Please note: this is a (slightly) critical analysis of the SHORT STORY by Cynthia Ozick originally published in The New Yorker, not the collection with the story “Rosa.” Also, Spoilers.
Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” is designed to emphasize cold loss and despair. Magda, the innocent infant, is the only character to thrive for most of the story, and she still becomes a victim to the harshness of the world around her. Rosa tries to keep Magda alive, and through the shawl, provides the only warmth in the story, while Stella bitterly watches this extra child adopting the attention that Stella herself needs. Readers sympathizing with any of the three characters end the story feeling loss and sorrow.
The path to despair begins with the first sentence. Stella is described as “cold, cold, the coldness of hell” (Ozick 1). Stella is too young to handle the march and the care that Rosa gives to Magda. She herself “wanted to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep” (1), and her resentment for the baby grows. Magda has the comfort of the shawl; Stella does not. Magda has Rosa’s milk for a time; Stella does not. Magda has Rosa rocking her on the long walk; Stella does not. Stella’s jealousy of Magda create a feeling of bitterness that infects the reader from the beginning.
Alongside Stella’s jealousy, Rosa’s heart is established in the opening of the story. The three generations of women “walked on the roads together, Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts” (1). Rosa is willing to give to Magda to keep the baby alive, but it has made her sore. Rosa’s soreness and Stella’s jealousy create an atmosphere of impossibility; they will not survive. Even though Rosa “did not feel hunger; she felt light,” that lightness is akin to “a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air, not there, not touching the road” (1). Rosa’s mental disconnect from her surroundings create a schism between her and Stella, and the reader feels the strife between them acted out on Magda.
Of the three women, Magda is the only one who experiences any true joy in the story, and she is robbed of it by the end. Magda does not share Rosa’s “bleak complexion” but instead has “eyes blue as air,” and “smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn on to Rosa’s coat” (1). Because the baby does not have the same dark outlook on the future, Magda is able to be satisfied by “the shawl’s good flavor, milk of linen” (1) when Rosa no longer produces real milk. The shawl is also describes as a “magic shawl” that could “nourish an infant for three days and three nights” (1). Even though three days is actually how long a human body can go without water, the diction of this sentence gives the reader a feeling of wonderment at Magda. Magda’s magic shawl and her breath that smell of “cinnamon and almond” (1) create the only warmth in the story, a warmth to which both readers and Rosa cling.
However, Magda finds warmth at the expense of Rosa and Stella, and although Rosa gives everything to the infant, Stella does not. Stella’s resentment of Magda grows to the point where Rosa imagines that “Stella was waiting for Magda to die so she could put her teeth into the little thighs” (2). Stella’s cannibalistic indignation toward Magda inflates due to Magda’s vitality. Although Magda had stopped crying on the road and had grown quiet, “her eyes were horribly alive, like blue tigers” (2), and the shawl becomes an extension of herself. Magda “watched it like a tiger” and “only Rosa could touch it. Stella was not allowed” (2). Stella resents the life with which Magda protects the shawl from her, and readers resent Stella all the more.
Stella’s resentment ultimately lead to Magda’s death when Stella steals the shawl from the baby. This action leaves the reader shocked and wounded that Stella’s selfishness could bring her to actually harm Magda. After the child dies, Rosa’s grief leads her back to the shawl. Rosa “filled her mouth with it, stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up” (3) everything that Magda had been for her. Though Rosa tries to recapture the “cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva,” she cannot, and she “drank Magda’s shawl until it dried” (3). The loss of Magda is the loss of hope for both Rosa and Stella. Magda’s death reinforces the pre-established feelings of bitterness and resentment and sorrow that Ozick establishes for readers earlier.