Tell Me a Riddle

by Tillie Olsen

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 317

“Tell Me a Riddle,” though it is simple in plot, is complex and rich thematically. It is at once a story about failed dreams, love and marriage, old age in America, the healing power of art, mothers and daughters, and the meaning of freedom. Above all, it is a powerful tale of a caged bird who longs to soar free and who recovers her youthful ability to sing only in dying. The key line is the repeated refrain “Of being able at last to live within,” a poignant restatement of Virginia Woolf’s famous call for a room of one’s own. The story suggests that in loving and nurturing her seven children, Eva necessarily sacrificed her own personal needs. The few moments she found for herself and a book after the children were in bed were often snatched from her as David returned home and would coax her, “Don’t read, put your book away.” She does not resent those years but now wants time and space for herself, freedom from living for other people.

Ironically, as Eva begins to break out of her cage and sing, the songs she recalls all date from the time when she may have been “free” of family responsibilities but was “imprisoned” by political repression. The story thus plays on the meaning of freedom. For the children it means the rights and liberties of American citizenship, freedom from poverty and anti-Semitism. For David, it also means to be “carefree,” to have freedom in particular from constant worries about money. With Eva’s death David remembers another freedom, “that joyous certainty, that sense of mattering, of moving and being moved, of being one and indivisible with the great of the past, with all that freed, ennobled,” and that his struggle to be “carefree,” to live the American Dream, may have had as its price the loss of this more precious freedom.

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