Tell Me a Riddle

by Tillie Olsen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879

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 Eva’s physical needs, records the old woman’s beauty through a series of sketches, and assists David in staying with his wife to the end.

Eva’s truest inner peace and most perfect expression of solitude, however, comes as her mind returns to her roots as a child and young woman in Russia during the turbulent years at the turn of the century, when czarist oppression was felt by the peasant classes. She has two key memories that sustain her: One is of herself as a young woman. At that time she was a member of the resistance, fighting the czarists. She shared a cell with Lisa, who was a patriot for the anticzarist forces. Lisa killed an informer in order to save the lives of many of her comrades, even though that action led to her own death. Lisa was Eva’s hero; she inspired Eva to consider larger social and political issues. To Eva, Jeannie is a modern-day version of Lisa.

Eva’s other memory which sustains her in the face of death is a memory of being a child in Russia and dancing joyously at a country wedding. That image of a dancing child suggests a moment of perfect freedom before the girl child becomes a woman and is compelled to submit to social forces that require her to fulfill narrow roles. In a sense, then, Eva goes back to her childhood in order to reconcile the lifelong compromises she made with her own needs of identity and self-fulfillment. The novella ends with a hopeful tone, because even in death there is an affirmation of the beauty and timelessness of that inner peace that Eva sought so courageously in the last year of her life.

At one point in the novella, Eva notes that when her husband played with the grandchildren he “knew how to tickle, chuck, lift, toss, do tricks, tell secrets, make jokes, match riddle for riddle.” When the children asked Eva, “Tell me a riddle,” however, her answer was always, “I know no riddles, child.” To some extent her response reinforces the difference—the conflict—between Eva and her husband, between all men and women. On another level, Eva’s response is ironic, for her life has been a mystery to which she cannot give voice. So much is inside, and she seeks the answer to the riddle of her own life.

One of the main themes in the novella is that a woman’s life must be her own, and not the lives of her children or of her husband. It is inappropriate for a woman to live her life “for” others. instead, she needs to find the same measure of self-fulfillment that men expect to find in their lives. Another theme is that women have as many insights into the human condition as men do. The woman in Tell Me a Riddle has a profound capacity for courage, an empathy for those who are impoverished and oppressed, and insights into the social and political ills that foster human oppression.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

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.”

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Themes