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Tillie Olsen 1913–
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Olsen's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 13.
Olsen's work—which focuses on the plight of the poor, the powerless, and women—has earned her almost universal praise. Although she has published relatively little throughout her career, her short stories and novel are of the highest quality. Her fiction and her essays have placed her in a role as a chronicler of the working class as well as a leading feminist writer.
Olsen was born on January 14, 1913 (some sources say 1912) in Omaha, Nebraska. Her Jewish parents had been political activists in Russia and immigrated to the United States after the failed 1905 revolution. While a teenager, Olsen read Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills and was so moved by the description of the working class that she vowed to become a writer. After high school, Olsen took a variety of jobs to supplement her family's income and became active in leftist politics, joining the Young People's Socialist League and the Young Communist League. While working in Kansas City, Olsen was arrested in 1931 for encouraging packinghouse workers to unionize. While in prison, Olsen developed pleurisy and incipient tuberculosis. Upon her release, she moved to Minnesota to recover. There she began her first novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties, working on it until 1937 when she abandoned it, not to publish it until 1974. In 1936 she married Jack Olsen, a longshoreman, and raised four daughters in a working class neighborhood of San Francisco. She published some poems, articles and short stories about the plight of the working class in socialist periodicals such as Partisan, the Waterfront Worker, and the Daily Worker. In 1954 she enrolled in a writing class at San Francisco State University and won a Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship. Another grant enabled her to finish Tell Me a Riddle, which was published in 1961. The 1970s where the most prolific time for Olsen as she published three works and gained wider recognition. Since then she has held a number of visiting professorships, writer-in-residence, and lecturer positions across the country.
Olsen has only published a small volume of material: a handful of short stories, a book of essays and speeches, and one unfinished novel. Writing about working class families and their search for self-fulfillment, Olsen again and again returns to the tension in characters' lives between the demands of living in poverty and the need for accomplishment and meaning. Olsen has particularly focused upon the relationship between mothers and their children, arguing that the greatest demands are place upon mothers, often to the detriment of the women's hopes and dreams. Tell Me a Riddle, which won the O Henry Award for best American short story in 1961, consists of four short stories. Most famous is the title story which is often compared to Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch." It chronicles a grandmother's efforts to make sense of her life as she is dying of cancer, surrounded by the family for whom she has sacrificed all her own ambitions. "I Stand Here Ironing", also in this collection, focuses on a mother's internal conflict as she remembers all the trials and failures she has encountered as she tried to raise her daughter. She mourns that her daughter has not had more advantages and fears that her daughter will be forced to endure a life much like her mother's. In Silences, a collection of essays and speeches, Olsen discusses the sacrifices that women writers have had to make for their families, and refutes common held beliefs that women writers have not been as successful as men because they are not as talented. Yonnondio, her only full length (though unfinished) novel, takes its name from Walt Whitman's poem. The book follows the lives of a working class family in the 1930s as they struggle against the Depression. Centering on two strong women, it presents their lives in terms of failures and successes, always locating the source of their strength within themselves.
Critics have been unanimously overwhelming in their praise of Olsen's fiction. As one critic states, "Olsen writes with an elegance, compassion, and directness rare in any period." Although she has published little, reviewers agree that her short stories and novel are peerless in their portrayal of the working class, of women, and of the powerless. Blanche Gelfant comments on the recurring theme of human survival, even when the characters' "lives seem broken and futile, and life itself full of pain." Stylistically, scholars praise Olsen's use of dialect, internal conflict and flashbacks, as well as her ability to evoke a scene or experience with a brevity of words. However, critics have some reservations about Olsen's role as a leading feminist writer. Ellen Cronan Rose argues, "Olsen has made the mistake, in her recent oratory, of confusing the general human situation and the particular plight of women in our society. What she emphatically knows because she is an artist she thinks she knows because she is a woman." Critics point to her convincing male characters in the short stories "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "Requa" as evidence of her ability to address the human condition regardless of gender. Scholars such as Mickey Pearlman point out that some of Olsen's popularity is based upon her life experiences and what she represents to women. Reviewers find that her book of feminist essays, Silences, is far less evocative and convincing than her fiction.
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Tell Me a Riddle: A Collection (short stories) 1961
"Requa" (short story) 1970
Yonnondio: From the Thirties (novel) 1974
Silences (essays) 1978
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825
SOURCE: "The Stories of Tillie Olson," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 21-5.
[In the following essay, O'Connor praises Olsen's short stories, for the power of their scenes of everyday life.]
Tillie Olsen writes about anguish. One character thinks: "It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion and in pain than to live untouched. Yet how will you sustain?"
In one story a soft-hearted sailor has lived a boisterous, rowdy, hard-drinking life. His world is empty, meaningless and in an eerie flux of days and nights at sea, transient acquaintanceships at bars and brothels when he is very drunk. His only refuge is a man whose life he had once saved, and the man's family. He has given the wife and children presents and much needed money. They have all loved him, and welcomed his visits. But now that he can tolerate his anguish only by constant drinking, during which he uses foul language and is an embarrassment before their friends, they are torn between devotion to him, or to what he once was, and their own respectability. Not being able to tolerate their disapproval, he leaves. Drunken, he looks back from a hill at their house, an island of light and warmth. The image blurs, and the house becomes impersonal and anonymous. One knows the sailor will find release from his pain only in the bottle, and finally in death.
An early scene in a second story presents a white girl in her early teens at a Negro church meeting. The singing, shouting, and strange rhythmic movements terrify her, and she faints. She has been very friendly with a colored girl her own age, having shared dolls, parties, and secrets. But white girls, in white society, eventually go their own paths, and, reluctantly, the girls give each other up. The white girl discovers she is filled with shame and guilt, and wants her mother to explain why there is so much misery and unhappiness. The mother embraces her, at the same time wondering where she herself would find that "place of strength" and "the gloved and loving hands" waiting "to support and understand."
In a third story, a mother, standing over her ironing board, ponders the life of her nineteen year old daughter. Someone, presumably a principal or counselor, has asked the mother "to come in and talk with me about your daughter." As she irons, she thinks back over the girl's life. The daughter was born in the depression. The father, unable to endure their poverty, leaves them. The mother works, puts the child in a nursery, then sends her to live with her husband's family. The mother remarries. There is never enough money, and they move frequently. The girl is not good in school, even though she tries hard. She has no close friends. She is small and dark, and not at all out-going. She does have one talent—she can be a sad-eyed clown, able to hold an audience enthralled; but a lack of money prevents the mother from helping her develop the talent. Eventually, the girl gives up in despair. The bomb becomes her symbol of frustration, and she justifies her passive opposition to society on the grounds that "we'll all be atom-dead" soon and nothing will matter. The mother believes that despite poverty and suffering there is "still enough to live by." But she does not know how to convince her daughter.
The story about the sailor is "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" The story about the white and colored children is "O Yes," and the one about the mother and daughter is "I Stand Here Ironing." The three stories have anguish and despair as the antagonists. The protagonists hope, but with no real confidence. There appears to be no margin on the far side of despair for the sailor to reach. The children in "O Yes" find that friendship dissolves under economic, racial and social pressures. And the mother merely hopes that she can communicate her own sense of the value of life, even of lives lived in desperate circumstances.
A fourth story, "Tell Me a Riddle," is about a Jewish couple who have been married for forty-seven years. The husband wants to retire to his lodge's Haven. He longs to be near other people, and to be free from economic worry. His wife wants to remain in her own house and to be free from all entanglements except the basic quarrel she has with her husband. Her quarrel with him has roots in the dim past. They have had many children, and were always poor. She resented his going out at night to visit with his cronies. She also had literary interests, but the pressure of work made it impossible for her to pursue them. Instead of reading, she sewed and scrubbed. Now in their old age they fight. Sometimes he cajoles her, hoping to win a victory; but she ridicules him, and soon he is calling her unpleasant names. Each gets a perverse joy out of their struggle, although he would be agreeable to a truce. Their children find all this distressing and unavailingly introduce many rational arguments about why it is foolish for their parents to quarrel.
She becomes ill, and after repeated refusals to visit a doctor she is examined. An operation follows, and the family learns she has cancer. She has about one year to live. A round of visits with their children follows. The grandchildren are noisy, and she is constantly tired. One child says, "Tell me a riddle, Grammy"; and she replies, "I know no riddles, child." In pain, she watches the activities of her children changing diapers; grandchildren climbing trees, hiding in closets; observes people in the streets, listens to sounds, and remembers. She relives her life, as a child in Europe, the birth of her children, the quarreling with her husband, and much else. Sometimes she sweats, sometimes she retches.
In California, they sit together on benches at the beach, watching other people playing, and looking out to sea. A grandchild who is a nurse lovingly attends her. He, the husband, feels death pursuing them, and refuses to take his wife home. These are the last two paragraphs:
That last day the agony was perpetual. Time after time it lifted her almost off the bed, so they had to fight to hold her down. He could not endure and left the room; wept as if there never would be tears enough.
Jeannie came to comfort him. In her light voice she said: Granddaddy, Granddaddy, don't cry. She is not there, she promised me. On the last day, she said she would go back to when she first heard music, a little girl on the road of the village where she was born. She promised me. It is a wedding and they dance, while the flutes so joyous and vibrant tremble in the air. Leave her there, Granddaddy, it is all right. She promised me. Come back, come back and help her poor body to die.
"Tell Me a Riddle" is as full of anguish as "The Death of Ivan Ilytch." It is also as serene, with the distance and calm of tragedy. Miss Olsen shows the human being's capacity to endure his own suffering, his own irrationality, and his own despair. Only creatures capable of a great and transforming idealism could turn such suffering into peaceful acceptance. They are defeated, but they are not routed. Subjected to enormous indignities, they remain dignified. "Tell Me a Riddle" exhibits once again the classic tragic stance, and does it magnificently.
Miss Olsen's stories are quite skillfully put together. On occasion, San Francisco seems to be the locale of a story, but generally the setting is not specifically identified. There is a city, the ocean, or a poor neighborhood, and it could be any city, either ocean, and almost any poor neighborhood. The stories push away from the individual and the unique, toward the world of Everyman.
The sailor is any lonesome human being who hopes against hope that he can be free from his wretchedness. The white child is any child discovering ineradicable evil. The mother is any mother who has failed, or believes she has failed, in rearing her child. The Jewish couple are a man and a woman facing death.
Miss Olsen's method is reminiscent of [Thorton] Wilder's in Our Town, [Dylan] Thomas' in Under Milk Wood, and [Thomas] Hardy's in The Dynasts. She names characters, but usually one finds out very little about them. Sometimes they are only a voice. Conversations are universal rather than particularized. The voice of the Jewish husband—"You have important business, Mrs. Inahurry? The President wants to consult with you?"—is other Jewish voices one has heard, first generation immigrant, mocking, with ages of patience and suffering back of them. The sailor's language is any sailor's language: "She don't hafta be jealous. I got money for her." The young colored girl adopts jive talk: "Couple cats from Franklin Jr. chirp in the choir. No harm or alarm." The lonely child in the convalescent home writes an anguished letter: "I am fine. How is the baby. If I write my letter nicely I will have a star." And "There never was a star."
Characters are rendered only as much as is necessary to place them in a certain kind of environment. The homes of the children in "Tell Me a Riddle" are not described. One does not know much about their husbands or wives. The voices come in over one another. One is married to a doctor, whom she quotes. Another can't bear to see her mother suffer. A third needs more money. They are people. They breathe, suffer, wonder.
The chronology or sequence of events in the stories is ordered not as these occurred, but as they impinge on a character's memory. As in [William] Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury, Miss Olsen's stories seem gradually to "discover" themselves for the reader. She does, however, give the reader more assistance than Faulkner does. She does not immerse him so deeply in the dark recesses where events are happening but have not as yet been explained. She sets a scene quickly, usually with a few sentences. Then the characters take over, talking, remembering, laughing or crying. Occasionally the author intrudes with a refrain, such as "Hey Sailor, what ship?" or a rhetorical commentary, such as "So it is that she sits in the wind of the singing, among the thousand various faces of age." But mostly the action belongs to the characters.
When Miss Olsen is at her best, as in "Tell Me a Riddle," she is a writer of tremendous skill and power. Her productivity has been small, but she would not have to write a great deal more than she has to earn a place among the eminent writers of short stories.
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SOURCE: "The Passion of Tillie Olsen," in The Nation, Vol. 715, No. 15, April 10, 1972, pp. 472-74.
[In the following review of Tell Me a Riddle, Fisher praises Olsen's efforts as a feminist writer.]
You won't find her in Who's Who … nor is her name going to be listed in the forthcoming reference book, World Authors. Her total published work probably runs to under 200 pages: the first story came out in 1934, the latest in 1970. In between there were the four stories in Tell Me a Riddle, reissued in paperback this August after being out of print for several years, stories written and published between 1953 and 1960, and—its own kind of explanation—the essay, "Silences, When Writers Don't Write," published in Harper's magazine in 1965. "I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having let writing die over and over again in me." Yet in the 116 pages of Tell Me a Riddle—small ones with large type and large margins, too—are contained several lives and lifetimes, as if all the writing Tillie Olsen didn't do has coalesced in intensity and packed itself into these stories.
The title story is her masterpiece. My first reading of it was one of those shattering discoveries, an experience that, at first, reminded me of coming on Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, because that book, too, had been "buried," had a strong emotional impact, and dealt with poor immigrant Jews. However, Olsen's work has neither the particularity nor the special faults of Roth's; it has such compression and such scope that the analogy made by a friend of mine—her first reading of "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch"—seems to me a better one. With this difference: Tillie Olsen is not only a great writer, she is a feminist artist. Till the very end, we do not even know the name of the old woman whose long dying is the framework on which "Tell Me a Riddle" evolves. She is the mother, the wife, the grandmother. Only in the last 3 pages do we learn that she is Eva. But in the magic weaving of past and present which goes from Olshana in prerevolutionary Russia to death in a strange impersonal Los Angeles, what comes out most strongly is the disadvantaging of woman, the denial of intellect and aspiration, the utter thanklessness of the mother's role. Seven children are brought up, through the vicissitudes of a working-class life during the past fifty years, and make the successful climb into the middle classes, but at what a cost, what a cost. The young girl steeped in 19th-century idealism gives way to the exigencies of 20th-century American materialism. Always "don't read, put your book away," and she dies shutting out her husband, babbling of the great world of books and culture, philosophy and music of which she has had only the most fleeting glimpses in her practical everyday life: "The children's needings; that grocer's face or this merchant's wife she had to beg credit from when credit was a disgrace; the scenery of the long-blocks walked around when she could not pay; school coming, and the desperate going over the old to see what yet could be remade; the soups of meat bones begged 'for the dog' one winter…." About Olsen's men it might be said, as of the husband in [Samual] Beckett's "Happy Days," how can they help others when they can't even help themselves? Her women can, but it is never enough, never right, never whole.
"The love—the passion of tending—had risen with the need like a torrent; and like a torrent drowned and immolated all else…. Only the thin pulsing left that could not quiet suffering over lives one felt but could no longer hold nor help." People have drawn on her, feeding, demanding more, more, so that, at last, drained without replenishment, she says, no, enough.
"Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. Being at last able to live within, and not to move to the rhythms of others." This is the refrain of the tired old woman, battered by too much life, but free at last on her own limited terms. "If they would but leave her in the air now stilled of clamor, in the reconciled solitude to journey to her self." Hunched in the closet, she hides from the hurly-burly of family, from her daughter's "spilling memories," unable to touch the baby, "warm flesh like this that had claims and nuzzled away all else and with lovely mouths devoured … the drawing into needing and being needed." And later, "at the back of the great city" where her husband had brought her "to the dwelling places of the cast-off old," as she makes for "the far ruffle of the sea … though she leaned against him, it was she who led." What images and what economy, what a world is here compressed!
"I Stand Here Ironing" is the story told by a mother of how, wanting to do the best for her daughter, she was so often forced to do the worst, and it is one that every parent can recognize. In tight, economical prose she tears us with the parental experience, how we listen, wrongly, to other people, or are just imprisoned by events we could not foresee—desertion, poverty, expanding families; it is also a hopeful story of how children survive, sometimes even making strength, or talent, out of the deprivations they've endured. Tillie Olsen's is an unsparing but tender vision in which love is need that is rarely answered, a vision of communication on strange, imperfect levels, and, above all, of resilience, a belief that human beings are not passive, that there is more in them "than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."
The two other stories in this volume, strong and well worked, would be accounted great if someone else had written them; they fade only beside the raw strength of the first-named ones. "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" tells of an alcoholic seaman who cannot survive ashore and who yet seeks the warmth of a family; it tells also of the limitations and cruelties and affections of the family trying to hold on to an earlier time's hope and community.
In "O Yes" there is a marvelous evocation of the black religious experience: "The crucified Christ embroidered on the starched white curtain leaps in the wind of the sudden singing"; "You not used to hearing what people keeps inside, Carol"; and a depiction of the snob and class pressures that drive apart two 12-year-old girls, one black, one white. The white girl doesn't want to be oppressed by life; "Why is it like this and why do I have to care?" Her mother knows, but is helpless with her own unassuaged needs, as she answers, inside to herself, "Caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humanity."
Olsen's women alternatively reject and demand the full intensity of life. They are conscious, terrifyingly frighteningly conscious, and it is this that makes their pain and ours. Mortality presses on them with an awful weight, the finiteness of the human animal as opposed to the infinitude of the human spirit, or even to the possibilities of the human, being. "Humankind one has to believe." And we feel with Lennie, Eva's son, "for that in her which never lived (for that which in him might never live) … good-bye Mother who taught me to mother myself."
What is wonderful is that, engaged, feminist, Olsen's work is also utterly transcendent—a contradiction of the art-for-art's sake purists. Though the subject matter may be autobiographical, the author is everywhere and nowhere; this is indeed writing that consumes all impediments; incandescent, it glows and it burns. Read the stories; they will not be forgotten.
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SOURCE: "Limming: or Why Tillie Writes," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIII, No. 2, April, 1976, pp. 1-13.
[In the essay below, Rose explores Olsen's philosophy on writing and suggests that Olsen, a renowned feminist, is as powerful at depicting men as she as at depicting women.]
Tillie Olsen was born in Nebraska 65 years ago. In 1960, when she was 50 years old, she published her first book, a slim volume of short stories called Tell Me A Riddle. In 1974 she finally published a novel—Yonnondio—she had begun in 1932 and abandoned in 1937. To women in "the movement" she is a major literary figure, not so much despite as because of the paucity of her publications.
Since 1971, when Delta reissued Tell Me A Riddle in paperback, Olsen has been stumping the country, speaking about women who have been prevented by their sex from utilizing their creative talents. These are her words:
In the twenty years I bore and reared my children, usually had to work on the job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist. When the youngest of our four was in school, the beginnings struggled toward endings…. Bliss of movement. A full extended family life; the world of my job; and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around with me through work, through home. Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work, enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: "I stand here ironing." In such snatches of time I wrote what I did in those years, but there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible. The fifteen hours of daily realities became too much distraction for the writing.
As for myself, who did not publish a book until I was 50, who raised children without household help or the help of the 'technological sublime' … who worked outside the house on everyday jobs as well…. The years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks…. The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for the writing to be first; habits of years: response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters, stay with you, mark you, become you. I speak of myself to bring here the sense of those others to whom this is in the process of happening (unnecessarily happening, for it need not, must not continue to be) and to remind us of those (I so nearly was one) who never come to writing at all. We cannot speak of women writers in our century without speaking also of the invisible; the also capable; the born to the wrong circumstances, the diminished, the excluded, the lost, the silenced. We who write are survivors, 'onlys.' One—out of twelve.
I heard Olsen speak these words to a class at Dartmouth College last year, and I observed their galvanic effect on the students—mostly women—who heard them. My first exposure to Tillie Olsen was to Olsen the feminist. It was with this preparation that I first read Tell Me A Riddle and Yonnondio. I was thus unprepared for their impact on me.
For in her books, Olsen is no politician, but an artist. Her fictions evoke, move, haunt. They did not seem, when I read them, to belong to any movement, to support any cause.
And so I returned to Olsen's words about the situation of the woman writer to see if there was something I had missed, something the women's movement had missed.
In "Silences: When Writers Don't Write," originally delivered as a talk to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in 1963, Olsen asks, "What are creation's needs for full functioning?" The answer women have heard is an echo of Virginia Woolf's "£500 a year and a room of one's own"—independence, freedom, escape from the restriction of traditional feminine roles. This is the answer Olsen herself gives on the lecture circuit. But in this early Radcliffe speech, her question seems not so much political as aesthetic.
Wondering what keeps writers from writing, Olsen turns to what writers—men writers—have themselves said about their unnatural silences, not periods of gestation and renewal, but of drought, "unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot." She points to Hardy's sense of lost "vision," to Hopkins, "poet's eye," curbed by a priestly vow to refrain from writing, to Rimbaud who, after long silence, finally on his deathbed "spoke again like a poet-visionary." She then turns to writers who wrote continuously, in an effort to understand what preserved them from the unnatural silences that foreshortened the creativity of Hardy, Hopkins, Rimbaud, Melville, and Kafka. She cites James's assertion that creation demands "a depth and continuity of attention," and notes that Rilke cut himself off from his family to live in attentive isolation so that there would be "no limit to vision." Over and over in these opening paragraphs of "Silences," Olsen identifies the act of creation with an act of the eye.
In order to create, the artist must see. Margaret Howth, in Rebecca Harding Davis's novel of that name, is the type of the artist for Olsen, "her eyes quicker to see than ours." And one of the special handicaps of the woman writer, confined traditionally to her proper sphere in the drawing room or the kitchen, is that she is restricted to what Olsen calls "trespass vision" of the world beyond that sphere. But although she echoes Charlotte Bronte's lament that women are denied "facilities for observation … a knowledge of the world," Olsen does not equate the reportorial with the creative eye. Vision is not photography. Olsen quotes, approvingly, Sarah Orne Jewett's advice to the young Willa Cather: "If you don't keep and mature your force … what might be insight is only observation. You will write about life, but never life itself."
In Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, to which Olsen has added an appreciative biographical afterword, the distinction between vision and mere seeing is dramatized in the reactions of two viewers to the statue Hugh Wolfe has sculpted out of slag. The mill owner's son has brought a party of gentlemen to see the mill. On their way back to the carriage, they stumble on Hugh's statue, the crouching figure of a nude woman, with outstretched arms. Moved by its crude power, the gentlemen ask Hugh, "But what did you mean by it?" "She be hungry," he answers. The Doctor condescendingly instructs the unschooled sculptor: "Oh-h! But what a mistake you have made, my fine fellow! You have given no sign of starvation to the body. It is strong,—terribly strong." To the realist, a portrait of starvation must count every rib. But Mitchell, who is portrayed as the dilettante and aesthete, a stranger to the mill town and of a different cut than the doctor, foreman, and newspaperman who round out the party, "flash[es] a look of disgust" at the doctor: "'May,' he broke out impatiently, 'are you blind? Look at that woman's face! It asks questions of God, and says, "I have a right to know." Good God, how hungry it is!'"
So Olsen's vision is, in a sense, trespass vision. It is "insight, not observation," the eye's invasion of outward detail to the meaning and shape within. It is this creative trespassing that Rebecca Davis commends in Margaret Howth, whose eyes are "quicker to see than ours, delicate or grand lines in the homeliest things." And it is precisely that quality in Rebecca Davis herself that makes her so significant to Tillie Olsen, who says of her that "the noting of reality was transformed into comprehension, Vision."
