The Shawl

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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...

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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 of the Holocaust itself, guilty of the same rationale that made it possible. Indeed, this is part of the brilliance of Ozick’s story. It is what makes the story morally powerful, not simply shockingly horrible.

The shawl, which provides a womblike protection for the infant, is magic; buried within it, the child is mistaken for Rosa’s breasts. Moreover, when Rosa’s milk dries up, the magical shawl nourishes the infant for three days and three nights; as the child sucks on its corner, it provides her with “milk of linen.” The shawl also is the central object of the story’s horrifying climax. When Rosa sees Magda crawling across the central yard of the camp without her comforting shawl and hears her cry out the first sound she has made since the drying up of Rosa’s milk, the terrified mother is faced with a crucial decision—to run for the child, even though she knows that her crying will continue without the shawl, or to run for the shawl and take the risk of the child being found first. When she goes for the shawl, which Stella has taken from the child to wrap around her own thin bones, the scene that follows is straight from a nightmare—Rosa running with the shawl held high like a talisman, the infant being borne away from the mother over the head of a Nazi guard toward the fence, which hums with its electrical voices. As Magda goes swimming through the air, she looks like a butterfly: “And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling.” Rosa can do nothing, for whatever she does will mean her own death: “She took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it” and “drank Magda’s shawl until it dried.”

“The Shawl” leaves the reader stunned and breathless with its dumbfounding horror. Like the infant Magda, the story is practically mute, explaining nothing, simply presenting the event in its magical and mysterious horror. The follow-up story, “Rosa,” is quite different—longer, more discursive, more explanatory, more rooted in ordinary reality. Rosa now has a last name—Lublin—and lives in a single room in a run-down hotel in Miami Beach. She is a middle-aged woman who is sent money by her niece Stella in New York, where Rosa herself formerly ran a junk store, until in a fit of frustration and anger she smashed it up.

This longer story focuses on a few days in Rosa’s life in which three events coalesce: the arrival of the magical shawl, which Stella has sent her from New York at her request; her meeting with an old man, Simon Persky, who wants to know her better; and the efforts of Dr. James Tree, a sociologist, to interview Rosa for his study of survivors, a study of what he calls “Repressed Animation.” Although Tree wants to analyze her and Persky wants to know her, neither of these episodes offers the clue to Rosa’s ability to “survive.” She does not live primarily in the social world, but rather in the world of her own creative imagination. The single most important element of Rosa’s experience is her writing; she not only writes to Stella, she also writes to her daughter Magda, who she imagines is alive and a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University. The center of the story is really the power of Rosa’s imagination, her ability to keep Magda alive.

Episodically, the story revolves around Rosa’s meeting with Persky in a Laundromat, where the elderly man spends his time trying to pick up women. After a conversation over pastries in which Persky tries to persuade Rosa to see him, Rosa goes home and discovers that she is missing a pair of underpants, which she suspects that Persky may have stolen. This seemingly trivial event looms large in her mind, for she sees it as a violation. The attempt by the sociologist, Dr. Tree, to invade her privacy is another violation that she rejects. When she discovers that the underpants were simply mixed up with her other clothes, however, she warms more to Persky’s attempts to bring her out of her self-imposed isolation and begins to make an effort to join the world outside; for example, she has her telephone reconnected, and she allows Persky to visit her in her apartment.

For all these gestures toward living in the real world of the present, however, the most powerful parts of the story are the letters that Rosa writes to her imaginary daughter Magda, in which she invents fictions to retrieve her past. The pen for her is a lock removed from her tongue, an immersion into language, and thus an activity with the “power to make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve! To lie.” In this way, Ozick makes Rosa the image of the writer as parable maker, telling fictions that have more truth than history does because they are specific, concrete, and laden with emotion and desire rather than mere facts or general and abstract ideas.

At the end of the story, Rosa calls Stella on her newly connected telelphone, asking her if she should return to New York. When Stella tells her to make friends in Florida and reminds her that the call is long distance, Magda, as symbolized by the shawl, comes to life, and Rosa puts the shawl over the telephone mouthpiece and kisses it. When the telephone rings a bit later, however, and it is Persky there to visit, “Magda” runs from him in her shyness. The final line of the story, Magda was away,” does not mean that Rosa is finally rid of her obsession, but it does suggest that she has begun to allow real people to displace the talismanic shawl that has dominated her life for so long.

Although the novella “Rosa” is somewhat discursive and episodic, and perhaps a bit too predictable in its moral resolution of Rosa’s reentry into the world, the short story ’The Shawl” is unmistakably a brilliant piece of fiction, a perfect example of the power a short story can have in the hands of a master stylist. No one who reads it will ever be able to forget it. Its eerie and unreal imagery, its distanced and transcendent point of view, and its horrifying climactic event combine to make it one of the most powerful short stories in recent history.

“The Shawl,” 1980

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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

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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

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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 capable of murder or cannibalism. One day, Stella takes the shawl, causing the baby to wail. Rosa must watch in silence as a camp guard lifts the baby up on his shoulders and hurls it into the electric fence.

The novella begins after Rosa has moved from New York to Miami in order to avoid prosecution for demolishing her antique store; she was frustrated because she was unable to explain to her customers the haunting images of the Holocaust. Rosa lives as if she is still imprisoned in a concentration camp, weaving imagery of the Holocaust throughout her descriptions of Miami.

Because of the heat and her self-pity, Rosa mostly stays in her room in a retirement hotel, composing letters. She writes to Stella in crude English, pacifying her with endearments although she sees her as a “bloodsucker.” She writes to Magda in a refined literary Polish, usually imagining her daughter as a doctor or a professor, addressing herself as the mother of such a distinguished daughter. At other times, she laments her stolen past, probing Magda’s paternity, religion, the ghetto, motherhood, and Stella’s character. In this way, the book allows the reader to see Rosa’s divided self.

When Rosa finally goes to the laundromat, Simon Persky speaks to her. She imagines that he is like the other idealistic Jewish refugees and retirees she sees all over Miami, weighted down with regret for the real life they left behind. Although she identifies with their regret, she believes that she has nothing in common with them. Persky persists in making Rosa’s acquaintance; through his kind acts, he begins to penetrate her shell.

Most of the story takes place after Rosa returns to the hotel and discovers that a pair of underpants is missing from her laundry. Driven by paranoia, Rosa hunts for them that night on the streets and beaches of Miami. The darkened, surreal landscape reveals to Rosa the darkness of her own mind. When she returns to the hotel, Persky is waiting. She makes an offer of friendship, allowing Persky to open the package that she believes holds the shawl of her dead daughter. They discover instead a manuscript from a “social pathologist” who wants to study Rosa as a “survivor.” Rosa has a violent outburst that eventually subsides the next morning when Magda appears to Rosa. The narrative ends as Rosa’s vision of Magda fades.


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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 member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

In choosing to place these universal questions into the life of a female Holocaust survivor, Ozick makes her contribution to the genre of women’s Holocaust fiction, of which the most famous contemporary examples are Norma Rosen’s Touching Evil (1969) and Susan Schaeffer’s Anya (1974). Such fictions represent the double victimization that women are forced to endure during times of war and intensifies it to the most sinister proportions. The Shawl shows survival to be the strongest instinct of all, denying the hopelessness of many male fictionalizations of the Holocaust, such as Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1959) and other works that present the Holocaust as the final chapter in human history.

Ozick is a self-consciously Jewish woman writer, and her achievement in The Shawl is to make the survival of motherhood emblematic of the survival of a race. The shawl itself is the symbol that bridges two worlds. In the religious sense, the shawl is a special garment worn only by men to inspire awe and reverence during prayer. In the secular world, it is always worn by women. Ozick makes sacred the shawl by making it the living garment used by Rosa to resurrect her daughter.

