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.)