History tells a very difficult life people had to live by during the holocaust. Within the walls of the concentration camps, people lived in fear of being killed any time. One may even reach a conclusion that a person would be better off dead than alive because then, they are at peace and not with the emotional turmoil that those who were alive lived with. A story is told by two writers, one who chose to cover the story of three women in the hands of the Nazi on their death march to and in the concentration camp, the story of Rosa, Stella and Magda as told by Cynthia Ozick, in the novel The shawl. Another story that traces its history to the Nazi detention camps is William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice that points to the importance and role played by these women. Even so, these two stories tell the story of motherhood by way of use the women, who are main characters. Aside from this, there is the use of symbolism as seen through the actions and items associated to these women. The issue of gender as seen through the women characters as well as symbolism and these characters can be used to illuminate on the main themes of the two stories.
Symbolism is used in The Shawl in many instances. One of them is the use of the shawl itself. Rosa uses the shawl to hide her daughter Magda from the Nazis (Ozick 1992). As these women are kept in the match to the concentration camp, tiny Magda is shielded away from the cruel solders. She remains hidden the entire journey until they reached the concentration camp without being noticed. The love of a mother flows to her child even to a point of risking her own life and shields what could have been the cause of her own death. The shawl in this case is a symbol of not only protection but also as a symbol of a mother’s love that reaches out to her child even in the face of death. The shawl is the reason why Magda survives the journey and her short stay at the camp together with her mother Rosa and sister Stella.
The shawl still has another importance in as far as Magda’s survival is concerned. It is through the shawl that she gets nourished. Rosa, on getting her food supply, gives it all to her daughter. This causes her to stay hungry leading her milk to dry up. She does not breastfeed Magda like she is supposed to and hence, this puts the life of her little daughter at risk as she might die of starvation. But in the shawl, Magda finds help. She keeps suckling the edge of the shawl and gets the ‘milk of linen’ that nourishes her(Ozick 1992). In fact, the author calls it the magic shawl. The shawl can therefore be said to symbolize life because were it not for it, then Magda may have died of hunger and starvation. It is the shawl that provides her with a ‘good flavor’ that keeps her alive by lessening her hunger.
The fence too stands to symbolize some aspect of life. It is the fence that defines the home of these people in the concentration camp. It stops them from moving or getting out of the concentration camp. The fence hums all the time and to Rosa, it produces some ‘sad voices.’ (Ozick 1992) At the very moment when the soldier takes up Magda and is about to shove her into the fence, she hears the voices more clearly. The voices tell her to unfurl the life giving shawl and wave it so as to steal the soldier’s attention to her in an effort to save the life of her daughter. But she does not do any of that because she has to save her own life. The fence in a way is sealing the people in camp from their own freedom. It keeps them away from the world outside them; it does not offer much and just seals the destiny of Rosa, her daughter Magda, Stella and the rest of the people in the camp. Beyond the fence, outside there where freedom reigns, there lies ‘green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep colored violets: beyond them even further, innocent tiger lilies, tall lifting their orange bonnets (Ozick 1992). This is symbolic of the beauty of life outside of the concentration camps.
The woman figure in Sophie’s Choice is not left out of the tribulations of womanhood. In her case, she has seen her fair share of problems. She has twice been widowed and has lost her two children too. A Nazi soldier asks her to make a choice as to which of her two children she would want to let go and which one she would wish to keep, “you may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’ (Styron 1994). This, is the worst pain a parent can face, making a choice between her children. This question that she never got to answer tormented her for a very long time. This may be symbolic of the not so much of a choice that the people who found themselves in the concentration camps had. Just like them she did not have much of a choice. In the camps, people were subjected to conditions that they just resigned themselves to and just waited for any eventuality because there was nothing they could do.
When she meets and gets married to Nathan, Sophie does not get the peace and happiness that the world outside the concentration camps may have offered her. He experience can be equated to the proverb, jumping out of a frying pan into the fire. One may have thought surviving the concentration camps and getting out is the ultimate answer to freedom and happiness. But then she gets involved with Nathan, who has his share of problems and subjects her to maltreatment. He is an addict who is often under the influence of drugs. He shouts at her and hurls abuses at her. He even threatens to kill her when he once told her, ‘Let me out of here before I murder you- you whore! You were born a whore and you will die a whore!’ (Styron 1994). She may have survived the holocaust and therefore gotten the freedom that at one time seemed a far away dream, but then life still presents her with a fair share of pain. Nathan may have been her hero at one time but then he is the reason of her pain outside of the concentration camp. He symbolizes the pain that follows her all her life. She lives in his shadow and therefore in a way, he symbolizes the pain and anguish of the holocaust.
The women in these two stories are faced with difficult situations. This is seen from the young Magda, Stella, Rosa and even Sophie. The female gender in these two situations is forced to make very hard decisions concerning the people in their loves. A mother’s love is always said to be incomparable to any other love. This is the reason why Rosa chose to starve herself but get her daughter something to eat. She hides her daughter Magda from the soldiers and the Nazis. No one seems to be aware of her presence apart from Rosa and Stella. The love of a mother can make her go to great lengths to protect her children and the same applies to Sophie, who is not at all willing to sacrifice any of her children. These characters are used by the authors to show that yes people may not have much of a choice some times, something that makes them make the kind of choices they make.
These two stories cover the life of women who are faced with a lot of problems. Despite many challenges, there is something for them to hold on to. In the case of Rosa, Stella and Magda, life is hard enough on them but having the shawl is good enough because of it, Magda has a chance to be with her mother long enough. It is also the epitome of the hatred Stella has for Magda. On the other hand, Nathan injects a new life into Sophie. He brings her life to a different angel all together even if it’s not always. Indeed motherhood comes with its share of challenges which put these women in a position where they resign themselves to fate.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York, Oxford UP, 1992. 601-606.
Styron, William. Sophie's Choice. New York: Random House, Inc. 1994.