Tillie Olsen's edition of Life In the Iron Mills, published by the Feminist Press, is central to an understanding of what she means by the creative act. It may or may not be one of the lost masterpieces of American fiction. Olsen herself admits that it is "botched." But it fascinates her because it is a parable of creation, a portrait of the artist. And significantly, that artist is a sculptor.
One of the unsilent writers Olsen quotes in "Silences" is the articulate Thomas Mann, who spoke of the act of creation as "the will, the self-control to shape a sentence or follow out a hard train of thought. From the first rhythmical urge of the inward creative force towards the material, towards casting in shape and form, from that to the thought, the image, the word, the line." Vision is perceptive seeing, which sees beneath and within the outward details the essential shape of the meaning of the thing perceived. Doctor May saw only the anatomy of Hugh's statue; Mitchell saw through to the woman's soul.
Sculpting is cutting away the exterior surface to come to the shape within the block of marble. Hugh spends months "hewing and hacking with his blunt knife," compelled by "a fierce thirst for beauty,—to know it, to create it." His struggle is first to see the beauty within and then to give it form, Mann's urge towards the material and then casting it in shape and form.
Olsen writes of Davis's art in similarly sculptural words: "It may have taken her years to embody her vision. 'Hewing and hacking'" like Hugh. The first pages of Life in the Iron Mills are the narrator's injunction to the reader to "look deeper" into the sordid lives of the mill workers, to ask whether there is "nothing beneath" the squalor. This preamble concludes with the artless confession that "I can paint nothing of this" inner reality, "only give you the outside outlines." But the strength of the tale is in Davis's ability to sculpt that inner reality, to dissolve the outside outlines and uncover the moral shape of her simple tale. For Olsen it is "a stunning insight … as transcendent as any written in her century."
Vision is not photography. Sculpting is not cameo carving. Rebecca Harding Davis excoriated the Brahmins she met on her trip north from her native Wheeling, West Virginia. Emerson and Bronson Alcott, she wrote in her journal, "thought they were guiding the real world, [but] they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was … their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range." In other words, they imposed their vision of the world on the world of fact, pasted their carvings on the surface of things. Davis criticized them for ignoring the "back-bone of fact." To see the inner shape, you have at least to acknowledge the contour of the surface.
In her own tale of the down-trodden, Yonnondio, Olsen addresses the Brahmins of our day:
And could you not make a cameo of this and pin it onto your aesthetic hearts? So sharp it is, so clear, so classic. The shattered dusk, the mountain of culm, the tipple; clean lines, bare beauty—and carved against them dwarfed by the vastness of night and the towering tipple, these black figures with bowed heads, waiting, waiting.
The aesthetic eye sees "at too long a range." It abstracts from surface detail a pleasing pattern. But the creative eye, the visionary eye, apprehends the surface in order to comprehend the inner shape which gives it meaning.
Thus by accreted detail, Olsen's definition of the creative act comes into focus. The artist stands, always, in relation to a world of fact. He can record it or he can transform it. In the one case, the standard by which he measures his achievement is fidelity to fact. In the other, his standards are formal. Between these extremes, Tillie Olsen places the creative act. Fidelity to fact, but essential fact. Form and pattern, but exposed, not imposed.
It is not surprising that, of all the literary people she met on her northern trip, Rebecca Davis should have been drawn to Hawthorne. This aesthetic stance in relation to reality that I have discerned in Olsen and Davis is also, as I understand it, the method of Hawthorne's romances. Coming to Hawthorne's tales early in her life, Davis was "verified" in her feeling that "the common-place folk and things which I saw every day had mystery and charm … belong to the magic world [of books] as much as knights and pilgrims." Ethan Brand, that tale of another furnace tender, sees under the surface of fact a fable of the unpardonable sin; Life in the Iron Mills, as Olsen points out, is about "another kind of unpardonable sin," but its method of uncovering that sin is akin to Hawthorne's. It is not an abstraction from reality—that is the method of the cameo cutter, the formalist—but a reduction of facticity to its primary form.
When I began this study of Tillie Olsen, I was motivated by my sense that beneath the polemic about the predicament of the woman writer lay something like this more comprehensive aesthetic. What gave me this sense, or suspicion, was Olsen's fiction, which transcends her oratory. But before I turn to an appreciation of that fiction, I want to examine briefly the source of the disparity between Olsen's real aesthetic and her current feminist articulation of it.
Throughout her non-fiction writing, as we have seen, Olsen uses the metaphor of sculpture to define the creative act. To be a writer, one must "be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one's own life comprehensions." But in an article published in College English in 1972, "Women Who Are Writers in Our Century: One Out of Twelve," Olsen uses this sculptural imagery to describe, not the artist, but the situation of women, who are "estranged from their own experience and unable to perceive its shape and authenticity," prevented by social and sexual circumscription from the essential act of self-definition and affirmation. The paradox of female reality, as Olsen understands it, is that immersion in life means loss of perspective, or vision.
The artist-visionary can supply that perspective, can "find the form" which constitutes the "shape and authenticity" of what Olsen calls "common female realities."
Thus in "One Out of Twelve" and on the lecture circuit, Tillie Olsen exhorts women artists to take women's lives as their subject matter, finding a therapeutic link between the situation of women in our society and the peculiar kind of discovery implicit in the aesthetic creation. Accordingly she feels "it is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: 'I stand here ironing'."
It is possible to read the first of the four stories that comprise Tell Me A Riddle as an exemplum of Olsen's feminist aesthetic. The mother-narrator of "I Stand Here Ironing" looks back over a life where there has been no "time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total." Caught in the mesh of paid work, unpaid work, typing, darning, ironing, she has suffered, but never had time and leisure to perceive and shape, to understand, the passionate arc of motherhood. Helplessly she looks back over her memories of her daughter's childhood and concludes, "I will never total it all."
What Olsen does, in "I Stand Here Ironing," is to perceive and give form to the meaning of her narrator's motherhood, that "total" which the mother has no time to sum. As every female reader I have spoken to attests, this story movingly succeeds in articulating what Olsen calls "common female realities."
It is also possible to fit the title story of the collection into the Procrustean feminist aesthetic Olsen propounds in "One Out of Twelve." "Tell me a riddle, Grammy. I know no riddles, child." But the grandfather "knew how to tickle, chuck, lift, toss, do tricks, tell secrets, make jokes, match riddle for riddle." Why? Clearly because during all the years when she "had had to manage," to contend with poverty, to raise five children, to preserve domestic order, he "never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops." The man is free, the woman bound. Women cannot "riddle" or form the experience they are utterly immersed in.
But "Tell Me A Riddle" is far more than a feminist document. In it, Olsen riddles the inscrutable by perceiving the meaning beneath and within the old woman's life and death. But this service is not rendered solely to the grandmother, but to all the characters in the story, and to the reader as well. Lennie, her son, suffered "not alone for her who was dying, but for that in her which never lived (for that which in him might never live)." And keeping his vigil by the dying woman's bedside, the grandfather achieves an epiphany, which the reader shares:
The cards fell from his fingers. Without warning, the bereavement and betrayal he had sheltered—compounded through the years—hidden even from himself—revealed itself,
and with it the monstrous shapes of what had actually happened in the century.
"Tell Me A Riddle" is a story about "common female realities," but it is also a story about "common human realities." We are all bound slaves, all immured in immanence, pawns of economic and political forces we cannot comprehend. Stepping from moment to moment, we do not see that we are pacing out the steps of a "dance, while the flutes so joyous and vibrant tremble in the air."
Olsen has made the mistake, in her recent oratory, of confusing the general human situation and the particular plight of women in our society. What she empathically knows because she is an artist she thinks she knows because she is a woman, that our greatest need is to "be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for [our] own life comprehensions." In her fiction, if not in her rhetoric, Olsen does not reserve that need to the female half of the race.
Like the mother in "I Stand Here Ironing," the protagonist of "Hey Sailor, What Ship?", the second of the Tell Me A Riddle stories, has spent his life day by day, immersed in "the watery shifting" from one port to another, the animal rhythm of work/pay check/binge/hangover. Yet Olsen rescues this inchoate history into meaning, by showing how Whitey fits in to a larger pattern, of which he himself is unaware. To his old friends in San Francisco, to whom he continually returns no matter how wide the arc of his dereliction, he is "a chunk of our lives." When Jeannie, the ruthless teenager, says, "he's just a Howard Street wino, that's all," her mother insists, "You've got to understand."
Understand. Once they had been young together. To Lennie he remained a tie to adventure and a world in which men had not eaten each other; and the pleasure, when the mind was clear, of chewing over with that tough mind the happenings of the times or the queernesses of people, or laughing over the mimicry. To Helen he was the compound of much help given, much support; the ear to hear, the hand that understands how much a scrubbed floor, or a washed dish, or a child taken care of for a while, can mean.
With understanding, Whitey's sordid life is illuminated and valued. For us, who view it by way of Olsen's trespass vision, his life has meaning.
If Olsen, like Rebecca Harding Davis, owes her aesthetic to Hawthorne, it is with another American writer that she shares her sympathies. In a revealing remark to a class of Dartmouth students, Tillie Olsen said that when she began writing her tale "From the Thirties" in 1932, she knew she would call it Yonnondio. Furthermore she has another unfinished novel she also calls Yonnondio. Like Walt Whitman's, from whom she borrowed the name, her fiction is one continuous poem, dedicated to the common man.
Yonnondio, as the subtitle reminds us, is a tale "From the Thirties." It records several years in the life of the Holbrook family, as they move from a mining town in Wyoming to a tenant farm in South Dakota to the slaughter-houses of Denver. But although the settings and their squalor have equivalents in other writing "from the thirties," Olsen is neither Upton Sinclair nor John Steinbeck. Yonnondio is not a protest, but a perception.
Olsen told the Dartmouth students she was "fortunate" to have been brought up "working class, socialist." She thus credited her strength as an artist, not to her sex, but to her roots, her heritage, her sense of belonging to a living culture. It is her sympathetic love for the common people she identifies with that leads her to perceive in their lives the luminous beauty she limns, to articulate the inarticulate, to give voice to what might otherwise be a note as fleeting as JimJim's song in Yonnondio:
a fifth voice, pure, ethereal, veiled over the rest. Mazie saw it was Jimmie, crouched at the pedals of the piano. "Ma," she said after the song was done, "it's Jimmie, JimJim was singin too." Incredulous, they made him sing it over with them and over and over. His words were a blur, a shadow of the real words, but the melody came true and clear.
Olsen's ears are quick to catch that ethereal melody, and her pen is incomparable at notating it.
Olsen's fiction is full of privileged moments, instants prized from the flux of time and illumined by a vision of their essential meaning. For the characters, the moments are fleeting. At the end of a day of gathering greens and weaving dandelion chains, a day wrested from the stink and squalor of Slaughterhouse City, Mazie sees her mother's face transfigured, senses in her "remote" eyes "happiness and farness and selfness." Anna's peace suffuses the place where she sits with the children, so that "up from the grasses, from the earth, from the broad tree trunk at their back, latent life streamed and seeded. The air and self shone boundless." But the sun sinks, Ben gets hungry for supper, and "the mother look" returns to Anna's face. "Never again, but once, did Mazie see that look—the other look—on her mother's face."
For Mazie, the privileged moments are so evanescent that she sometimes wonders if they ever occurred: "Where was the belted man Caldwell had told her of, lifting his shield against a horn of stars? Where was the bright one she had run after into the sunset? A strange face, the sky grieved above her, gone suddenly strange like her mother's." Snatched from the grinding, degrading poverty of her life's daily texture, such moments of beauty as Mazie had with the old man Caldwell, who directed her näive eyes to Orion and his luminous companions, are so rare that they might never have existed, might be dreams, or promises, like the books the dying Caldwell wills her and her father sells "for half a dollar."
More often, the privileged moments do not "come to writing" for Olsen characters. "Come to writing," a favorite phrase of Tillie Olsen's, expresses her vitalistic conception of the creative process. It means the inarticulate finding words, the dumbly sensed becoming sensible, the incipient meaning finding, form. For the writer, it is breaking silence. For the actor in an Olsen fiction, it is a moment of perceiving, of knowing that there is shape and direction in the ceaseless flow of what must be. Mazie comes to writing occasionally; so does her mother, Anna, who "stagger[s]" in the sunlight and moves beyond the helpless "My head is balloony, balloony" to sing her love for her eldest child and her joy in motherhood: "O Shenandoah, I love thy daughter, / I'll bring her safe through stormy water."
But more often, when Mazie is immersed in a potentially luminous moment, she perceives it as "stammering light" and when "she turns her hand to hold" it, "she grasps shadows." Anna moves through the daily drudgery "not knowing an every-hued radiance floats on her hair." As for Jim, her husband, "the things in his mind so vast and formless, so terrible and bitter, cannot be spoken, will never be spoken—till the day that hands will find a way to speak this: hands."
The hands are Olsen's hands, grasping her pen to copy a fragment of Walt Whitman's poem as the epigraph to her novel "From the Thirties":
No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future:
Yonnondio! Yonnondio!—unlimn'd they disappear;
To-day gives place, and fades—the cities, farms, factories fade;
A muffled sonorous sound, a wailing word is borne through the air for a moment,
Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.
Yonnondio! That evocative word is the emblem of Tillie Olsen's aesthetic. It is her plea, and her pledge: that the unobserved should be perceived, that the fleeting should be fixed, that the inarticulate should come to writing.
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SOURCE: "Silences," in The New Republic, Vol. 179, No. 5, July 29, 1978, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review, Oates contends that Silences suffers from omissions, uneven tone, and faulty logic.]
The highest art appears to contain an entire world in miniature: entering it, one experiences the illusion of entering into the very center of the human cosmos, penetrating immediately the depths of the human imagination. If the most perfect forms of art have the quality of being "static"—in Joyce's sense of the term—it is because they are beyond and above time. Of course they exclude a great deal, and yet they give the impression of excluding nothing. They are complete; they point to nothing outside themselves; one grasps them as esthetic wholes, moved by their authority.
There is no more powerfully moving a piece of fiction in recent years than Tillie Olsen's long story "Tell Me a Riddle," which was first published in New World Writing in 1960, and reprinted as the title story in Tillie Olsen's first book, in 1969. Forty-seven years of marriage, hard work and impoverishment and the dizzying passage of time, an old woman's death by cancer, a frightened old man's realization of love: bitter, relentless, supremely beautiful in its nuances, its voices and small perfect details: and certainly unforgettable. All of the stories of Tell Me a Riddle are superb but the title story is the one that remains most vividly in the mind. It will withstand repeated readings—and the sort of close, scrupulous attention ordinarily reserved for poetry.
Tillie Olsen tells us in her new book, Silences, that her fiction came very close to never having been written. The mother of four children, she was forced for many years to work at low-paying jobs in addition to her ceaseless labor as a wife and mother "without the help of the technological sublime." Since women are traditionally trained to meet others' needs before their own, and even to feel (in Olsen's words) these needs as their own, she was not able to write for 20 years, and did not publish her first book until she was 50. During this time she was haunted by the work that demanded to be written, which "seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me."
Some stories died. Deprived of the time and energy to imagine them into being—for writing requires not simply passion and self-confidence but periods of solitude that will allow for the slow maturing of work—Tillie Olsen lost them forever. The present book, Silences, is partly autobiographical, and partly a wide-ranging discussion of the phenomenon of "unnatural" silences in literary history. Its main focus is a feminist concern, and anger, with the enforced silences of women, but it also deals—in an informal, conversation, and frequently scattered way—with the "silences" of such disparate writers as Hopkins, Melville, Rimbaud, Hardy, and Baudelaire. Virginia Woolf is ubiquitous: in fact her voice seems to compete with Tillie Olsen's own. And there is a consideration of the meaning of certain statistics (as gauged by appearances in 20th-century literature courses, required reading lists, anthologies, textbooks, etc., there is only one woman writer for every 12 men) in terms of our patriarchal society.
A miscellany of Olsen's speeches, essays, and notes, written over a period of approximately 15 years, Silences is necessarily uneven, and it is certainly not an academic or scholarly study. It was written, as Olsen states in her preface, out of passion: love for her incomparable medium, literature, and hatred for all that, societally rooted, lessens and denies it. Most of its content consists of excerpts and quotations from other writers who have experienced the agony of being, for one reason or another, unable to write; and there is a complete section on the relatively unknown American writer Rebecca Harding Davis, whose "classic" Life in the Iron Mills was published in 1861 (and more or less forgotten until its reissue in 1972). Olsen's sympathy with her numerous subjects is evident, though one might wish that she had concentrated more on her own experiences, which would have been of great interest, and less on a recounting of familiar situations (Melville's fate of being "damned by dollars" and his subsequent silence, for instance). Admirers of Tillie Olsen's fiction will be rather disappointed to discover in Silences dozens of extremely familiar passages from Virginia Woolf, a lengthy excerpt from The Life of Thomas Hardy (ostensibly by Florence Emily Hardy), parts of numerous poems by Emily Dickinson, and scattered quotations by artists as unlike as Van Gogh, [Joseph] Conrad, Katherine Anne Porter, Isaac Babel, Charlotte Brontë, and Henry James … and nothing but the most cursory and summary of remarks about Olsen's own life. (Yet the book is being advertised as "astonishingly autobiographical.")
The book's strengths lie, however, in its polemical passages. Olsen asks why so many more women are silenced than men; she asks why there is only one woman writer "of achievement" for every 12 men writers; why our culture continues to reflect a masculine point of view almost exclusively. She quotes disapprovingly Elizabeth Hardwick's remark (about Sylvia Plath's suicide), "Every artist is either a man or a woman, and the struggle is pretty much the same for both," and Cynthia Ozick's "The term 'woman writer' … has no meaning, not intellectually, not morally, not historically. A writer is a writer."
She notes the distressingly low earnings of "established" writers, men and women both, and the current unhealthy publishing situation, in which more and more publishing houses are owned by large conglomerates. She speaks critically of the literary atmosphere that sets writers against one another, breeding an absurd spirit of competition. One of her chapters lists the proportion of women writers to men writers in 20th-century literature courses (six percent women, 94 percent men), in critical studies (seven percent women, 93 percent men), in interviews (10 percent women, 90 percent men), in anthologies and textbooks (nine percent women, 91 percent men), in terms of various prizes and awards (the National Book Awards, for instance, in the years 1950–73, were given to 52 people, only six of them women). The figures are often rounded off, the estimates rough, but the message is certainly clear.
Norman Mailer is quoted and allowed to make a fool of himself once again ("I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today…. I do not seem able to read them."); the English critic A. Alvarez speaks condescendingly toward Sylvia Plath ("… No longer a housewifely appendage to a powerful husband, she seemed made solid and complete. Perhaps the birth of a son had something to do with this new confident air."); Auden is quoted in one of his sillier passages ("The poet is the father who begets the poem which the language bears…. Poets, like husbands, are good, bad, and indifferent."). Books like Silences are enormously strengthening in that they polarize attitudes, freezing people into one camp or another, suggesting unlikely sisterhoods (Virginia Woolf, who wrote so many novels, and that marvelous Diary, and those essays and reviews—and those letters!—a sister to a woman writer who, thwarted by family responsibilities and lack of freedom, has never managed to publish a single word?) and bizarre bedfellows (Hopkins, Rimbaud, Scott Fitzgerald—who "sacrificed" his talent by writing too much, in order to live out his sophomoric notion of the Good Life).
One feels the author's passion, and cannot help but sympathize with it. Certainly women have been more generally "silenced" than men, in all the arts. But the book is marred by numerous inconsistencies and questionable statements offered as facts. Why, for instance, are Elizabeth Hardwick and Cynthia Ozick wrong? Their views differ from mainline feminist views but are not, surely, contemptible for that reason. Why are men in general the enemy, but some men—perhaps weaker men—welcomed as fellow victims, and their "unnatural silences" accorded as much dignity as that of women? Does Baudelaire's "silence" as a consequence of syphilitic paralysis have anything at all to do with Tillie Olsen's 20 years of "silence"? I see no connection, yet the book ends with excerpts from My Heart Laid Bare, as if they somehow summarized Olsen's position. And why are men who exploit women criticized on the one hand, and Rilke, who kept himself aloof from responsibilities to his family, admired, on the other hand, for being shrewd enough to guard his creative energies against emotional entanglements …? We are told that women are not to be trapped into the role of being women writers; yet it turns out to be quixotic, and halfway traitorous, to "proclaim that one's sex has nothing to do with one's writing." Feminist homiletics are always troublesome not only because they are often self-contradictory but because they never seem to apply to anyone of originality or stature.
An angry book must stir anger. Hence there is little or no mention of successful women writers of our time—among them Doris Lessing, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Isak Dinesen, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Jean Stafford, Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, Muriel Rukeyser, Penelope Mortimer, Joan Didion, Edna O'Brien, Margaret Drabble, Anne Tyler, May Swenson, and innumerable others. Tillie Olsen must have felt justified in subordinating—or silencing—her own considerable artistic instincts during the composition of Silences, and I would not quarrel with her decision. It was a generous one: she wanted to reach out to others, to the living and the dead, who have, evidently, shared her own agony. One must respect such an impulse. But the thinking that underlies Silences is simply glib and superficial if set in contrast to the imagination that created Tell Me a Riddle and Yonnondio, Olsen's novel. Unexamined, unverified, and indeed unverifiable statements are offered as facts again and again. For instance, someone at a national conference on creativity in 1959 said, "Creativity was in each one of us as a small child. In children it is universal. Among adults it is nonexistent"—notonly a doubtful proposition, but sheer malarkey—and Olsen quotes it with approval.
She never confronts the most troublesome question of all: What has "creativity" as such to do with "art"? Are all silences equally tragic? On what basis can a writer resent his society's indifference to his art, so long as society is free to choose its values? I was reminded of that cruel but witty passage in the chapter "Economy" in Walden, in which Thoreau speaks of an Indian who has woven straw baskets no one wants to buy, and who is amazed and resentful at the world's indifference. He had not discovered, Thoreau says, that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so. And there is Flannery O'Connor's sardonic response to a question put to her at a reading, about whether universities stifled writers. O'Connor replied: "They don't stifle enough of them." (Which is one of the reasons, I suspect, that O'Connor cannot be taken up by feminist critics with much comfort.)
A final comment on the book's editing, or lack thereof. Since the various chapters were published at different times there are many, many repetitions of key phrases and quotations. And nearly every page is marred by small, inconsequential footnotes that qualify or update statements made in the text. In practically every case these footnotes should have been incorporated into the text or eliminated: their busy, gnat-like presence is injurious to the reading experience, and in most instances their nature undercuts the seriousness of the book. For instance, in the chapter "One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women," Olsen quotes Hortense Calisher with disapproval, and then admits in a footnote that her remarks are unfair, because the copy of Calisher's essay she read had an important (and unnoticed) page missing. "My abashed apologies," Olsen says. Yet surely it would not have been too much trouble to type over a single page and eliminate the negative reference to Calisher …? These are signs of haste, and of an editor's indifference. In a book that sets itself up as a literary manifesto of the women's movement, one which has been eagerly anticipated by a considerable number of readers, offenses such as these are saddening, and inexplicable.
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SOURCE: "Extending the Boundaries of the Ego: Eva in 'Tell Me a Riddle.'" in Midwestern Miscellany X, edited by Marilyn J. Atlas, Midwestern Press, 1982, pp. 38-48.
[In the following essay, Culver discusses Olsen's views on self-fulfillment and motherhood.]
And if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.
