The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick, is a small book combining a brief short story and a short novella that are connected together by the central characters, an event in the past, and a shawl.
This book has many themes combined together into the two stories. The essence of the two stories is that a young mother, Rosa, her niece Stella, and Rosa’s infant daughter Magda are Poles at the beginning of World War II who have been captured by the invading Nazis and brought to a concentration camp. The author provides no details in terms of dates, places, and events. The three females are starving, and Magda is close to death. Rosa hides her by embracing her under a shawl. Magda sucks on the shawl and stays quiet. Stella, jealous of Magda, takes the shawl from her, which causes Magda to run out into the ground of the concentration camp, where she is killed.
The brief story is of good v. evil, of moral choice, of the contrast of nature and humans, of the rudiments of life and death, of the contrast of body and mind.
Put in a situation of evil, of impending death, a person might choose self-preservation or altruism toward another. Stella chose self-preservation. Rosa chose altruism until the moment when Magda died, then she chose self-preservation.
We read about life and death hovering on the edge of time: one totters on the edge, then eventually goes over the edge. Stella, Rosa, and Magda are on the edge; Magda goes over.
Their bodies were disintegrating but their minds were alive: Magda was wide-eyed; Rosa heard the voices in the fence. “She felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air.” Like the realm of being, between soul and body.
The second, longer part of the book takes place thirty years later in America, specifically Miami. Rosa has lived in New York but abruptly destroyed her business and fled to Miami, where she lived in squalor and despair. She is haunted by the events of the past, and the loss of Magda.
It is a lost past and an empty present: a golden memory competing with a dismal present; as one ages a futile attempt to recapture youth, the body, the beauty, the potential of youth.
The story evokes images of the Madonna and Child: Magda the blessed babe, Rosa the Madonna; the child was sacrificed, died, but lives again, resurrected in Rosa’s crazed mind as a great university philosopher.
Rosa cannot escape from the evil that happened to Magda, and the greater evil that affected Poles in 1939 of their catastrophic destruction at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. Rosa was from the Polish upper class of Warsaw. Her family were Poles before they were Jews. When they lost their Polishness they became like everyone else, like other Jews.
Overall, this book is about time. It is about one moment in time, when, where, why is never described, but it burns itself into Rosa’s memory (“a blazing flying current, a terrible beak of light bleeding out a kind of cuneiform on the underside of her brain”), and she spends the rest of her life recalling it. This moment of time haunts her, from it she conjures up ghosts, memories that seem as real as the present, indeed are more significant than the present, for the past is more real to her, especially the one grand moment, not of her daughter’s death, but her daughter’s birth. In that moment it was like the Madonna and Christ child. It was an incarnation of a person, an idea, that became life. Magda’s death has seared her life, and her birth, upon Rosa’s brain as the most important event, the most significant event, that she knows of.
When this birth happened, life was good, she was betrothed, her Polish family living lives of harmony, sophistication, culture—all of which were subsequently rubbed out, or stolen, by the criminal invaders of Poland.