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A symbol is a sign or an object representing something abstract or invisible and more important or complex than the object itself. The author uses symbolism in this story to make the reader visualize the setting. The title, “The Shawl,” itself is a symbol in this story. Throughout the story, the shawl symbolizes the source of warmth and shelter for little Magda. In the story, Magda is described as “a squirrel in a nest, safe, no one could ever reach her inside the little house of the shawl’s windings” (Ozick 251). The shawl always behaves as an intimate friend which helps Magda in all her needs and gives support and condolence in danger situations. We also see that the shawl is the reason which helps “Magda to live longer than expected” despite of her poor health disorders in the Nazi Concentration Camp (Paul 2). As a result, we see that Stella give more important to the shawl, for she knows that it will provide her with all good things in bad conditions.
For Magda, the shawl is more than just protection since she sees the shawl as her “baby, her pet, and her little sister” (Ozick 252). According to Tery Griffin, a famous American editor
and essayist, the shawl entertains her like a friend “when the wind blew its corners” (Wilson 295). The shawl also represents sustenance, especially for Magda. Ozick describes it as “a magic shawl that could feed a baby for three days and three nights” (251).
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The shawl also represents life in this story. In fact, the shawl suggests the picture of a tallit, “Jewish prayer shawl” which has a “taste of cinnamon and almond” for spiritual purpose in Jewish churches (Paul 2). Just like the shawl symbolizes life in this story, the tallit also represents life for Jews where they believe that it saves them from the horror of the world by the “holiness and the protection of the commandments” (Wilson 295). Paul also adds that the “spice box” that Jews use to smell “at the end of the Sabbath” day for “unity and strength” contains cinnamon and almonds (2) like the shawl Magda smells and tastes for her hunger and satisfaction has the smell of cinnamon and almonds. The shawl can also signify divinity for it is described as having cinnamon and almond scent. In the scriptures, the oil used to anoint kings was made of cinnamon and almond, and it was an acceptance of divinity (Wilke 35).
The shawl also represents love, a mother’s love in this story. Rosa gives all the food to Magda to keep her alive and protects her with the shawl. Since Magda is protected by the shawl almost every second, it is considered as a “womblike protection” for the little one that every
child in this earth has a right to feel and enjoy (May 2). Because Rosa believes that the magic shawl can feed and protect her baby, it is also represented as the “umbilical cord” between the mother and child which connects and provides the baby with food and nutrition in his or her development stages (Scrafford 12). Thus, the character of Rosa symbolizes the unconditional love of a mother when she hides Magda with the magic shawl and gives her everything including her food and shelter (Levitsky 3). According to May Charles, a famous novelist, the shawl also serves as a “transitional object, an object that helps an infant make the transition from the state of being one with its mother to the recognition that it is separated from its mother” (2).
The shawl is also a symbol of death in this story. The reason behind both Magda’s life and her death is the shawl. It leads Magda into her death when Stella takes it and makes the soldiers see Magda crying for the shawl (Kakutani 1). This is an important matter to consider because that was the very first time Magda cries for something in her life (Friedman 114). Before that, she does not even make a sound for anything she wants during the difficulties in the Nazi Concentration Camp, for she was kept safe and flourished by her mother through the magic shawl. Another symbol that associates with death in this story is “cold.” As it represents loss and cruelty, the cold character in this story, Stella, represents death because she is the reason for Magda’s death. Her character in this story symbolizes everyone on the Earth who has lost love for their fellow people (Scrafford 14).
“The Shawl” is the sad story of a mother and her family including her jealous niece and innocent little daughter attempting to overcome the difficulties in the Nazi Concentration Camp during World War II. As a reader, I can say that symbolism is the main component that makes this story really impressive and favorite for everyone. From the title to the end, the author tends
to symbolize many objects and characters to reveal the complex matters in the story. After reading this story, everybody will have a lasting feeling of sympathy and compassion towards our fellow humans just as I experienced while reading it.
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Levitsky, Holli G. "The Shawl." Masterplots II: Women’S Literature Series (1995): 1-3. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.
May, Charles E. "The Shawl." Magill’S Literary Annual 1990 (1990): 1-3. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. (2)
Ozick, Cynthia. “The Shawl.” New York: Knopf, 1989. 251-77. Print.
Paul, Jay. "The Shawl." Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition (2004): 1-2. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.
Scrafford, Barbara. "Nature's Silent Scream: A Commentary On Cynthia Ozick's 'The Shawl'." Critique 31.1 (1989): 11. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.
Wilke, Lori. “The Costly Anointing.” Shippensburg, PA.: Destiny Image, 1991. Google Books. Web.
Wilson, Kathleen. “The Shawl." Short Stories for Students. Ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. 285-303. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.