Fruit from a blighted tree will always be sparse. Tillie Olsen's collected works weigh lightly in one hand, yet they weigh more heavily in the mind than many more luxuriant volumes.
Her fiction, a rich trove from a gift "nursed through the night," cherished and preserved against the forces that could have killed it—motherhood in straitened circumstances—retains some of the bleakness where it had to endure. It is remarkably condensed. In "Tell Me A Riddle" she sketches an entire life in fifty-three pages; she writes as if she were distilling the experiences from a crucible in her own body.
This story reveals the depth of wasture which results from using as a servant and breeding machine a woman whose intellect, courage and idealism served only to make her painfully aware of the distance between her life as it was lived, and her life as it could have been lived. Gifts that rot unused in the bearer breed poisonous resentment and the bitterness that seeps up through the surface of daily life is a residue that destroys the soul.
Tillie Olsen's protagonists are frustrated in their expression of artistic or intellectual gifts, people whose lives are blighted by poverty, racism, ignorance, or all of these. What she shows in her vignettes is how all people's lives are made even poorer by this blighting of intellectual capacity in women. While in Silences she takes issue with those who say that women aren't well represented in the arts because there are very few talented women, in her fiction she does not deal with such luxuries as artistic creation. Her women—in Yonnondio, in "I Stand Here Ironing," and in "Tell Me a Riddle"—all battle for mere survival. The question of artistic creation never arises. The struggle to maintain their children's bodies demands all the women's effort; the luxury in this bleak world is to give their children love and understanding. The only other writer who comes to mind as having portrayed the reality of grinding necessity so vividly is James Agee. It is impossible to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and come away mouthing platitudes about the possibility of choice being open to all. Olsen, in much terser vein, does the same thing for mothers.
In Silences, Olsen points out that the German poet, Raina Maria Rilke, would not come to his own daughter's wedding because it interfered with his writing time. History forgives him his choice, but when a woman leaves her children to the care of a father or grandparents, she become a monster. For a woman to leave her children is considered at best, extremely irresponsible and selfish, and at worst, criminal. The fact that a man can leave his family, as did the father in "I Stand Here Ironing" without being considered either a madman or a criminal, makes it obvious that a man has a wider range of options open to him, even after fatherhood, than does a woman after motherhood. While even poor men who have become fathers are at liberty to dispose of their lives as they wish, poor women who become mothers are not. And women, especially in the past, have been made responsible for lives whose presence has not been wholly a matter of choice on their part.
There have been a multitude of commentators about those women who neglect their children for art or intellectual pursuits or who (selfishly) fail to produce children in order to pursue their private careers. What isn't very often shown is the blight on children whose mothers fail to bring forth the intellectual and artistic harvest within themselves.
Olsen shows us this side of the coin. She shows how spiritually impoverished the children must be whose mothers have no legacy of accomplishment in the wider world to leave them, whose lives have been squeezed away in the wringer of necessity, whose words are unspoken or unheard. The mothers who have never had a chance to experience a wider world than their families can rarely bequeath to their children a kind of wisdom that will serve them beyond the narrow boundaries of self. If they have acquired such wisdom, it is often despised, for our culture designates women's knowledge as "trivial" if it is not acquired in the male-dominated world outside the home.
Another author who deals with this theme is Susan Griffin whose book, Pornography & Silence, has just come out. When I read it, Tillie Olsen's heroine, Eva, came to mind as an archetypal example of what Griffin means when she discusses the artificially imposed split between nature and culture which our society demands.
A woman who is a mother is divided from culture. And because of this she must be split in her own soul. Despite the propaganda of a culture which excludes women, women have a capacity for culture which is as large as the human capacity. But culture has ordained that women has no need of culture and culture has no need of her, and so she is excluded from the life of her society. One of the means of this exclusivity is to make her a mother.
Eva—mother of all—is the protagonist in "Tell Me a Riddle." The original creatrix and law-giver for humankind has become a drudge whose words are unheeded, whose wisdom is despised. Yet, though Olsen shows us that the wastage and loss are real, that something precious has been lost to the world, she somehow manages to convey a sense, not of futility, but of transcendence. What prevents her portrayal of Eva from being merely a sad and pathetic story, what gives us a sense of being profoundly moved to pity and terror and "… of being one and indivisible with the great of the past," is Olsen's ability to convince us that her heroine is a woman of some stature. She doesn't give herself much space in which to accomplish this task.
The woman in this story is a Russian Jew. Before or during the 1905 revolution she suffers exile and imprisonment—solitary confinement, actually—in Russia—for her political activities. She is freed, emigrates with her young husband to the United States—presumably in search of a better life in "the land of peace and freedom." But Eva in the United States fares little better than Eva in Russia. She becomes a kind of serf to her husband and family. While the level of the family's poverty is not so severe as it would have been in Russia, her spiritual life is smothered in the daily struggle against the humiliations poverty imposes in the U.S. and her voice is silenced just as effectively as the voices of her mothers before her.
But when we are introduced to her, at the beginning of the story, we know nothing of Eva's past. Olsen deliberately shrouds the grandeur of this woman's spirit in the rags of her servitude. In fact, when we first meet Eva, she has become a stranger to herself. In the eyes of her daughter-in-law, Nancy, she is merely an embittered drudge, whose one way of making herself useful—cleaning house—is seen as an implied reproach. "I can't enjoy Sunday dinner, knowing that half-blind or not she's going to find every speck of dirt…." Nancy prefers the company of her father-in-law.
"When I think of your dad, who could really play the invalid with that arthritis of his, as active as a teen-ager, and twice as much fun…."
The reader can see the effects of the blight in Eva's sharp tongue, in her bitterness, and in her desire for solitude, or rather, hermitude.
Neither Nancy nor the reader can see into the past for the reasons behind her mother-in-law's bitterness and her father-in-law's cheerfulness. She can only see the grandmother's bitterness, feel her grudging struggle with life. She does not connect her father-in-law's light-hearted attitude with her mother-in-law's dour practicality. She can't understand that when Eva was young, her few chances for happiness and pleasure were sacrificed for the convenience and preference of the young man who was her husband. When he tries to persuade her that they should sell their home and move to a retirement village, she replies,
"Now, when it pleases you, you find a reading circle for me. And forty years ago when the children were morsels and there was a circle, did you stay home with them once so I could go? Even once? You trained me well. I do not need others to enjoy."
Her husband's main reason for wanting to sell their home is the fact that he dislikes having to do any repair work around the house. His conviction that his comfort and his desires legitimately outweigh any needs or desires his wife might have is congruent with his behavior as a young man. Since his wife had to shoulder the ultimate responsibility for the children, naturally he's cheerful. Why shouldn't he be cheerful? If things got too rough, it was up to her to bicker with the landlord and the corner grocer for credit, and up to her to see that the children had clothes decent enough for school.
… from those years she had had to manage, old humiliations and terrors rose up, lived again, and forced her to relive them. The children's needings; that grocer's face or this merchant's wife she had had to beg credit from when credit was a disgrace; the scenery of the long blocks walked around when she could not pay; school coming, and the desperate going over the old to see what could yet be remade; the soups of the meat bones begged "for-the-dog" one winter….
He could have made life easier for her, had he chosen to do so. But it was not easy or convenient for him, and in bearing the full weight of responsibility, she has become bent out of shape. She has tried to numb her longings by work, first work that was needed by others, and later by herself.
Any dreams she had had were drowned in the need to provide for her children. The children of her soul, her visions, her passion, her ideas, her hopes for a better world were simply made flesh incarnate, and instead scattering her words on the wind, food for dreams, food which can sustain the hearer beyond the single day, she provided her family with "dog-bone" stew.
If the cruelty and wretchedness of her betrayal could have been embodied in any physical form, then perhaps she would, like her friend, have leapt for its jugular. But there was no single human being upon whom to lay that blame. The culture that had socialized her husband and herself to look upon her children and household as her primary responsibilities, and made her husband only secondarily responsible for the physical well-being of their children, made it effectively impossible for her to break the shackles of her life.
When she becomes seriously ill (apparently from her husband's relentless nagging) her husband's cruel selfishness is apparent in his reaction to her pleas for his companionship. That he could have the company of others if he chooses it, without imposing it on her who had become a stranger to the world, is apparent in the fact that he goes out for a night of socialization when she is ill and frightened and lonely. And finally, she curses him.
Eva's smoldering intelligence has been banked, but never fully extinguished … just as with the slowly dying young mother of Yonnondio, whose senses and imagination revive under the influence of spring in a blossoming meadow, Eva's thirst for meaning still persists. She has some sense, in her illness, that it is important for her to remember what brought her to where she is now, how she came to be this person. We have a sense that she is a stranger to herself as well as to those around her. She seems to be only dimly aware of how she lost herself entirely in the struggle to give her six children the love and nourishment they needed.
It seems that she has literally forgotten who she had been before her children came. She had forgotten the feelings, the passionate belief that she could matter, that her life would make the larger world a better place to live. Her emotional struggles to come to terms with her feelings, to go back in herself to a source of passion that was not the new body of a human being, are portrayed in terms we can believe; these feelings have their source in a woman's body and can be described in terms of bodily sensation. They are real feelings. These are not abstractions. What is it to experience "motherly love?" Why does the aged woman shudder and sweat when she is offered a baby to hold?
Eva's life has been co-opted by others for so many years that they take her sacrifice of self as their due. This refrain runs over and over through her thoughts (as her husband continually exhorts and admonishes her to give up her home), "… never to be forced to move to the rhythms of others." Her need for space and time for herself has always been and still is completely disregarded by her husband and family, and she finds it nearly impossible to press her own claims against theirs. As Olsen quotes Rilke in Silences, "Anything that makes demands, arouses in me an infinite capacity to give it its due, the consequences of which completely use me up." While Rilke could get away from his family long enough to create, there is a strong taboo on a mother closing the door on her family for even an hour. That Eva's own conscience prevented her from doing this is apparent in her reaction to her grandson. When they bring him to her to hold she shudders and sweats. Her body can no longer tolerate the voracious demands of others, and since for her to acknowledge the need of the other is to feel compelled to fill it, she must turn away. She cannot bring herself to hold him.
What Eva needs are solitude and stillness; she must have these in order to recall from oblivion a self different from, more powerful than the bewildered one which is drawing to the end of its journey, and must absolutely make some sense of its terrible past: "Still the springs were in her seeking. Somewhere an older power that beat for life. Somewhere coherence, transport, meaning."
But she is not allowed either solitude or stillness until she is quite literally on her death-bed. Even after major surgery, and while she is supposed to be convalescing, the only way she can find some peace and quiet and avoid her boisterous grandchildren is to hide in the bedroom closet. And even there they track her down.
The most remarkable aspect of her dying is her desire to make contact with humankind in a wide, far-reaching sense. She has been shut up and excluded from participation in the culture by the fact of her motherhood; this has been a kind of death for her. Her attempt to remember what she had been, what she used to share with humanity, is her attempt to extend the boundaries of her ego, an attempt to transcend the confines of her life. Her one year in the frozen wastes of Siberia, her solitary confinement, was to be the metaphor of her entire life. Her triumph is in her finally bursting through the dammed-up forces to the repressed desires and passions of her youth.
The first real indication we get that this is not an ordinary woman is the incident with the rabbi at the hospital. She has no desire to escape into what she considers superstition. She has a deeply religious attitude, but her real religion is belief in the shared consciousness of humanity. She considers religious customs—as they have been handed down—merely one more way to divide humanity. "Tell them to write: race, human, religion, none." She is cultured, in the best sense of the word. She has courage. She does not, even in her most miserable hours, turn to supernatural forces to rationalize or explain the degradation and misery of her life.
Her outlook seems rather starling to the reader in light of her having so little interest in her neighbors, in light of her apparently empty life, and in light of her approaching death. She has taken shape as a fairly conventional woman up to this point. True, she had mentioned that "she never did like queens" but we don't guess how vehemently she disliked them until we hear that she had been imprisoned for her revolutionary activities.
In Eva's delirium, the youthful orator of the 1905 revolution comes to life again and speaks so eloquently that her husband would silence her if he could. Her hopeful, joyous words, issuing from the lips of a woman already nearly a corpse, resonate through his encrusted layers of compromise and despair and he is shaken to his bones by a sudden painful shock of realization that he too, had lost what had given his life meaning. He tries to justify the sacrifice by pointing at their grandchildren—but even they cannot make up to him his loss.
The narrator gives us a little of her style:
Heritage. How have we come from our savage past, how no longer to be savages—this to teach. To look back and learn what humanizes—this to teach. To smash all ghettos that divide us—not to go back, not to go back—this to teach. Learned books in the house, will mankind live or die, and she gives to her boys—superstition.
From the fact that she tells us she had tried to stay awake to read after the children were in bed, we know that she liked reading, but do not realize how fiercely she wanted to learn to read until she is tossing with fever, near death.
"Have I told you of Lisa who taught me to read? Of the highborn she was, but noble in herself. I was sixteen; they beat me; my father beat me so I would not go to her. It was forbidden, she was a Tolstoyan. At night, past dogs that howled, terrible dogs, my son, in the snows of winter to the road, I to ride in her carriage like a lady, to books. To her, life was holy, knowledge was holy, and she taught me to read. They hung her. Everything that happens one must try to understand why. She killed one who betrayed many. Because of betrayal, betrayed all she lived and believed. In one minute she killed, before my eyes (there is so much blood in a human being, my son), in prison with me. All that happens, one must try to understand."
Yet Eva—as a young woman—is not clearly presented to us. It seems that she was ardently dedicated to learning, to political causes, that she took risks, and that she had courage and integrity. But beyond this she is hazy. She is an archetype of a youthful revolutionary. She was—or seemed to be—destined for an heroic fate. As a young woman, she suffered from her country's cruelty to youth and poverty; as a mother she suffers from her culture's cruelty to women. She became a spiritual hermit in order to forget how much she had dreamed of for humanity, to forget how much she had wanted to share her dreams with others.
To force a woman to live as Eva is to limit her influence to only that small circle of flesh she can call her family. She has to choose between the universal and the particular. The universal is uncertain; who knows what one's influence will be beyond the grave? And then there are needs, the need to love and be loved, to welcome and be welcomed after a battle, to be made safe. The knowledge that one has sheltered and fed and comforted another human being can be far more potent even than the need to express one's deepest beliefs. It is true that in order to produce much of artistic value, a mother has always had to divide her time between her children and her work. This is not in the nature of fate, however, but in the way in which society is structured: in accord with the values of the culture. What women need, what mothers need, is a sense of participation in all humanity. There is a wealth of learning and wisdom to be shared by all children of all mothers. Mothers are mothers of the spirit as well as mothers of the body, and for the individual child to be the sole responsibility of a particular parent, especially of a woman in a world where women have no authority, is to make a selfish and ferocious community of human beings, who learn only to snarl and bite and seize each other for what they can devour. They learn that the world is cruel, that the world is uncaring and selfish, that their own individual survival in what matters, that they have not a common substratum of being with all humanity, that their experiences will never transcend their narrow margins of birth and death, and that they must, for that reason, fear and hate and deny death above all other thing. They learn to believe that material goods are to be cherished as the only means of protection against death, that it is acceptable to watch other human beings die of poverty and neglect and despair, that it is all right to watch a mother lose all of her joy in life as a drudge for others, and that if she bears children of her own body then she has no right to bear children of the spirit.
Eva's knowledge—her long-stored dreams of humanity's fulfillment—are not valued by her culture because she is a woman. When she speaks, breaking a life-long silence, her husband's immediate response is. "Where are the pills for quieting? Where are they?" But also her knowledge of the body is denigrated, by herself as well as by others. She sees in her grandchildren only "lovely mouths" that devour.
Griffin would say that mothers' experience isn't valued because this culture does not value knowledge of the body; this culture attempts in every way to deny the finitude and mortality of the body, to reject limitations and death. Yet Eva's knowledge, of the body's vulnerability, its susceptibility to scarring, is vital knowledge; it is what she learned with her living, and it is what her children need to know.
Eva is twice betrayed. First, because she is a woman her culture confines her to motherhood and despises her thirst to participate in the larger world. Then again, after she has bitterly learned the lessons of motherhood and poverty and death and birth, the tenderness and vulnerability of human love and human flesh, her knowledge is despised, because it is finite knowledge, knowledge that acknowledges finitude and limitations, that has no pretensions to omnipotence or eternal grandeur—vulnerable knowledge, for it will vanish with its bearer. Too late her family realizes what they have lost. Eva's eldest daughter—Clara—asks,
"… where did we lose each other, first mother, singing mother?… I do not know you, mother. Mother, I never knew you."
And her son, "Lennie, suffering not alone for her who was dying, but for that in her which never lived (for that in him which might never live)," is aware that his mother's spiritual impoverishment has also been his own.
When Eva's children finally come together to stand by their mother's death-bed, and the riddle hangs in the silent air: "And what did you learn with your living, mother, and what do we need to know?" We hear nothing, for their mother is past coherent speech.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3956
SOURCE: "After Long Silence: Tillie Olsen's 'Requa'," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 61-9.
[In the following essay, Gelfant addresses the protagonist's need to find meaning and self-renewal during the Depression in Olson's short story "Requa."]
No one has written so eloquently about silences as Tillie Olsen, or shown as poignantly that a writer can recover her voice. In her most recent fiction, a long story called "Requa," she reclaims once more a power of speech that has proved at times extremely difficult to exercise. Silence followed the publication, almost fifty years ago, of sections from her early and still unfinished novel Yonnondio. Then came Tell Me a Riddle, bringing Olsen fame but not the sustained power to write she needed, and for another long period her voice was stilled. In 1970 "Requa" appeared, an impressive work which received immediate recognition and was reprinted as one of the year's best stories. ["Requa" is part of a larger work-in-progress Olsen plans to complete.] For apparently fortuitous reasons, it is now little known, though as Olsen's most innovative and complex work of fiction, it deserves critical attention it has yet to receive. Complete but unfinished, "Requa" is a still-to-be-continued story that develops the theme of human continuity in ways which seem almost subversive. Its form is discontinuous, as though to challenge its theme, and the text is broken visibly into fragments separated from each other by conspicuous blank spaces, gaps the eye must jump over and the mind fill with meaning. However, the story repudiates the meanings that might be inferred from its disintegrated form and from its imagery and setting, both influenced by literary traditions of the past that Olsen continues only to subvert. She draws obviously upon poetry of the twenties for her waste land motifs, and upon novels of the thirties for her realistic portrayal of America's great Depression. Waste and depression are Olsen's subjects in "Requa," but Olsen's voice, resonant after long silence, is attuned to her vision of recovery.
In his poem "After Long Silence," Yeats had defined the "supreme theme" of recovered speech as "Art and Song." Patently, these are not the themes of Olsen's story. "Requa" is about uneducated, unsung working people struggling against depression, both the economic collapse of the thirties and the emotional depression of its protagonist, fourteen-year-old Stevie. The story begins with Stevie traumatized by his mother's death and the loss of everything familiar. Alone and estranged from the world, he is being taken by his Uncle Wes from his home in San Francisco to a small California town set by the Klamath River. Here men fish for salmon, hunt deer, and lead a life alien to a city boy. Stevie arrives at this town, named by the Urac tribe Rek-woi, or Requa, broken in body and spirit. A wreck of a child, still dizzy from the long bumpy truck ride, heaving until he "can't have'ary a shred left to bring up," he seems utterly defeated, unable "to hold up." From the beginning, his obsessive death wish leads to Stevie's withdrawal: "All he wanted was to lie down." He refuses to speak; he sees human faces dimly or not at all; he huddles in bed, hiding under his quilt and rocking. A "ghostboy" with dazed eyes and clammy green skin, he seems ready to lie down forever. But the story turns aside from death to describe a miraculous recovery, nothing less than Stevie's resurrection, for at the end the silent boy springs spectacularly to life. In the "newly tall, awkward body" he has grown into, he runs, "rassles," "frisks" about like a puppy; and when at last Stevie does lie down, he falls into a sweet sleep from which, it seems, he will awaken rested and restored.
Given the time and place, that recovery should become the pervasive action of the story seems as miraculous as a boy's resurrection. The time is 1932, and the setting a junkyard, the natural stopping-place for dispossessed people on the move during America's great Depression. "Half the grown men in the county's not working," Wes tells the boy, no jobs anywhere. Wes himself works in the junkyard; a realistic place described in encyclopedic detail and a symbolic setting suitable to the theme of loss and recovery. At the junkyard mounds of discarded and disjunct things represent tangibly a vision of disorder, disintegration, and waste. "U NAME IT—WE GOT IT," the yard sign boasts: tools, tees, machine parts, mugs, quilts, wing nuts, ropes, reamers, sewing machines, basket hats, "Indian things," baby buggies, beds, pipe fittings, five-and-dime souvenirs, stoves, victrolas. These wildly proliferating abandoned things form "Heaps piles glut accumulation," but the growing lists of material objects Olsen interjects into the story—or rather, makes its substance—undermine a common assumption that accumulation means wealth. On the contrary, things can reveal the poverty of a person's life. All the souvenirs that Stevie's mother had accumulated, now passed on to her son, are "junk." The more souvenirs the story mentions, the more it shows how little the mother had, though obviously she wished to possess something pretty even if it was only "a kewpie doll [or a] green glass vase, cracked" or a "coiled brass snake Plush candy box: sewing stuff: patches, buttons in jars, stork scissors, pincushion doll, taffeta bell skirt glistening with glass pinheads."
But things that at first seem worthless take on a strange incandescence in the story, initially perhaps because of the narrator's tone, a musing, mysterious, reverent tone that imbues isolated objects with emotional meaning. And the lives that seem wasted in the story also begin to glow. The dead mother's felt presence becomes stronger and brighter, shining through characters who help her son and through Stevie himself as he begins to recover. Even the junkyard changes. Piled with seemingly useless things, it gives promise of renewal, for the "human mastery, [the] human skill" which went into making machines, now broken and disassembled, can be applied again and the strewn parts made to function. Olsen's waste land inspires "wonder" at the technological genius that can rehabilitate as well as invent, though it has rampantly destroyed. Olsen expresses no nostalgia for a by-gone pastoral past which many American writers wish recovered. She visualizes instead a reclamation in the modern world of the waste its technology has produced. In her story everything can be recycled, and anything broken and discarded put to new use. Nothing is beyond the human imagination that can create even out of waste, the "found" objects in a junkyard, a poetic text. Placed side by side, the names of these objects begin to form a concrete poem the story will interrupt, continue, and complete as it moves along. The first stanza, a listing of ingenious devices, implicitly extols human inventiveness and skill: "Hasps switches screws plugs faucets drills Valves pistons shears planes punchers sheaves Clamps sprockets coils bits braces dies." If these disconnected nouns form also a litany of waste, it is one that introduces the hope of redemption, for Olsen describes "disorder twining with order," a combination which qualifies chaos and may signify its arrest. Moreover, Olsen's final inchoate sentence traces a search through the "discarded, the broken, the torn from the whole; [the] weathereaten weatherbeaten: mouldering" for whatever can still be used or needed, for anything that can be redeemed.
