Tell Me a Riddle Additional Summary

Tillie Olsen


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tell Me a Riddle” is the story of an elderly immigrant couple who, after forty-seven years of marriage, disagree bitterly over how to live out their retirement. The wife looks forward to having her house to herself now that the children are all gone, “of being able at last to live within, and not move to the rhythms of others.” The husband wants to sell the house and join his lodge’s cooperative for the aged, where he hopes to find a “happy, communal life.” As the bickering continues and threatens to “split the earth between them” now that they are no longer “shackled” together by the needs of the family, the children enter the dispute, siding with their father, whose jokes and sociability seem to be more reasonable than their mother’s moodiness and introspection.

One night the wife, Eva, feeling strangely sick, asks her husband, David, to stay home with her. He has been planning to stay home anyway, watching television, but when she makes this request, he leaves, just to spite her. When he returns, she is asleep on the sun porch; this is the beginning of a week sleeping in separate beds, apparently for the first time in their married life. In the middle of Eva’s last night on the porch, David awakes to her singing a Russian love song from their youth. “I can breathe now,” Eva announces and finally returns to their bedroom. This passage marks an important turning point in the story. Though David proceeds to find a buyer for the house, the family soon discovers that Eva’s body is riddled with cancer and that she has at best a year to live.

During the rest of the story, David rushes Eva around the country to visit each child in succession while she begs to return home. Though he worries about the money going quickly and fears his own weakness in coping with her disease, he does his best to hide her impending death from her, to cater to what he perceives to be her final needs.

At each stage of this journey, the reader learns more about Eva’s past and the sources of the gap that separates her from her children. With Hannah, it is religion; Eva associates her daughter’s Judaism with the superstition and backwardness of prerevolutionary Russia, a world she fought to destroy. David is more accepting of Hannah’s perspective as she defends the need for tradition and the pleasure of ritual.

With Vivi,...

(The entire section is 971 words.)