Skip to content
The Shawl” by David Mamet: A Brief Summary and Analysis

The Shawl” by David Mamet: A Brief Summary and Analysis

In “The Shawl,” David Mamet explores the complex relationship between a mother and daughter as they struggle to survive in a concentration camp during World War II. Through vivid imagery and sharp dialogue, Mamet delves into themes of trauma, loss, and the power of memory. This article provides a brief summary and analysis of the story, highlighting key moments and insights into the characters’ motivations and emotions.

Historical Context

The Shawl, a short story by David Mamet, was published in The New Yorker in 1985. The story is set in a concentration camp during World War II and follows the experiences of a mother and her infant daughter. The historical context of the story is crucial to understanding its themes and the characters’ motivations. Mamet’s portrayal of the concentration camp is a stark reminder of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and the impact it had on the lives of those who survived it. The story also highlights the resilience of the human spirit and the lengths people will go to protect their loved ones in times of extreme adversity. Overall, The Shawl is a powerful and haunting work that serves as a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable horrors.


The setting of “The Shawl” by David Mamet is a small apartment in an urban area. The apartment is described as being “barely furnished” with only a few pieces of furniture and a shawl hanging on the wall. The shawl is the focal point of the story and is described in great detail, with its intricate design and soft texture. The apartment is also described as being very hot, with the characters sweating and fanning themselves throughout the story. This setting creates a sense of claustrophobia and discomfort, which adds to the tension of the story. The urban setting also adds to the feeling of isolation and desperation that the characters experience. Overall, the setting of “The Shawl” plays an important role in creating the mood and atmosphere of the story.


The characters in “The Shawl” are few but powerful. The story centers around a mother, Rosa, and her daughter, Magda, who are both prisoners in a concentration camp during World War II. Rosa is a survivor, hardened by her experiences and willing to do whatever it takes to keep herself and her daughter alive. Magda, on the other hand, is just a baby, innocent and helpless in the face of the horrors around her. The shawl itself is also a character in the story, representing both comfort and danger as Rosa uses it to keep Magda warm and hidden from the guards. Mamet’s sparse but evocative prose brings these characters to life, making the reader feel their pain and desperation as they struggle to survive in a world gone mad.

Plot Summary

“Plot Summary: The Shawl”.

“The Shawl” by David Mamet is a short story that revolves around a young woman named Edie and her mother, who are struggling to survive in a concentration camp during World War II. The story begins with Edie’s mother, who is weak and sick, asking for her shawl to keep warm. Edie reluctantly gives it to her, but soon regrets her decision as her mother dies shortly after.

The rest of the story follows Edie’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death and her own survival in the camp. She becomes obsessed with finding the shawl, which she believes will bring her comfort and protection. However, she is constantly thwarted in her efforts by other prisoners who steal or destroy the shawl.

As the story progresses, Edie becomes increasingly desperate and isolated, and her mental state begins to deteriorate. She becomes fixated on the shawl and begins to see it as a symbol of her mother’s love and protection. In the end, she is left alone and vulnerable, with nothing but the memory of her mother and the shawl that she never found.”


Symbolism plays a significant role in David Mamet’s “The Shawl.” The shawl itself is a symbol of comfort and protection for Rosa, the main character’s infant daughter. It represents the warmth and security of a mother’s embrace, which Rosa desperately needs in the harsh conditions of a concentration camp. The shawl also symbolizes the loss of innocence and the brutality of war, as it is eventually taken away from Rosa and used to suffocate her. The character of Stella, Rosa’s sister, represents hope and the possibility of survival, as she is able to find food and shelter for herself and her niece. The shawl, therefore, becomes a symbol of the struggle for survival and the sacrifices that must be made in order to endure in the face of adversity.


The theme of “The Shawl” by David Mamet is the devastating impact of war on individuals, particularly women and children. The story takes place during the Holocaust and follows the journey of a mother and her two daughters as they struggle to survive in a concentration camp. The shawl, which serves as a symbol of comfort and protection, becomes a source of conflict between the mother and her older daughter, who is desperate to keep it for herself. Mamet’s portrayal of the horrors of war and the lengths people will go to in order to survive is both haunting and powerful. The theme of the story serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and the importance of never forgetting the lessons of history.


