Readers of Tillie Olsen’s fiction may come away with a heightened understanding of the complexities inherent in being a woman in a society that values predominantly the male perspective on things. Olsen challenges readers to empathize with the woman’s point of view. Whether she is speaking through a character in her fiction or speaking directly to teachers, writers, or readers of fiction, Olsen always seeks to redress the balance between the male and the female points of view.
What does Olsen want her reader to know about women? She invites readers to consider their various strengths, the history of their being an oppressed class of people, the limited roles they were offered in Western society, the abusive relationships they were forced to suffer, the powerful alliances they made with other women, the tolerance and patience they exhibited toward their husbands, the silences and solitudes they experienced at different times of their lives, their being expected to live “for” others instead of “with” others, and their capacity for insight and wisdom into the heart of life. In short, Olsen wants readers to know of the richness, depths, and diversity of the inner lives of women. She wants readers to view life through a woman’s eyes—and see women as individuals.
Whether she tells a story from the point of view of the child Mazie in Yonnondio: From the Thirties or from the point of view of an old woman in “Tell Me a Riddle” (1961), Olsen uses the technique of interior monologue to great advantage. Olsen organizes the thoughts of the character directly on the page; readers, in effect, overhear what the character is thinking. This approach requires close reading and active participation on the part of the reader. It is impossible to skim these sections. Another aspect of style in Olsen’s writing is her use of lengthy descriptive passages within the narrative. At times, her writing in Yonnondio: From the Thirties appears to be as lyrical as the poems of Walt Whitman or E. E. Cummings. At other times, the writing is graphic and detailed in its realism, with the density of phrasing similar to the fiction of William Faulkner. What stands out in all of her writings, however, is that Olsen’s voice and style are unique. That she found her own voice and expressed themes of importance to her own life matters most in any assessment of her contributions as a writer.
Although her fiction emphasizes a woman’s point of view, her characters and plots are universal ones, of importance to the lives of both men and women. Olsen’s fiction is committed to the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the despised, and the downtrodden. Her mother’s resistance against oppression in czarist Russia and her father’s long membership in the Socialist Party contributed to her own commitment to socialist ideals in the 1930’s. To some extent, Olsen sees herself as a spokesperson for those who do not have speech—for those who are silenced by governments, by societal attitudes, by economic systems. “The Strike” is a protest against unfair labor practices. Yonnondio: From the Thirties is a novel of protest about the evils of the capitalist economic system. “Tell Me a Riddle” is a protest about American society’s tendency to patronize the elderly. Silences is largely a protest against a literary tradition in America that excludes an equal representation of women.
Since Olsen’s fiction emphasizes the woman’s point of view, it necessarily depicts women’s roles within the family and women’s place in generational conflicts. Her fiction contains stories that reveal dimensions of mother-daughter relationships, father-daughter relationships, and sibling relationships. “Tell Me a Riddle” is one of the few honest portrayals of a relationship between an old couple, married forty-seven years. That story also realistically depicts three generations in conflict. In her portrayal of women’s experience, Olsen seeks to communicate the importance of choice in a woman’s life. Without choices, women are reduced to stereotypes and offered few viable roles in life. With choices, women become equal to men, able to articulate individual goals, fully capable of a wide range of emotions and ideas.
Olsen’s contributions as a writer are matched by her contributions as a spokesperson for the feminist literary tradition and as a role model for women(and men) who are writers. Silences is a rallying cry for teachers and critics to study at length the contributions of women writers. It is also an appeal for understanding how and why women writers, including Olsen herself, have been silenced through history. Olsen’s own life and writings have inspired writers to sustain themselves through hard times and not yield to pressures or circumstances that would silence them.
Yonnondio: From the Thirties
First published: 1974
Type of work: Novel
A family in the 1920’s barely survives a series of financial and family crises as the father ekes out a living as a common laborer.
The manuscript of Yonnondio: From the Thirties was lost to Tillie Olsen for more than thirty years before being accidentally discovered by her husband, who was looking for other papers. A portion of the novel had been published in 1934 in The Partisan Review, a journal devoted to socialist writing. Although the story was well received by critics, Olsen never completed the novel. Instead, she reared a family of four children and worked at part-time jobs for most of her adult life until the 1961 publication of Tell Me a Riddle. This collection of stories led to the discovery of Tillie Olsen as a major literary talent, and it made the publication of Yonnondio an important addition to her works. Olsen decided not to add to or substantially revise the manuscript. At the conclusion of the eight chapters of this unfinished novel, Olsen adds the following note: “Reader, it was not to have ended here, but it is nearly forty years since this book had to be set aside, never to come to completion.”
The title is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman called “Yonnondio.” In the poem, Whitman laments the passing of the great American Indian nations in the face of the white man’s advance. After recalling the contributions of these peoples, Whitman concludes the poem, “Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.” That line could serve as a description of the middle years of Olsen’s career: Although she began to develop her art in the 1930’s, circumstances led to her being silenced as a writer for more than twenty years.
The novel depicts the experiences of Jim and Anna Holbrook and their family. Jim is an itinerant laborer who struggles to find a decent job, first in a coal mine in Wyoming, then on a tenant farm in North Dakota, and finally in a meatpacking house in Omaha, Nebraska. No matter where Jim works, he never earns enough to make ends meet. He feels trapped in a recurring cycle of poverty and desperation. He loves his wife and children but feels trapped by them because they represent a limit to his freedom as a man and an insurmountable financial burden. He begins to drink excessively, abuses his wife, and neglects his children.
Anna tries to be responsive to his misery, but she is overwhelmed with the duties of homemaking and child care, and she often faces bouts of depression. She suffers from physical exhaustion and experiences a miscarriage. Anna wants her children to have a better life than Jim and she have had, and she values education as one way the children might improve their lot in life. The children, however, have few opportunities for education. Anna often experiences stress over the narrow limitations of her role as a woman. An old man in the novel characterizes her as a woman who “has had everything to grind out life and yet has kept life.” Anna experiences a major victory in the novel when she asserts her independence in the face of Jim’s restrictive attitudes.
The politics of the novel are clearly on the side of the proletariat, that class of people who have the lowest status—the working class in an industrialist society. Everyone who hires Jim Holbrook takes advantage of him. The coal mining company compels him to do work that is physically demanding and dangerous. The wage he earns is insufficient for his family’s basic needs. After working one season on a tenant farm in North Dakota, Jim is deeper in debt than when he started at the beginning of the season. When he works as a laborer in Omaha, his wage never keeps pace with the family’s expenses. Jim’s plight underscores a common theme in Marxist-socialist politics: The worker has “nothing to sell but his labor power.”
Consequently, the worker is stripped of his identity and becomes a tool of the economic forces that control his destiny. At one point, Olsen explains that if workers were to revolt, they “could wipe out the whole thing, the whole god-damn thing, and a human could be a human for the first time on earth.” Both Jim and Anna, then, are victims of complex economic forces that exclude a number of people from the opportunities of attaining the American Dream.
Olsen portrays this economic exploitation symbolically throughout the novel. The coal becomes a symbol of the domination of the workers’ lives: “Earth sucks you in, to spew out the coal, to make a few fat bellies fatter.” The stench of the meatpacking houses in Omaha also dominated the landscape of the people who lived there. Olsen writes, “That is a reminder—a proclamation—I rule here.” Wherever the family turns, they are rendered powerless by a harsh and unsympathetic economic system.
At times Olsen’s writing style appears to be a combination of the graphic...
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