At the junkyard, Stevie sees people as depleted as himself still hoping for redemption. The faceless, nameless migrant workers who stop to pick up a used transmission or discarded tire reflect widespread social disintegration, but like the migrant workers in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, they persist in trying, struggling, moving. Battered as they are, they refuse the temptation to lie down, and they trade their last possession, a mattress or gun, for whatever will keep them going. "We got a used everything," Evans the yard-owner says, seeing to it that trashed and broken things are fixed and made usable again for people on the move. Evans is tough and wants the "do-re-mi," but whatever his motives, he is crucially involved in the process of recovery. His yard attracts people whose lives have been shattered, the dispossessed migratory workers and, in time, Stevie. The junkyard also sustains Wes, who keeps his self intact as he makes broken parts useful, working capably and even happily, "singing … to match the motor hum as he machines a new edge, rethreads a pipe." Meanwhile Wes is trying to make a new life for his nephew: "I'll help you to catch hold, Stevie," he says, "I promise I'll help." Other characters, barely identified, also help, and the story sketches in the outlines of people variously involved in the boy's recovery. Besides Evans, who gives Stevie a chance to work, the Chinese cook at the boardinghouse keeps him company, and the sympathetic landlady takes him on an outing that will complete his recovery.
As "Requa" describes the "concern" underprivileged or struggling characters show for each other, it raises Olsen's thematic questions about human responsibility and about the relationship between love and survival. Implicitly it asks why Wes, a lone workingman, should give his skill and energy to make trash useful to others and an alienated boy valuable to himself, and why anyone should care, as everyone does, whether a "ghostboy" recovers. The story thus restates Olsen's recurrent riddle, which is, essentially, the mystery of human survival as evidenced by people who continue to live and to care even though their lives seem broken and futile, and life itself full of pain. If human existence has meaning, as Olsen's fiction asserts, then suffering, bereavement, poverty, despair, all inseparable from day-to-day survival in a waste land, must be explained. So must the secret of recovery, which prevails against depression.
This is a complicated achievement already described in Olsen's earlier stories. In "I Stand Here Ironing," a pockmarked girl becomes beautiful, her talent realized, her unhappy deprived childhood, never forgotten, transcended; and a mother, recalling this childhood, straightens out confused emotions and gains a sense of her own identity. Before the Grandmother dies in "Tell Me a Riddle," she too searches through the past to see what of value she can retrieve; and as she becomes reconciled to her own painful life, now coming to an end, she finds meaning and continuity in all human existence. Olsen can describe such recoveries because she has a strong sense of history as both a personal past that gives one a continuous identity and a social legacy that links generations. This legacy, however, is neither whole nor complete, for history is a dump-heap strewn with broken promises and wrecked hopes, among which lie examples of human achievement. Someone must sort through the junk of history, redeem its waste, and salvage whatever can be useful for the next generation. This is the task of reclamation Olsen has assumed as a writer and assigns to her characters, often unnoted, unlikely, inarticulate people for whom she speaks. Indeed, this is why she must recover her own speech, no matter how long her silence, so that Wes, and Stevie, and the dying Grandmother can have a voice.
In "Requa" Stevie continues the quest of the Grandmother in "Tell Me a Riddle." Different as they are, the resurrected boy and the dying woman are both searching for a transmit-table human past that will give significance to their present struggle. Both need a history as reusable as Wes's re-threaded pipes. The Grandmother finds hers in the record of humanity's continuous progress toward self-realization. She appropriates this history as a shared "Heritage": "How have we come from the savages, how no longer to be savages—this to teach. To look back and learn what humanizes man—this to teach." Young as he is, Stevie also looks back to learn from his past the secret of recovery, of how he might claim his rightful place as a human being. As the story begins he seems dehumanized, so broken and apathetic that he is unable to relate to anyone else or to himself, unable to see the people in the boarding-house or the beauty of the countryside that will in time shake him with "ecstasy." Described as a "ghostboy," he appears doomed to inanition, but the story struggles against this fate and insists in hushed portentous tones that something will save him: "The known is reaching to him, stealthily, secretly, reclaiming." Both mysterious and obvious, the known is Stevie's personal past, experiences from which he will in time draw the strength to live. This strength comes mainly from the remembered love of his mother, the person in his past who has provided him with a "recognizable human bond" which must sustain him and matter more than the losses that life makes inevitable. Even in his withdrawal, a quest for "safety" from the shocks he has suffered, Stevie recognizes that the bond is holding, that Wes is taking the place of his mother by showing "concern." Wes is in Stevie's "corner," willing to share whatever he knows. "I got so much to learn you," he says, looking to the future; and looking back at the past, he vows not to let Stevie "[go] through what me and Sis did." Though he is an orphan, Stevie belongs to a family bound together by ties Olsen insists can remain irrefragable, even in a landscape of waste. When Wes becomes helpless, falling on his bed in a drunken stupor, Stevie tends to his uncle as once he had been cared for by his mother. He takes off Wes's muddy shoes and covers his body with blankets: "There now you'll be warm, he said aloud, sleep sweet, sweet dreams (though he did not know he had said it, nor in whose inflections)." Then he stares at the sleeping face in a crucial moment of recognition: "Face of his mother. His face. Family face."
Once Stevie can see clearly the "human bond" created by the human family, he begins to see objects and people that had been vague: The windows in the dining room which had been "black mirrors where apparitions swam"; the Indian decorations on the wall; the bizarre family resemblance between a bearded face and the face of his landlady. The forces of reclamation are finally reaching Stevie, forces shaped by the care and concern that have linked generations together in an endless chain of human relationships. Thus, though "Requa" describes the fragmentation of a life disrupted by death, it creates in the end a vision of relatedness that gives the displaced person somewhere to belong. Wes's loyalty to his sister's child makes possible Stevie's recovery of the life he lost when his mother died; and Stevie's consciousness of recovery begins when he recognizes the face of his mother in any human being who cares for another, his uncle, his landlady, himself. In an unexpected way, Olsen speaks of the power of mother love as a basis for the continuity of one's self and of one's relationships with others. History keeps a record of these relationships, preserving and fostering the ties of one generation to another; and literature extends these ties as it creates a bond of sympathy between the reader and such unlikely characters as Stevie, whose experience of depression and death is universal.
As the story continues, work reinforces a recovery made possible by extended acts of love, and Stevie's apprenticeship period at the junkyard proves therapeutic. Understanding perhaps that he can learn from things as broken as he is, Stevie has begged to work with Wes rather than attend school. As he undertakes the task of sorting out the accumulated junk in the yard, the story begins to sort out its contents, separating order from disorder; and Stevie sorts out his life. He bungles and fails at his job in the junkyard, but he keeps trying because "the tasks" are there, "coaxing." Describing these tasks, ordinary daily labor, Olsen dignifies the menial worker and his work. Stevie sees Wes showing "concern" for a trashed car as "he machines a new edge, rethreads a pipe." A man's labor expresses his love; and a boy's tasks pull him "to attention, consciousness"; they teach him "trustworthiness, pliancy"; they force him "to hold up." The salvaging effect of work, even the work of salvaging, dramatizes the theme of "Requa" and shows Olsen's experience of the 1930s still shaping her social vision. During the Depression she had seen jobless men lose their self-respect, and she learned a simple tautological truth: economic recovery, as well as the recovery of a broken individual, comes with work. Even the most menial task, as she would show in "Requa," can be redemptive. Instinctively, Stevie knows this and wants a job, "a learn job, Wes. By you." Work will bond him to another and teach him the secret of survival. At the junkyard Stevie slowly acquires skill and patience, which give him a sense of self-respect. He can put things together, including himself. As he sorts through heaps of waste, he finds a rhythm to his life: The incremental repetition of tasks produces a sense of pattern and continuity, of meaning. He is becoming someone who keeps working, making order, and making himself into an integrated person, like Wes. Slowly, "coaxed" by his tasks, he too is showing "concern."
The climactic moment of Stevie's return to life occurs, oddly enough, as he commemorates the dead. On Memorial Day, Mrs. Edler, the landlady, takes Stevie to church for a requiem celebration and then to several cemeteries. At church, encountering other "families, other young" who remember their dead, he realizes that loss, like love, constitutes a human bond. Moreover, as long as the dead are remembered they are never entirely lost, for the human community includes both mourners and the mourned. At the cemetery, Stevie embraces a stone lamb that may represent the ultimate in-explicability of death, the mystery of its arbitrariness as it claims an infant's life. The quaint consoling verse on the lamb tells that the baby is safely sleeping, and it seems to lull Stevie to rest: "The lamb was sun warm…. He put his arm around its stone neck and rested." Calmly embracing a figure of death, Stevie at last finds peace at the Requiescat in Pace cemetery. His story, however, is not over, for the act of recovery is never entirely consummated. "Requa" concludes with the word "reclaiming," after which there is neither the end parenthesis the text requires nor a final period—as though the process of reclamation still goes on and will continue with no sign of ending. [In effect, Olsen has recovered the site of Requa as she knew and loved it, for many aspects of her setting no longer exist. The graveyard was vandalized; the salmon are few; and the town of Klamath has become a shopping-center with that name.]
In the last scene, Stevie's "newly tall" body suggests that time has effected recovery simply by letting the boy grow; but the natural gathering of strength that comes with the body's maturation needs the reinforcement of human relationship and love. A faceless woman, merely a name in the story, Mrs. Edler or Mrs. Ed, has taken Stevie in hand and acted as catalyst for his recovery. [Tillie Olsen intends the landlady, Mrs. Edler, to play a larger part in Stevie's life in the version of "Requa" she hopes to complete. Wes, apparently, will die, and Mrs. Edler will carry on his role as "mother".] She does this, apparently, because she feels sorry for an orphan boy, though Olsen's characterization of Stevie raises questions of why she should mother him. Stevie is a silent, withdrawn, and ghostlike boy, if not sleeping then vomiting, and awake or asleep, dripping with snot. However, the characters in "Requa" have a clairvoyance that comes from caring, and they see beyond appearances, just as they communicate without words, or with curses and insults that express love. Throughout the story, Wes calls Stevie "dummy" and "loony" and swears the boy will end in the crazy house; but Wes's insults in no way affect his action nor show disaffection. Rather they express frustration as he waits for Stevie's recovery. Wes's happiest moment comes at the end of the story when he looks at the blissfully sleeping boy and says, "blowing out the biggest bubble of snot you ever saw. Just try and figger that loony kid."
Olsen's style in "Requa" is conspicuously varied. Lyrical passages are juxtaposed to crude dialectic speech, and stream of consciousness passages to objectively seen realistic details. Numerous lists of things represent a world of objects proliferating outside the self; but a mind encompasses these objects and tries to find in their disorder a way of ordering an inner tumult expressed by the roiling fragments of the story. Like the junkyard, the story is the repository of bits and pieces: sentences broken into phrases separated into words, words isolated by blank spaces. Single words on a line or simply sounds—"aaagh/aaagh"—markthe end of narrative sections, some introduced by titles such as Rifts and Terrible Pumps. Even the typography is discontinuous, so that the text seems a mosaic of oddly assorted fragments. In creating a visibly discontinuous text, in effect turning "Requa" into a design upon the page, Olsen attracts attention to her form, which always refers the reader to a social world that "Requa" presents as real, recognizable, and outside the fiction. Still "Requa" exists as an object: its varied typography creates truncated patterns of print that catch the eye; words placed together as lists or as fragmentary refrains form distinct visual units; blocks of nouns separated from the text produce concrete poems; intervening spaces turn into aesthetic entities. Mimetic of her theme, Olsen's form is enacting the story's crucial phrase: "Broken existences that yet continue." As a text, "Requa" is broken and yet continuous, its action extending beyond its open-ended ending. The story transforms a paradox into a promise as it turns the polarities of fragmentation and continuity into obverse aspects of each other. Merged together, the broken pieces of "Requa" create an integrated self as well as an aesthetic entity. The story enacts a process of composition to show broken existences continuing, order emerging from disorder, art from images of waste, and speech from the void of silence.
Among the many reasons for silence that Tillie Olsen has enumerated, another may be added. Perhaps what the writer has to say is too painful to express: mothers die, children sorrow, working families are evicted from homes and left with nothing to trade for a gallon of gasoline. Olsen speaks of knowledge ordinarily repressed, and while she dignifies her characters and their work, her story denies the cherished illusion that childhood in America is a happy time of life. But "Requa" preaches no social doctrine; unlike the novel Yonnondio, which also describes a child caught in a period of depression, it preaches nothing at all, although a preacher's fragmentary phrases of consolation help restore the boy. Rather, the story contains a secret that must be pieced together from disconnected fragments, inferred from blank spaces on the page, melded out of poetic prose and vomit, snot, and violence. This secret, that broken existences can continue, is stated explicitly. Left unsaid is another truth that both affirms and subverts the view of the poet. Yeats had described speech after long silence as an extended discourse upon Art and Song, "we descant and yet again descant." In "Requa," Olsen has said nothing about art. Her speech, resumed after ten years of silence, simply is art. This is the secret inherent in Tillie Olsen's story of recovery, in which a child's renewed will to live becomes inseparable from an artist's recovered power to write.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6750
SOURCE: "Literary Foremothers and Writers' Silences: Tillie Olsen's Autobiographical Fiction," in Melus, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 55-72.
[In the essay below, Kamel discusses the elements which are common within Olsen's writings.]
Ellen Moers observes the consistent and fervent penchant for women writers, themselves rendered invisible by patriarchy, to read other women's writings, even those from whom they were geographically and culturally distanced:
Not loyalty but confidence was the resource that women writers drew from possession of their own tradition. And it was confidence that until very recently could have come from no other source…. The personal give-take of the literary life was closed to them. Without it, they studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex, and developed a sense of easy, almost rude familiarity with the women who wrote them.
Moers supports this observation with extensive examples of nineteenth-century women writers reading their counterparts' lives and texts. She also notes that despite changes for the better in the lives of twentieth-century writers, women persist in reading and writing about other women:
In the case of most women writers, women's traditions have been fringe benefits superadded upon the literary associations of period, nation, and class that they shared with their male contemporaries.
In spite of the advent of coeducation, which by rights should have ended this phenomenon, twentieth-century women appear to benefit still from their membership in the wide-spreading family of women writers.
Tillie Olsen's well known apologia, Silences, a lamentation for her own sparse literary output, laments as well the waste of creative potential in working class and women's lives. Indeed, mourning others' silences so exceeds mourning her lost opportunities, that the reader of Silences must diligently search Olsen's self-reference. Born in 1913 to East European Jews living in Nebraska, Olsen had no formal college education, but read voraciously. She became a longshoreman's wife raising four daughters in working-class San Francisco, taking low-paying jobs, becoming active in radical politics, and organizing unions. Only when the last of her children entered school could she concentrate on writing. A Ford grant apparently allotted Olsen the solitude she needed but "time granted does not necessarily coincide with time that can be most fully used." Dishearteningly often, writer's paralysis diminished her productivity.
In 1954, when she was fifty, Olsen published the brilliant short story "I Stand Here Ironing," having served a prolonged apprenticeship during which "there was a conscious storing, snatched reading, beginnings of writing" and always "the secret rootlets of reconnaissance." This reconnaissance involved not only obsessive reading but internalizing the lives of women writers, especially writers who were also mothers.
Their emergence is evidence of changing circumstances making possible for them what (with rarest exception) was not possible in the generations of women before. I hope and I fear for what will result. I hope (and believe) that complex new richness will come into literature; I fear because almost certainly their work will be impeded, lessened, partial. For the fundamental situation remains unchanged. Unlike men writers who marry, most will not have the societal equivalent of a wife—nor (in a society hostile to growing life) anyone but themselves to mother their children.
Nowhere is Olsen's reading of another woman writer, her identification with this writer's concerns so elegiac, as in Silences' reprinting of Olsen's postscript to Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills, a postscript longer than Harding's poignant novella. This postscript almost seamlessly blends critical analysis with self-scrutiny.
In particular, two patterns in Davis' life story parallel Olsen's. The first is an awareness of working class hardship. Rebecca Harding Davis, daughter of an affluent businessman, moved to the raw industrial town of Wheeling, Pennsylvania, in 1936 when she was five, and spent most of her childhood observing the human misery trudging to factory and mine; she was separated from them by more than the pane of glass through which she watched them go by:
It was in front of the Harding house that the long train of mules dragged their masses of pig iron and the slow stream of human life crept past, night and morning, year after year, to work their fourteen hour days six days a week. The little girl who observed it grew into young womanhood, into spinsterhood, still at the window in that house, and the black industrial smoke was her daily breath.
The second was Davis' frustration as a woman. Of her father she later wrote: "We were not intimate with him as with our mother." [Olsen learned this, haveing perused all of Davis' writings "accessible to me for reading," from letters, official biographies and old issues of The Atlantic Monthly.] Secluded in his study with Shakespearian volumes, he refused to confront the give and take of domestic life and was cold to his wife and children:
The household revolved around him. Her mother ("the most accurate historian I ever knew, with enough knowledge to outfit a dozen modern college educated women") was kept busy running the large household noiselessly. [my italics]
Consistently Olsen links Davis' sensitivity to both social/ political issues and women's private misery. Graduating from a female seminary in Washington did not assuage Davis' "hunger to know," and at seventeen she left Wheeling for Washington State College where she met Francis LeMoyne, a physician, radical reformer, and agnostic whose beliefs opposed those embodied by her family. LeMoyne's recognition of "the gulf of pain and wrong … the underlife of America" deepened Davis' perception of the twin injustices she would write of in Margaret Howth and Life in the Iron Mills.
First, however, the long literary apprenticeship. After graduation she returned to Wheeling, refusing the restrictions marriage would put on a Victorian wife, assuming, instead, the thankless role of eldest daughter:
There was much help to be given her mother in the commonplace necessary tasks of caring for family needs, younger children; keeping the atmosphere pleasant especially for her father. The bonds of love were strong—she writes of the protection and peace of home—"but they were not bonds of mutuality." She had to keep her longings, questionings, insecurities secret.
Although Davis published minor works about problems of dutiful daughters, difficult fathers, and older women pariahs, articulating "the vein of unused powers, thwarted energies, starved hopes; the hunger for a life more abundant than in women's sanctioned sphere …," it was thirteen years later that The Atlantic Monthly published Life in the Iron Mills, which brought her fame.
Painstakingly, Olsen follows the twists and turns of her literary fore-mother's life. Feted by the transcendentalist pundits at Concord, Massachusetts, Davis found their ideals false to reality. Unmarried until the age of thirty-one, she was the object of pity, curiosity, sometimes scorn. When she finally married Richard Harding Davis (much to her father's dismay at losing his eldest daughter's unpaid services), Davis discovered that wife-motherhood drained her of time and energy to write, even though she continued to do so. From her husband and literary critics she received little encouragement or recognition. At the age of seventy-nine she died in relative obscurity.
Davis' voice permeates at least two recurring themes in Olsen's autobiographical fiction: The tyranny of class struggle eroding the bodies and minds of workers and the children of workers; household drudgery and child care undermining a woman writer's creativity. But another still small voice, Olsen's own, is heard in her depiction of Jewish mothers and daughters struggling for selfhood in the promised land and of Jewish immigrant experience shored up in secular humanism. Characteristically, Olsen justifies her autobiographical focus by citing yet another other woman writer, Ntozake Shange: "When women do begin to write … we write autobiography. So autobiographically in fact that it's very hard to find any sense of any other reality."
When still a young writer in the 1930s, having assimilated Davis as foremother, and long before she ever heard of Shange, Tillie Olsen wrote Yonnondio, a clumsy yet powerful depiction of a working class family driven from a rural village to a hog-slaughtering factory in the Midwest where all succumb to grinding poverty and spiritual attrition.
Yonnondio's title is taken from Walt Whitman's poem. It undercuts the good grey poet's celebrating an America with limitless space, endless opportunity. Not that Olsen doesn't share Whitman's vision of collective human dignity; like Davis, Whitman's contemporary, she is outraged at an ideal being betrayed:
When in 1861 industry was considered at all, it was as an invasion of pastoral harmony, a threat of materialism to the spirit. If working people existed—and nowhere were they material for serious attention, let alone central subject—they were "clean-haired Yankee mill girls,"… or Whitman's "workwomen and workmen of these states having your own divine and strong life."
Anna and her daughter Maisie respond as intensely as Whitman did to nature. The nature images suggest an extension of women's bodies—"the trees dipped and curtsied, the corn rippling like a girl's skirt"; the clouds are likened to Anna's belly big with child. But nature aligned with ruthless capitalism blights their lives, becomes a domesticity yoked to industrial waste: "Indeed they are in hell: indeed they are the damned, steamed, boiled, broiled, fried, cooked, geared, meshed."
Olsen's compiling of passive verbs links two spaces inhabited by working women. The first renders the stifling August air of a slaughter house where at a temperature of 108 degrees immigrant women swelter below in "casings," their task to dismember hog carcasses because men working on the floor above cannot endure the stench of pigs' blood and entrails. The second is Anna's kitchen, where she rhythmically stirs jam, tends a sick child while other children tap her flagging energy. Anna also is "geared and meshed"; she thinks of drowned children while softly singing a childhood song, "I saw a ship a' sailing." In this context the sea fantasy obliquely evokes the pivotal immigrant experience Olsen will return to in "Tell Me a Riddle."
In Yonnondio, the plaintive immigrant voice only faintly infuses Anna's American dream:
School for the kids Maisie and Willie Jim her Protestant husband working near her,… lovely things to keep, brass lamps, bright tablecloths, vines over doors, and roses twining. A memory unasked plunged into her mind—her grandmother bending in such a twilight over lit candles chanting in an unknown tongue, white bread on the table over a shining white table-cloth and red wine—and she broke into song to tell Jim of it.
These occasional roses succumb to the struggle for bread. Linking factory and kitchen drudgery makes inevitable the reduction of iron-willed humans to scrap; in such an environment, analogous to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, it is small wonder that Anna loses her baby, takes sick, and dies.
Earth sucks you in, to spew out the coal, to make a few bellies fatter. Earth takes your dreams that a few may languidly lie on their couches and trill "How exquisite" to be paid dreamers.
Far more than her faint allusion to Jewish immigration, Anna suggests Davis' Korl Woman, the central metaphor in Life in the Iron Mills. Fashioned in pig iron by Hugh Wolfe, the wretched miner in Davis' story, this sculpture is "a nude woman's form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face…." Hardly a Galatea, the Korl Woman symbolizes nearly all Olsen's narrator-personae, from Anna to Eva in "Tell Me a Riddle," women of extraordinary potential wasted by capitalism and patriarchy. Whether pure or scrap, the iron image resonates throughout Olsen's texts.
"I Stand Here Ironing" depicts a nameless mother-narrator, who, having received a phone call from her daughter Emily's high-school guidance counselor that Emily is an underachiever, pushes an iron to and fro across the board on which Emily's dress lies shapeless and wrinkled. The narrator begins "dredging the past and all that compounds a human being." Her thoughts flow with the rhythm of the iron as she attempts to grasp the "rootlet of reconnaissance" to explain why it was that her oldest child was one "seldom smiled at." What would appear as understandable reasons—the Depression, the nineteen-year old mother, who at her daughter's present age worked at menial jobs during the day and at household chores at night, the iron necessity that made her place Emily in a series of foster homes, the desertion of her first husband, bearing and rearing four other children of a second marriage, all clamoring for attention—should account for Emily's chronic sorrow; but somehow they do not. Necessity dominating the mother's life could have tempered Emily, but the reader soon perceives that there may be another reason why Emily and the mother-narrator are silenced counterparts. The mother has remarried, but material comforts, an emotionally secure middle-class existence, cannot assuage her loneliness. Never having experienced the celebratory rituals of working-class communality, middle-class anomie distances her from other women. Her entire adult life has been interrupted by child care described by Olsen quoting another women writer:
My work "writing" is reduced to five or six hours a week, always subject to interruptions and cancellations … I don't believe there is a solution to the problem, or at least I don't believe there is one which recognizes the emotional complexities involved. A life without children is, I believe, an impoverished life for most women; yet life with children imposes demands that consume energy and imagination at the same time, cannot be delegated—even supposing there were a delegate available.
