Absence and Loss in “The Shawl” and “Afterimage” Essay
Updated: Sep 7th, 2020
In The Shawl, Ozick recounts the experiences of the Nazi female victims during the Holocaust from a maternal perspective. She fictionalizes a story of a Jewish female, Rosa, traumatized by the murder of her daughter, Magda, by the Nazis (Ozick 5).
The massacre leaves Rosa obsessed with the shawl that Magda wore during her incarceration. Ozick uses the death of Magda to bring forth the feeling of loss and absence that defines mothers bereft of their children due to the Holocaust. Afterimage is a story of a teenage boy who performs voluntary work for an elusive photojournalist called Francis Jansen (Modiano 3). The boy has little recollections of Jansen, who is constantly absent from his apartment and studio. There is a sense of absence and desirous longing for the photographer by the narrator. In both stories, a general feeling of absence and loss defines the lives of the narrator and Rosa, who are fixated on past memories.
The Melancholic Absence
Ozick dramatizes the sense of absence and destruction through Rosa’s obsession with the shawl. Rosa’s post-Holocaust life is filled with torment due to the loss of her child in the hands of the Nazis. The severity of her agony turns her into a “madwoman and scavenger” caged in a “dark hole, a single room in a hotel” in Miami (Ozick 14). Rosa’s suffering is evident in the way she becomes withdrawn and nostalgic about Magda and Stella, her niece. In addition, Rosa suffers from extreme loneliness. Having lost her daughter, the only close relative she had was her “cold niece in Queens, New York” (Ozick 17). Evidently, Rosa misses her past life that the Nazis crushed, leaving her disillusioned and unhappy.
Similarly, in Afterimage, Jansen’s elusive presence saddens the spirited narrator. Jansen is packed and ready to leave Paris after twenty-five years as a photojournalist. The young writer longs to spend time with him, but Jansen is frequently absent from his studio and apartment. Jansen believes that “a photographer was nothing, that he should blend into the surroundings and become invisible” (Modiano 55).
However, the narrator does not want Jansen to disappear without a trace, which is why he chose to catalog his photographs in duplicates and retain a copy. In the story, the narrator recreates his memories of Jansen, a person he hardly knew. It is evident that Jansen’s apathy and indifference hurt the narrator. He writes that Jansen “considered people and things from a great distance, all that remained for him were vague reference points and hazy silhouettes” (Modiano 47). Therefore, the narrator is saddened by Jansen’s absence and decision to leave Paris without a trace.
In both stories, the absence is associated with an endless melancholy where Rosa and the narrator recall the past with sadness. The narrator has only a faint image of Jansen while Rosa is haunted by a cruel past that left her with emotional wounds. In this view, the two attempt to obtain an unconscious gratification by fixating on their past. Rosa is attached to the memories of her deceased daughter while the narrator obsesses about Jansen. They attempt to relive their past but are saddened by the absence of the people they adored.
Defining Oneself by Absence
Historical losses create absence, a concept that appears in both stories. Absence becomes an item of strong fixation for both the narrator and Rosa. One can argue that the feeling of absence creates emotional wounds that the narrator and Rosa are unable to overcome. In other words, they define themselves by the absence of the people they idolized. Rosa’s post-Holocaust life is defined by the absence of Magda. She keeps the absence of her daughter alive through her obsession with the shawl. Upon receiving the shawl from Stella, Rosa entered her room, “quashed the box into her breasts,” and “carried it to the bed” (Ozick 31). Her actions exemplify an attempt to recreate her life as a mother.
Additionally, she tends to the shawl as a mother does to her baby. Although Rosa could be likened to a “ragged old bird with worn feathers,” she cared less about her looks because of her obsession with the shawl (Ozick 37). Therefore, her pampering of the shawl depicts the lost child-mother relationship that manifests in her emotions. Her attachment to the shawl is an attempt to keep her deceased daughter alive by denying the reality of absence.
In contrast, the narrator idolizes Jensen, a person he barely remembers. His assertion that “the more I remember these details, the more I adopt Jensen’s point of view” shows that Jansen’s elusive presence has a significant impact on the narrator’s life (Modiano 32). Just like Jansen, he begun to see people as “things from a great distance” and as “hazy silhouettes” (Modiano 32). Therefore, the narrator defines himself by what he remembers of Jansen. He keeps a record of his work, as a reminder of his short stint as a writer. His fascination with Jansen makes him feel like “part of his life was so distant and barely related to the present” (Modiano 33). It is evident that after Jansen disappears, the narrator’s faint memories of the photojournalist defines his life.
The narrator, bereft of Jansen, keeps the photographer’s work to maintain his memories alive. The disappearance created an absence that the narrator could not come into terms with. He writes, “I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace” (Modiano 37). His assertion typifies the denial of separation or absence. He attempts to recreate a favorable image of the photojournalist immortalized in the records he kept. Therefore, for the narrator, the records constitute an object of connection with his adored photographer who disappeared without a trace.
The Individualized Loss
The sadness in The Shawl and Afterimage stems from the loss of adored persons. Both Rosa and the narrator are affected by the loss, and thus bemoan the deprivation alone. While Rosa decries Stella’s lack of enthusiasm towards the Jewish history and adoption of the American culture, the narrator makes a solo effort to yarn a story about Jansen. In a letter to Stella, Rosa admits that people have to forget the past and move on. She says, “You can be a Jew if you like, or a Gentile, it’s up to you” (Ozick 43).
Ironically, she accuses Stella of forgetting her past and becoming an “ordinary, indistinguishable American,” implying that she did not share her Holocaust trauma (Ozick 33). Rosa’s perpetual grief becomes personal. At one time, she goes to the beach to search for her lost underpants, as she believed hidden items should be “rolled up and buried” in the sand (Ozick 47). This personal perspective shows that Rosa individualized her loss.
The reason Rosa personalizes her loss is the fear of losing her identity as a Jew. She remains attached to the Holocaust experience because of its centrality in her life. Ozick uses the Polish language to illustrate Rosa’s commitment to her Jewish ancestry. On the other hand, Stella does not speak polish, preferring to use English instead. Rosa explains her refusal to learn English by saying, “I didn’t ask for it, got nothing to do with it” (Ozick 23). This statement indicates that she refuses to be assimilated into American society. She retains her ‘lost’ culture as a stark reminder of her suffering in the hands of the Nazis.
In contrast, the narrator of the Afterimage considers the departure of Jansen a personal loss. He undertakes to capture the absence by writing Jansen’s work in duplicates. He makes it a personal goal to reconstruct what he remembers about the elusive Jansen. He dreams of being in Jansen’s studio, “looking at the photos on the wall,” which shows his strong attachment to the past (Modiano 43). Therefore, the loss, as seen through the eyes of the narrator, is a personal one. He feels that he lost a close friend, and he is trying to reconstruct his memories.
The feeling of loss and absence manifests in the stories through a strong attachment to the past. However, while Rosa mourns the loss of his daughter and motherhood, the narrator in Afterimage bemoans the disappearance of Jansen. Their attachment to the past affects how they define their lives and current choices.
Modiano, Patrick. Afterimage. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Shawl. New York, NY: Vintage, 1990. Print.
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