The tone of “The Shawl” by David Mamet is bleak and somber. The story is set in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and the characters are struggling to survive in a brutal and inhumane environment. Mamet’s writing is spare and unflinching, conveying the horror of the situation without sentimentality or melodrama. The characters speak in short, clipped sentences, reflecting their fear and desperation. The tone of the story is unrelentingly grim, but there are moments of tenderness and compassion that offer a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness. Overall, the tone of “The Shawl” is a powerful reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable suffering.

Writing Style

David Mamet’s writing style in “The Shawl” is characterized by its sparse and minimalist approach. The story is told through short, declarative sentences that convey a sense of urgency and tension. Mamet’s use of repetition and fragmented dialogue adds to the sense of unease and disorientation felt by the characters. The lack of descriptive language and exposition forces the reader to fill in the gaps and interpret the story for themselves. This style creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy, drawing the reader into the world of the characters and their struggles. Overall, Mamet’s writing style in “The Shawl” is a masterclass in economy and precision, creating a haunting and unforgettable story.

Critical Reception

David Mamet’s “The Shawl” has received mixed reviews from critics. Some have praised the play for its intense and emotional portrayal of a family struggling to cope with the loss of a child. Others have criticized it for its lack of character development and its reliance on shock value to elicit a reaction from the audience.

One of the main criticisms of the play is its use of violence and sexual content. Some critics have argued that these elements are gratuitous and detract from the overall message of the play. Others have defended Mamet’s use of these themes, arguing that they are necessary to convey the desperation and despair of the characters.

Despite these criticisms, “The Shawl” has been widely performed and has become a staple of modern American theater. Its exploration of grief, loss, and family dynamics continues to resonate with audiences today, making it a powerful and enduring work of art.

Mamet’s Purpose

Mamet’s purpose in writing “The Shawl” was to explore the complex relationships between family members and the impact of trauma on their lives. Through the characters of Rosa, Stella, and Magda, Mamet delves into the themes of grief, guilt, and survival. The story is a powerful commentary on the lasting effects of the Holocaust and the ways in which it continues to shape the lives of those who experienced it. Mamet’s writing is raw and emotional, capturing the pain and suffering of his characters in a way that is both haunting and unforgettable. Overall, “The Shawl” is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring power of love and family.

Feminist Critique

The feminist critique of David Mamet’s “The Shawl” centers on the portrayal of women in the play. Critics argue that the female characters are reduced to mere objects of desire and are not given agency or autonomy. The character of Helen, for example, is portrayed as a seductress who uses her sexuality to manipulate men. This reinforces harmful stereotypes about women and perpetuates the idea that women are only valuable for their physical appearance and sexual appeal. Additionally, the play’s focus on male power dynamics further marginalizes women and reinforces patriarchal structures. Feminist critics argue that Mamet’s portrayal of women is not only problematic but also perpetuates harmful societal norms that need to be challenged and dismantled.

Psychological Analysis

The Shawl by David Mamet is a powerful and thought-provoking play that delves into the complex and often dark world of human psychology. The play explores the themes of power, control, and manipulation, and how these factors can impact the relationships between individuals.

One of the most interesting aspects of the play is the way in which Mamet portrays the characters’ inner thoughts and motivations. Through their dialogue and actions, we are able to gain insight into their deepest fears, desires, and insecurities.

For example, the character of John is portrayed as a manipulative and controlling individual who uses his power to dominate those around him. He is driven by a deep-seated need for control and is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his position of authority.

On the other hand, the character of Charles is portrayed as a more sympathetic figure, struggling to come to terms with his own insecurities and vulnerabilities. He is torn between his desire for power and his fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Overall, The Shawl is a fascinating exploration of the human psyche and the complex dynamics that exist between individuals. It is a play that will leave you thinking long after the final curtain has fallen.


Irony is a literary device that is often used to create a sense of contrast between what is expected and what actually happens. In David Mamet’s “The Shawl,” irony is used to great effect to highlight the absurdity of the situation that the characters find themselves in. One example of this is when the protagonist, John, is trying to convince his wife, Claire, to give up her shawl so that they can use it to cover their baby. Despite his best efforts, Claire refuses to part with the shawl, even though it is clear that their baby’s life is at stake. This is ironic because the shawl, which is supposed to provide comfort and protection, ends up being the very thing that puts the baby’s life in danger. Another example of irony in the story is the fact that John, who is supposed to be the protector and provider for his family, is unable to save his own child from the harsh conditions of the concentration camp. This is ironic because it shows that even the strongest and most capable individuals are powerless in the face of such overwhelming evil. Overall, the use of irony in “The Shawl” serves to underscore the tragic nature of the story and to highlight the absurdity of the situation that the characters find themselves in.