The stories in The Shawl were included in Best American Short Stories (1981 and 1984) and won first prize in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories Collection. In The Shawl, Ozick begins with the most unimaginable setting in order to convey powerfully that it is often the ordinary rather than the idiosyncratic that makes survival worthwhile. The deeply imagistic use of the shawl gives meaning to the ordinary. In The Shawl, Ozick combines the complexity of the best moral fiction with the tightly wound prose of this century’s great realists. Ozick’s luminous symbols, her characters’ penetrating wit, and her focused prose challenge readers to examine for themselves the most grievous act of this century against the most enduring bond known to humankind.

Style and Technique

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“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

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The Great Depression Leads to Hitler's Rise
One of the major historical events of Ozick's lifetime was the Great Depression—the period of economic crisis and unemployment that began in the United States in October, 1929, and continued through most of the 1930s. Although she was born in 1928, one year before the start of the Depression, Ozick claims not to have been affected by it. She describes' 'the family pharmacy as giving a sense of comfort and prosperity," according to Joseph Lowin in Cynthia Ozick.

A series of events that seem to have had a far greater effect on Ozick's work occurred in Europe. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Gennan Reich. Several months later, he proclaimed a one-day boycott of all Jewish shops, followed quickly by the forced retirement of all non-Aryan civil servants, except soldiers. Hitler's persecution of the Jews had begun. He instituted the use of the term "Aryan" to designate members of what they believed to be a' 'master race" of non-Jewish white people, particularly those with Nordic features. Soon, kosher butchering was outlawed, as was the selling of Jewish newspapers in the street. In 1936, Jews lost the right to participate in German elections. In 1938, Jewish passports were marked with a "J," all Jewish businesses were closed down, Jewish students were removed from German schools, and Jews were no longer allowed to attend plays, movies, concerts, or exhibitions By 1939, Jews had to hand in their driver's licenses and car registrations, leave the universities, sell their businesses and real estate, and hand over securities and jewelry. By the middle of 1939, more than half of Germany's Jews had left for other countries. Many came to the United States.

By the end of 1939, Jews were beginning to be forced to wear yellow stars of David. Two years later, in 1941, the large-scale deportation of Jews to concentration camps began Three years after that, only 15,000 Jews remained in Germany-—down from over 500,000 eleven years earlier.

Ozick was five years old when Hitler became Chancellor; she was thirteen the year that extermination of Jews m concentration camps began in earnest. She was seventeen in 1945, the year the concentration camps were liberated and World War II ended. She grew up in a Jewish culture: her parents came from northwest Russia and from the Lithuanian Jewish tradition of that region. Her father, aside from being a pharmacist, was a Jewish scholar in Yiddish Hebrew. Ozick herself entered Jewish religious instruction at the age of five. Yet her entire youth was spent in a world where Jews were persecuted, then murdered, in Nazi-dominated countries, and refused sanctuary in most other countries, including her own United States.

Alongside the European events were Ozick's own difficulties with being a Jew in America. She calls the area of the Bronx where she was raised a place where it was "brutally difficult to be a Jew," and describes being called names and having stones thrown at her because she was Jewish. Ozick talks about the influence of history on her first published novel, Trust. She describes it has having been transformed from an American novel into a Jewish novel. "It's history as narration," she says, quoted in Lowin's Cynthia Ozick, "history as pageant almost'' Jewish characters and the history of the Jewish people are at the center of much of Ozick's fiction.

Literary Style

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Point of View
'"The Shawl'' is written in an omniscient third-person point of view. It is omniscient because the narrator can see things through the eyes of all the characters. For instance, the narrator tells readers that "Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl," and that "Rosa did not feel hunger"—things which could only be known by that character. The point of view is said to be third person because the narrator speaks about the characters from the outside, referring to them as "she'' or "he.''

