to have some sort of magic power to comfort and sustain her. Because of her Aryan appearance, it seems clear that Magda is the result of Rosa being raped by one of the Nazi guards. Rosa loves her nevertheless and tries desperately to hide her. Magda maintains absolute silence until Stella steals her shawl to warm her own body; Magda stumbles into the open camp yard crying out for it. In a horrifying poetic passage, with Rosa watching in anguish but unable to do anything, a Nazi guard throws Magda into an electrified fence. She dies instantly.


Stella, Rosa’s fourteen-year-old niece, the indirect cause of Magda’s death when she takes away her shawl. She is so close to death from starvation and exposure that she can think of no one but herself.

“Rosa,” 1983

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rosa Lubin

Rosa Lubin, now a fifty-eight-year old woman. She smashes the contents of the secondhand furniture store she ran in New York City and moves to Miami, Florida, to live alone in a tenement hotel. More than thirty years after the death of her infant daughter Magda in the concentration camp, Rosa tries to stay isolated from others. Her only communication is with the imagined Magda and the hated Stella, to whom she still refers as the “Angel of Death.” After a nightmarish journey in Miami, looking for a pair of underpants lost when doing her laundry, she, with the help of the elderly Mr. Persky, tries to free herself of her fantasies about Magda and the magic shawl and begin human relationships again.


Magda, Rosa’s infant daughter, who was killed by a Nazi prison guard in “The Shawl.” Rosa imagines that she is still alive and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York.


Stella, who is now forty-nine years old. She remains unmarried and lives and works in New York. She sends money to Rosa and tries to make her give up her fantasy of Magda still being alive and her conviction that the shawl is somehow magical. At Rosa’s request, Stella mails the shawl to her.

Simon Persky

Simon Persky, a seventy-one-year old interested in Rosa. He flirts with her and tries to bring her out of her isolation. At one point, Rosa mistakenly thinks he has stolen a pair of her underpants from a laundromat. At the end of the story, in a gesture of new communication, Rosa allows Simon to come to her hotel room. This gesture drives away the fantasy of Magda.

Dr. James Tree

Dr. James Tree, a sociologist who wants to interview Rosa for a study he is doing of survivors of the Nazi camps.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The short story and the novella that constitute The Shawl were published separately in The New Yorker. Taken together, they present a powerful narrative about one woman’s attempt to maintain sanity in the face of the tragedy of the Holocaust. In “The Shawl,” a rhetorically minimalist short story, Rosa and her niece Stella walk, with Rosa’s silent infant Magda wrapped into the shawl around Rosa’s chest, the long cold roads to the death camp. Although Rosa’s breasts are dry, the infant finds nourishment in the shawl itself, sucking it instead of screaming. Rosa is certain that her niece resents Magda’s warmth and security inside the shawl; through richly suggestive images, she suggests that Stella is...

(The entire section is 522 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like Ozick’s previous stories, The Shawl provides a Jewish woman’s perspective on social and historical issues. While Ozick often presents the universal human condition through the eyes of women, she claims to be a “social” writer, exploring connections between people rather than their differences. Her “classical feminism” denies any separate psychology on the basis of sex. She writes about the ordinary as women experience it. Perennial issues of the intrinsic worth of all human beings, the conflict between traditions, and the contest between the imaginary and the rational are central in her work. Her skillful attention to these issues won her a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982 and caused her to be elected a...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Shawl” remarkably applies lyrical language to the Holocaust. From the sixth sentence, in which Rosa calls herself “a walking cradle,” Ozick repeatedly uses metaphor to convey the intensity of her perceptions. Her language is also precise. The series of images at the start of a sentence about Rosa’s milkless breasts—“The duct-crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole”—shows Rosa struggling to say exactly what she means. This sentence also illustrates the compression of which Ozick is capable. She squeezes into a dozen words what some writers would extend through several sentences. In her essay “The Seam of the Snail,” Ozick describes herself as a “pinched perfectionist” who scrupulously reworks each sentence until it is “comely and muscular.” Perfectionism, however, is not the entire explanation. Often devoting her art to religious purposes, Ozick fashions sentences as though they were ritual. Such an endeavor cannot be taken lightly, especially when writing about the Holocaust, which some thinkers have declared beyond the limits of art, as least the art of persons who were not victims.

“The Shawl” seems to exist outside of time, a quality appropriate to a story designed not merely to document the horrors of the Holocaust, but to convey the mind of a person trapped in that “place without pity.” It is fascinating to reread the fourth and fifth paragraphs and try to determine when the narrative arrives in the camp, but there is no explicit transition. Likewise, what appears all along to be a story about horror turns into a miracle of survival. One realizes that in lacking a specific chronology and definite location, the story is as whole, magical, and mystical as the shawl for which it is named.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Great Depression Leads to Hitler's Rise
One of the major historical events of Ozick's lifetime was the Great...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
'"The Shawl'' is written in an omniscient third-person point of view. It is omniscient because the narrator can...

(The entire section is 1250 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Cynthia Ozick's writing style is powerful primarily because of its lack of direct reference to the horrific events her characters undergo....

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

1. How could it be argued that Stella's stealing the shawl is not evil?

2. Why do you think that Cynthia Ozick never refers...

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"The Shawl" is about a mother Rosa, her niece Stella, and Rosa's child Magda, as they struggle to survive in a Nazi concentration camp during...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1930s: Adolf Hitler's persecution of the Jews in Germany begins in 1933. Discrimination gives way to the loss of all their rights as...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Imagine that Rosa and Stella both survived the concentration camps and are alive today. Pick one controversial social issue, such as abortion...

(The entire section is 123 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Cynthia Ozick is influenced by both Henry James and E. M. Forster. Her first novel, Trust, was in fact criticized for its obviously...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ozick has published poetry and novels as well as short stories. Among her other works are The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971),...

(The entire section is 66 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sources for Further Study

Alkana, Joseph. “Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification? Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, The Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies 43 (Winter, 1997): 963-990. Discusses Ozick’s use of the midrashic approach in The Shawl to emphasize the irreconcilable cultural and historical tensions that resulted from the Holocaust. Combining fiction and parable, Ozick’s novel preserves personal, social, and historical experiences to create a recounting of the Holocaust.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views:...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Halpenn, Irving "The Shawl," in Commonweal, Vol.116, December 15,1989, pp 7-11.

Hoffert, Barbara "The...

(The entire section is 272 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

After many years of contemplating bringing "The Shawl" to the stage, Ozick finally wrote two plays, The Shawl and Rosa, based...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Shawl" was adapted as a play by Cynthia Ozick. Directed by the well-known film director Sidney Lumet, the play was performed (as Blue...

(The entire section is 73 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Ozick's works of nonfiction—Art and Ardor, published in 1987, Metaphor and Memory, published in 1989, and Fame and...

(The entire section is 168 words.)