Foreshadowing is a literary technique used by authors to hint at events that will occur later in the story. In David Mamet’s “The Shawl,” foreshadowing is used to create a sense of tension and unease throughout the narrative. From the very beginning of the story, the reader is given clues that something terrible is going to happen. For example, the opening sentence reads, “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell, walked home from the hospital alone.” This sets the tone for the rest of the story and suggests that something tragic has occurred. As the story progresses, the foreshadowing becomes more explicit. When Stella is walking home, she sees a man who she believes is following her. This creates a sense of danger and foreshadows the attack that will occur later in the story. Additionally, the shawl itself is a symbol of the tragedy that is to come. It is described as “a magic shawl, a shawl of stories, a shawl of tears,” which suggests that it will play a significant role in the story’s climax. Overall, Mamet’s use of foreshadowing in “The Shawl” is masterful, creating a sense of dread and anticipation that keeps the reader engaged until the very end.


In “The Shawl” by David Mamet, conflict is at the forefront of the story. The main character, John, is faced with a difficult decision when his wife, Sarah, asks him to retrieve a shawl from her former lover’s apartment. This request sets off a chain of events that ultimately leads to a confrontation between John and the lover, Charles. The conflict between the two men is palpable, with each one trying to assert their dominance over the other. Mamet’s use of dialogue and tension-building techniques creates a sense of unease throughout the story, leaving the reader on edge until the final resolution. The conflict in “The Shawl” serves as a commentary on the complexities of human relationships and the lengths people will go to protect their own interests.


The climax of “The Shawl” by David Mamet is a pivotal moment in the story. After a series of tense interactions between the two main characters, John and Miss A, the tension finally reaches its breaking point. Miss A, who has been manipulating John throughout the story, reveals her true intentions and attempts to seduce him. John, who has been struggling with his own desires and guilt, finally gives in to her advances. However, in the aftermath of their encounter, John realizes the true cost of his actions and the power dynamic between him and Miss A becomes even more complicated. This moment marks a turning point in the story, as the characters are forced to confront the consequences of their actions and the complex emotions that have been simmering beneath the surface.


In the resolution of “The Shawl,” the reader is left with a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. The story ends with the protagonist, John, sitting alone in his office, contemplating the events that have just transpired. He is left with the shawl, a symbol of his wife’s infidelity, and the knowledge that his marriage may never be the same. Mamet leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions about what will happen next, but it is clear that John’s life has been forever changed by the shawl. The resolution of the story is both satisfying and unsettling, leaving the reader with a sense of unease that lingers long after the final page has been turned.

Literary Devices

One of the most prominent literary devices used in “The Shawl” by David Mamet is symbolism. The shawl itself serves as a symbol of comfort and protection for Rosa, the main character, as she clings to it throughout the story. The shawl also represents the memory of Rosa’s daughter, Magda, who was killed in the Holocaust. The shawl becomes a physical manifestation of Rosa’s grief and trauma, and her refusal to let go of it symbolizes her inability to move on from the past. Additionally, the use of repetition in the story, particularly with the phrase “I want,” emphasizes Rosa’s desperation and longing for her daughter. The repetition also highlights the futility of Rosa’s desires, as she knows deep down that she will never be able to bring Magda back. These literary devices add depth and complexity to the story, making it a powerful exploration of grief, trauma, and the human experience.

Language and Dialogue

In “The Shawl” by David Mamet, language and dialogue play a crucial role in conveying the tension and power dynamics between the characters. The sparse and clipped dialogue between the two main characters, John and Miss A, creates a sense of unease and discomfort for the reader. The use of repetition and interruption in their conversations highlights the power struggle between them, with John attempting to assert his dominance over Miss A. Additionally, the use of profanity and derogatory language further emphasizes the aggressive and hostile nature of their interactions. Overall, Mamet’s use of language and dialogue effectively conveys the complex emotions and power dynamics at play in “The Shawl.”