The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick, revolves around fifteen-month old Magda, and how her mother, Rosa, copes and tries to keep her from certain death by the Nazis, as they march to a concentration camp. Along with Magda, Rosa’s niece, Stella is marching with them. She is constantly cold, and eventually steals the shawl. The story is about Rosa’s recollections of that fateful day when she marched to the death camp, and her memories of later times spent in the camp.
Rosa has wrapped Magda in her shawl, and Magda somehow has the almost innate sense to remain quiet when hidden inside the shawl. She learns to suck on the shawl, and it somehow satisfies her hunger. Her life is lived within the threads of the shawl, nestled against Rosa’s breasts.
The march to the concentration camp demonstrates choices that Rosa must make. Should she give her child over to one of the onlookers, and possibly ensuring the survival of Magda. After quick though, Rosa decides against it, because it wouldn’t necessarily ensure Magda’s survival, and would more than likely mean definite death to her (Rosa).
The shawl comes to represent Magda and she is kept alive through that shawl, and through Rosa’s delusions. After liberation, Rosa moves to Florida, and lives in a less than desirable hotel. Stella retains the shawl and also pays Rosa’s rent. Rosa becomes a scavenger, living hand to mouth, with her past constantly haunting her daily life. Her every thought is of Magda and the shawl. Stella eventually sends her the shawl, and Rosa eventually opens the box that contains it, inhaling the scent of Magda.
The narrator visualizes events and things through all the characters eyes. It is as if they are inside the mind of each of the individuals. It is written in a third person perspective. We are witness to a woman who is delusional and on the verge of emotional collapse, if not already moving through a breakdown state.
Survival is an underlying theme in The Shawl. The book details what one does to protect, not only themselves, but a loved one, during an enormous and horrific episode in history. The pages are filled with extreme imagery, and Rosa’s character is filled with incredible depth. The Shawl also goes on to demonstrate how the past affects the lives of those who have survived extreme adversity. But, have they really survived, other than in the physical aspect?
One thing that somewhat disturbed me, aside from the horrific situations that are depicted, is Rosa’s perspective of others. Having come from a well-to-do family, she seems to look down on those less fortunate than her former position in life, life before Holocaust. She is extremely judgmental of all those she comes in contact with, and everyone she sees.
Ozick is brilliant in her vivid details, and the reader feels they are right there with the narrator, living the horrific events, and feeling the madness and despair within Rosa’s mind. The book is haunting on many levels, disturbing, and filled with intensity. She demonstrates the loss of a child in a dramatic and masterful manner. The story and essay are not pretty, but nonetheless extremely compelling. The questions asked of the reader are sobering, such as how is it possible that one article can represent not only life, but death, and also a new beginning and fresh start. Articles often bring us comfort, and at the same time, bring us pain, pain that is unbearable, and keeps us imprisoned within the past, unable to move forward.
Cynthia Ozick has given us a powerful book, and one that intensifies as the reader moves through the pages. It is an excellent psychological study of love and yearning, loss and guilt. I recommend it to all those who wish to have a greater understanding of the effects that the Holocaust has on people, decades after the fact. It belongs in high school, college and university libraries.
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