The Stories

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

“I Stand Here Ironing”: A woman is ironing her laundry, but the real action occurs in her mind, in which she is speaking about a phone call from her daughter Emily’s school. Mother recalls Emily’s infancy, when she was abandoned by her father during the Great Depression, and her own regret that she has to leave the child with a neighbor while she works. Even after she finds a night job so that she can be with Emily during the day, she soon has to leave the child with her husband’s relatives to work full-time.

At the age of two, Emily returns to her mother, only to be placed in a day nursery until social workers can send her to an institution, where she grows even more isolated and uncertain. Home again, she remains quiet and distant. Mother feels terrible guilt for these events beyond her control and their effect on her daughter.

Emily, now a teenager, has developed a surprising gift for acting, and audiences love her. Still, mother worries that nothing can come of it because of her difficult early years. Mother hopes that the school official will understand and help her daughter learn “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”

“Hey Sailor, What Ship?”: Whitey, a sailor ashore in San Francisco, visits his good friends Lennie and Helen, the only family he has had since he saved Lennie’s life during the bitter longshoremen’s strike of 1934. In an alcoholic daze, Whitey is taken home by Lennie and put to bed on the couch. Helen and their younger daughters are fond of Whitey, but Jeannie, the eldest, is ashamed of him.

Whitey awakes to tremors and food and a note left by Helen. The note says that the children will be home soon after school to stay with him, but he flees in confusion. Five days later, he returns with gifts and food. All quickly realize that he is more than drunk—he is very ill—and call a doctor friend to examine him.

Little Allie loves Whitey, proudly showing him his photograph as a handsome young man. For her, he recites a patriotic Filipino poem, “El Ultimo Adiós” (“the last farewell”). His body is failing, he is dying, but he cannot stay—the urge to drink is too powerful.

“O Yes”: In the troubled 1950’s, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, Helen and her middle daughter, Carol, who are white, are invited to the Baptist church of Carol’s African American friend, Parialee (Parry) Phillips, who is to be...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tell Me a Riddle” received the O. Henry Award as the best American short story of 1961 and continues to receive critical acclaim. By far the most ambitious and powerful of the four stories collected in the book Tell Me a Riddle (1961), it might be more appropriately labeled a novella. Its complex themes are supported by an equally rich narrative voice capable of modulating from bitter to funny, from sad to joyful, from serious to ironic. The lyricism of the language itself combined with her ability to involve and move her reader has earned Olsen high marks as a prose stylist.

Olsen deserves equal praise as a dramatist for her creation of character and dialogue. Eva and David, in all their pain and anguish, are brought to life with humor and affection. The authenticity apparently derives from Olsen’s own familiarity with the world she describes and her careful rendition of the dialect her characters speak. David and Eva’s English is filled with the colorful Yiddish metaphors they have brought to the New World from their native Russia. Whether used as a curse (“like the hide of a drum shall you be beaten in life, beaten in death”) or in self-mocking honesty (“Vinegar he poured on me all his life; I am well marinated; how can I be honey now?”), such poetic language marks the distance between the generations. The generic English of the American-born children suffers in comparison and seems to underline the aesthetic poverty with which they have paid for their material affluence.

Olsen sees herself as the spokeswoman for the uneducated, for the working classes, for all those whose creativity has been suppressed by the day-to-day pressures of earning a living and tending to the needs of a family. In her collection of essays Silences (1979), she speaks of “the gifted” who have remained mute “because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation.” Olsen’s own work demonstrates how beautifully such voices can sing, once freed.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The title story of this collection, “Tell Me a Riddle,” is a novella in which Tillie Olsen depicts the inevitably destructive dynamic in a dysfunctional marriage that has endured for almost half a century when both elderly members are forced to confront their regrets. Divided into four parts, it portrays the current anguish and past tribulations of a dying woman, Eva, whose terminal illness, like so much that she deserved and desired to know, has been kept from her. Part 1 opens with the first of many riddles that haunt the novella. The adult children of the couple married forty-seven years are puzzled that their parents cannot get along. Eva and Dave literally and figuratively tune each other out during part 1: he, by turning up the television volume; she, by turning off her hearing aid. The major conflict that their relentless banter surrounds is David’s desire to move to the Haven, a comfortable and “carefree” retirement community for the aged, and Eva’s refusal to sell the house and do so, since she has finally realized a “reconciled peace” in her own space.

Determined to preserve her hard-won ability “at last to live within and not move to the rhythms of others,” she ignores her husband’s various derogatory and dismissive names for her (Mrs. Live Alone and Like It), though she cannot ignore her physical pain. She agrees to see doctor and son-in-law Phil after her first doctor could not determine the cause of her discomfort. Part...

