Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

Although Magda dies, “The Shawl” affirms the miracle of courage. Rosa doggedly conceals and sustains her child during the exhausting march and then under the horrible conditions in the camp. As agonizing as the final paragraph may seem, it emphasizes the steadfastness and fortitude that enable Rosa to survive the...

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Although Magda dies, “The Shawl” affirms the miracle of courage. Rosa doggedly conceals and sustains her child during the exhausting march and then under the horrible conditions in the camp. As agonizing as the final paragraph may seem, it emphasizes the steadfastness and fortitude that enable Rosa to survive the death of her child as well as her persecution by the Nazis.

Much can be learned from this brief story about the mass persecution of Jews and other Europeans that has become known as the Holocaust. In her autobiographical essay “Washington Square, 1946,” Cynthia Ozick says that she “lived in the narrow throat of poetry” until she was “at last hammer-struck with the shock of Europe’s skull, the bled planet of death camp and war.” The early paragraphs of “The Shawl” evoke the exhaustion, starvation, and terror of prisoners forced from their homes by the Germans. One notices the infamous yellow stars that were sewn onto clothing to brand Jews. From Rosa’s concern that her baby has blue eyes and blond hair, which may reveal Magda to be one of their babies, it appears that Rosa probably has been raped by her captors.

Later, the sunlit roll-call arena suggests the terrorizing tactics of the camp guards, and the “flowers” and “rain” of excrement and urine establish the disgusting conditions inside the prisoners’ barracks. The electrified fence indicates the technologically efficient and impersonal means employed to confine captives. (“The Shawl” was inspired by a line about babies thrown against such fences in a history of Nazi Germany.) Finally, the “bitter fatty floating smoke that greased Rosa’s skin” refers to the fact that concentration camps were usually death camps—holding facilities for those eventually gassed or burned alive in the ovens.

One may well ponder the ambivalent role of Rosa’s imagination. On one hand, she feels like a “floating angel, alert and seeing everything.” On the other, the “lamenting voices” in the fence offer advice that could be fatal to her. The first half of the story develops several options regarding Magda, while in the second, any influence over the child’s welfare is taken from Rosa. By the end, speculating has not helped save her daughter, and Rosa must quickly find a means to sustain herself.

The source she finds—the magic shawl—deserves consideration. It hides Magda from danger and nourishes her when her mother’s breasts go dry. It is so desirable that Stella steals it instead of stealing Magda, as Rosa had feared she might do. Although there is no indication of how much time passes during the story, the shawl has permitted Magda to live longer than expected. Critics have noted that the shawl resembles the Jewish prayer shawl. The taste of cinnamon and almonds confirms the religious and mystical nature of the shawl. Cinnamon and almonds are the contents of the spice box that Jews sniff during the ceremony at the end of the Sabbath, for unity and strength during the work and trials of the week ahead. It is likely that Ozick, to whom the traditions and meanings of the Jewish religion are real and vital, intends that Rosa’s reliance on the shawl is not merely an act of personal strength, but testimony to the miraculous ways of God.


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The shawl itself evokes the single most powerful theme of the story: the magical provision of safety, nourishment, and succor within a hostile environment. Magda is seen as special, a child to be saved from the Holocaust. She is protected by a "magic shawl" that shields her from the Nazis and nourishes her when her mother's breasts stop providing milk. It is a shawl that keeps Magda quiet when she must hide during roll call and protects her from the "bad wind with pieces of black in it, that made Stella's and Rosa's eyes tear". Yet perhaps what makes the story so horrifying is how the magical shawl is then twisted, corrupted from being an agent of deliverance into a device that delivers suffering.

While Rosa seeks to protect her only child, her niece Stella—still a selfish child herself—cannot stand the cold and the hunger. When she snatches the shawl from Magda, she snatches away not only Magda's comfort but her own. For after that point, "the cold went into her heart." Meanwhile, the shawl that once protected Magda has been stripped away, and Magda is now exposed to the world. She leaves the dark, quiet confines, which has kept her alive, and moves out into the sunlight. While the shawl has kept her mute, rendering her safe through silence, the absence of the shawl allows Magda to find her voice. As Magda begins to howl, the shawl itself becomes a symbol of desperation and also of defiance. It is the anchor of Rosa's world, her connection to her daughter.