"The Shawl" is notable for containing almost no dialogue. Rosa says nothing. Stella speaks twice: once when she calls Magda an "Aryan,'' and again when she says "I was cold'' to explain why she took Magda's shawl. Magda screams in the early part of the story, but soon gives that up. She makes no other sound until her shawl is taken from her; Rosa even thinks Magda is a mute. When Stella steals the shawl, however, Magda says what will be the only word she ever speaks: "Maaaa—." The characters' silence may represent the silence they had to maintain during the march and in the camp in order to protect their lives. Had any of them uttered one word or complaint that could have been overheard by a camp official, they would have been killed, as Magda was. Despite their lack of communication through speech, the plot is intense due to their tragic situation.

Ozick uses an extremely spare style in "The Shawl.'' The story is only two thousand words long. An important characteristic of this style is how much information Ozick trusts the reader to fill in for him or herself. Ozick does not waste words by stating that Rosa and Stella are being marched to a concentration camp. She simply describes a march. In the process, she mentions the yellow "star sewn into Rosa's coat" and the fact that Magda's blue eyes and blonde hair could cause you to think "she was one of their babies." At this point, it becomes evident that Ozick is describing the plight of Jews during the Holocaust, and readers are trusted to bring what knowledge they have of that event to their reading of the story. Ozick does not describe the camp itself until some description of it becomes necessary to the story, and then she describes only what the reader absolutely needs to know. She mentions the square into which Magda has wandered. The one part of the camp that Ozick describes in detail is the electric fence surrounding it, the fence against which Magda will be thrown in detail is the electric fence surrounding it, the fence against which Magda will be thrown.

In the course of the story, Ozick shifts from a narrative mode that consists primarily of exposition to one in which the reader accompanies the character through the action-step by step, thought by thought—in an extended scene Exposition is when the writer does not take the reader through the action step by step, but allows the narrator to present an overview of what has occurred or is occurring. Approximately the first two-thirds of"The Shawl'' is exposition. In a little over a thousand words the narrator succinctly reports the events of several months. The narrator recounts the march and what life was like in the camp. Readers are occasionally told what a character thinks or feels, but these sketchy details do not comprise full-fledged scenes.

With Magda's first word, "Maaaa—," Ozick switches from an exposition to a detailed scene. The narrator moves into the mind of Rosa and remains there until the end of the story. In the first two-thirds of the story, enough time passes for Magda to have grown from a nursing infant to a fifteen-month-old child, old enough to walk. The final third of the story covers only a few moments. Readers see what Rosa sees and hear her thoughts. The narrator recounts Rosa's trek into the barracks to find the shawl and back out to discover she is too late. Readers witness Magda's death through Rosa's eyes.

This switch from exposition to a detailed scene has a powerful effect on the story. During the time when Magda's nearly inevitable death is somewhere in the future, the reader is more distant from the characters. As Magda's death approaches, readers move closer to Rosa's perspective. When Magda is killed, readers witness the scene from the position of a mother watching as her daughter is murdered.

Ozick uses repetition to build suspense. Readers know from the beginning of the story that Magda is constantly on the edge of death. Rosa's breasts are dry, so there is nothing for Magda to eat; she could die of starvation at any moment. Or she could be discovered by the soldiers and killed. Rosa also knows that Magda is "going to die very soon." But time moves forward and Magda does not die. Then she begins to walk and the time of her death seems to move closer: "When Magda began to walk, Rosa knew that Magda was going to die very soon." Again, time passes and Magda does not die. Then Stella steals the shawl and Magda walks out into the square. Her death moves even closer: "Rosa saw that today Magda was going to die." Finally, Magda screams and the time of her death is present: Rosa "saw that Magda was going to die." The repetition causes an echo in the reader's mind: Magda is going to die, Magda is going to die. The outcome of the story is never in dispute, the action merely concerns how Magda's death is played out. Along with Rosa, readers see Magda's death growing nearer. And, along with Rosa, they can do nothing to change what will happen.

