Symbolism in Shawl.

Symbolism in Shawl.

Sagun Basnet

During our discussions on Shawl, Shireen said that trauma is a referent that is difficult to pin down and representation is not a secondary description, it is how we live. This very statement made me think of the various ways trauma has been described in the story even when the story doesn’t clearly mention in words that the character is going through a traumatic experience in life. There were many instances in Shawl when I felt that trauma is in the air, it is in the way Rosa lives her life and in the environment she lives, and Shireen’s statement made me go back and search for them.
The intriguing thing for me while reading Shawl, first of all, was that the book doesn’t have a table of contents. This may be a different case in my friends’ books, however, for me; no table of contents meant a way of depicting that traumatic life may not have a chronology in terms of events. I read it as saying when traumatic experiences and their memories are so much with me in the present, I can’t think of comprehending them in terms of chronology as past and then present.
The other striking thing that the Shawl left me with was the way it has described the daily environment and the simple things in life as rather dull and painful. As the story makes a kick start, the narrative mentions “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell” (3). This statement is an interesting juncture for me to start to think on how coldness gets associated with trauma. Coldness, on my memories of knowledge, has always been coupled with something negative and something frozen. So, with this statement, I get a vantage point to see that the characters’ lives in this novella have been frozen to something negative and painful. Coldness, for me also symbolizes death from where nothing generates and the narrator’s point that “Stella did not menstruate. Rosa did not menstruate” (5), elaborates this more for me.
Not only the physical features, even the environment where Rosa performs every day functions symbolizes the trauma that she carries in her mind/heart. For Rosa, “the streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner “(14). This very quote again depicts the way trauma isn’t a secondary description but is the way our protagonist lives her life. The use of words like furnace and execution give an impression of fire and death and thus linking itself to the holocaust.
In the same vein, the description of how her clothes gets washed in the Laundromat is also an interesting place to stop and think on how trauma can be something that we see in everything outside, if it is inside us. The narrator says, “In the Laundromat she sat on a cracked wooden bench and watched the round porthole of the washing machine. Inside, the surf of detergent bubbles frothed and slapped her underwear against the pane” (17). Again in this quote, the use of words such as cracked and slapped give an impression of how trauma has cracked her life and happiness. A general procedure of underwear being washed is described as being slapped which again makes me read the line as how the pain of trauma inhibits one’s ability to see things as they are.
Similarly, another marvelous place where I felt how trauma has made the characters still and frozen and unable to feel sensations is in the letter that Stella writes to Rosa,“What a scene, disgusting! You’ll open the box and take it out and cry, and you’ll kiss it like a crazy person. Making holes in it with kisses.” (33). This, for me was the seminal example of trauma being so pervading in one’s thoughts actions and even words. The way Stella thinks that compassionate expressions like kissing can make holes in the shawl gives a profound example of how trauma can kill one’s sense of love and compassion too. This is the place where I see not only Rosa but Stella too being completely devastated by the traumatic experiences so much so that her confidence in any expression of love seems shaky and resentful.
Thus, for me Shawl not only mentions what kinds of traumatic experiences the characters went through in a narrative form, but also states, even when the characters do not say, that trauma is something that lives with us, in our thoughts and actions.

Novembber 8 2009


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: