Tell Me a Riddle Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Tell Me a Riddle is Tillie Olsen’s greatest achievement as a writer of fiction. This novella expands upon themes that Olsen developed in her earlier stories and adds new insights into relationships between married couples and the experiences of women.

The initial conflict in the novella is between Eva and her husband, David. Now that they have reared their family and all the children have established their own homes all over the country, their forty-seven-year marriage reaches a point of crisis. Eva’s husband wants to sell the house and move into a retirement home, the Haven (a particularly appropriate metaphor for his need for a safe harbor from the lifetime of poverty and crushed expectations). His desire for freedom is really a desire for security. Eva seeks freedom too, but she defines freedom as “never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.” She wishes “at last to live within.” She perceives her husband’s plan to sell the house as another in a long list of decisions that will continue her subservience to his will. Now, in old age, she makes a final stand against that form of bondage.

Their children are shocked at the dispute, and they have little sympathy for Eva’s need to develop her inner life. When she becomes ill, they attribute it to lethargy and psychosomatic causes; then her illness is diagnosed as a malignant cancer, and she is given only a year to live. Her children rally around her and suggest that David take her to visit the various children and grandchildren. Although he is dismayed at the expenses required by these travels, he acquiesces and tries to be a cheerful and helpful companion.

Eva wants more than anything to find the solitude that will reconcile her to the deprivations of the past. She finds that inner peace partly through her interactions with a granddaughter, Jeannie, who is to some extent Eva’s alter ego; that is, she is a young woman who believes that she has the power of choice in her life. Her self-fulfillment will not be thwarted by submission to male choices. She is the perfect attendant for Eva’s last days. She takes care of...

(The entire section is 879 words.)

Tell Me a Riddle Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Tell Me a Riddle includes four short stories that build from the introspective “I Stand Here Ironing” to the title story, “Tell Me a Riddle.” Each of the stories recounts lost dreams, lost potential, and the ravages of time. The “who we could have been” and the “who we have become” are presented in stark contrast.

Emily, the focal point of “I Stand Here Ironing,” has been limited by the fact that her parents did not have the wherewithal to “afford for her the soil of easy growth.” Whitey (“Hey Sailor, What Ship?”), Carol and Parialee (“O Yes”), and Eva and her husband in “Tell Me a Riddle” have been scarred by forces that were beyond their control. They are all attempting to find their respective niches and to reinvent themselves within their immediate environments.

For Whitey, the search for identity is propelled by his competing desires for a drink and for a contributory role within a stable, adopted family. For Carol and Parialee, the search is the result of the social and psychological influences that often make it impossible for adolescents to maintain the friendships they established in their preteen days.

In the case of the grandparents in “Tell Me a Riddle,” the situation is more complex. After forty-seven years of marriage and seven children, Eva and her husband are free of immediate familial responsibilities but, despite their evident love and concern for each other, have completely different views of how they should spend the rest of their days. He wants to sell the house and move into a group home, but she wants to remain in a space that she has come to define as her own. They have clearly come to need and value different things.

When Eva’s health declines, however, the entire family comes together and tries to protect her from the knowledge of her impending death. Tillie Olsen uses this event as an opportunity to juxtapose several generations and to leave readers with the impression that the younger women are more than capable of forging their own destines. The younger generation of women is unlikely to sacrifice emotional or intellectual integrity, as Eva clearly has done. To demonstrate this point, Olsen introduces readers to Jeannie, who, like Emily in “I Stand Here Ironing,” “will find her way.”

Tell Me a Riddle Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tell Me a Riddle” is the story of an elderly immigrant couple who, after forty-seven years of marriage, disagree bitterly over how to live out their retirement. The wife looks forward to having her house to herself now that the children are all gone, “of being able at last to live within, and not move to the rhythms of others.” The husband wants to sell the house and join his lodge’s cooperative for the aged, where he hopes to find a “happy, communal life.” As the bickering continues and threatens to “split the earth between them” now that they are no longer “shackled” together by the needs of the family, the children enter the dispute, siding with their father, whose jokes and sociability seem to be more reasonable than their mother’s moodiness and introspection.

One night the wife, Eva, feeling strangely sick, asks her husband, David, to stay home with her. He has been planning to stay home anyway, watching television, but when she makes this request, he leaves, just to spite her. When he returns, she is asleep on the sun porch; this is the beginning of a week sleeping in separate beds, apparently for the first time in their married life. In the middle of Eva’s last night on the porch, David awakes to her singing a Russian love song from their youth. “I can breathe now,” Eva announces and finally returns to their bedroom. This passage marks an important turning point in the story. Though David proceeds to find a buyer for the house, the family soon discovers that Eva’s body is riddled with cancer and that she has at best a year to live.

During the rest of the story, David rushes Eva around the country to visit each child in succession while she begs to return home. Though he worries about the money going quickly and fears his own weakness in coping with her disease, he does his best to hide her impending death from her, to cater to what he perceives to be her final needs.

At each stage of this journey, the reader learns more about Eva’s past and the sources of the gap that separates her from her children. With Hannah, it is religion; Eva associates her daughter’s Judaism with the superstition and backwardness of prerevolutionary Russia, a world she fought to destroy. David is more accepting of Hannah’s perspective as she defends the need for tradition and the pleasure of ritual.

With Vivi,...

(The entire section is 971 words.)