Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle contains four stories arranged chronologically in the order in which they were written: “I Stand Here Ironing,” “Hey Sailor, What Ship?,” “O Yes,” and “Tell Me a Riddle.” All but the first story contain, as major or minor characters, members of the same family, whose parents emigrated from Russia. The characters in the first story could also belong to the same family, although there is no evidence to prove it and the names of the children are different; nevertheless in “I Stand Here Ironing” characters, situation, and tone are similar to those found in the other three stories. A difference between “I Stand Here Ironing” and the remaining stories in the volume is that the former story is told in the first person, being a kind of interior monologue (actually an imagined dialogue), whereas “Hey Sailor, What Ship?,” “O Yes,” and “Tell Me a Riddle” are told in varieties of the third person.
“I Stand Here Ironing”
Exterior action in “I Stand Here Ironing” is practically nonexistent, consisting of a woman moving an iron across an ironing board. Interior action is much more complicated, being a montage of times, places, and movements involving a mother in interaction (or lack of interaction) with her firstborn, a daughter, Emily. Questions arise as to whether the montage can define or even begin to define the daughter; whether the mother or anyone else can help the daughter or whether such help is needed; whether the daughter will continue to be tormented like the mother, who identifies herself with the iron moving inexorably back and forth across the board; or whether, as the mother hopes, the daughter will be more than the dress on the ironing board, “helpless before the iron.” “She will leave her seal,” the mother says, the only words spoken aloud in the story; but the words could express only the mother’s fervent hope for the well-being of a daughter born to a mother of nineteen, impoverished, alone, distracted, in an age of depression, war, and fear.
“Hey Sailor, What Ship?”
“Hey Sailor, What Ship?” introduces Lennie and Helen and their children, Jeannie, Carol, and Allie; but the story is not so much about them as it is about Whitey (Michael Jackson, a sailor and friend of the family who seems more lost at sea than at home in any port or ship). Filtering through Whitey’s consciousness, the story explores his frustrations and anger, pain and despair. At the same time, however, the living conditions of Lennie and Helen and their children and the relationships among the family and between various members of the family and Whitey are carefully delineated.
Whitey is a mariner, a perpetual wanderer whose only contact with family life is with Lennie, a boyhood friend. As the story opens, Whitey is drunk, a condition he finds himself in more and more, and with almost nothing left of his pay. His anguish, born of his desire to be with Lennie and the family and his reluctance to bear the pain of such a visit, is evident from the beginning, as is also the shame and degradation he feels associated with his lifestyle. What had started out as a dream, a life of adventure on the sea, with comrades who shared the good and the bad, has become a parade of gin mills and cathouses, clip joints, hock shops, skid rows, and lately hospitals. Lennie’s dreams, however, have also been frustrated. Lennie is a worn likeness of his former self; Helen is graying and tired from holding a job as well as caring for house and home. They live in poverty in cramped quarters. Still, as Helen explains to her oldest daughter Jeannie, this house is the only place Whitey does not have to buy his way. The tragedy is that he feels he does. He comes bearing presents, distributing dollars and at the same time too drunk to share in meaningful interaction with the family he loves, where he is brother, lover, and father to a family not his own.
“O Yes” picks up the family several years later when Carol, the second daughter, is twelve and about to experience the pain of parting with a close friend, Parry, a black girl. Carol and her mother, Helen, have accompanied Parry and her mother, Alva, to a black church to witness Parry’s baptism. Carol is uncomfortable, however, both with the surroundings and with Parry, who is growing away from her. As the services rise to a crescendo of passion, Carol asks her mother to take her home and then...
(The entire section is 1843 words.)