The most obvious symbol of the story is Magda's seemingly magical shawl. Critic Alan R. Berger, writing in Crisis and Covenant: The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction (1985), 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." According to Andrew Gordon in "Cynthia Ozick's 'The Shawl' and the Transitional Object" (Literature and Psychology, 1994), Ozick denies having had this in mind when she wrote the story. Critic Suzanne Klingenstem, writing in the Fall, 1992, issue of Studies in American Jewish Literature, says that "the shawl functions in place of speech for both infant and mother and also as a kind of umbilical cord between the two characters. Again, states Gordon, Ozick has denied that this was her intention.

Gordon also believes that 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." Ozick herself claims that she had none of these "pop psychology "ideas m mind when writing "The Shawl."

Literary Techniques

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Cynthia Ozick's writing style is powerful primarily because of its lack of direct reference to the horrific events her characters undergo. Initially, the reader is unsure what kind of calamity is unfolding. Ozick mentions cold and hunger and an endless march. Only obliquely does the reader view the Holocaust: via the star sewn into the coat, a grumbling electric fence, or a Nazi SS known only by the glint of his helmet or his domino-like body. Yet, this lack of direct reference is precisely what makes the reference even more powerful. Even Magda's death is described in an almost fantastical manner. Her death is artful, with her small body flying into the air and the growling and grumbling of the electric fence. In fact, it is only Rosa's pain that strikes the reader directly and makes all other oblique references real.

Another effective technique is the intermingling of innocent and horrific images. For instance, Magda's first tooth, which traditionally would evoke ideas about beginning childhood, is in Ozick's story compared to "an elfin tombstone of white marble". Rosa's breasts, normally equated with motherhood and safety, become "cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole." In both cases, the physical detail, normally equated with the beginning of life, is connected to death.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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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 directly to the Holocaust?

3. What is the effect, if any, of Magda's having blonde hair and blue eyes?

4. What do you think Magda is supposed to represent? Is Magda meant to be a pitiable figure?

5. Each character in the story has a different reaction to the Holocaust. What, if anything, does each reaction tell you about the meaning of being a survivor? About defiance and defeat?

6. How should Rosa react to Stella after Magda's death?

Social Concerns

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"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 World War II. Magda is barely old enough to walk and is surviving only because of a magical shawl that nourishes and protects her. While Rosa has the ability to sacrifice everything, even her own food, to keep her daughter alive, fourteen-year-old Stella cannot endure the same sacrifices as her aunt: "Stella gazed at Magda like a young cannibal"; Rosa, in an attempt to save her young child, "learned from Magda how to drink the taste of a finger in one's mouth." Eventually, Stella's bitter cold and her own childlike need to survive causes Stella to take Magda's shawl from her to warm her own body. While in search of the shawl, Magda wanders into the open space of the concentration camp, where she suffers a horrific death at the hands of the Nazis.

Although Cynthia Ozick is not a Holocaust survivor, one of Ozick's primary concerns is the attenuation of the Holocaust through excessive study of its principles and the subsequent objectification of its survivors. While others have reduced the concept of the survivor to an objective, distant subject, Ozick's writing refocuses the reader on the true horror and brutality of the experience in part by wrapping the most horrific events within the confines of what is traditionally a soothing item—a mother's shawl. Ozick uses the Jewish tradition of memory to inform her writing and possesses a keen imagination that allows her to capture the mentality of the survivor. It is interesting to note that although Ozick had no direct connection to the Holocaust, it remains a major theme in her writing. Ozick's works on the Holocaust are so clear and lifelike that psychologists who have worked with survivors may be led to assume that Ozick is herself a survivor. "The Shawl," illustrates how a survivor, who, through the loss of her daughter, subsequently seems to lose her own moorings in the postwar years. As a writer about Holocaust survival, Ozick seems unable to relinquish the Holocaust on a subconscious level.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Adolf Hitler's persecution of the Jews in Germany begins in 1933. Discrimination gives way to the loss of all their rights as citizens. In 1938, the Nazis destroy the country's synagogues and begin imprisoning Jews and others in concentration camps, like the one depicted in "The Shawl." The Final Solution escalates throughout World War II, ending only in 1945 when the camps are liberated by the Allies.

