Literature Annotations


Ozick, Cynthia
The Shawl


Genre Collection (Short Stories) (69 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Aging, Children, Human Worth, Loneliness, Mental Illness, Mother-Daughter Relationship, Mourning, Obsession, Suffering, Survival, Trauma
Summary

The Shawl is comprised of two stories, "The Shawl" and "Rosa," originally published in The New Yorker respectively in 1980 and 1983. The first and much shorter of the stories is an extremely powerful account of the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps. Rosa, (who we meet again 30 years later in the second story), has been hiding and protecting her daughter Magda in a shawl. Rosa's 14 year old niece, Stella, (who also is central to the second story) takes the shawl from the child for her own comfort. The horrific events that follow, tiny Magda's search for her shawl and discovery by a German soldier who hurtles her to her death against an electrified fence, shape the remainder of Rosa's life--and this book.

In the sequel, Rosa, now 59 years old, has moved to Miami (a "hellish place") after literally destroying the junk shop in New York which she had owned. She lives an isolated life in a dilapidated one room apartment. Stella, who remained in New York, supports her financially, and is her primary source of contact with the outside world. A serendipitous meeting at a laundromat with a Mr. Persky, however, changes Rosa's life.

This is not to imply that there is a romanticized ending to this story--just a glimmer of hope of reconnection to the world is offered. For Rosa was still living the holocaust. As she put it--there's life before, life during (Hitler's reign) and life after--"Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays." This orientation to the world is what Persky challenges.

Commentary

The shawl and its connection to the core event in Rosa's life continues to carry significance in the second story. Throughout the second story Rosa eagerly awaits its arrival from Stella--although Rosa doesn't need such a "talisman," as Stella refers to it, to evoke the images of her deceased daughter and of Rosa's family's contented life in pre-war Warsaw. In fact, Rosa has created countless lives for her daughter, with whom she regularly communicates, usually sharing with her stories of the grandeur of Warsaw. One could see Rosa as a crazy woman, one way she refers to herself, but one can't help empathize with her and her struggle to maintain sanity and dignity in the face of evil.

Another theme which emerges in this book is the use of the term "survivor" and those who study "them". Ozick has addressed this in other forums and does so through Rosa as well--clearly finding their objectification of these persons who have suffered so much another form of inhumanity.

PublisherRandom House: Vintage International
Edition1990
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousThe story, "The Shawl," was selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, eds. John Updike & Katrina Kenison (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 1999.
Annotated by Kohn, Martin
Date of Entry 06/29/95
Last Revised 08/12/99