The setting of Miami, Florida, figures prominently in this story. The incessant heat and humidity add to Rosa’s suffering and make her even more reluctant to leave her room. “Where I put myself is in hell,” Rosa writes to Stella early in the story. The frequent mentions of the intense, suffocating heat confirm this impression. The heat is described as “cooked honey dumped on their heads,” and “burning molasses air”; the sun is “a murdering sunball.” When Rosa burns the letter from Dr. Tree, she thinks, “The world is full of fire! Everything, everything is on fire! Florida is burning!” In Florida, Rosa is surrounded almost entirely by other elderly people whose productive lives, like hers, are in the past. In the mirrors in the lobby, the elderly hotel guests see themselves as they used to be, not as they are now; they are arrested in time, just as Rosa’s life remains centered on the moment of her daughter’s death.
Metaphor is a technique which conveys a description of one thing in terms of another. Buttons, for instance, are a recurring metaphor in Ozick’s story. Simon Persky tells Rosa he once owned a button factory. Later, Rosa reflects on how trivial Persky’s life seems to her, “himself no more significant than a button.” Then she extends this metaphor to the city’s entire population: “All of Miami Beach, a box for useless buttons!” When Rosa flies into a rage after opening the package from Dr. Tree, she yells at Persky, “I’m not your button, Persky! I’m nobody’s button.” And finally, when the vision of Magda appears wearing a dress Rosa herself wore as a teenager, the buttons are so beautiful that “Persky could never have been acquainted with buttons like that.” Attached to cloth, buttons function as fasteners, creating connection, holding separate parts together; collected in a box, buttons are useless, meaningless. Buttons become a metaphor for these elderly people, collected in Florida, but detached and without function or purpose. Mirrors constitute another recurring metaphor in “Rosa.” Rosa’s antique shop, for instance, specialized in old mirrors, perfect for a character who spends her life gazing into the past. The mirrors in the lobby of Rosa’s hotel reflect the past as well, showing the elderly guests what they want to see and nothing more.
Point of View
“Rosa” is written in third-person subjective point of view, which means the reader has access to Rosa’s internal thoughts and feelings, but not those of others. Because Ozick moves from ordinary narration right into Rosa’s thoughts without any distinguishing punctuation, readers get the feeling they are constantly inside Rosa’s head. This feeling becomes especially important during Rosa’s moments of dementia, blurring the line between what is imagined and what is real. Though the bulk of the story is told in the third person point of view, much of what we learn about Rosa’s background, and also about Stella, we learn from the long letters Rosa writes to Magda, which are of course written in the first person. There is a sharp contrast between the way Rosa writes and the way she speaks, because she writes in her native Polish. Letter-writing Rosa is articulate and well-educated; Rosa’s spoken English, however, “ain’t no better than what any other refugee talks,” as Persky says.
Unlike the usual prose written in the first person, the style of a letter is dictated in part by the recipient. Rosa’s letters to Magda are rife with endearments, rhapsodic in their description of Warsaw and her former life, and somewhat arrogant. She expresses her opinions and views openly and lies boldly because she knows there is no real reader to contradict or chastise her. She can ignore reality and paint a picture of life as she wishes it to be.
On the other hand, Stella’s two short letters to Rosa are caustic and critical, revealing the resentment she feels towards Rosa. She knows that though Rosa saved her life, Rosa would much prefer it if Stella had been the one to die, rather than Magda. She is jealous of the shawl, as if it were Magda herself. This is implied in her description of Rosa’s ritual of worshiping the shawl (“What a scene, disgusting!”) and also by her withholding the shawl, only allowing Rosa to have it periodically.
Finally, the letters written by Dr. Tree, in their highly clinical, emotionless language, portray him as unfeeling and arrogant. His repetitive use of the term “survivor,” a label that could be attached to any living thing, plant or animal, reveals his attitude towards the recipient of his letter. Rosa notes this immediately when she reads it: “ Survivor . Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being Irony appears in “Rosa” on many levels; some almost humorous, some tragic. First there is the irony that Rosa has survived the Holocaust and the camps only to be “confined” in Miami with many of the same people for whom she had so much contempt in her earlier life. She is confronted again by barbed wire and by a scientist who wishes her to consent to an “experiment,” just as many Holocaust victims were used as experimental subjects.
Dr. Tree’s letters ironically speak of “Repressed Animation,” written by a man who has clearly repressed any human feeling or compassion towards the people he studies. He writes in the service of science, but he is unable to recognize the way he objectifies the subjects of his research. To further drive home the message that he sees Rosa on the level of any other laboratory animal, he refers her to a study entitled, “Defensive Group Formation: The Way of the Baboons.” Early 1940s: Central and eastern Europe is the largest center of the world’s Jewish population by the start of World War II (1939–1940), with an estimated 9.5 million of the world’s 16.7 million Jews (following historical shifts from Palestine to Babylon in ancient times, then to Spain in the eleventh century until the Inquisition, when the center began shifting to central and eastern Europe).
Finally, though Stella clearly resents supporting Rosa and tries to keep all contact with her as brief as possible, she guarantees continued and regular contact by keeping Magda’s shawl. She knows that as long as she keeps it, she and Rosa are connected by a bond much greater than the financial support she provides.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Cynthia Ozick, Published by Gale Group, 2010