Written in the 1950’s, before the full flowering of the women’s movement, the four loosely related stories of Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle have become American classics. “Tell Me a Riddle,” the collection’s title story, received an O. Henry Award for best American short story in 1961.
Olsen, the daughter of immigrants who had fled czarist Russia after the revolution of 1905, offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of the working-class poor from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Plot is of little relevance here; character predominates, and Olsen makes frequent use of stream of consciousness as she follows their unspoken, sometimes incoherent thoughts.
Several critics believe that Olsen’s best work is that which is closest to autobiography. In the 1930’s, as a member of the Young Communist League, she had been arrested for organizing packinghouse workers and spent a month in jail. In Tell Me a Riddle, the book by which she will be best remembered, many of the characters and events parallel those in her own life: involvement with the labor movements of the 1930’s; combining motherhood with jobs in factories and slaughterhouses; an infant daughter, like Emily, taken from her after the father deserted them; unmoored, lonely alcoholics like Whitey; and the hard death of her mother from cancer. Although Olsen’s writing was influenced by her beliefs, her politics evolved from socialism to something closer to humanism, and she did not proselytize. She had choses to illustrate the problems through literature.
In addition to being a proletarian writer of the working poor who had been effectively silenced by her culture, Olsen was a feminist. In the 1950’s, when her youngest child began school and she could write full-time, popular American culture emphasized the nuclear family and strict gender roles. Irving Howe, an early critic reviewing Tell Me a Riddle in 1961, stereotyped Olsen as a woman who relied on her “narrow” experiences as a housewife and mother. However, in Tell Me a Riddle, she speaks for many who have been neither seen clearly nor taken seriously, who have been silenced because of their gender or their working-class status, or because of the menial work they do; and even though American culture has gradually changed, her work remains relevant, speaking with clarity, sincerity, and passion.