1980s: The historical reality of the Holocaust is questioned by the largely discredited fringe organization, the Institute for Historical Review, through articles in the Institute's publication, The Journal of Historical Review.

1990s: New information about the Holocaust continues to make headlines. In 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) admits its ' 'moral failure" to come to the aid of the Jews during the Holocaust. In 1997 the organization releases its wartime files Among the files is an exchange of letters from May, 1940, in which the World Jewish Congress asks the ICRC to investigate reports of the mass murder of Jewish prisoners of war. The ICRC responded several months later that the reports were unfounded. Also in 1997, Swiss banks release information on the dormant accounts opened by Holocaust victims before World War II. The banks are accused of hoarding the money of Holocaust victims.

1940s: The horror of the Holocaust is reflected in the diary of a young Jewish girl who lives hidden away with her family above a shop in Amsterdam. The Diary of Anne Frank is published in 1947, two years after she dies in a concentration camp.

1980s: Schindler's List is written by Thomas Keneally in 1982. The story focuses on Oskar Schindler, a German who saves the Jews working in his factory from the gas chambers. Other Holocaust survivor stories are told in works such as To Save a Life: Stories of Jewish Rescue, in 1984.

1990s: The Holocaust becomes a topic of interest to the motion picture industry Schindler's List is made into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 1993. The film wins seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In 1997, The Populist, a movie about Adolf Hitler's rise to power, which was aided by Ernst Hanfstaegl, the man who introduced Hitler to the wealthy financiers of the Third Reich, is planned.

Literary Precedents

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Cynthia Ozick is influenced by both Henry James and E. M. Forster. Her first novel, Trust, was in fact criticized for its obviously heavy reliance on Henry James. Later, Ozick was also influenced by Chekov, but her own writing style began to evolve as she learned to seamlessly incorporate the influences of others without sacrificing her own manner. Ultimately, Ozick values the idea of impersonation. Ozick believes that to be a good writer, one must incorporate the character of others to grasp the heart of a character. Doing so requires becoming involved in life—something Ozick contends most writers fail to do. Her fundamental belief is that writing cannot be honest without an honest, heartfelt life experience. In short, those who impersonate life will end by writing in the same false manner in which they live. Perhaps this idea was gleaned from Forster's The Longest Journey, in which characters pay a price for their attempt to imitate life without experiencing it. staged readings in New York at Playwrights Horizons. The final, full-blown production took place under the direction of Sidney Lumet at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre. In 1996, another production was presented off-Broadway, at Playhouse 91 of the American Jewish Repertory Theater. In addition to its theater production, The Shawl was read by actress Claire Bloom on National Public Radio. This series was eventually transferred to an audiocassette version.


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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: Cynthia Ozick. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This volume of essays gathers together a representative selection of the best criticism so far available of Ozick’s fiction, arranged by subject in chronological order of its original publication.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick’s Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Offers an overview of Ozick’s use of comedy in her short fiction. Chapters focus on single or multiple works, including The Shawl. Includes a selected bibliography of other critical works.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Cynthia Ozick on the Holocaust, Idolatry, and Loss.” The New York Times, September 5, 1989, p. C17.

Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Kielsky, Vera Emuna. Inevitable Exiles: Cynthia Ozick’s View of the Precariousness of Jewish Existence in a Gentile Society. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A good overall introduction to Ozick’s thought and art. Places her within the Jewish American literary tradition and discusses “The Shawl” within the context of her other short fiction. Includes an annotated bibliography of additional criticism on Ozick.

