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.

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the book. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Several times over the course of the novella, we find statements very much like this one: "Without a life, a person lives where they can. If all they got is thoughts, that’s where they live." After all Rosa has lost, is she justified in separating herself from life? Why or why not? Do Stella or Persky offer better examples of how to live after experiencing disappointment or trauma?
  2. Should Stella feel responsible for Magda’s death? What sort of person is Stella as an adult? Why does Rosa feel she is cold and self-indulgent? Are Rosa’s attitudes toward Stella justified? Why or why not? How would you characterize Stella’s feelings for Rosa?
  3. Stella believes Magda to be the product of Rosa’s rape by a Nazi soldier but Rosa insists she conceived the baby with Andrzej, her prewar fiancé. Who do you believe? If Stella is right, why would Rosa make up such an elaborate history for Magda? Why would she have chosen to give her daughter both a Jewish and a Christian heritage? Do you find it surprising that Rosa imagines an American life for Magda? Why or why not?
  4. Why is Rosa so offended by Dr. Tree’s letter? Why does she resist the terms “survivor” and “refugee” but embrace simply being called a human being? Does this attitude seem at odds with her desire not to be “an ordinary button”? Does being called a “human being” bear witness to the events Rosa experienced in the ghetto and death camp? Why or why not? Why has Ozick chosen to include the scholar, Dr. Tree? Why has she chosen a scholar in “clinical social pathology” and not a Holocaust historian? Is Ozick making a statement about scholarly interest in human tragedy?
  5. What does Rosa mean when she tells Persky, “My Warsaw is not your Warsaw?” What does Rosa imagine his family was like? What evidence is there that she is correct? How do Persky’s views about life in America differ from Rosa’s? Why do they differ?
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