Readers of Tillie Olsen’s fiction may come away with a heightened understanding of the complexities inherent in being a woman in a society that values predominantly the male perspective on things. Olsen challenges readers to empathize with the woman’s point of view. Whether she is speaking through a character in her fiction or speaking directly to teachers, writers, or readers of fiction, Olsen always seeks to redress the balance between the male and the female points of view.
What does Olsen want her reader to know about women? She invites readers to consider their various strengths, the history of their being an oppressed class of people, the limited roles they were offered in Western society, the abusive relationships they were forced to suffer, the powerful alliances they made with other women, the tolerance and patience they exhibited toward their husbands, the silences and solitudes they experienced at different times of their lives, their being expected to live “for” others instead of “with” others, and their capacity for insight and wisdom into the heart of life. In short, Olsen wants readers to know of the richness, depths, and diversity of the inner lives of women. She wants readers to view life through a woman’s eyes—and see women as individuals.
Whether she tells a story from the point of view of the child Mazie in Yonnondio: From the Thirties or from the point of view of an old woman in “Tell Me a Riddle” (1961), Olsen uses the technique of interior monologue to great advantage. Olsen organizes the thoughts of the character directly on the page; readers, in effect, overhear what the character is thinking. This approach requires close reading and active participation on the part of the reader. It is impossible to skim these sections. Another aspect of style in Olsen’s writing is her use of lengthy descriptive passages within the narrative. At times, her writing in Yonnondio: From the Thirties appears to be as lyrical as the poems of Walt Whitman or E. E. Cummings. At other times, the writing is graphic and detailed in its realism, with the density of phrasing similar to the fiction of William Faulkner. What stands out in all of her writings, however, is that Olsen’s voice and style are unique. That she found her own voice and expressed themes of importance to her own life matters most in any assessment of her contributions as a writer.
Although her fiction emphasizes a woman’s point of view, her characters and plots are universal ones, of importance to the lives of both men and women. Olsen’s fiction is committed to the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the despised, and the downtrodden. Her mother’s resistance against oppression in czarist Russia and her father’s long membership in the Socialist Party contributed to her own commitment to socialist ideals in the 1930’s. To some extent, Olsen sees herself as a spokesperson for those who do not have speech—for those who are silenced by governments, by societal attitudes, by economic systems. “The Strike” is a protest against unfair labor practices. Yonnondio: From the Thirties is a novel of protest about the evils of the capitalist economic system. “Tell Me a Riddle” is a protest about American society’s tendency to patronize the elderly. Silences is largely a protest against a literary tradition in America that excludes an equal representation of women.
Since Olsen’s fiction emphasizes the woman’s point of view, it necessarily depicts women’s roles within the family and women’s place in generational conflicts. Her fiction contains stories that reveal dimensions of mother-daughter relationships, father-daughter relationships, and sibling relationships. “Tell Me a Riddle” is one of the few honest portrayals of a relationship between an old couple, married forty-seven years. That story also...
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