by Harrison Honor
Written for College Writing (LARTS 111-04, Fall 2013)
Literary critic and intellectual Edward Said wrote extensively on exile in his collection “Reflections on Exile,” arguing against the ability to relate the pathos of exile truly through a work of fiction. For the purposes of this essay, Said’s definition of exile will serve as a starting point: exile “is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and it’s true home: it’s essential sadness can never be surmounted” (1). Jewish American writer Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” tells of a family tortured and exiled in the Holocaust. While Said offers an analysis of the conditions and specifications of exile, Ozick relates the horrors of exile by portraying the experiences of her three characters, Magda, Stella, and Rosa. Exile manifests in Ozick’s work through the horrific experiences in the setting of a concentration camp, as well as the compounded terror of the Holocaust itself. Equally important to the impression of exile and the literary value of “The Shawl” is Ozick’s contrasting use of imagery throughout, specifically the juxtaposition of beauty and comfort with horror and death. Ozick’s skill as a writer allows her to portray the horrors of exile shockingly, and when compared to Said’s “Reflections on Exile,” Ozick takes advantage of an emotional component that can be found only in fiction.
Ozick demonstrates the effects of exile by appealing to one of the things most dear to many readers: family. The destruction of family specifically relates to an audience and creates a more profound and individual realization of exile. Although never directly stated, it is clearly implied that Rosa, Magda, and Stella are in some way a family. Rosa’s role is the most obvious as Magda’s mother, and Stella’s role is much less clear, but she seems to be part of the same family. “The Shawl” as a whole relates the terrible pain of a destroyed family, but Ozick chooses a particularly awful circumstance at the beginning of the story to make this truly relatable. Stella is being forced not only to march to her own death, but also to suffer through the gradual starvation of the daughter she cannot provide for. As the characters are forced to march through a city towards the camp, Stella wonders about Magda’s fate. If any of the guards find Magda, they will certainly kill the baby and maybe Stella as well:
She could leave the line for a minute and push Magda into the hands of any woman on the side of the road. . . . And even if she fled the line for half a second and pushed the shawl bundle at a stranger, would the woman take it? She might be surprised, or afraid, she might drop the shawl, and Magda would fall out and strike her head and die. (Ozick 2)
In a normal circumstance, nothing could be worse for a mother than to be separated from her child, but by showing Rosa’s even considering this, Ozick is stating there is nothing normal about exile. Any fate for Magda would be better than the concentration camp. The sense of horror and alienation one feels after absorbing this passage is key to Ozick’s goal of portraying the exile of the Holocaust. In relation to this excerpt, Said states that “The pathos of exile is in the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of birth: homecoming is out of the question” (142). For Rosa, the “homecoming” mentioned would be the possibility of leaving the camp. Clearly, this is out of the question as demonstrated by Rosa’s considering her options for Magda. Moreover, solidity is another facet of human life missing from the lives of Rosa, Stella, and Magda.
Even more significant than simply the content or plot of “The Shawl” is Ozick’s literary craft in juxtaposing imagery of the exiled and non-exiled world to show a striking contrast between the two: “The shawl was Magda’s own baby, her pet, her little sister. . . . Then Stella took the shawl away and made Magda die” (3). Here, Ozick introduces the shawl and the pleasant image of Magda’s having a normal life, with a pet or a baby sister. The author then snaps harshly back to reality when Stella steals the shawl, which will lead to Magda’s death. Later, Ozick conjurors visions of home and freedom outside the camp:
The sun heat murmured of another life, of butterflies in summer. The light was placid, mellow, on the other side of the steel fence, far away, there were green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep colored violets, beyond them, even farther, innocent tiger lilies, tall, lifting their orange bonnets. (4)
For a moment, Ozick’s beautiful naturalist description allows the reader a break from the horrifying concentration camp, but this interlude is soon followed by a contrasting description of the filth and excrement that fills the barracks prisoners are forced into.
The death of Magda is the most extreme example of this juxtaposition, and taken out of context, Ozick’s words seem the furthest thing from a description of brutality: “All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine” (5). Although Magda is described in a beautiful way here, the event is absolutely tragic. Thrown against an electric fence by a Nazi guard, Magda dies a horrible death, but even in death Ozick paints her as an image of beauty and grace. This technique is one of the fundamentals of fiction writing that could not be found in Said’s piece or one like it, and one of the things that sets Ozick apart from an intellectual examination of exile. Imagine for example, the light theme of a romantic symphony that recurs amid the intensely tragic variations of a darker scherzo to remind the audience of the first theme statement. That glimpse in to happier times is exactly what Ozick uses, and it serves two purposes: to remember the good things, and to stand as a contrast to the horrible and grotesque.