In "I Stand Here Ironing," characteristic stylistic clues embedded in the occasionally inverted syntax, run-on sentences interspersed with fragments, repetitions, alliterative parallels, an incantatory rhythm evoke the narrator's longing not only for a lost child but for a lost language whereby she can order the chaotic dailiness of a working mother's experience.
She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-love-liness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her pouring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been—and would be, I would tell her—and was now to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or non-existent. Including mine.
Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one's own but must always be racked and listening for the child to cry, the child call. We sit for awhile and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. "Shoogily," he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, invented by her to say: comfort.
Emily's word play appears rooted in Yiddish (shoogily—meshugah) and there is something archetypically talmudic in her fascination with riddles (for which a younger sibling gets recognition) "that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan …," foreshadowing the leitmotif Olsen will orchestrate in "Tell Me a Riddle." When language inventiveness fails to mitigate against Emily's lack of achievement at school, when she tries and fails to authenticate herself, she escapes into another's role. Desperate for attention, identity, she responds to the mother's suggestion that she try out for a high school play—"not to have an audience is a kind of death"—and becomes a comic crowd pleaser to the sound of thunderous applause. Thus, Emily finally commands some attention and affection and to a limited extent a control of life's randomness. Nonetheless, only articulation through language can free her from oppression. Silenced at home she lacks and will probably continue to lack centrality.
The story ends with the mother still ironing out the wrinkles in Emily's dress; like Emily she is "helpless before the iron," aware that this Sisyphus-like ritual cannot atone for the past, nor can she ultimately answer the riddle Emily poses within and without the family constellation. Certainly the chains of necessity should have justified the mother's past relationship with her eldest child.
We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother. I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were many years that she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much to herself,… My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably nothing will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
Who speaks for the autobiographer? A nameless narrator once a poor Jewish parent, now part of a middle-class nuclear family. Emily, her silenced daughter, is in fact a disembodied dress pushed and pulled by her mother's iron. Shunted, stunted, despite her comic pandering to a mass audience at high school, Emily is a version of the narrator's atrophied self, a contemporary Korl Woman.
If not to have an audience is a kind of death, who listens to the autobiographer? Olsen has always sought a community of women readers identifying with her silences, carefully scrutinizing her self-censorship as she herself has done in the remarkable close reading of Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills. It is this kind of imaginative scrutiny we must bring to a reading of "O Yes," where once again working class communality is negated by middle-class distancing and silence defeats clamor on behalf of the poor.
Deceptively simple, this aforementioned theme emerges during a Black baptismal service for twelve year old Pariahlee Phillips (my italics). The only whites attending the all Black service are Pariah's closest friend Carol and Carol's mother, Helen, liberal, Jewish, middle class. The over-heated, tumultuous service, enveloping one parishioner after another, pounds against Helen and Carol's class inhibitions. Terrified, Carol faints in church:
And when Carol opens her eyes she closes them again, quick, but still can see the new known face from school …, the thrashing, writhing body struggling against the ushers with the look of grave and loving support on their faces, and hear the torn, tearing cry "Don't take me away."
And now the rhinestones in Parry's hair glitter wicked, the white hands of the ushers, fanning, foam in the air; the blue-painted waters of Jordan swell and thunder; Christ spirals on his cross in the window, and she is drowned under the sluice of the slow singing and the sway.
The timeless sermon that recapitulates Old and New Testament suffering and redemption, serves two functions. The first is a subtle reminder to Helen and Carol of their de-facto segregation from the Black community, strongly personified by Alva, Parry's vital resilient mother. The second underscores a Judaic-Christian patriarchal heritage that obscures women, but also makes them aware of how the power of the word mitigates against silence. The preacher arouses the congregation to feverish pitch:
He was your mother's rock. Your father's mighty tower. And he gave us a little baby. A little baby to love.
I am so glad
Yes, your friend when you are friendless. Your father when you are fatherless. Way maker. Door opener
When it seems you can't go on any longer, he's there You can, he says you can
And that burden you have been carrying—ohhh that burden—not for always will it be. No, not for always.
Stay with me, Lord.
I will put my Word in you and it is power
I will put my Truth in you and it is power.
[Italics in the last two lines, mine]
Unfortunately, the frustration inherent in middle-class women's powerlessness censors Helen's need to voice passion and shape inchoate experience into language. In the hectic event following the service Helen's silence is especially telling. Heretofore, Carol and Parry have loved each other, but Carol's fainting at church marks the beginning of their estrangement:
"How are you doing now, you little ol' consolation prize?" It is Parry, but she does not come to the car or reach to Carol through the open window: "No need to cuss and fuss. You going to be sharp as a tack, jack." Carol answering automatically: "as cool as a fool."
Quick they look at each other.
"Parry, we have to go home now, don't we mother?"
Not Helen but iron-willed Alva Phillips, seasoned in adversity, who unlike the mother in "I Stand Here Ironing," chooses immersion into rather than withdrawal from life.
When I was carrying Parry and her father left, and I was fifteen years old, one thousand miles away from home, sinsick and never believing, as still I don't believe all, scorning, for what have it done to help, waiting there in the clinic and maybe sleeping, a voice called: Alva, Alva. So mournful and so sweet: Alva. Fear not, I have loved you from the foundation of the universe. And a little small child tugged on my dress.
This passage suggests the similarity and difference between the white and Black mother. Both women have felt isolated, skeptical of religious orthodoxy. But whereas Helen internalizes this estrangement, distancing herself from the immediacy of passion, and remains static and Korl-like, Alva allows communal celebration to temper her and thus sets her spirit free:
Eyes he the small child placed all around my head, and as I journeyed upward after him, it seemed I heard a mourning: "Mama, Mama, you must help carry the world." The rise and fall of nations I saw. And the voice called again Alva, Alva, and I flew into a world of light, multitudes singing, Free, free, I am so glad.
Helen, who cannot even conceptualize this kind of force, feels divided not only from Alva but from herself. A dichotomy exists between Helen's (and by extension Carol's) head and heart, ultimately inhibiting the words she needs to comfort Carol and convey the meaning of Black communion.
Emotion, Helen thought of explaining, a characteristic of the religion of all oppressed peoples, yes your very own great-grandparents—thought of saying. And discarded. Aren't you now, haven't you had feelings in yourself so strong they had to come out some way? ("What howls restrained by decorum")—thought of saying. And discarded.
Carol lives out the consequences of her mother's ambivalence. In the months to come, Carol and Parry seem as intertwined as they were before the baptism. But Jeannie, Carol's older sister, has warned her parents that the future holds little promise for that friendship. Both girls will shortly enter Junior High where a rigid hierarchy of social cliques divides academic performance/social conformity from the pariahood of those who cannot or choose not to comply.
And what of Parry? If at the threshold of adolescence Carol seems to exemplify Helen's liberalism gone defensively rigid, Parry's uninhibited pride in her budding sexuality should affirm Alva's earthiness. But contradictions between the institutional racism of the school and the communality of the church have also damaged Parry. She must hurry home after school to look after younger siblings because Alva works the night shift. In the societal sorting process predicted by Jeannie, who has gone through it earlier, Parry falls behind the achievers, her dignity violated by a dress code incompatible with her exuberant sexuality. Carol's rejecting her eats away as Parry's breezy self-confidence. Visiting Carol, sick with the mumps, Parry brings over the assignments teachers have written down, not trusting Parry to remember what they were. Nervously Parry tries the old banter:
Flicking the old read books on the shelf but not opening to mock declaim as once she used to…. Staring out the window as if the tree not there in which they had hit out and rocked so often … Got me a new pink top and lilac skirt. Look sharp with this purple? Cinching in the wide belt as if delighted with what newly swelled above and swelled below. Wear it Saturday night to Sweets … (Shake my baby, shake). Asking of Rembrandt's weary old face looking from the wall. How come (softly) you long-gone you.
Touching her face to his quickly, lightly.
White culture denied her, Parry departs forever, announcing that from now on someone else would stop by with Carol's homework.
And yet Olsen never knots the complex strands of human experience. Years later, remembering the ecstasy of that church service, Helen and Carol discuss the bleak lives of Carol's Black high school mates whom, identifying with in some deep recess of her being, Carol cannot easily dislodge:
"Mother, I want to forget about it all, and not care…. Why can't I forget? Oh why is it like it is and why do I have to care?"
Thinking: caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched…. Yet how will you sustain?
Why is it like it is?
Sheltering her daughter close, mourning the illusion of the embrace.
And why do I have to care?
While in her Helen, her own need leapt and plunged for the place of strength that was not-where one could scream or sorrow while all knew and accepted, and gloved and loving hands waited to support and understand.
The seas of humankind, reminiscent of Anna's sailing song in Yonnondio, remind us as well how landlocked, trapped are the Annas and Parrys whose youth will erode under an exploitative system offering them little bread and no roses. Anna, Emily, and Parry, daughters; all three are young. Two are victims, the third possibly a survivor, for industrial violence and the depression are over and young Black women will eventually foment change. Their author's self-referential voice, decorous in Silences, becomes an extended wail in "Tell Me a Riddle." Her incantatory prose encapsulates Rebecca Davis' lament for the laboring poor, for women's souls reduced to scrap iron. Olsen's voice is an elegiac tribute to the Jewish immigrant experience gone sour in the promised land, adding a powerful dimension to the lives of Olsen's literary foremothers dead and Jewish mothers dying.
Not knowing she is dying, Eva, the grandmother in "Tell Me a Riddle" recognizes that for the better part of her existence she has lived "between" and "for" but "not with people." "Your sickness was in you, how you live," her husband Max tells her, recalling a penurious and cluttered past when she weighed each morsel of food and yet felt "hungry for the life of the mind." It would be simple enough to assume that Eva's cancer, like the one consuming Tolstoy's Ivan Ilytch becomes an extended metaphor for the unexamined life: marrying Max, bearing five children, conforming thereby to the iron tenets of Jewish patriarchy. Unlike Ivan Ilytch's marriage, however, one of chronic bad faith, Eva's relationship to Max is not loveless; he has been a union worker and has labored long for an earned retirement. And for too long Eva has surrendered, albeit uneasily, to the unspoken dictum that biology equals destiny.
After 47 years of living an unfulfilled life with Max, all the children grown and on their own, Eva's iron willpower undermines her gregarious husband's proposal that they move to a rest "Haven" he has chosen for them to live out their retirement. Accustomed to psychic privation, she intends to spend an old age on her own and private terms: "Let him wrack his head for how they would live. She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others."
Bitterly the couple wrangle. Eva, wearing a hearing aid and turning on the vacuum cleaner in order to drown out Max's haranguing, rejects his plea that she owes them both an earned rest at the cooperative for the aged where others would do their chores and minister to their leisure needs. He enlists the aid of their adult children. Eva refuses point blank to hear these arguments.
"Because I'm use't."
"Because you're use't. This is a reason, Mrs. Word Miser? Used to can get unused!" "Enough unused I have to get used to already…. Not enough?" turning off the vacuum a moment to hear herself answer. "Because soon enough we'll need only a little closet, no windows, no furniture, nothing to make work, but for worms. Because now I want room….
Over the dishes coaxingly: "For once in your life to be free, to have everything done for you like a queen."
"I never liked queens."
"No dishes, no garbage, no towel to sop, no worry what to buy, what to eat."
"And what else would I do with empty hands? Better to eat at my own table when I want and to cook how I want."
For Olsen, however, marriage signifies more than living falsely, acquiescing to the rhythms of others. Eva needs Max; they have become interdependent. Eva's ties to husband and children are a source of bonding as well as bondage. The symbiotic relationship unfolds early in the story before Eva's stomach pains and fatigue are diagnosed as symptoms of inoperable cancer. For example, during a heated quarrel on an unbearably humid evening, Max storms out, slamming the door despite his wife's uncharacteristic plea that he stay with her. The air is rent with Eva's cursing in Yiddish, a language she has not used in years:
She was not in their bed when he came back. She lay on the cot on the sun porch. All week she did not speak or come near him; nor did he try to make peace or care for her. He slept badly, so used to her next to him.
After all the years, old harmonies and dependencies deep in their bodies; she curled to him, or he coiled to her, each warmed, warming, turning as the other turned, the nights a long embrace.
In the first passage Olsen's punning (used to it, uses) reveals the nuances of domestic drudgery. In the second a characteristic overflow of infinitives, gerundives, incantatory parallels underscores the reciprocity of a marriage that will not be reduced to bondage alone. Bonding, in fact, has always proved seductive to Eva:
Immediacy to embrace, and the breath of that part; warm flesh like this a new grandchild placed on her lap that had claims and nuzzled away all else and with lovely mouths devoured; hot-living like an animal—intensely and now….
It is distraction, not meditation that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity … work interrupted, deferred, relinquished makes blockage—at best lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be.
Her illness diagnosed, the information withheld from her, Eva is taken on a round of family visits she does not know are final. At Vivi's house, the younger daughter weeps nostalgically and when grandchildren clamor for attention, Eva withdraws in silence:
It was not that she had not loved her babies, her children. The love—the passion of tending had risen with the need like a torrent; and like a torrent drowned and immolated all else. But when the need was done—oh the power that was lost in the painful damming back and drying up of what still surged, but had nowhere to go.
Nor is Eva's response bizarrely ungrandmotherly. It is honest, indicating a sub-rosa recalcitrance rejecting patriarchal categorizing (and Orthodox Jewish patriarchy codifying wife-mother behavior for thousands of years is unyielding, even today) of a grandmother's behavior according to Jewish custom. For the immigrant women transplanted to American soil the confluence of Jewish and Gentile patriarchy proved difficult to resist. Erika Dunkan writes:
In Jewish literature by women, mothers are the "bread givers" who try to make feeding into a replenishing ecstatic act. But the mothers are themselves starved in every way, sucked dry and withered from being asked almost from birth to give a nurturance they never receive. They are starved not only for the actual food they are forced to turn over to others, but for the stuff of self and soul, for love and song.
Thus, Eva, remembering her lost youth spent borrowing, scrimping, hoarding so that her brood could survive in America is the Korl woman grown old, resistive, being shaped in another image, fearful that she might drown in nurturing a grandchild, rather than immersing herself in the sea. Instead she bends her will to concentrate on what an older precocious grandson is exploring for his science project. To persistent queries—"Tell me a riddle, Grandma," she responds "I know no riddles," defining riddles as childs' play that only Max, the fun loving grandfather can supply because his life has been freer. Alone, she holds a magnifying glass over young Richard's rock collection, laboriously repeating terminology—"trilobite fossil, 200 million years old,… obsidian, black glass,"—signifying Darwinian geology: "igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic."
If Eva's hearing aid drowns out the others claiming her attention, the magnifying glass represents an intense attraction for enlightenment, a rejection of ghetto irrationality she experienced at the turn of the century. She retains pre-atomic age optimism equating evolution with social progress. Lying in a hospital bed, her mind clouded in the aftermath of anesthesia, she is aroused by the chaplain:
I think he prays. Go away please, I tell him. I am not a believer. Still he stands while my heart knocks with fright.
You scared him, mother, he thought you were delirious [answers Paul, Eva's son-in-law].
Who sent him? Why did he come to me?
It is a custom. The men of God come to visit those of religion they might help. The hospital makes up the list for them—race—religion—and you are on the Jewish list. Not for rabbis. At once go and make them change. Tell them to write: Race, human. Religion, none.
In the same way she rejects Max's plea that for the sake of family harmony she shares in her daughter Hannah's benediction of the Sabbath candles: "Superstition! From the savages, afraid of the dark, of themselves: mumbo words and magic lights to scare away ghosts."
Eschewing the healing effect of ritual, Eva remembers too well the time when ghetto orthodoxy was "the opiate of the people," especially of women for whom the way out of dogma was through education. Thus, Olsen's use of Eva's magnifying glass is an inspired metaphor, allowing the old woman to peer through a glass clearly and see the world "steadily and whole."
Taking leave of her children, Eva allows Max to bring her to a frayed Los Angeles boarding house by the sea where she will spend the final weeks of her life. One afternoon, on the beach, feeling an upsurge of strength, Eva runs toward the ocean that brought her to America, followed by a stumbling Max who cannot stop her. Tripping over a rock, she puts it in a bag "to look at with a strong glass." The rock held against her cheek, Eva gazes at "the shore that nurtured life as it first crawled toward consciousness millions of years ago."
Although she affirms evolution, Eva, like Olsen and her foremothers, does not endorse the Social Darwinism that dominated turn of the century intellectual life, probably because such a belief would validate a nature "red in tooth and claw," a determinism: predatory, male, offering no hope of the progressive humanism she really worships. Eva's nurturing impulses have always included ministering to the wretched of the earth, from saving scraps of food and clothing for the poor to reading books that espouse doing away with outmoded social orders. Like Rebecca Harding Davis, whose mind Dr. Le Moyne opened to ethical radicalism, Eva remembers a girlhood mentor in the ghetto of Olshana, Lisa, a brilliant and artistic Russian revolutionary, who taught her to read. Despite beatings at home, Eva would sneak away to meet the idealistic Tolstoyan in much the same way Davis absorbed Le Moyne's subversive ideas in Wheeling, Pennsylvania prior to the Civil War.
At night past dogs that howled, terrible dogs, my son, in the snows of winter to the road, I to ride in her carriage like a lady, to books. To her, life was holy, knowledge was holy, and she taught me to read.
An informer having betrayed their underground cell, Lisa killed him in prison and was hanged.
Everything that happens one must try to understand why. She killed one who betrayed many—betrayed all she lived and believed. In one minute she killed, before my eyes (there is so much blood in a human being, my son) in prison with me.
Lisa's revenge on those that would stultify ideas of human liberation live on in Eva's fading memory. To sustain what minuscule life she has, Eva must desperately reach out through time and space linking her selfhood with Lisa, a dead foremother, whom she must internalize before she can allow herself to die. Heartbreakingly for the husband and children who watch the agony of her final days, Eva turns from them to ideas, words, gleaned from books, recapitulated at the ultimate moment. Delirious she hears snatches of songs, sings, quotes: "Pain I answer with tears and cries, baseness with indignation, meanness with repulsion—for life may be hated or wearied of, but never despised." Captive to her fragmented utterances, Max, himself fearful of cancer, helpless before Eva's suffering, impoverished by the cost of her medical care, wearily tries to understand:
"It helps, Mrs. Philosopher, words from books: It helps?" And it seemed to him that for seventy years she had hidden a tape recorder, infinitely microscopic, with her and that it had coiled infinite mile on mile trapping every song, every melody, every word read, heard, and spoken, and that maliciously she was playing back only what said nothing of him, of the children, of their intimate life together.
It is with a special intensity that Clara, Eva's eldest daughter, an "Emily" hardened to bitter middle age, listens to her mother's dying words. Old wounds throb anew as Clara recalls the deprived childhood in which she stood by helplessly as Eva begged storekeepers for extended credit, hoarded bits of meat and bone for soup, mended ragged clothing, drudged for others with no time to communicate with her first born:
Pay me back, Mother, pay me back for all you took from me. Those others you crowded into your heart. The hands I needed to be for you …
Is this she? Noises the dying make, the crab-like hands crawling over the covers.
The ethereal singing.
She hears that music, the singing from childhood; forgotten sound—not heard since, since … And the hardness breaks like a cry: Where did we lose each other, first mother, singing mother?
In silence Clara asks this profound Olsen riddle for which the answer would only exacerbate the wound. For Eva trusts only two women. The first was Lisa, her foremother, hanged in a Russian prison. The second is her granddaughter Jeannie, who understands Eva's starved soul and is reminiscent of Lisa in her dedication to alleviating human suffering. It is Jeannie who tries to bridge the gap between Eva and Max. A nurse and a talented artist, Jeannie not only moves into Eva's room to care for the dying woman, she paints her grandparents lying side by side, hands intertwined.
Perhaps Jeannie represents Olsen's attempt to affirm the artistic continuity transcending generations she experienced reading Rebecca Harding Davis. If so, this attempt is flawed. Jeannie's breathless buoyancy cannot unleash the suppressed creativity that adds up to an appalling waste of Eva's (and Clara's) potential.
Yet Olsen has given the closest reading possible to silenced writers, demonstrating two basic premises underlying their writing. The first, an ongoing tension between an artist (worker, Black, woman, Jew) in need of a voice, and a silence societally imposed, psychically internalized. The second, an imperative to find an audience for that energy, that authentic voice, an audience unlike the wealthy dilettantes in Life in the Iron Mills, fascinated by the Korl Woman while they allow its sculptor to rot in prison. If not to find an audience is always a kind of death, discovering the responsive reader valorizes the obscured artists' suffering and strength, giving them the power to formulate riddles we have never addressed, let alone redressed. As Harold Bloom has explained, literary forefathers have always influenced their writing sons, often causing them the "anxiety of 'this' influence." For Tillie Olsen, literary foremothers help engender and empower otherwise silenced women writers.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5683
SOURCE: "Tillie Olsen: The Writer as a Jewish Woman," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, No. 5, 1986, pp. 89-102.
[In the following essay, Lyons argues that while Judaism shapes Olsen's work, her writing is most influenced by her experiences as a woman.]
That Tillie Olsen's work is radically perfectibilistic in spirit and vision is obvious to most of her readers. Less obvious is that the two principal sources of that vision derive directly from her experience as a Jew and as a woman.
What is most deeply Jewish in Olsen is the secular messianic utopianism she inherited from her immigrant parents. That is, her political and social ideology directly reflects the radical Jewish background in which she grew up. But while her Jewish background provides a foundation for Olsen's basic political vision, it would be a mistake to view Jewishness itself as the living core, either in theme or imagery, of her work. Her experience as a woman is much more central, and is especially noticeable in her patterns of imagery. From the weak propagandistic early poetry to the great "Tell Me a Riddle," Olsen repeatedly emphasizes the human body and the mother/child relationship, aspects of human experience strongly identified with the female.
This is not to suggest that Olsen's explicit "femaleness" makes her work restricted in scope or marginal. Her habitual focus on the body does not suggest, for example, that the human is merely a body. On the contrary she grounds the spiritual in the body in very concrete and physical terms, emphatically insisting on the wholeness of the human. For Olsen the physical body makes the spiritual condition manifest: disfigurement, mutilation, and especially starvation are body images or ideas employed repeatedly to reflect both self-estrangement and estrangement from the world. Generally, hunger, eating, and feeding (nurturing) are the pivotal experiences that directly link the mother/child relationship on the one hand to the Jewish radical political vision on the other.
Olsen's vision lies between the Realist emphasis on victimization and the puniness of the individual, and the over-optimistic emphasis on the sheer human potentiality of some of the Romantics. In Olsen, human beings experience ravening hungers of all kinds: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. But when these hungers are fed, the individuals develop their potential and give to others and to the world at large: fulfilled people are productive and nurturing in turn. In Olsen's view the deepest human hunger is to be fruitful, so human beings satisfy their own needs best by giving. The negative conclusions of this Rousseauvian view are likewise drawn: those who are prevented by circumstances from developing their productive and nurturing natures will be inclined in turn to become victimizers and stultifiers of others.
The Rousseauvian dimension of Olsen's work is most obviously demonstrated by the fact that in each of her fictions there is a child at or near the center of the story. The child poetically embodies mankind's two dominant characteristics: potential and hunger. Moreover, since she sees each individual human life and all human life in general as parallel journeys toward greater consciousness, what happens to the child is emblematic of the condition and fate of humankind.