(The entire section is 586 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Olsen’s novella has had an inexhaustible impact upon and relevance to women’s literature. Even in one of the mother-daughter conflicts surrounding Eva’s disgust with institutionalized religion, the reader witnesses the intergenerational gap between social activist Eva and religious conformist daughter Hannah, who lost her childhood in the premature responsibilities of helping to rear younger siblings and now duplicates her mother’s selfless exhaustion. When Hannah was growing up, Eva had neither the luxury of excess time nor the desire to pass on what she deemed to be “superstition” (the lighting of Sabbath candles). Indeed, she resented others’ blind obeisance to such traditions in times of severe poverty: using potatoes as candle holders when there was nothing to eat, buying candles when there was no money for soap. She sees Hannah invoking these submissive gestures to appease her husband and his family and to fill in the emptiness and darkness that Hannah has yet to admit also fills her traditional life. Eva is angry that Hannah would opt to teach her offspring these practices rather than the pragmatic and realistic ways in which social activism could improve the world.

Nevertheless, the cyclic repetition of women’s lives pains Eva. She sees that Hannah, too, is run ragged by her children’s and her husband’s needs and has no time left for herself. Similarly, Vivi’s wornness worries Eva. Vivi’s own empathy with her mother’s past self-sacrifice gushes forth in her gratitude over the catalog of humiliations and grief that Eva suffered for their sake: sewing all their clothes; taking them to the train station when they had no heat; begging for bones, allegedly for their dog in the winter. No wonder, then, that the paper dolls Ann makes for Eva assume disproportionate significance. Like Eva’s and Vivi’s, their eyes are fatigue-ringed, their one-dimensional bodies flattened, aproned, and flowery in their ancient pliability.

Eva wishes that the new generation would break this merciless repetition of women’s lives: She wishes that granddaughter Dody, like her brother Richard, would climb trees and hang freely from them. With her oldest granddaughter and ultimate caretaker, Jeannie, as well, Eva bears witness to the hope that this second generation of women has the potential to offer and cultivate. Eva tells Jeannie that by the time she was her age, both her own mother and her grandmother had already buried children, as Eva had buried Davy; significantly, Jeannie is tied to neither husband nor children. Eva fantasizes...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Culver, Sara. “Extending the Boundaries of the Ego: Eva in ‘Tell Me a Riddle.’ ” Midwestern Miscellany 10 (1982): 38-49. Culver suggests the waste that results from using women as servants and breeders. Suppressing their intellect, artistic ability, courage, and idealism causes women bitterness and is a blight on their children as well, in part because those children learn to assume a mother’s self-sacrifice as their due. Eva is thus betrayed by the cultural confinement of motherhood.

Jacobs, Naomi. “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in Tell Me a Riddle.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 4 (1986): 401-406. Jacobs contends that earth, air, fire, and water are metaphors for Eva’s various spiritual states on the continuum between isolation and union, quarrel and embrace, silence and song, life and death.

Kamel, Rose. “Literary Foremothers and Writers’ Silences: Tillie Olsen’s Autobiographical Fiction.” MELUS 12, no. 3 (Fall, 1985): 55-72. Kamel discusses each of Olsen’s works, including her postscript to Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills, which blend critical analysis and self-scrutiny. Davis and Olsen both experienced working-class hardship, observed human misery, and suffered sexism’s demands on women, which Kamel discovers in such stylistic features as inverted syntax, run-on sentences, fragments, repetitions, alliterative parallels, and incantatory rhythms that reflect the chaos and drudgery of working women’s lives.

Nilsen, Helge Normann. “Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle: The Political Theme.” Etudes Anglaises 37, no. 2 (April-June, 1984): 163-169. Nilsen suggests the essentially political identity that Eva needs to cultivate once her children are grown, in order to offset the stunted development of her talents and faculties incurred by stifling motherhood. With a radicalism that Nilsen argues is rooted in American transcendentalism, Eva sees that love transcends personal, familial boundaries to include a commitment to better the world.

Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Delta Press, 1978. The self-referential voice of the extended wail in Tell Me a Riddle offers an apologia or lamentation for Olsen’s own sparse literary output and for the waste of creative potential in working-class women’s lives. Olsen cites the ongoing tension between artists who crave a voice and an audience, and societally imposed, psychically internalized silence.

Trensky, Anne. “The Unnatural Silences of Tillie Olsen.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 4 (Fall, 1990): 509-516. Trensky studies silence as a theory and metaphor that give form and definition to women’s lives in Tell Me a Riddle.