Lowin, Joseph. “Cynthia Ozick, Rewriting Herself: The Road from The Shawl’ to Rosa.’” In Since Flannery O’Connor: Essays on the Contemporary American Short Story, edited by Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Macomb: Western Illinois University, 1987. Lowin argues that, like the French symbolists, Ozick paints not the thing itself but its effect. Discusses how each of the three major characters uses the shawl as a life preserver. Describes “Rosa” as being within the tradition of Ozick’s earlier midrashic writing such as “The Pagan Rabbi.”

Mehegan, David. “Turning a Page: Thirty-Eight Years into Her Career, Cynthia Ozick Has Her First Book Tour.” Boston Globe, November 15, 2004, p. B5.

Ozick, Cynthia. Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character, and Other Essays on Writing. London: Pimlico, 1996.

Powers, Peter Kerry. “Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation, and the Invented Past.” MELUS 20 (Fall, 1995): 79-97. Although this essay does not focus on The Shawl, it does present a revealing view of Ozick’s thoughts on the threat of cultural incorporation in literature. Ozick points out that Jewish American writers have generally achieved success by avoiding that which is historically Jewish in favor of the short-lived idea of Jewish racial group identity.

Scrafford, Barbara. “Nature’s Silent Scream: A Commentary on Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.” Critique 31 (Fall, 1989): 11-15. Claims that the short sentences of “The Shawl” and its concise syntax tell the story with a minimum of rhetoric. Argues that it derives most of its power from its ironic contrast between a barbarous place, where lives end, and motherhood, where life begins. The story is a skeleton itself, says Scrafford, for it is almost pure form, pure shape.

Strandberg, Victor. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Hoffert, Barbara "The Shawl," in Library Journal, Vol 114, August, 1989, p 165.

Kauvar, Elaine M Cynthia Ozick's Fiction. Tradition & Invention, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Klmgenstem, Suzanne "Destructive Intimacy: The Shoah Between Mother and Daughter in Fictions by Cynthia Ozick, Noraia Rosen and Rebecca Goldstein," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 11, No 2, Fall, 1992, pp 162- 73.

Prose, Francine A review of "The Shawl,'' in The New York Times Book Review, September 10,1989, p 1, 39.

Further Reading
Chartock, Roselle and Jack Spence, eds The Holocaust Years- Society on Trial, Bantam Books, 1978.
One of many histories of the Holocaust, Chartock and Spencer's book is notable for its clear chronology of the events in Europe from 1933 to 1945, its discussions of prejudice and scapegoating, and behavior under stress, and many essays in the words of witnesses and of Nazis themselves.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art- From Levity to Liturgy, Indiana University Press, 1994
Cohen concentrates on Ozick's use of irony in her work

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick, Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Lowin's book provides an excellent overview of Ozick's life and work. It includes a biographical section and sections on many of Ozick's works of fiction, including "The Shawl."

Ozick, Cynthia Art & Ardor, Knopf, 1983.
A collection of Ozick's essays about literature and writing, including essays discussing her struggles to discover what it means to be a Jew, and the writer's material—including the Holocaust.

Ozick, Cynthia. Fame & Folly, Knopf, 1996.
A collection of Ozick's essays about literature and writing Includes essays on the relationship of the artist to his or her material, and the relationship of history to literature.


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After many years of contemplating bringing "The Shawl" to the stage, Ozick finally wrote two plays, The Shawl and Rosa, based on her stories of the same names. The Shawl was originally scheduled to be performed at the American Repertory Theater but was canceled. Eventually, the play received two staged readings in New York at Playwrights Horizons. The final, full-blown production took place under the direction of Sidney Lumet at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre. In 1996, another production was presented off-Broadway, at Playhouse 91 of the American Jewish Repertory Theater. In addition to its theater production, The Shawl was read by actress Claire Bloom on National Public Radio. This series was eventually transferred to an audiocassette version.

Media Adaptations

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"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 Light) in 1994 at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, and in 1996 at the Jewish Repertory Theater, New York City.

An audio version of "The Shawl," read by actress Claire Bloom, is available on the National Public Radio series "Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond."

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