Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl’

‘The Shawl’ is the best-known and most widely studied short story by the American writer Cynthia Ozick (born 1928). Published in 1980, ‘The Shawl’ is about a Jewish mother and her infant daughter and niece, living in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. The story contains some very harrowing imagery and is noteworthy for its surrealism, or even magic realism, which Ozick uses to explore the darkest time in twentieth-century European history.

Before we offer an analysis of ‘The Shawl’, it might be worth recapping the story’s plot, given the gradual way Ozick deftly reveals the details of the story to us.

‘The Shawl’: plot summary

The story is set during the Holocaust. A mother named Rosa is walking with her infant daughter, Magda, and her fourteen-year-old niece, Stella. They are starving and being marched to one of the Nazi concentration camps. However, the Nazis only know about Rosa and Stella, because Magda is kept close to Rosa’s breast, concealed under a shawl. Magda is so hungry that her breasts have stopped lactating. Magda is attached to Rosa’s front and wrapped in a magic shawl which can nourish her for three days and three nights. Stella is jealous of Magda’s shawl and how it protects her from the cold.

Rosa dreams of giving away her baby to one of the nearby villages, in the hope that a kindly family would take her in and protect her from the Germans. Magda is Jewish, but she looks ‘Aryan’: another reason, Rosa believes, that Stella dislikes Magda. Rosa thinks Stella is waiting for Magda to die so he can eat her cousin. In the sequel to the story which Ozick wrote, it is implied that Rosa was raped by a German soldier and Magda is the product of that.

Rosa knows that Magda will be discovered soon, now she has begun to walk. She appears to be mute, allowing her to avoid detection. However, in the end it is Stella who causes Magda to be discovered, by tearing the shawl from her because she, Stella, is cold and wants to wrap it around herself. The shawl floats into the army barracks and Magda tries to walk, searching for it. As she staggers out into the square outside the army barracks, she is discovered by the guards when she suddenly cries for the first time.

In the most shocking moment in the story, Ozick describes how one of the Nazi officers picks up Magda and hurls her at the electric fence, killing her as she cries out ‘mama’. Rosa knows that if she moves or cries out, she will be shot, so she retrieves Magda’s shawl and stuffs it into her mouth to keep herself quiet.

‘The Shawl’: analysis

The Holocaust is an important subject for Ozick’s fiction, and ‘The Shawl’ is her most widely-known and frequently discussed work. In just a few pages, Ozick captures the horror of recent history, but through using magical realist touches rather than hard realism. Three years after ‘The Shawl’ was published, Ozick wrote a sequel, ‘Rosa’, for The New Yorker, in which Ozick revealed that Stella was Rosa’s niece and Magda is therefore her cousin rather than her younger sister.

‘The Shawl’ is full of animal imagery. At one point, Rosa is likened to a tiger possessively guarding her young. More surreally still, Magda’s eyes are described as being like blue tigers: given the ‘blue’ adjective, Ozick is suggesting that the infant’s eyes are like tigers themselves, not like the eyes of a tiger. Near the end of the story, Rosa thinks of the ‘innocent tiger lilies’ in the countryside just beyond the barracks, and the irony of the words ‘innocent’ and ‘tiger’ appearing together after the earlier, predatory imagery is meant to unnerve us.

Stella, meanwhile, is ravenous (a word Ozick uses repeatedly), hungry, and ready to indulge in the most shocking cannibalistic behaviour, devouring her own cousin in order to stave off starvation. Stella is described as being jealous of Magda, because Magda has her magic shawl to nourish and sustain her, while the fourteen-year-old Stella has nothing.

There is a wildness to Magda. Later in the story, Rosa looks at Magda and is reminded of the wild rats in the barracks which run around in search of carrion to eat. At the same time, Magda in her shawl puts Rosa in mind of a squirrel in its nest, safe from the predations of the outside world. These similes suggest the wild desperation of the characters and the predatory urge to survive which has been awakened within them all, and even in the fifteen-month-old Magda.

But as ‘The Shawl’ goes on, images of flight, floating, and being light as air begin to dominate. They are foreshadowed by the idea of Rosa as a floating angel, existing in a trance-like state that goes beyond extreme hunger. As the narrative develops, the narrator tells us that Rosa and Stella are gradually turning into air themselves. A decisive shift takes place in the imagery Ozick uses to describe Magda, too. From just her eyes being likened to tigers, she becomes first like a rat and then, at the end of the story, like a moth or a butterfly as she ‘flies’ through the air when the soldier hurls her at the fence.

It is a grim and horrific image of unadulterated cruelty, but there is also a suggestion of liberation, as if the suffering that was merely delayed and could not be avoided forever is now at an end. Earlier, we had learnt that Rosa felt a strange kind of joy when she heard Magda cry out, because at least the sound suggested there was nothing wrong, after all, with her baby’s throat.

As this detail suggests, ‘The Shawl’ is also filled with images of silence and being silenced. Magda remains mute and this is the way she avoids detection. The shawl helps, in that it acts as a kind of pacifier or dummy and keeps her quiet and happy. When she loses the shawl, she finally discovers her voice. Rosa knows that she must suppress her own urge to wail – she has just watched her infant daughter be murdered in the most brutal way. The shawl is thus passed from daughter to mother in a grim inversion of the common practice of a parent passing something down to their child.

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