Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cynthia Ozick, "The Shawl"—Short Story Month 2016-Day 12

Cynthia Ozick is a short-story writer in the tradition of Bernard Malamud, for her typical story, an almost magical blend of lyricism and realism, creates a world that is both mythically distant and socially immediate at the same time.
The magic of the story "The Shawl" is largely due to its point of view which, although it remains with Rosa the mother and reflects her feelings, also exhibits the detached poetry of the nameless narrator.  For example, Rosa's dried-up breast, from which the infant Magda cannot suck milk, is described as a "dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole"; the infant's budding tooth is imaged as "an elfin tombstone of white marble."  The perspective of this grotesque poetry reflects the extremity of horror of the Holocaust itself.  When we see the knees of Stella (Rosa's teenage niece) as "tumors of sticks," we see the Holocaust as though no ordinary imagery is adequate to capture it, no ordinary voice capable of describing it.
To try to reflect the horrors of the Jewish persecution under Hitler in terms of sheer numbers is to create such a numbing effect that it becomes abstractly unreal.  Consequently, Ozick captures the horror by focusing on a single limited event, an event which is insignificant in the overall scope of things, but which captures the horror in its quintessential reality.  
It is not the mere death of the infant that is so horrifying in "The Shawl," for the story makes it clear that the child was sick and bound to die soon anyway, as indeed millions did die; nor is it the Jewishness of the infant that makes it so pathetic, for the story suggests that the child is the result of Rosa's rape by a Nazi soldier and indeed is like "one of them."  
However, as soon as the reader even thinks such things--that the child was doomed anyway or that the child was Aryan--as a way to palliate the horror, he or she is caught in the moral madness of the Holocaust itself, guilty of the same rationale that made the Holocaust possible. Indeed, this is part of the brilliance of Ozick's story.  It is what makes the story morally powerful, not simply shockingly horrible.
The shawl, which provides a womb-like protection for the infant, is magic; buried within it, the child is mistaken for Rosa's breasts.  Moreover, when Rosa's milk dries up, the magical shawl nourishes the infant for three days and three nights; as the child sucks on its corner, it provides "milk of linen."  The shawl also is the central object of the story's horrifying climax.  When Rosa sees Magda crawling across the central yard of the camp without her comforting shawl and hears her cry out the first sound she has made since the drying up of Rosa's milk, the terrified mother is faced with a crucial decision--to run for the child, even though she knows that her crying will continue without the shawl, or to run for the shawl and take the risk of the child being found first. 
When she goes for the shawl, which Stella has taken from the child to wrap around her own thin bones, the scene that follows is straight out of a nightmare--Rosa running with the shawl held high like a talisman, the infant being borne away from the mother over the head of a Nazi guard toward the fence, which hums with its electrical voices.  
As Magda goes swimming through the air, she looks like a butterfly: "And the moment Magda's feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling. . . ."  Rosa can do nothing, for whatever she does will mean her own death, so she stuffs the shawl into her mouth and "drank Magda's shawl until it dried."
"The Shawl" leaves the reader stunned and breathless with its dumbfounding horror.  Like the infant Magda herself, the story is practically mute, explaining nothing, simply presenting the event in its magical and mysterious horror.  
Tomorrow: William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"


Unknown said...

Great reading of this story, particularly where you mention how reader participation breeds a form of complicity. This really strikes at the heart of what makes this story such a powerful study in human nature.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeremiah. Readers like you make my work worthwhile.