Since for Olsen the deepest human hunger is to be fruitful, mothering, in its ideal form, is an example of intense fulfillment. It is also a source of knowledge. Through the experience, the mother discovers human potential and all the forces that operate to limit it; she comes to see human beings as born with enormous possibilities for joy, growth, and productivity which are unnaturally thwarted through class, age, sex and race prejudice.
What is implicit about nurturing and motherhood in her fiction is made explicit in Silences, where she insists on the "comprehensions possible out of motherhood" and specifies that these comprehensions include "the very nature, needs, illimitable potentiality of the human being—and the everyday means by which these are distorted, discouraged, limited, extinguished." Moreover, Olsen asserts that because motherhood is a neglected theme in literature (neglected because mothers are not usually able to become writers), these comprehensions have not yet "come to powerful, undeniable, useful expression." Thus there are "aspects and understandings of human life as yet largely absent in literature." Olsen's own fiction is itself an attempt to redeem that "loss in literature."
The next section of this essay will explore what is Jewish in Olsen's work, the following two will focus on what is female: first, her treatment of the body and second, the mother/child relationship both as fact and metaphor. Tillie Olsen has said "What is Yiddish in me … is inextricable from what is woman in me, from woman who is mother." The concluding section will suggest the accuracy of that self-analysis.
II "Still Eva Believed and Still I Believe"
Olsen's Jewishness is a thorny subject. Because her mother was a non-Jew, for Orthodox Jews Olsen is not, in fact, Jewish. Moreover, Olsen considers herself an atheist and proudly describes her father as "incorruptibly atheist to the last day of his life." Nonetheless, Olsen considers herself a Jewish atheist, and "Tell Me a Riddle," her greatest fiction, is also one of the finest works of American Jewish literature.
Olsen hardly affirms all things Jewish. She looks at traditional Judaism as having served a useful purpose in the past by providing a sense of solidarity and strength, a refuge in a terrible world of oppression. But for all its positive effects, traditional Judaism for Olsen is inextricably linked with much that is negative or limiting: superstition, patriarchy, parochialism, and an enclosed, static life which reinforced life-stifling traditions as the price of security and continuity.
In an interview, Olsen recently remarked, "I still remain with the kind of Yiddishkeit I grew up with." By this she refers to her Jewish socialist background. According to her, that background fostered two essential insights. First, "knowledge and experience of injustice, of discrimination, of oppression, of genocide and of the need to act against them forever and whenever they appear." And second, an "absolute belief in the potentiality of human beings."
Olsen's vision of the world parallels Eva's in "Tell Me a Riddle," and Eva is on the one hand a spiritual portrait of the artist as an old woman and, on the other a wonderfully moving evocation of a segment of the Jewish community. That is, even Eva's insistence "Race, human; religion, none," is a not atypical Jewish response.
Olsen has said that she began "Tell Me a Riddle" in order to "celebrate a generation of revolutionaries," and her portrait of Eva and David is indeed a celebration of fervent Jewish revolutionaries during the early years of the century and of a time of boundless hopes and richly humanist fervor. These Jewish socialists, whom Irving Howe also celebrates in World of Our Fathers, were dedicated to building a new society, a world-wide international community in which all human beings "would live without want in freedom and fulfillment." Theirs was a socialism that was more than political and economic; it was founded on a profound idealism, an idea of human liberation and secular utopia. Opposed to traditional Judaism, socialist Jews transferred messianism, one of the traditional elements of Jewish experience, to secular dreams.
"Tell Me a Riddle" then is a deeply Jewish story. The Yiddish-inflected speech and "old country curses" are obviously of Jewish origin. David's ideal, to retire in dignity and community to his workers' haven evokes memories of Jewish Workmen's Circles. Even the bait with which David unsuccessfully tempts Eva to the home is particularly Jewish; he tells her there is a reading circle which studies Chekhov and Peretz, a Russian and a Jewish author united by their understanding and love of the ordinary person, of basic, unimproved humanity.
Through Eva, Olsen makes her clearest fictional statement about traditional Judaism. When one of her children tells Eva that the hospital puts patients on lists so that "men of God may visit those of their religion" and that she is on the Jewish list, Eva responds: "Not for rabbis." It is not that Eva denies being Jewish but that she refuses the religious views and consolation of the rabbis.
When asked by her daughter Hannah to light the Sabbath candles, Eva refuses and accuses Hannah of doing it for ignoble reasons: "Not for pleasure she does it. For emptiness. Because his [her husband's] family does. Because all around her do." She calls Hannah's heritage and tradition "superstition! From the savages afraid of the dark, of themselves: mumbo words and magic lights to scare away ghosts." Eva's dismissive attitude toward ritual parallels that of her "real life" contemporaries: in the early years of the century young Jewish radicals held costume balls on Yom Kippur to flaunt their separation from a "benighted" past. What infuriates Eva most is Hannah's nostalgia for the past. For the forward-looking Eva the past means "dark centuries" when religion stifled women and encouraged the poor to buy candles instead of bread. It was when the poor chosen Jew was "ground under, despised, trembling in cellars" and later a Holocaust victim—"and cremated. And cremated." When her husband David asks whether the terrible victimization of the Jews is the fault of religion, Eva does not answer. But clearly she sees Judaism as a backward religion and has no faith in a God who permits his chosen people to suffer so excruciatingly. Instead of traditional religion she believes Hannah should teach universal humanism: "to smash all ghettos that divide us—not to go back, not to go back."
Eva's undying faith in their youthful messianic hopes, "Their holiest dreams" is the story's vision of a secular utopia. Both the vision and the faith in human possibility mirror Jewish socialism of the early years of the century and Olsen's own abiding Yiddishkeit: "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 man." Although Eva's sacred text is not the Bible but the Book of Martyrs, and Socrates not Moses is her hero, her vision embodies both the messianic hope and universalist worldview of a particular kind of secular Jew.
The complete familiarity with Jewish immigrant culture revealed in "Tell Me a Riddle" is particularly striking because Jewishness barely touches Olsen's other work. In Yonnondio it appears and disappears suddenly and briefly. Enroute to a farm after finally escaping from a brutalizing coal mining town, Anna Holbrook momentarily blossoms with memories and plans: "School for the kids, Jim working near her, on the earth, lovely things to keep, brass lamps, bright tablecloths, vines over the doors, and roses twining." Suddenly a memory flashes: "her grandmother bending in such a twilight over lit candles chanting in an unknown tongue, white bread on the table over a shining white tablecloth and red wine." Elenore Lester has suggested that "the way Anna's Jewishness is injected and then withdrawn without casting some subtle coloration over her, suggests that the author was cauterizing a rich vein of associations which might have worked for her." Since the novel was never completed there is no way of knowing for sure if or how Olsen would have developed this Jewish thread. As is, the very slightness of the Jewish memory functions to keep the Holbrooks a representative American proletarian family and supports the universalizing aspects of the novel. To explore or develop Anna's Jewishness may well have seemed to the young Olsen to risk parochialism and to undermine the one world vision. The word Jewish itself is mentioned as one of many nationalities, neither first nor last: "Na-tion-al-it-ies American Armenian Chinese Croatian … Irish French Italian Jewish Lith…."
The candle lighting ceremony links Yonnondio with "Tell Me a Riddle." That candle lighting is clearly positive in the early novel and denounced by Eva in the later story superficially suggests a change in Olsen, a deepening disaffection and disavowal of her Jewish roots. But the contexts and function of the scenes differ crucially in the two texts. In Yonnondio candle lighting is positive to Anna because her recent past has been so physically and spiritually crippling. Candle lighting in her mind is linked with order and beauty, with home and sweet domesticity. In "Tell Me a Riddle" the candle lighting occurs in the home of Eva's son-in-law, a Jewish doctor. That is, in an affluent, educated home where there is no real need to look back, no need for religion whose purposes have been, in Eva's and Olsen's eyes, outgrown.
"O Yes," the only other Olsen story mentioning Jewishness even obliquely supports this analysis of Olsen's religious attitudes. That story celebrated the Negro church as a place where oppressed Negroes release pent up emotion and "the preaching finding lodgment in their hearts." When her daughter Carol becomes hysterical because of all the intense feeling in the church, Helen thinks of explaining that emotion is "a characteristic of the religion of all oppressed peoples, yes your very own great-grandparents." Traditional religion as a resource, a rock for oppressed people is affirmed, but only as a stage along the way. This is Olsen's overt message. Interestingly, however, at the end of "O Yes" Helen is unable to explain the cruelty and suffering of the world to Carol and feels her own emptiness: "her own need leapt and plunged for the place of strength that was not." What Helen is missing is the warmth and comfort of the church "where one could scream or sorrow while all knew and accepted, and gloved and loving hands waited to support and understand." The Negro church and the religion of her grandparents seem equally impossible solutions.
III "We are the injured body"
A section of Silences ends with the words, "We are the injured body. Let us not desert one another." Throughout her work Olsen expresses the ways people are psychologically as well as physically thwarted and diminished through bodily images. In her earliest, rather obvious polemical poetry, she denounces capitalist exploitation by envisioning the effects on the workers' bodies. Here the body, standing for the whole self, is destroyed in various ways; in particular, the poor workers' bodies are consumed by the rich.
In "I Want You Women Up North to Know," [the poem appeared in The Partisan, (March 1934), 4, under the name I. Lerner] the seamstresses' bodies are stitched into the garments bought by the wealthy. The dainty dresses that the poor women sew are "dyed in blood," stitched in wasting flesh; "bodies shrivel" in "parching heat." Skeletons and starved children abound. Parallel examples of exploitation and bodily disfigurement and consumption are portrayed: women reduced to prostitution and venereal disease, and an injured male worker "remembering a leg, and twenty-five years cut off from his life by the railroad." Didactic and simplistic, the early poems divide the world into innocent victims whose bodies are eaten, and wicked victimizers with fat, bloated bodies.
The novel Yonnondio, also begun in the thirties, evokes a similar vision of the world and employs similar body imagery. In the first chapter the nameless narrator mourns the waste of a young boy's life as he enters the coal mines and contrasts the "skeletons of starved children" with the "fat bellies" of the capitalists. Later in the novel when the Holbrook family loses their farm despite their unceasing work, the politicians are seen as vultures, and the father, Jim Holbrook, says that the banks "batten on us like hogs."
Olsen also uses two body images to integrate major sections of the novel and to establish parallels and contrasts between the two sections. The opening section (part of which was first published under the title "The Iron Throat") is dominated by an image of the mine as the "earth's intestines," as a place where the earth "sucks you in." The climax of the terror comes when an insane miner (a victim turned into a crazed victimizer) attempts to throw a child, Mazie Holbrook, into the mine: the miner imagines the mine as a ravenous woman "hungry for a child" to devour. The very fact that the miner sees woman as devourer rather than nurturer demonstrates the extremity of his condition, a result of the economic and social conditions in general.
The third major section of Yonnondio, like the opening one, is dominated by a nightmare body image: the packing house is a monstrous heart, which, rather than pumping healthy blood, pumps "the men and women who are the streets' life-blood, nourishing the taverns and brothels and rheumy-eyes stores, bulging out the soiled and exhausted houses, and multiplying into these children playing so mirthlessly in their street yards where flower only lampposts."
In the stories the human condition is not seen in such dichotomous terms—victims and victimizers—but the same body and eating imagery abounds, developed in subtler, more complex ways. In these stories Olsen often uses eating as symbolic of a character's sense of self and world, as the link between the individual and the universe. Eating is a clear indication of a character's psychic state, and healthy eating indicates a sense of total well-being, an at-homeness in the universe.
Eating is significant because to eat is to assert and fulfill the claims of the self. Eating also means taking a part of the world, making it part of the self, absorbing part of the world. In Olsen's work the eating process reflects the ultimate mystery of life and death and an awareness that humans kill other living organisms in order to survive. For Olsen the proper response to the plant or animal sacrifice necessary to human life is a kind of reverence or natural piety. Her characters express this natural piety by eating, not to become bloated, but in order to grow and produce and, in turn, nourish others: they eat so that they can feed others.
In "I Stand Here Ironing" the daughter Emily's thinness, her early inability to eat, and her subsequent ravenous appetite all suggests her lack of nourishment on every level. Although the narrator/mother remembers the "sleek" young society women who raise money for an institution where children like Emily wear "gigantic red bows and ravaged looks", it is not just the fat bellies who cause Emily's thinness. Sent to an institution to gain weight by a well-meaning mother and social worker, Emily returns thin and stays thin. As her mother tells it, "Food sickened her, and I think much of life too."
Here the problems are not all solvable by eliminating the vultures of the earth. Emily's hunger and subsequent legendary appetite have many causes, including her mother's youth and anxiety, her father's cowardice and withdrawal, her own slowness and darkness in a world that prizes quickness and blondness. Her hunger also has one surprisingly positive effect: out of her despair, expressed by both her early thinness and later insatiable appetite, she develops a gift, the art of comic mimicry. And while the memory of a heartless teacher who belittled Emily for her fear has "curdled" in the mother's memory, the mother refuses to see Emily as doomed or as passive victim—a dress "helpless before the iron."
"Hey Sailor, What Ship?" also interweaves body and eating imagery into its texture in important ways. Some of the imagery reflects the social/political concerns of the earlier work. For Lennie, Whitey is a tie to "a world in which men had not eaten each other." One of the memories Whitey tries to drown in liquor is the time of brotherhood when "whoever came off the ship fat shared." Now part of Whitey's problem with authority on the ship stems from his complaint about "rotten feed"—symbolic of the exploitation of the workers.
Whitey's present failing condition is also given digestive terms: he hardly eats, and he drinks not to nourish himself, but to poison himself. The key to his woes also seems bodily: he cannot have sex unless he is drunk. And now he also drinks because there are "memories to forget, dreams to be stifled, hopes to be murdered." His body expresses his estrangement from himself and the world; now he has a "decaying body, the body that was betraying him." His desperate attempt to connect with Lennie and Helen and their children, who represent not only family but also his memories, his earlier self, and a hopeful future, is symbolized by his attempt to provide and share a meal with them, a communion through shared food.
In "Tell Me a Riddle," the deepest hungers are embodied, hungers of every kind. In Russia, Eva and David experienced physical hunger as well as hunger for learning, for holy knowledge. In America they had hungry children and hungry souls—hungry for beauty, meaning, sense of purpose, and progress. As the story progresses, Eva wastes away, consumed by cancer until the final day when the "agony was perpetual." Still she refuses to give up the dream of fulfilled human life which is embodied in the old Russian revolutionary song she continues to sing. At the climax of the song, which is interrupted by a "long strangling cough," her husband suddenly awakens from his years-long sleep and self-blindness: "Without warning, the bereavement and betrayal he had sheltered … revealed itself,/uncoiled,/releases,/sprung/and with it the monstrous shapes of what he had actually happened in the century." His reaction is immediate and "Olsenian": "ravening hunger or thirst seized him."
Despite the bitterness, recriminations, rage, and disappointment, Eva and David and their love finally triumph. On her last night and in Jeannie's picture they are holding hands: "their hands, his and hers, clasped, feeding each other." The image of love as mutual nourishment, as two people feeding each other, is the antithesis of and the "answer" to the earlier vision of a world of eaters and eaten. And this image of mutual nourishment is linked to another: David looks at Jeannie's art, her drawing of Eva and himself "and as if he had been instructed he went to his bed, lay down, holding the sketch (as if it would shield against the monstrous shapes of loss, of betrayal, of death) and with his free hand took hers [Eva's] back into his." Their life, their love, their humanity nourish Jeannie's art, which in turn, nourishes and instructs their life: life and art feed each other.
Silences is about artists' failure to produce because of inadequate nourishment: here Olsen analyzes the multiple causes that produce silence—all the nagging hungers that thwart productivity. The hunger/feeding metaphor is pursued insistently at every level. In the very acknowledgments of the book Olsen mentions earth, air, and others as "sustenance" for her own efforts. The major theme of her long afterword to Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills is Davis's hunger to make use of herself and her powers, her hunger to give and produce. Olsen explores the many kinds of hunger in Davis's life and the lives of her characters, whose miserable circumstances meant soul starvation. As Davis identifies with her characters, so Olsen identifies with Davis, especially her "hunger to know."
Repeatedly Olsen blames unsatisfied hunger for non-productivity. Analyzing Katherine Anne Porter's long delay in finishing Ship of Fools, Olsen observes that "subterranean forces" need feeding: "before they will feed the creator back they must be fed, passionately fed." Similarly, Olsen describes the destruction of her own powers as a failure in the necessary mutual feeding of art and life: "So long they feed each other—my life, the writing—;—the writing or hope of it, my life—; but now they begin to destroy;."
IV "Mama Mama you must help carry the world"
Mothers and children are at the heart of almost every Olsen work. The child embodies man's potential greatness and his needy vulnerability. The degree to which adults can mother and nurture children is frequently a sign of their own psychic condition. Because the link between the individual family and the family of man everywhere penetrates Olsen's work, her focus on the nuclear family does not seem narrow or claustrophobic.
In Yonnondio Olsen repeatedly uses the word "baby" to suggest beauty and tenderness. Mazie feels a breeze as "soft, like the baby laughin." Gorgeous colors of fire seem to her "like babies' tongues reaching out to you." The healing beauty of the baby-tongued fire melts "the hard swollen lump of tears" into a "swell of wonder and awe." And when the Holbrooks escape from the coal mines, "the sun laid warm hands on their bodies" and "the air was pure and soft like a baby's skin."
Erina, the epileptic, crippled child from an impoverished, brutalized, and brutalizing family, symbolizes the most humiliated, abused humanity: the child or human as innocent sufferer. The horror of Erina's life is most movingly evoked through her linguistic errors. In the author's brilliant use of children's linguistic errors and connections, Yonnondio resembles another Thirties novel, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. But while the confusion of Roth's David Schearl about the ordinary coal and the coal which purified Isaiah's lips is central to a redemptive vision, Olsen's two most memorable uses of this technique are unequivocally pathetic. Olsen first uses the technique early in the novel when Mazie confuses the word "operator" with the idea of a surgical operation and cannot understand how the privileged coal operator "cut up a mine." In the reader's mind the error is suggestive, for the coal operator does indeed cut up the land and the miners themselves. The later use of the device is much more chilling. The monstrous distortions of her life have taught Erina, a most Dostoevskian character, to interpret the Biblical line, "suffer the children," as "the children suffer." Erina's twisting of the meaning of the word suffer from "allow" into "bear painfully" perfectly embodies Olsen's outraged sense of the world's derangement. It is worth noting that even Erina is not totally reduced to inhumanity. On her way home, "where she will be beaten," she sees a bird "bathing itself, fluttering its wings in delight." Erina feels in herself "the shining, the fluttering happiness" and for a few minutes walks "in the fluttering shining and the peace."
Erina is the novel's deepest and most frightening image of human suffering; Bess, the Holbrook baby, represents human possibility and power. In the midst of an oppressive heat wave, Bess, while playing with a fruit-jar lid, discovers her powers: "Lightning in her brain." the novel celebrates her coming to consciousness: "Centuries of human drive work in her; human ecstasy of achievement; satisfaction deep and fundamental as sex: I can do, I use my powers; I! I!" With her "eternal dream look" Bess is the promise, the possibility.
In "I Stand Here Ironing," the mother speaks of Emily as a tender young plant, bemoans the fact that Emily never had "the soil of easy growth," and concludes that "all that is in her will not bloom." She also remembers Emily's miraculous capacity for learning and delight when she was a baby and trusts that "there is enough left to live by." Similarly, the uncollected story "Requa" suggests that early damage can be overcome, that a hurt, withdrawn child can be reclaimed, that later care can revive a wilting plant.
In "Hey Sailor" Whitey's sense of loss, of his lost past and empty future, is most acute when he touches his friends' children: "It is destroying, dissolving him utterly, this helpless warmth against him, this feel of a child—lost country to him and unattainable." Even more terrible to him is the general horror: "The begging children and the lost, the thieving children and the children who were sold." The relative financial and emotional security of Lennie and Helen's home coupled with their sympathy and moral sense will help to bring their children to fruition, but the reality of other children's lost and wasted lives is not forgotten, never forgiven.
In several of her stories Olsen focuses more on the mother and nurturing process than on the child. In particular, "O Yes" is a story of mothering, especially the moral and emotional aspects. Two women "mother" Carol. Parry's mother Alva tries to teach Carol about the meaning of their release and ecstasy in church, and Helen tries to ease Carol through the "long baptism into the seas of humankind." Alva's classic death and rebirth dream-memory embodies several mother/child relationships. A small boy leads Alva on her journey; in order to ascend, Alva needs her own mother's hands, and the final injunction to Alva as mother completes the journey. The child leads the mother whose journey is helped by her own mother and who is enjoined as mother to "help carry the world." Nurturing is thus the road and the rule.
In Silences Olsen describes motherhood as both the "core of woman's oppression" and her "transport as woman." This dual description of motherhood is most vividly embodied in "Tell Me a Riddle," which brilliantly evokes the complexity and depth of the mother/child relationship, as well as the wisdom and richness that motherhood has brought to this aging mother and grandmother.
Eva looks back at her youthful mothering and remembers the poverty and want, the "old humiliations and terrors," and the "endless defeating battles" of housekeeping. Part of her bitterness is about the poverty, and part is directed at her husband who never thought of her needs, never helped at home, never stayed with the children so that she could have some life outside the home.
But her memory is not just of the chafing limitations but also "the love—the passion of tending" that had "risen with the need like a torrent." Eva has now lived through that period: "the need was done." Unlike more limited, traditional women suffering from the empty nest syndrome, she is sure there is more: "Somewhere an older power that beat for life."
Eva is characterized as more than just a biological mother of a large family; she is also a woman concerned since her youth about developing human potential. When she first sees the Pacific Ocean, she looks "toward the shore that nurtured life as it first crawled toward consciousness the millions of years ago." As biological and symbolic mother, Eva looks back at her own family history and at human history, especially the history of life in this century. She sees the revolutionary dreams and the monstrous facts, including millions with "no graves—save air," the holocaust victims. As the seashore reminds Eva of the developing human infant, the aged, including her pathetic friend Mrs. Mays, suggest the terrible waste, the incompletion. The unfulfilled aged suggest that the overall direction may not be higher consciousness but rather destruction and self-destruction: "Everywhere unused the life…. Century after century still all in us not to grow."
V "A song, a poem of itself—the world itself a dirge"
Directly, as in the early poetry, and indirectly, as in Eva's dream in "Tell Me a Riddle," Olsen celebrates human potential, mourns what has been lost, and anticipates a time when the world will be changed so that human capacities will not be wasted.
"A song, a poem of itself—the word itself a dirge," these three phrases of Whitman's introductory explanatory note to his poem "Yonnodio" are emblematic of Olsen's vision and her borrowing of this title for her one and only novel is note-worthy. In Olsen's art, the song and dirge are the poles of human life: the fruit and the blight.
The dirge is not primarily a response to any natural calamity or death. This is clearest in "Tell Me a Riddle." There Eva's excruciating physical decline into death is not the deepest source of pain. In fact, her decision to experience her own death—refusing the sterile, painless, numb hospital death—is a personal triumph: she has chosen a death of her own. She stays with her family and experiences everything, including her own terrible physical pain. For her and for the reader, the deepest agony is, on the contrary, the realization of what has died prematurely in her, what through unnatural causes never flowered. For her the dirge laments what has been thwarted by circumstances—primarily poverty but also rigid sex role prescriptions. Even more than the limitations of her own life, Eva and the author mourn Eva's (and mankind's) dream of peace, freedom, education, humaneness: the fulfillment of the individual and a harmonious society. The deepest dread is the either/or that mankind faces—growth and progress or annihilation. Wasted lives, unused potential, and the threat of nuclear holocaust—this is the dirge in Olsen's work.
