NEA Big Read
The Shawl

The Shawl

by Cynthia Ozick

Just as you can’t grasp anything without an opposable thumb, you can’t write anything without the aid of metaphor. Metaphor is the mind’s opposable thumb.

  1. After witnessing Magda's murder, Rosa shoves the shawl in her own mouth to stifle her scream rather than make a sound and risk being shot by the camp guards. What does this scene reveal about Rosa? How does this scene repeat later in the novella?
  2. Do you agree with Cynthia Ozick's interpretation that Stella is "an equal victim with Rosa" and that "Stella has become a ghost or a phantom of all of Rosa's fears and terrible traumatic memories?"
  3. Why is Rosa so upset when she loses her underwear at the laundromat? Do you find the situation humorous? Why or why not?
  4. Why does Rosa decide to trust Simon Persky? Is his occupation significant to his character?
  5. What does Rosa mean when she tells Persky, "Your Warsaw isn't my Warsaw." How are their backgrounds different? How are they similar?
  6. How does Stella's life mirror Rosa's? How is it different? What does this suggest about their relationship?
  7. What role does Dr. Tree play in the novella? Are there people today who might act like Dr. Tree? Can you sympathize with Rosa's hatred for him?
  8. Why does Rosa reject labels like "survivor" and "refugee" in favor of "human being?"
  9. What does the shawl symbolize to Rosa? To Magda? To Stella?
  10. Discuss some Jewish symbols and imagery in the novella. How might these demonstrate that—even thirty-nine years later—Rosa's thoughts are never far from the concentration camp?
  11. In your experience, does the book reinforce or shatter stereotypes of Jewish American experience? Why or why not?
  12. By telling the story of Magda's death and of Rosa's survival, what does the book reveal about Rosa's personality and her will to live?
NEA Big Read
Get involved with NEA Big Read!
Learn More

© Arts Midwest