Tell Me a Riddle Essay - Critical Essays

Tillie Olsen


Olsen’s novella within this collection breathlessly illustrates the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical agony that results from the disintegration of love and idealism. David and Eva are no longer able to grant each other true peace, so they must settle for the ironic and fraudulent quiet of willfully not listening to each other. Eva holds her lifetime investment in futile housewifely duties against David, because these continual obligations make her family the enemy of her own aching wants and needs: to be a social activist, to read, to listen to music, to discuss philosophy. One important riddle, in fact, is that now that she has the time and space to pursue these passions (the children are grown), her degenerating health cruelly limits her. Her eyesight and hearing are failing.

Eva’s all-consuming love for her children had suffocated all of her other desires. These maternal capacities all used up, she cannot bear to be near Vivi’s newborn baby, who reminds her of her personal history of deprivation. The literal and figurative drain of maternity had drowned her beyond the ability to risk reopening wounds by touching any other baby. In a sense, she is recovering from the “lovely drunkenness” that has usurped her passion; she would not dare to endanger her “reconciled peace” by submitting to the temptation of another drink. Thus do grudges and manipulation now preoccupy Eva and David’s interaction; for example, David’s constant badgering about the Haven forces Eva to relive old grievances in spite of their children’s meager efforts to make them compromise on the basis of their years invested, as son Lenny—who, saddened by what in his mother and himself never lived and who learned at an early age to mother himself—argues they should.

For Eva, her investment has exacted an extraordinary intensity and anxiety, and thus she welcomes the poetic justice inherent in David’s finally having to worry about how they are going to make do. This justified revenge stems from Eva’s disdain for the way David has always opted to run from life rather than face it. As she tells her granddaughter, she can no longer tell riddles, perhaps because she has endured too many riddles in her life, which has been replete with contradictions and unresolvable...

(The entire section is 936 words.)