When Rosa finds the shawl, she begins flinging it about in an attempt to save her daughter, an impromptu flag and a beacon of hope that has been initiated by Magda's defiant screams. At the same time, the reader too experiences an irrational hope that the shawl will be able to save Magda, that the pseudo magical powers will bear out here as well. Yet the shawl cannot protect Magda from the Nazis any more than her mother or anyone else can. When Magda is thrown against the electric fence, Rosa knows the shawl cannot help her daughter or herself. Finding herself powerless and seeing the shawl as nothing more than a shroud for Magda, "[Rosa] took Magda's shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, untill she was swallowing up the wolf's screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva; and Rosa drank Magda's shawl until it dried." Now, through Magda's death, the shawl is revealed as a false sense of security, a gag, useful only for staunching the flow of Rosa's pain.


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Underlying Ozick's story is the theme of survival. Rosa struggles with this constantly. During the march to the concentration camp, Rosa struggles over whether or not she should pass Magda to an onlooker, possibly ensuring her child's survival. Rosa decides against this, however, realizing that she would risk her own life in doing so and could not guarantee Magda's safety. Rosa chooses survival in the moment for both of them, rather than probable death for herself and uncertainty for her child. As Rosa struggles over what to do about Magda, Stella longs to be Magda: a baby rocked and sleeping in her mother's arms. Rosa also thinks that the starving Stella gazes at Magda as if she wishes to eat the child. Magda, though far too young to have any knowledge of what is happening to and around her, gives up screaming and quietly sucks on the shawl.

Life in the camp is a constant battle for survival. Rosa, apparently caring more about Magda's survival than her own. gives most of her food to her child. Stella, caring mostly about her own survival, gives no food to Magda. Magda herself turns to the shawl for comfort: it is her "baby, her pet, her little sister"; when she needs to be still—and stillness is necessary to her survival—she sucks on a corner of it.

Halfway through the story, Stella takes Magda's shawl because she is cold. It is, perhaps, the only one of her afflictions that she can do anything about. There is no food to ease her hunger, and there is nothing she can do to escape from the camp; but Magda's shawl might ease her cold. This, too, is a form of reaching for survival. Stella has chosen to bring what small comfort she can to herself, ignoring the potential cost to Magda and Rosa.

Magda, knowing no better, leaves the barracks in her search for the shawl. Again, Rosa has to make a choice about her survival. If she runs to Magda, they will both be killed. If she does nothing, Magda will be killed. The only solution she can think of, however slim, is to get the shawl to Magda before she is discovered by the camp's guards. She runs for the shawl and returns to the square with it, but she is too late. A soldier carries Magda away toward the electric fence at the other side of the camp. Rosa watches her baby fly through the air, hit the fence and die, then fall to the ground. Again, there are choices. If she goes to Magda, she will be shot; if she screams, she will be shot. Rosa chooses survival, using the shawl to mute her scream.

Motherhood and Nurturing
Closely linked to the theme of survival are issues of motherhood and nurturing. Throughout "The Shawl," Stella longs to be nurtured. On the march, she longs to be a baby, comforted by her mother's arms. In the camp, she longs for food, sometimes causing Rosa to think that she is "waiting for Magda to die so she could put her teeth into the little thighs.'' She takes the only bit of nurturing she can find: warmth from Magda's shawl.

The issues of motherhood are more complex. Because she is a mother, Rosa cannot think only of herself, as Stella does. Each decision must be weighed. What is the possible benefit to her? To Magda? What are the possible costs? With each decision, Rosa must decide whether it is in her best interest to sacrifice herself, her baby, or both of them.

Prejudice and Tolerance
Issues of prejudice and tolerance are also raised in "The Shawl." Rosa, Stella, Magda, and the others are imprisoned or killed in concentration camps simply because they are Jewish. Prejudice exists on then- part too—at least on the part of Stella. Looking at Magda's yellow hair and blue eyes, she says "Aryan," in a voice that makes Rosa think she has said, "Let us devour her."

The issue of tolerance is raised in the camp itself. Rosa and Magda are not alone in the barracks they occupy. The other occupants are aware of Magda's existence and of Rosa's deception. In the camp, "a place without pity," they cannot know what might happen to them if Magda is discovered in the barracks. Yet no one reports her presence.

Rosa constantly fears that Stella—or someone else—will kill Magda to eat her. While this does not happen, it is Stella's betrayal that costs Magda her life and Rosa her child. "The Shawl'' points to one reason for this kind of betrayal: the inhuman treatment Stella has received has made her pitiless. "The cold went into her heart," the narrator says. "Rosa saw that Stella's heart was cold."

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