The song, the other pole, celebrates what mankind can experience and express. It is the possibility, the undying hope, that never totally relinquished dream. It is the part of Olsen that, in Silences, after listing the lost and ruined writers and analyzing the multiple causes of the blight, insists, "AND YET THE TREE DID—DOES BEAR FRUIT." It is embodied in Eva (with whom Olsen explicitly identifies in Silences) who continues to dream, whose continued hope keeps the dream alive and verifies its essential value and possibility: the "stained words" of her youthful dream song, stained by what the century did to kill the dream, "on her working lips came stainless."
Olsen's exploration of the dirge and song of human life reflects her experience as a Jew and as a woman. Her ideology recapitulates the radical Jewish socialist background in which she grew up; her analysis in terms of the body and the mother/child relationship reflect her deeply felt experiences as a woman. Song and dirge alike emerge from the one radical (in the sense of root, fundamental) condition: the single individual in all his vulnerability, hunger, and yearning potentialities. The uncanny bitter-sweet harmonies Olsen has created by interweaving dirge and song, by vividly depicting the sheltering of or preying upon vulnerabilities, the nurturing or starving of hungers, the fulfillment or blighting of potentials—these give her own music its intense emotional resonance, as the song and dirge merge into a luminous, all encompassing chord: "the poem of itself."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4122
SOURCE: "The Struggle for 'Selfness' through Speech in Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 131-39.
[In the following essay, Staub traces Olsen's focus on self-articulation and the freedom it brings.]
Tillie Olsen's only novel, Yonnondio: From the Thirties, written between 1932 and 1937 but not published until 1974, concerns a migrant family's impossible dream: the search for happiness and security in a world they never made. It is an often shocking book, one that makes vivid the brutal consequences of homelessness and poverty on a married couple, Jim and Anna Holbrook, and their five children: Mazie, Will, Ben, Jimmie, and baby Bess. As it proceeds, however, it is apparent that the novel belongs primarily to Anna and to Mazie, her oldest daughter, and their efforts to speak and be heard in a hostile environment. From its opening sentence ("The whistles always woke Mazie") through to its final description ("He is too dazed to listen" [p. 154]), Yonnondio is a highly compressed catalogue of sounds and silences. As the family migrates eastward from a Wyoming coal-mining community to a South Dakota tenant farm to the slaughter houses of Kansas City, a theme emerges: that women and girls of the working class will never identify their own concerns at home or in the society at large, and will never be able to change their lives for the better, until they can create forums where their individual stories are heard, shared, and debated.
In this way, Yonnondio is part of a much larger body of 1930s "consciousness-raising" literature (James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on white Southern tenant farmers, John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks on Native Americans, and the Federal Writer's Project's These Are Our Lives on black Southern tenant farmers) that counseled middle-class Americans to listen to impoverished minorities before presuming what assistance they needed and then acting on their behalf. What distinguishes Yonnondio, and what makes it an especially valuable contribution to any examination of the Depression era, is its presentation of a working-class feminism that defends the human rights of all working women to be freed from abusive relations within their families and communities and to achieve what the novel calls "selfness" through speech. From the perspective of the book, to be denied an audience that cares to listen, or fails to listen, women—and particularly poor women—will die or descend into madness. For such women, the struggle for "selfness" was often nothing less than a struggle for survival.
A great deal of Yonnondio concerns the trials of working-class girlhood, and this subject is pursued by chronicling the articulations and subsequent subjugation of the visions and instincts of a female child. This child, Mazie Holbrook, represents "poverty's arithmetic": the slow, pained subtraction of dreams and wonder from the young lives of the dispossessed. Mazie is a bright girl, but one who never will get the chance to break the double bonds of being poor and female. Her initiation into social awareness is suffused with violence, hunger, and shame. Over the course of the book, her hopes become lost in a crazy quilt of oppressive relationships and banal afflictions. Mazie's voice, at first hesitant but insistently curious, seems to disappear altogether amidst the images and voices at the end of Olsen's disjointed narrative.
Speech and "selfness" are related in Yonnondio by the presentation of "a reverse case": Mazie's speechlessness results in her identity confusion. Life for Mazie meant the power of pushing "her mind hard against things half known, not known," and she struggles with her limited comprehension of the world around her. Thus she becomes a near-perfect vehicle for innocent observation and vulnerability. Mazie's mental health appears to depend on an ability to speak and to know the meaning of what she sees. Consequently, when continually rebuffed and silenced, Mazie descends into a trancelike madness over the course of Yonnondio. "I know words and words," Mazie says in Yonnondio's opening pages. "Tipple. Edjication. Bug dust. Superintendent." But the words, like the world from which they arise, are disjointed pieces of a whole whose meaning eludes the young girl.
Quite unsentimentally, Olsen conveys the brutality of the cacophonous world Mazie must decipher with a memorable expressiveness from the opening paragraph:
The whistles always woke Mazie. They pierced into her sleep like some guttural-voiced metal beast, tearing at her; breathing a terror. During the day if the whistle blew, she knew it meant death—somebody's poppa or brother, perhaps her own—in that fearsome place below the ground, the mine.
The Wyoming coal mine is a living organism for Mazie Holbrook, and the whistle that sounds the work shifts and announces deaths is this creature's vocal chord or "iron throat." This "voice" tears into Mazie's sleep each morning, waking her to a strange and dangerous reality. "Bowels of earth," Mazie says to herself. "It means the mines. Bowels is the stummy. Earth is a stummy and mebbe she eats the men that come down." The men, including Mazie's father, enter the iron throat each morning and return each evening blackened with coal. The half-knowledge of the work her father does and the feeling that the mine is a living thing fill Mazie with fear and pain. She wants to know "what makes people a-cryen" and whether or not ghosts live down in the mines. She asks this of her father, "half cringing," although "somehow the question she had meant to have answered could not be clamped into words." Thus from the very outset in Yonnondio, Mazie is silenced by her fears.
Soon after, Mazie once again finds herself voiceless when she encounters Sheen McEvoy, a miner who has lost his face and his mind in a mine blast. Like Mazie, McEvoy believes that the mine is alive, a hungry goddess of the earth. In McEvoy's imagination, sacrificing Mazie to the mine shaft would save the lives of countless numbers of men. "Give her a sweet baby," McEvoy says, "and she'll want no more." As he stands beside the mine shaft with Mazie in his arms, he addresses the mine directly: "I am giving you your baby." Mazie is unable to speak or to scream:
Screams tore at Mazie's throat, caged there. Sweat poured over her. She closed her eyes. He strode toward the shaft. He kissed her with his shapeless face. In Mazie her heart fainted, and fainted, but her head stayed clear. "Make it a dream, momma, poppa, come here, make it a dream." But no words would come.
A night watchman appears just in time and saves Mazie's life. When this other man appears, Mazie finally screams and McEvoy drops her just beside the iron throat of the shaft. The two men fight, the night watchman pulls a gun, shoots three times, and McEvoy stumbles and falls in the mine shaft and is himself sacrificed to the earth mother.
The consequences of this incident are profound for the Holbrook family. They decide that they must leave the mining town as soon as their limited finances permit. But more important are the undefined scars left on Mazie; the episode leaves her in a state of shock: "In her delirium Mazie laughed—terrible laughter, mocking, derisive, not her own. Anna and Jim, hearing it mix with their words, shuddered." Although Mazie will go on with her life, she begins to experience "a voiceless dream" in which "suddenly she would see before her a monster thing with blind eyes and shaking body that gave out great guttural sobs." As the story unfolds, Olsen continues to stress Mazie's horrible silent visions and how her inability to speak both results from and causes an ill-defined sense of self.
The one hopeful interlude in this progressive deterioration is short-lived. When the family arrives on a farm in South Dakota where they become tenants, Mazie finds the first confidant she has ever had. He is an old man named Caldwell, "who had come west from college and wealth and chosen to live and build out of the wilderness." Caldwell offers Mazie a hint of the knowledge she could be learning; he teaches her about the stars and constellations. He also offers her poems, books (although her father sells them for fifty cents), and a bit of wisdom (although "the words were incomprehensible"): "Mazie. Live, don't exist. Learn from your mother, who has had everything to grind out life and yet has kept life. Alive, felt what's real, known what's real. People can live their whole life without knowing." But, as expected, Caldwell's death signals new hard times for Mazie. For example, when her family moves yet again, this time to Kansas City, she begins to induce her visions again by pressing her fingers into her eyes. Her "wondering dazed eyes" imagine that the move to the city was "just a dream, a bad dream." Mazie fails her report card in school and is soon imagining skeleton babies in her visions, starved and grotesque. "The nightmare feeling" she has felt ever since her encounter with Sheen McEvoy becomes more common and pronounced. Further, when she wishes now to relate the awful visions to her parents, she is not able: "There was something she wanted to say, but she could not remember it."
There are further moments in Yonnondio that concern Mazie's confusion over her identity and how her dementia relates to an inability to speak and be heard. For example, when Mazie attends school for the first time and learns to read, "the crooked white words on the second-grade black-board magically transforming into words known and said", her schooling brings with it unintended side-effects: "For the first time, Mazie was acutely conscious of her scuffed shoes, rag-bag clothes, quilt coat." With new knowledge came a new shame and self-consciousness at her poverty. As a consequence, Mazie retreats from the classroom lessons and "spent most of [her] time listening secretly to the upper grades recite jography and history—far countries, strange people." She is far better at listening to spoken words and stories than she is at reading aloud. For Mazie, like the rest of the Holbrook children, "had been judged poor learners, dumb dumb dumb" because of a disinterest in their studies. Even "onceuponatime and theylivedveryhappyeverafterfairy tales" can not hold Mazie's attention. Although she becomes literate over the course of the novel, she never puts this ability to use. Her intelligence lies dormant and neglected, and Mazie retreats further into a fantasy world.
Towards the end of Yonnondio, the confusions that have arisen in Mazie reach a new point of crisis. Her fears and terrors locate themselves in another moment of visions: "O it's us again, thinks Mazie, it's us. Then in clenching fear: Now something bad's going to have to happen. Again." It is not clear, however, what this passage signifies. Mazie faints from the extreme summer heat, she is teased by a group of children, but at the end she is asked by her younger brother, Ben, to explain bad dreams: "'Splain to me about bad dreams,' he whispers into her ear, 'tell me about boogie mans and scaredies and ghosts and hell.'" There is no doubt that Mazie is the right person in the Holbrook family to ask about such things, but Mazie never responds. Mazie's movement towards madness is left half-formulated. Whether or not she would emerge from her dreams and visions to live a saner life is left unanswered. It is implicit, however, that she will not.
Mazie's mother, Anna Holbrook, is a character whose power of speech relates directly to her "selfness." In the opening pages, Anna speaks to her husband, Jim, about a woman friend whose son will go to work for the first time that morning. The friend, whose husband was killed in a mine blast, "talks about the coal. Says it oughta be red, and let people see how they get it with blood." "Quit your woman's blabbin," Jim Holbrook tells his wife. Jim's defeated attitude and misdirected anger deafens him to the truths Anna articulates about the pain of their lives. For the most part, Jim's dreams hurt too much; they only remind him of what he never had himself. Anna, unlike her husband, has a dream for her children and does put into words (when she can) what it is she wants them to have. For example, when Mazie asks her mother "What's an edication?" Anna responds:
"An edjication?" Anna Holbrook arose from amidst the shifting vapors of the washtub, and with the suds dripping from her red hands, walked over and stood impressively over Mazie. "An edjication is what you kids are going to get. It means your hands stay white and you read books and work in an office. Now, get the kids and scat. But don't go too far, or I'll knock your block off."
Anna's struggle for "selfness" in Yonnondio is fired by her hope of saving her children. With her oldest daughter traumatized, her husband stuck in horrible working conditions, her oldest son, Will, growing up in the streets, and her youngest child possibly in need of expensive medical attention, Anna still struggles to make a better life for her family and simply will not give up. She does, however, bear the weight of her dreams, and she suffers fainting spells, a dazed illness, a miscarriage, and a disconcerting fantasy-life not unlike that of her daughter. When a neighbor suggests she try a tonic that says it is for "all female complaints," Anna responds, "all female complaints, huh? Well, I guess I got all of them."
Anna carries the unenviable burdens for maintaining a semblance of home and family life during constant crisis and dislocation. When the family moves to a tenant farm in South Dakota, it is with the aim of "a new life." But the phrase, first spoken by Jim in earnestness, becomes for Anna an ironic expression of despair that things will never get better for her and her children. Jim Holbrook, a "good" and well-intentioned man, refuses to accept full responsibility for his actions and wavers between the terrible non-choices of abandonment, alcoholism, and abusive behavior. In Yonnondio, Anna suffers the consequences of each of these tendencies in her husband.
There are a variety of ways in which Anna's speeches identify her struggle for "selfness." For example, it is Anna, more than anyone else in the novel, who loves to sing:
I saw a ship a sailing
her mother sang.
A sailing on the sea
Mazie felt the strange happiness in her mother's body, happiness that had nought to do with them, with her; happiness and farness and selfness.
I saw a ship a sailing
And on that ship was me.
The fingers stroked, spun a web, cocooned Mazie into happiness and intactness and selfness. Soft wove the bliss round hurt and fear and want and shame—the old worn fragile bliss, a new frail selfness bliss, healing, transforming.
The dreaminess and peace of this moment is shortly broken when one of her children announces that he is hungry. Anna retreats from her tenuous pleasure and returns to her pressing task as a mother of five. But singing provides "selfness" for Anna and Mazie at several points throughout Yonnondio. It is a mechanism for coping with sorrows and unfulfilled dreams.
The sense of how strong Mazie's mother is, and how remarkable her daily triumphs over the privations of poverty are, emerges slowly. Much of the second half of the novel chronicles the consciousness of Anna, and what is made most explicit is the torment that her dreams for her children may be battered beyond hope. Nevertheless, while Anna's silences often reflect a day-to-day straining against exhaustion and defeat, Anna in small moments is able to speak her hopes.
For example, after her miscarriage, Anna is bed-ridden, unable to clean the house or keep track of her kids. When she is finally able to rise, Anna pulls herself weakly through the empty house:
The kitchen stood blank and empty in glaring afternoon sun. It was a long while before she could make out the potato peels turning black on the garbage in the sink, the dirty dishes, the souring bottle of milk about which flies droned. Flies, the poster said, Spread Germs. Germs Breed Disease. Cleaving to the table for support, disregarding the flame of agony in her engorged breasts, she swatted feverishly. The flies lifted and evaded. Disease … Your children … Protect … The soap was gone, the water spluttered malevolently at her. She rinsed the dishes, scooped the garbage up into a pot, and went out into the yard.
Anna finds the cover off the garbage pail, and she stuffs both pot and garbage into the pail, then jams the cover on. Nausea overcomes her, but Anna "scarcely realizing that she was doing so," goes back to the pail and removes the slippery pot, despite the horrible stench of the trash. It is perhaps her only pot, and it can scarcely be thrown away so casually, and so Anna almost instinctively retrieves it. Trembling, she returns to the house: "All she could do was sit there, her head against the screen door, her eyes closed, waiting for the trembling and faintness to cease. Slowly, slowly, her fingers loosened, and the pot slipped from her hand to the ground."
This could be interpreted, as one critic has suggested, as part of "a terrible losing battle, the battle to get out from under that the poor almost never win." The pathetic effort Anna makes to save the pot seemingly confirms this interpretation that the novel chronicles "a terrible losing battle" of migrant life through the most commonplace of everyday details. However, what follows this "defeat" is especially striking:
Softly, she began to sing. Now a train puffed by, and the long wail dissolved in distance. The wind just lifted against her cheek. Ben came from nowhere and nozzled against her. Momma, he said. She held him warm into her singing.
To interpret an intimate and private moment like this one as representative of failure is to erase and undervalue the dignity and spirit of Anna Holbrook's life. Anna is a woman of great human capabilities, operating under severe limitations, and yet managing nonetheless to express herself with sensitivity, pride, and compassion. Anna is constantly pressed-down economically, socially, and psychologically. Yet she always presses back through singing, loving her children, and affirming what she believes is right.
Not long after the incident with the pot, Jim confronts Anna; he tries to argue his sick wife back into bed. She refuses angrily. Jim insists and Anna again articulates her faded hopes for her children:
"Dont sweet Anna me. Who's to do it if I'm not up? Answer. Who? Who's to … look out for …" Gasping hoarsely. "Who's to care about 'em if we dont? Who?… Who? Answer me … Oh Jim," giving in, collapsing into his reaching embrace, "the children." Over and over, broken: "the children. What's going to happen with them? How we going to look out for them? O Jim, the children. Seems like we cant do nothing for them in this damn world."
The intensity of Anna's speech at this point in the narrative is a crucial moment. Anna's credo becomes enacted over the course of the novel; the singing and this speech represent the core of her resistance to submission. It is her method for reaffirming her human spirit and her children's right to a life better than the one she had been born into. Anna's efforts to express her own needs and values underscore the theme of the novel as a whole: That a person's self-articulation leads to self-knowledge which can lead to an end to oppressive familial and social relationships. Anna's few speeches that dot the landscape of Yonnondio become critical for an understanding of the connections made between speech and "selfness." Anna's remarkable character is not expressed through dramatic action but rather through dramatic speech. Thus one key to a fuller understanding of this novel depends upon an ability to see the speaking and silences of its two central characters as linked to their survival.
In her unpublished notes and drafts for the novel, Olsen reflects further on the near-impossibility of creating the circumstances that allow articulation for women. "How easily women give up the battle after marriage—become mothers and wives, secondary, instead of mothers and wives—and growing human beings—." In another passage, Olsen wrote:
MY BABIES, MY CHILDREN—
Anguished cry that breaks soundless in her throat. Outside nothing answers. There is only the smell of the earth, expectant of rain, the mysterious blue light that is on everything, the trees moving secretly against the sky, the sound of a freight starting up, hoarse, strained, labored. Heavy to take up again, the burden of being poor and a mother.
From the available notes and drafts it appears that Olsen had several different ideas on how to proceed with her unpublished novel. In one version, Jim Holbrook, the ambivalent breadwinner, runs off and abandons his family. In another, Jim leads a strike and is blacklisted. In a third, Anna attempts suicide by leaving the gas jets on and blocking all the doors in the room. In another, it is Will, the oldest boy, who runs off and becomes a vagabond waif, a common sight during the Depression years.
Despite the drama of these possibilities, the focus on the relationship between articulation and the female search for self is once again reinforced in the final pages of the novel. There is a last irrepressible celebration of life, this time by the youngest female character, baby Bess. It is summer during a terrible heat wave. Jim sits dazed from the intense heat and from working, the children are having bad dreams, and Anna sings to her baby, Bess, at the kitchen table:
Bess who has been fingering a fruit-jar lid—absently, heedlessly dropped it—aimlessly groping across the table, reclaims it again. Lightning in her brain. She releases, grabs, releases, grabs. I can do. Bang! I did that. I can do. I! A look of neanderthal concentration is on her face. That noise! In triumphant, astounded joy she clashes the lid down. Bang, slam, whack. Release, grab, slam, bang, bang. Centuries of human drive work in her; human ecstasy of achievement; satisfaction deep and fundamental as sex: I can do, I use my powers; I! I!
The relationship between sound and "selfness" is once more made clear. But there the novel ends, and thus in the 1930s Yonnondio itself became a silenced text that could not be fully articulated. While some critics agree with Jack Salzman that Yonnondio is "a magnificent novel," others debate whether or not the lack of "polish" in the book is a problem. For example, Selma Burkom and Margaret Williams have commented that "Yonnondio flies off in many directions, not all of which are equally developed or coalesce with the others." On the other hand, Amy Godine says of Yonnondio: "The absence of a finished, flowing, conventional plot simply underscores [Olsen's] point that it is the incidental, commonplace, fragmentary detail that really imperils the quality of human life."
But the question of how "unfinished" Yonnondio is diverts attention from its extraordinary accomplishments. Unlike many of the poor in 1930s literature, Olsen's characters refuse to die, kill themselves, or submit to any higher authority. They err, hurt one another, and dream unfulfilled dreams, but they do not acknowledge their own second-class existence. "I was writing about great human beings," Olsen says, "and the circumstances in which they find themselves. I was writing about how circumstances shape people and how children are formed and deformed. My writing came out of what I knew and saw in other human beings." Yonnondio establishes how people make changes in their lives when things grow intolerable and further argues "that it is all wrong that people have to live in such circumstances [like the Holbrooks] when they are capable of so much. The Holbrooks were who I would be if I had led that life. You feel such respect when you know them and the agony of their defeats. They never realize what possibilities there could have been."
Yonnondio, after all, is a novel about possibility. The variety of possible directions Olsen considered for the conclusion of Yonnondio can best be seen as representative of the sense of hope and promise she held out for her novel and for her characters. And Olsen's struggle to write a novel that captured the authenticity both of the suffering of the poor and of their self-articulation is testimony to her hope that speaking out about injustice is the first step towards righting wrongs.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2433
SOURCE: "'A Child of Anxious, Not Proud, Love': Mother and Daughter in Tillie Olsen's 'I Stand Here Ironing,'" in Mother Puzzles: Daughter and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 35-9.
[In the following essay, Bauer remarks on the themes of hope and despair within the mother-daughter relationship in "I Stand Here Ironing."]
"I stand here ironing" begins the narrator in Tillie Olsen's short story that takes its title from that opening line. These are words that would never introduce a male narrator, and the facts of her woman's life, its emotional as well as economic exigencies and constraints, provide the context for this unnamed mother's meditation on her daughter Emily. A school counselor has asked to meet with her to discuss Emily, a child the counselor finds troubled and in need of help. The mother's unspoken response, "what good would it do?", introduces the questioning note on which the story expands. It is a tale of virtually unalleviated strain on the mother and daughter. But the conflicts in the story are not between them; they are within the mother. She weighs her own responsibility for the circumstances of Emily's life, acknowledges both her own power and powerlessness. And she looks with dread toward her daughter's future, afraid that it will be a joyless, meager existence consequent upon a childhood when there was not enough money or time for emotional nourishment. She fears that her daughter's life will be merely an extension of her own, the bitter fruit of labor and privation. Indeed, throughout most of the story Emily seems to reflect, in her complex and fragile psychological state, her mother's lifelong economic precariousness. But Emily comes to embody not only the immediate effects such a mother's life can have on a child, but also her mother's strength, the still living impulse toward life and harmony that she has maintained and protected.
Her mother's evocation of Emily's past life is an attempt to understand her daughter's character. Emily we are told repeatedly, has been an unhappy child. Although beautiful and joyous in infancy, nurtured by her mother, sensuously alive to light and music and texture, Emily was soon left with neighbors, then with relatives, and finally with day-care institutions to allow her mother, abandoned by her husband, to go out each day to work. It is this displacement and deprivation, Emily's being shunted off to indifferent, unresponsive strangers, that her mother feels have created the somberness, the passivity and repression that seem to characterize the present Emily.
Part of the mother's analysis, then, is a sorting out of responsibility for Emily's personality. Her child is troubled and this mother searches through the experiences of her own life to see if she could have done better. But the narrator does not take on a burden of excessive guilt. She is acutely aware of the brutal restrictions on her life. Economically alone and lonely, overworked, tired, she gave Emily all she could. But she could not give her the abundant time allowed to those in easier circumstances.
