The Shawl Summary

Cynthia Ozick

The Shawl

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The Shawl Summary

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The Shawl is a 1980 short story by Cynthia Ozick, originally published in The New Yorker. Set during the Nazi Holocaust, it focuses on a trio of Jewish characters on a forced march to their final destination of a Nazi Concentration Camp. Despite only coming in at two thousand words, it is considered a seminal and unflinching work of Holocaust literature. In its short length, it explores themes of desperation, determination, and the horrors humanity can inflict on each other. Its central theme is a mother’s love for her daughter and her desperation to keep her alive against impossible odds, but its dark ending and the impossible position it puts its characters in makes clear that in some situations, not even a parents’ determination and love is enough.

The Shawl begins with the three central characters, Rosa, Magda, and Stella, on a forced march in the dead of summer. Rosa is Magda’s mother, and keeps the baby close to her wrapped in the titular shawl at all times so no one can see her. Stella, a girl of fourteen, is Rosa’s niece and Rosa is trying her best to keep them all alive. The baby, Magda, has the features of an Aryan girl rather than her Jewish relatives. However, all three are malnourished, with Stella becoming dangerously thin and Rosa not being able to produce enough milk to keep infant Magda fed. Despite her own hunger, Rosa feels no pain and focuses all her energy on keeping her daughter nourished. The titular shawl is how Rosa keeps her daughter comforted, concealed, and as warm as possible. Sucking on the shawl comforts Magda and keeps her quiet enough to avoid the attention of the guards.

Knowing that the journey is dangerous and likely ends in death, Rosa often thinks of giving Magda away to a woman in one of the villages they pass through on the march. However, she knows that if she breaks from the marching line even for a second, she and her daughter could both be shot. Thanks to the shawl, Magda stays quiet when inspected by the guards. Rosa comes to believe that the shawl is magic due to the fact that Magda sucks on it and stays healthy and alive without nourishment.

The group arrives at the concentration camp, and Magda stays alive long enough to walk, although everyone in the group becomes sicker and sicker. Stella in particular becomes hostile to Magda, and Rosa becomes convinced that Stella is waiting for Magda to die so she can devour her body. Rosa knows her daughter will die soon, crediting the magic shawl for keeping her alive this long. She becomes more and more paranoid that someone will discover Magda and kill her. However, Magda’s eyes remain alive, and she remains as energetic as possible, especially when in contact with the shawl. She keeps it close to her at all times, guarding it as fiercely as her mother guards her.

However, things take a tragic turn when Stella takes the shawl away from Magda. Stella simply claims she was cold, but Rosa sees it as a hostile act. This causes Magda to run out of the barracks in search of the shawl, which leads her out into the center of the camp, where the roll call takes place. Every day, Rosa kept Magda concealed under the shawl during roll call, keeping her hidden from the camp guards, but now she’s exposed for the first time. Magda had been silent for a while, ever since the road when Rosa’s breasts had dried out, but the loss of her precious shawl makes her cry for the first time, loudly and in full view of the concentration camp overseers.

Rosa desperately seeks to get her daughter back, but is unsure whether or not to go after her daughter directly or to get the shawl from Stella and use that to lure her daughter back. She chooses to go and grab the shawl from Stella, but by the time she gets back outside, it’s too late. As she steps outside, she looks beyond the electric fence and sees the bright flowers there, contrasted vividly with the harsh environment of concrete and death inside the camp. But inside the camp, Magda has traveled far away from her mother, into the view of the guards. One of them grabs her and hurls her against the electric fence, her tiny body destroyed instantly. Unable to even travel towards her daughter’s body because she knows she’ll be shot instantly, Rosa falls to her knees and puts the shawl in her own mouth, tasting her daughter as she keeps herself from screaming.

The Shawl was inspired by a true story involving a baby thrown against an electric fence reported in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. Critically acclaimed as one of the best short stories dealing with the Holocaust, The Shawl is considered one of Ozick’s most memorable works. She has had a forty-years-plus writing career including short story collections, novels, and essay collections, primarily focused on stories relating to the Jewish-American experience, the Holocaust, the immigrant experience, and recovery from trauma. She has been nominated for the Man Booker prize, and won many awards for her short stories and novels, including multiple PEN awards.