Although the working definition of exile for this analysis so far has been that of Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile” argues against the use of fiction as a true representation of the pathos of exile: “Is it not true that the views of exile in literature and, moreover, in religion obscure what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably secular and unbearably historical . . . ?” (138). Said is arguing that in order to preserve the word “exile” for only the most extreme cases, the literary world must stop writing about it fictionally and take a purely academic approach to the topic. Interestingly, Ozick seems to share some of the same opinions in her retrospective view of writing “The Shawl.” In Gustavo Sanchez Canales’ essay “Prisoners Gradually Came to Buddhist Positions,” he elaborates on an interview with Cynthia Ozick, examining her sentiments about “The Shawl”:
Ozick’s feelings of discomfort for having written a story like “The Shawl” (1980) stemmed from her belief that the issue of the Holocaust should be addressed from a nonfictional point of view . . . rather than from a purely artistic perspective. (1)
Both Said and Ozick want exile (specifically exile in the Holocaust, for Ozick’s case) to be a subject addressed only academically, so that it is not trivialized through art and fiction over time. It seems that both Said and Ozick would answer yes to the question: does “The Shawl” trivialize Holocaust exile? However this question raises a whole new argument about the role of art, and in this case fiction.
To introduce the counter arguments to Said and Ozick, a second definition of exile must be examined. In his essay, “Jewish Memory between Exile and History,” Jewish historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin claims that “Exile refers to a state of absence, points to the imperfection of the world, and embodies the desire to replace it” (2). The “desire to replace it” is where artists come in. Artists of all types, including Cynthia Ozick, aim to heal society and be relevant to the masses. “The Shawl” is the art that “embodies the desire” to replace the imperfection that is exile. It is a misguided guilt displayed by Ozick and examined in Canales’ essay, just as it is misguided of Said to claim that art should not try to relate feelings of exile. Certainly, it is almost unavoidable for an artist to not be influenced by exile, or any form of pain and strife. Said asks, “But if true exile is a condition of terminal loss, why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching motif of modern culture?” (1). The answer to this question is that we live in an age of communication and education in which understanding each other’s suffering is key to living together. Exile was never “transformed” into a “motif.” However, once exile became documented as a form of mass human suffering, such as during and after the Holocaust, it only makes sense that art began to feature it in attempt to relieve suffering.
First and foremost: art is healing. Fiction such as “The Shawl” appeals to one’s sensibilities as a human; it is not meant to be a documentary but rather to portray a feeling. Said goes to great lengths to say what is already implied in fiction like Ozick’s: that no one can ever truly know what exile is like through a story. Would it not be absurd to claim that musicians shouldn’t try to represent horrible strife through their art? Or to say that the modernist painters and composers shouldn’t have related the horrors of a post-World War I society through their art? Take for example, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem; certainly it would be callous to remark that Britten should have left his reflections on war to the historians. Think also of jazz luminary Charles Mingus’s work Fable of Faubus; commonly understood to reference governor Orval Faubus’s actions in what would be become the famed case Brown v. Board of Education. Isn’t it possible to propose that Mingus’s melody will bring the story of “Little Rock Nine” to more ears than if the nation simply left it up to textbooks and newspapers to preserve this Civil Rights milestone?
“Reflections on Exile” provides a working definition and strong analysis of the nature of exile. Why then, if Said did such a thorough job, is “The Shawl” still popular and relevant as literature relating to exile? The reason is that if the portrayal of exile was left to historians and activists, the audience would be smaller and the pathos of exile would be lost. It is Ozick’s compelling story and effective literary craft that profoundly defines the human aspects of exile without ever mentioning it by name. Scholars may indeed have the desire to record history, but artists face history and react with healing and humanity.
Canales, Gustavo Sanchez. “‘Prisoners gradually came to Buddhist positions’: the presence of PTSD symptoms in Rosa in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 30 (2011): 29+. Academic OneFile. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. New York: Knopf, 1989. Print.
Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. “Jewish Memory between exile and history.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 97.4 (2007): 530+. Academic OneFile. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
Yablonka, Hanna. “Oriental Jewry and the Holocaust: a tri-generational perspective.” Israel Studies 14.1 (2009): 94+. Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.