The Shawl

Published 26 Dec 2016

Rosa’s attention is focused on Magda, her baby daughter, while Magda’s attention is focused on the shawl—this linear correlation amidst a cruel environment in Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” represents the struggle for life despite the certainty of death. Innocence and desperation highlight the contrast between the young and the old. Rosa’s desperation causes her to do desperate measures for the survival of her child while Magda’s innocence only affords her the comfort of relying on a lifeless piece of cloth. More importantly, that same desperation draws the contrast between genuine altruism and practicality at a time when nothing is certain but death.

Perhaps Rosa’s actions reflect nothing but her instincts as a mother. It was her immediate concern to protect the safety of Magda even if it meant doing things that can easily risk her life and limb. That is the part where the shawl gains prominence. As Karen Bernando notes, the shawl “functions symbolically on many levels (Bernardo),” including the apparent mother-child relationship. Physically unable to provide for the needs of her child, Rosa resorts to using the shawl as the sole provider of her child’s needs. From warmth to being a pacifier, the shawl was there to provide comfort to Magda.

They walked towards the concentration camp, with “Magda curled up between sore breasts, Magda wound up in the shawl” (Ozick, p. 930), showing at the start of the story the role the shawl is about to play in the story. Rosa’s instinct to secure her child’s safety by shielding her with a piece of cloth from the prying eyes of the Nazis illustrates the conflict between practicality and genuine altruism. While it is true that Rosa’s attention revolves around the need to secure the welfare of Magda, she did so not by putting herself per se at risk. Rather, she used the shawl as a somewhat surrogate mother for Magda.

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It is apparent that Rosa is also concerned about her own safety. She could have given herself up so that her child could have enjoyed the real benefits from what real mothers have to offer. Instead, the shawl became the substitute mother for Magda on that tormenting situation.

One plausible answer as to why Rosa decided to treat the shawl as her temporary replacement as a caring provider to the needs of Magda during that desperate moment is the idea of practicality. It is certainly practical to risk one than to risk two or even more. In the event where the Nazis discover Magda, Rosa’s life can be spared granted that she detaches herself completely from her child, ignoring Magda as if she was never Rosa’s own. Or, perhaps, in the event when the Nazis finally decide to pull the plug out of the life of Rosa, Magda can still survive, at least for the moment, despite the absence of her mother. Either way, there was no escape from the harrowing situation.

If it was the case that Rosa was genuine in her altruistic intention of providing safety for her child despite the threat of being caught and of being sentenced to death by the Nazis, the fact that Rosa had no other choice but to hide her child away from the sights of the Nazis suggests that her protective measures were nothing more than required actions. Her resolve to hide Magda is, apparently, a part of her duty to her child as a mother. It is only expected from Rosa to devote her focus of attention of the welfare of Magda because her child is basically physically unable to provide for her needs and to protect herself. Here we find the linear correlation among the attention of the characters more striking than before, for it is part of Rosa’s duties as a mother to secure Magda’s welfare and it is intrinsic for Magda as an innocent child to be unaware of the events that were unfolding before them.

The shawl ties the linear correlation closer—in fact, it serves as the primary and the essential link between the two. The shawl bridged Rosa and Magda together despite physical separation. To a certain degree, the shawl was the substitute mother in the eyes of Magda which is more likely the same way in which Rosa understood the situation. “There was not enough milk,” Ozick writes of Rosa, “Magda sucked air then she screamed” (Ozick, p. 930), emphasizing how physically unable Rosa was in providing for the basic needs of her child. And yet the shawl provide the false nourishment for Magda, giving her a reason to believe that her mother was just beside her, giving her the most basic needs that a child yearns for.

In the linear correlation, the shawl points back to both Rosa and Magda. The shawl was no longer another piece of cloth; it eventually turned into the “umbilical cord”, so to speak, that binds a mother to her child and vice versa. It is interesting to note that the shawl served as the umbilical cord between the two just like during childbirth. In childbirth, the risk of dying is imminent—either the mother or the child will lose life, perhaps even both.

During the course of their walk to the concentration camp, Rosa walked as if she was in a state of trance, “arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel [who is] alert and seeing everything” (Ozick, p. 930). It was as if Rosa already knew the fate that awaited them, for who would have still had the reason to hope for life when the madness of death already swirled around them in every turn of the eye? Rosa knew the things around them, which is perhaps why she thought it was for the best interest of Magda and of herself to let the shawl stand as a substitute for her presence. It gives the reader the impression that Rosa was ready for everything, including the high probability of losing her own life, if not her own child.

Yet, in the story, the death of Magda proved to be too painful to handle on the part of Rosa. It was as if a large part of her, if not her entire life, went with her child right after Magda was literally thrown towards the pit of death. Rosa’s act of biting the shawl so as not to push herself into a state of mourning and, thus, so as not to let the Nazi’s know that it was her child symbolizes how a mother clings tight to the emotional and physical strings that attach her to her child. At that point in time, the physical response of Rosa in the face of Magda’s death points back to the idea of desperation, of how her inability to protect her child must have felt like a dagger piercing right through the very veins of her. It was entirely practical for Rosa to depend on the shawl to secure her child for there was almost nothing she could have done to reverse, let alone improve, the situation.

While the story occurs at a time when Jews were at the mercy of the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, Ozick admits that she does not want to make an art out of it although she has done it inescapably (Lowin). That perhaps explains why the story is short inasmuch as it is powerful. Interestingly, the story’s succinct revelation of the events give justice to the harrowing ordeals dealt with by Rosa. It gives the most basic shape to the relationship that existed between Rosa, Magda and the shawl, one that gains more prominence after a psychoanalytic interpretation of the story. The linear correlation between the three certainly reflect the one-way relationship between Magda and Rosa where the shawl intervenes not as a barrier but as a channel for these two souls to keep in touch despite death staring them in the face.

Works Cited

  • Bernardo, Karen. “Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl”. February 1 2009.
  • Lowin, Joseph. “Cynthia Ozick”. Jewish Virtual Library. February 1 2009. .
  • Ozick, Cynthia and Elaine Kauvar. A Cynthia Ozick Reader. Ed. Elaine Kauvar: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  • Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. Vintage, 1990.
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