In this story, time is the first casualty of poverty. And Olsen emphasizes lack of time as the first and last restriction in the mother's consciousness. "I wish you would manage the time to come in," says the counselor. "When is there time?", thinks the mother. The tyranny of the timetable is felt repeatedly in the story. Though her infant cries and the mother trembles with the urge to feed her, she "waited till the clock decreed." For those authorities, medical and sociological, who set models of behavior for others, often define those models in terms of time; natural impulses must give way to a schedule. Jobs have their appointed hours too, and at the end of each day the mother rushes home on the streetcar to pick up her baby at a neighbor's and spend a few evening hours with her. Emily, too, suffers consciously under time's insistent power. It is the clock that she throws away when she lies awake waiting for her mother and stepfather to come home. "The clock talked loud," she explains; "it scared me what it talked." The clock, a symbol of our communal agreement to measure our lives inexorably, is placed against human rhythms that do not scare but create a natural medium for the mutual love between a mother and child. The luxury of that kind of time did not exist for Emily, although it does for the narrator's other children. We see the mother at leisure with her youngest child: "we sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light." Her quiet sitting, looking outward peacefully, holding the baby in her arms until he falls asleep, contrasts forcefully with the one scene we have of Emily's infancy. The narrator, at the end of a working day, would rush to the babysitter's to retrieve her child; "when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet." Giving the claims of motherhood their due time allows those claims their proper fulfillment; a tired child falls asleep in his mother's arms. But Emily's weeping, the result of her mother's absence at work, is a sound that is never silenced; her mother hears it forever.
Lack of money and lack of time constitute the dimensions of the mother's powerlessness. She describes her decisions repeatedly in terms of having to do something. "I had to leave her daytimes"; "I had to bring her to his family"; "I had had to send her away again." The story is filled with expressions of compulsion and lack of choice: "It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job." And Emily shares these constrictions. Sent away to a convalescent home, she received "letters she could never hold or keep." Back home, "she had to help be a mother and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal." Emily, like her mother, must accept the hard realities of life and act within its limitations. In this, they differ from Emily's father, who gives up the struggle and abandons his family. Emily and her mother do not give up.
Indeed, the mother and daughter share strengths of which the mother is not always aware. The narrator has struggled through intensely difficult times. Without money, education, skills, deserted at nineteen with an eight-month-old child, she worked to support the two of them. She reared, often while working outside the house, several other children, seemingly without much help from her second husband. And she has lived through it all. But she fears that Emily's life will be simply the grim reprise of her own impoverished existence of struggle, fear, too little time, too little money, that Emily will come to share her look of "care or tightness or worry." And, indeed, the mother sees herself in Emily; "her face is closed and sober." She sees too the ways that Emily differs from her younger brothers and sisters in both appearance and personality. Susan, the next youngest, grows into a blonde, lively, lovely child with a talent for being companionable and attractive to others. Emily, thin, dark, silent, awkward, is always aloof. For the younger children are the products of less austere times, members of a family with its attendant noise and comfort. Emily spent her young life without such easements. Like her mother, she has known long years alone and has felt their toll. Her mother understands this and fears for Emily. If much modern fiction reveals a daughter's dread of reliving her mother's life, Olsen's story dramatizes a mother's dread of that fate for her daughter.
But the reader sees the mother's strength more fully than the mother does herself. Indeed, the narrator's ability to survey her life and apportion responsibility for it shows her keen intelligence; her ability to meet life's demands without succumbing to either a paralyzing guilt or an emotional dessication shows her strength of character. And Emily shares some of her mother's power.
Emily, however, also possesses qualities all her own. She is nineteen in the story, the same age her mother was when she was deserted. But Emily's life at this moment is very different from her mother's. She is in school, and although the counselor is disturbed by her, we do not readily see why. The one glimpse we have of her is the laughing, witty young woman who teases her mother before running off to bed, "Aren't you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I'd have to paint mine standing over an ironing board." And, in fact, her mother is surprised by the energy and spark that Emily possesses. Emily has a comic talent, a gift for pantomime that shocks her mother. The first time she saw Emily on the stage, her mother could not believe it was her somber daughter. "Was this Emily? the control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives." Emily's talent for mimicry and movement, the comic exaggeration that is pantomime, cannot be accounted for by her mother's memories. And although her mother fears that Emily's gifts will never be fully developed because the family lacks the money and resources to aid and encourage her, we see, even in the small flowering of her talent and her youthful, high spirits, a sign of hope for Emily.
In the story's powerful final paragraph, the mother utters a kind of prayer. "Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to believe—help make it so there is cause for her to believe—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." Throughout the story the mother has acknowledged how little she could do for her daughter, at first how little money and time, and, in a larger sense, how little self-confidence and joy she could provide. But Emily has withstood her privations and proved her strength. Human life contains the possibility of the inexplicable gift, the spark for which others can take neither praise nor blame. The mother, in surveying her daughter's life, sees the threads that form the pattern, but she is still surprised by the figure that emerges, and is still able to hope. And the reader, perhaps because we do not know what occasioned the counselor's fears, perhaps because the only Emily we see directly is this laughing young woman, has reason to believe that the mother's prayer may be answered. Emily's character may bear the mark of her childhood's deprivations, but she has talent and strength, an auspicious alliance.
Olsen's story resists easy optimism, however. The author makes her characters' circumstances as difficult as possible. Theirs is a world of poverty, monotonous labor, estrangement, and sickness. Children are taken away; friends are taken away; when people most need each other, the quarantine of illness separates them. The mother's life is economically and spiritually hard, and her sense of human existence reflects that. She speaks of her children as "needing, demanding, hurting, taking"; she defines motherhood as the time "when the ear is not one's own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry." Although she is only thirty-eight years old, she sees her productive life as past. Olsen's art depicts a world of physically exhausting, spiritually enervating labor and its psychic and domestic costs.
In Yonnondio, her unfinished novel, Olsen explores the lives of the poor on the farm and in the factory during the 1930s. But in that fragment, Olsen's characters never achieve the self-knowledge that can make meaning out of pain. Acutely but inchoately aware of their plight, they yearn for a finer reality, but never move beyond the life they know. In Silences, her book-length compendium of reflections on creativity and the forces that impede it, she speaks of the particular burdens attendant upon being both poor and female: the toil, responsibility, triviality, and distractions that prevent such artists from expression. These are her subjects—the forces in the lives of the poor, especially poor women, that are inimical to life and voice. In "I Stand Here Ironing," however, the reader, moving through memory to vision and finally to prayer, can contemplate not just the iron, the force of fate, but the desire for fulfillment that begins to find an answer in reality.
Olsen's story is a dialogue between circumstances and desire, constraint and love, absence and presence, silence and speech, power and helplessness. Much of what the mother sees is negative. But the inner world, the domain of love and desire, are not entirely helpless before the outer world. Emily has her own personality. People respond to her and want to help her. The physical beauty that she had as a baby has returned; her early love of motion, light, color, music, and textures has found a resurrection in art. And that state which Olsen so often uses as a metaphor for repression and silence, here exemplified in the mother's reluctance to speak with the counselor, is transformed through Emily's medium, pantomime, into the creative expression of art.
Olsen portrays powerfully the economic and domestic burdens a poor woman bears, as well as the sense of both responsibility and powerlessness she feels over her children's lives. Olsen sees, however, the particular tie between a mother and daughter, explored both here and in Yonnondio. In "I Stand Here Ironing," she develops a mother's two vantage points, reflection and projection. She can review her own experience and wish her daughter to escape it, to break the pattern, be released into a fuller intellectual and emotional life. The biological tie between mother and daughter is often extrapolated into a cultural presumption that defines girls' lives as following their mothers'. But this mother does not define Emily in traditional female terms; she does not, for example, focus on her daughter's likelihood of becoming a wife and mother. Instead she hopes for a defined selfhood for Emily, a core of self-confidence, a sense of self-worth. Even in the flinty world that this story traces, Olsen demonstrates enough faith in human resilience to hope that a daughter might find a better path than her mother trod.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3625
SOURCE: "'Coming to Writing' Through the Impressionist Fiction of Tillie Olsen," in Midwestern Miscellany XXI, edited by David D. Anderson, Midwestern Press, 1993, pp. 57-67.
[In the following essay, Wolfe compares "I Stand Here Ironing" with "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" as she explores Olsen's concept of universal hope.]
Trying to define Tillie Olsen's "place" in the history of the short story is difficult, not only because of her comparatively small output, but also because she is "known and admired much more because of what she represents than because of what she has written." Olsen is best known for her insights (chronicled in Silences) into the difficulties—such as poverty, illness, family responsibilities, etc.—that block the way to success, especially in writing (and especially concerning women). She speaks of, and to, "the gifted among women (and men) [who] have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity … because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation."
Olsen herself experienced such circumstances, both first hand and through her family. She was born in Eastern Nebraska in either 1912 or 1913 to Ida and Samuel Lerner, Russian Jewish immigrants who came to America to escape punishment for their involvement in the failed 1905 uprising against the Czar. Her father worked several blue-collar jobs—packinghouse worker, farm laborer, painter, paper-hanger—to support the family, and served for several years as the state secretary for the Nebraska Socialist Party. Tillie, who left high school to take a factory job, belonged to the Young Communist League and, later, the Communist Party; she was devoted to helping the working class, as is evidenced by her two stints in jail for involvement in the organization of labor strikes.
To illustrate the plight of workers and their families during the Depression, Olsen began in 1934 to write her novel Yonnondio, which has been called "well deserving to be put aside John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as testimony to the suffering and the dreams and the disasters of the time." However, increased financial pressure on Olsen and her husband, Jack, and the heightened scrutiny of Communist Party members by the Dies Committee (which contributed to that financial pressure) forced the writer to abandon the novel in 1937 and concentrate her efforts on working various jobs and raising her children (she had four daughters in all).
Due to these responsibilities and time constraints, Olsen was kept from any productive writing until the early 1950's, when she began writing the four short stories that, in 1961, were collected as Tell Me a Riddle. Following this, she again had to return to work, and published almost nothing until the short story Requa, and an article in College English, in 1971–2. The Yonnondio manuscript was found and finally published, still unfinished, in 1974. Silences (a collection of essays and quotations) followed in 1978, and since then Tillie Olsen, now 80, has been in great demand as a public speaker and visiting instructor.
Though Olsen is no longer "silenced," she has experienced the circumstances that keep people from realizing their full potential; she had, as she says, "lost consciousness. A time of anesthesia … as if writing had never been." Though she still feels that she lacked the opportunity to write to the best of her creative ability, she did manage to largely overcome her difficult circumstances, and it is that kernel of hope in her own life that extends to become central to her stories, surrounded though that kernel may be by apparent despair. This is most evident in the stories which make up Tell Me a Riddle; in Abigail Martin's words,
Each simply tells of lives caught in frustration and pain—caught, but not, in the end, overcome. She [Olson] shows that humanity can never be stifled. Dreams remain, and remnants of beauty—even hope.
In the refusal of Olsen's characters to be utterly determined by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their lives, her fiction is, I believe, lifted out of the mire of naturalism and into impressionism. To illustrate this, I've chosen to examine the first and second stories in Tell Me a Riddle, which I believe are the most and least familiar, respectively. "I Stand Here Ironing" has been anthologized over fifty times, and illustrates Olsen's particular concern with the difficulties faced by women. On the other hand, "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is seldom examined, and is the one story in the collection whose focal character is not a woman. While Olsen is best known for portrayals of women in stifling circumstances, her themes of hope are not intended to apply solely to the female gender; my examination of these two stories will focus on the universal nature of that hope instead of differentiating it between the sexes. As Pearlman states,
Tillie Olsen is interested in the silences shared by all people, and not in what she sees as the current overemphasis on … sub-definitions of human experience, which, in her opinion, serve only to divide us further.
In not being strictly bound by the tenets of naturalism, Olsen somewhat resembles Sherwood Anderson, who is described by Danforth Ross as "influenced by naturalism because it was in the air he breathed, but there was also a good deal of the romantic in him … [he] poignantly suggest[s] the contrast between ideal and actuality." Olsen, in illustrating similar contrasts, utilizes the "typical themes" of impressionism as put forth by Ferguson—alienation, isolation, the quest for identity—and her writing style, including that in "I Stand Here Ironing" and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is largely representative of characteristics of that movement.
The first, and most important, of these is the emphasis put on presenting the inner experiences of the characters, while playing down physical action; the "action" in an impressionistic story is comprised chiefly of the evolving thoughts and emotions of the characters. Weaver states that
Olsen's technique is an innovative combination of third-person narrative, dialogue, and interior monologue that reveals her characters' thoughts, memories, and perceptions … Olsen's [stories] move from dialogue inward, focusing on individual instants of experience.
The movement of "I Stand Here Ironing" is related almost wholly as interior monologue, the most immediate and, I think, dramatic way in which to focus on the inner life of a character. The mother, as she carries out the careful yet drudging chore of ironing, also carries on the story of her oldest daughter's neglected childhood, periodically asking questions of the non-existent (and unspoken) school official who wishes to "help" the girl:
Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.
There is brief dialogue toward the end of the story, when the daughter enters the room; the short exchange shifts the emphasis partially away from the introspective mother, and gives the reader a very fleeting firsthand glimpse of the inner life of the girl which the mother has been remembering for us: "Aren't you ever going to finish ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I'd have to paint mine standing over an ironing board."
There is more of a combination of techniques in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" As the story begins, we hear Whitey's inebriated interior thoughts, which return periodically throughout the story amid the third-person narrative and dialogue. As the degenerating seafarer sits at the bar, those thoughts are revealed with little intrusion from the narrator:
"Gotta something. Stand watch? No, din't show last night, ain't gonna show tonight, gonna sign off. Out loud: Hell with ship. You got any friends, ship? Then hell with your friends."
Even the sensory details of the setting in the story are chosen to reflect the state of mind of the character who is perceiving those details; at the outset of the story, we see Whitey's surroundings through his eyes:
The grimy light; the congealing smell of cigarettes that had been smoked long ago and of liquor that had been drunk long ago; the boasting, cursing, wheedling, cringing voices, and the greasy feel of the bar as he gropes for his glass.
The reality in each of these stories is necessarily subjective; In "Ironing," we see everything as though we are inside the mother's mind, and in "Hey Sailor" nearly all of the story's atmosphere is revealed thoroughly through Whitey, who trembles with alcoholism and has a fresh scar on his face but can't comprehend how awful he appears. He doesn't recognize his own deterioration, and is shocked to see the age in the face of Lennie's wife: "(Helen? so … grayed?)."
This illustrates a paradox which Olsen frequently discusses as an obstacle to understanding, and changing, one's own life; that "immersion in life means loss of perspective, or vision." Olsen, as the narrator, uses what she terms "trespass vision" in order to gain for her readers that perspective. This is not readily apparent in "Ironing;" due to the internal nature of the narrative, readers are as immersed in the mother's over-whelming exhaustion as the mother is herself. The mountains of memories she must tunnel through to try and explain her daughter are recalled by the pile of ironing she must methodically deal with, chasing the iron back and forth.
Olsen's "trespass vision" is more easily ascertained in the second story. Whitey is so mired in his drunkenness that he does not consciously articulate the choice he must make between his two lives; the knowledge manifests itself indirectly as two refrains which continually counterpoint in his mind: "Hey sailor, what ship? and "Lennie and Helen and the kids."
Olsen's emphasis on this repeating pattern in both the mother's life (her repeated dredging up of memories to try and smooth them, as she does with clothing in her continuous ironing) and in Whitey's life (his seesawing between debauchery and domesticity) represents, in part, what Ellen Cronan Rose sees as "Olsen's definition of the creative act" and the artist's relationship to her material; "Fidelity to fact, but essential fact. Form and pattern, but exposed, not imposed." I don't entirely agree. However subjective the realities of the mother's and Whitey's characters may be no matter how immersed they are in them—Olsen, in exposing that, necessarily imposes some part of her own subjective reality upon those of her characters. I don't believe it's possible to expose without simultaneously imposing, either deliberately or unconsciously. For instance, the ironing the mother is doing may be linked to the flat, repressed quality of Emily's childhood. Similarly, the undulating quality of Whitey's life connects very smoothly (too smoothly for coincidence) with the water imagery and wave metaphors that Olsen plants throughout the story.
The use of metaphor (and metonymy) is another hallmark of impressionism. Reminders of ironing are found throughout the first story, such as the overwhelming, neverending pile of memories that the mother relates; just as a chore like ironing is never completely done, she can't articulate all of the things that have affected her daughter, she "will never total it all." Emily is explicitly compared to the flattened, ironed clothes themselves: "Only help her to know … that she is more than this dress on the ironing board." Though the mother may stand there and attempt to smooth out the wrinkles in Emily (the result of her unavoidable neglect), she knows that they will never completely or permanently disappear.
Constantly present in "Hey Sailor" are images of water; apropos of Whitey's occupation, water and waves permeate the story. For example, the bottles behind the bar "glisten in the depths;" the rain-wet street is "clogged" with traffic; and Helen remarks that she is "keeping [her] head above water." The very way that Whitey's life has moved back and forth between life at sea and life with Lennie's family, and up and down from a height of youth and pride to a low of age and alcoholism is suggestive of the movement of the waves on which Whitey has lived; the "watery shifting: many faces, many places." And at the end, he sees Lennie and Helen's house atop a "crest" of the waves of the city buildings, and while it remains at the top, "he goes down." Whitey rides the waves of his existence while he drowns within "the bottle" metonymically, the object is suggestive of the unspecified drink. It could be whiskey or cheap wine; it doesn't matter what's in the bottle, only that Whitey is a prisoner inside it.
Readers of these stories are also prisoners, as we've seen; chiefly of the mother's and Whitey's points of view. Even our perceptions of time are necessarily their perceptions; while the pieces of Emily's life are related in order in "Ironing," the events in "Hey Sailor" do not always happen chronologically, but rather are related as they occur to Whitey's troubled memory. William Van O'Connor praises Olsen for "set[ting] a scene quickly and then let[ting] the characters take over," and this limitation of point of view lends economy to Olsen's style. As the narrator, she does not indulge in lengthy explanations of events, but instead allows the reader to glean information from the characters.
That is, until the fourth and final section of "Hey Sailor," in which Whitey returns drunk to Lennie's house after being admonished not to leave. Lennie and Helen are angry at Whitey's behavior around the children, and hurt in their imminent realization that he is beyond help, and older daughter Jeannie is embarrassed by Whitey and cannot understand the relationship between this man and her parents; "He's just a Howard Street wino now—why don't you and Daddy kick him out of the house? He doesn't belong here." The characters aren't communicating anymore; they cannot articulate the heightened tension between them, the various memories flooding their minds so Olsen steps in and articulates it for them.
It begins with a sentence, explaining Whitey's unconscious probing of his own facial features; "Tracing the scars, the pits and lines, the battered nose, seeking to find." After Jeannie's outburst to Helen, the explanation grows to two paragraphs, ending with "… there were memories to forget, dreams to be stifled, hopes to be murdered." A page later, three paragraphs are needed; "Understand. The death of the brotherhood … Remember too much, too goddam much." Finally, just as Lennie poignantly comments "Jesus, man, you're a chunk of our lives," an entire page of narrator intrusion is required to handle the rush of memory and emotion that is triggered in Whitey, ending yet again with the refrain "the memories to forget, the dreams to be stifled, the hopeless hopes to be murdered."
Although Whitey ultimately, and abruptly, leaves for good—"I'm goin' now … Go own steam. Send you a card"—Lennie had gotten to him, as evidenced by the conflated history of their friendship that crashes through his mind. Amid the tension, there is a moment of connection.
Looked at one way, "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is a cheerless story; but examined in a different light its beauty of almost perfect devotion shows forth. Lennie and Helen and Whitey rise above surface things … Poverty and trouble exist, but they cannot touch the core of love deep within these people.
The moments of communication in these two stories may be rare, but shared experiences permeate the relationships between Emily and her mother and between Whitey and Lennie and Helen; and this very communion, coupled with the perseverence each main character musters at the end of each story, is central to Olsen's writing. Though her characters are so often stifled by circumstance, something of their lives is eventually illuminated in them, and gives them some kind of hope; that illumination is part of what Olsen terms "Come to writing:"
"Come to writing" … expresses [Olsen's] vitalistic conception of the creative process. It means the inarticulate finding words, the dumbly sensed becoming sensible, the incipient meaning finding form. For the writer, it is breaking silence. For the actor in an Olsen fiction, it is a moment of perceiving, of knowing that there is shape and direction in the ceaseless flow of what must be.
In "I Stand Here Ironing," the mother's cumulative remembrance of the encouragement that was lacking in Emily's upbringing culminates in the arrival of Emily herself, who "runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step." It is "one of her communicative nights," and she converses lightly with her mother. Though the mother's melancholy reminiscing has exhausted her enough that even this banter seems oppressive ("because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight"), the fact that her daughter is capable of it at all gives her hope to hang on to. She realizes that the circumstances of her early parenting have made it difficult for Emily to ever reach her full potential; but what is most important is her further realization that Emily may rise above that, at least a little, despite being "a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear." While this perception is anything but jubilant, "There is still enough left to live by."
This story is almost certainly autobiographical; in the mother we see Tillie Olsen, who had herself been stifled between Yonnondio and this writing, and whose first daughter endured many of the same hardships that Emily has endured. We can assume that the mother here, due to her responsibilities in the home, will never find out what creative capacity she possesses, so she hopes for this in her daughter instead, who has shown a talent for performing. Olsen may have felt that way herself, but refused to give up; as the mother in "Ironing" (and, potentially, the daughter) discovers hope, Olsen illustrates the moment of "coming [back] to writing" in her own life.
The events in "Hey Sailor" build toward Whitey's own pinnacle of perception. He is confused when he first arrives at Lennie and Helen's house; he has "imaged and entered it over and over again, in a thousand various places a thousand various times," and the memory has sustained him during his long jaunts at sea. But this time he isn't bursting in with gifts, feeling on top of the world. He's sick, has trouble climbing the front steps, and is too weakened to gracefully endure the children's enthusiastic greetings; "Whitey's just gonna sit here….
Later in the night, when Allie climbs onto his lap after a bad dream (she was "losted"), Whitey welcomes her, but his protection is bittersweet because he knows deep inside him that he will never get to play this father role; "He starts as if he has been burned … It is destroying, dissolving him utterly, this helpless warmth against him, this feel of a child-lost country to him and unattainable." Finally the unaccustomed distraction and attention of the family overwhelms Whitey—he needs solitude, much as Olsen's silenced writers need uninterrupted solitude in which to devote their efforts to their creativity. So he "endures" their good-night affections and is left alone.
When he wakes, however, the complete silence of the empty house troubles Whitey; he is used to hearing the sounds of people, the ship, the sea. Being apart from his usual life does offer Whitey some perspective on that life—he realizes that he misses the accustomed sounds of shared mornings. He wanders through the house, noting the work that needs to be done, and remembers how useful he formerly was to the family. While that makes him proud, he knows that he's no longer up to it, and that knowledge "hurts in his stomach."
It is when Whitey returns again, drunk, and the atmosphere in the house is so raucous and tense, that he—and, perhaps, Lennie and Helen—finally realize at a conscious level that he has chosen to devote whatever time remains to him to his seafaring life, that he is returning for good to this room where he can yell or sing or pound and Deeck will look on without reproach or pity or anguish." This recognition of Whitey's direction arrives at the moment he answers Lennie roughly, "Shove it … So you're a chunk of my life. So?"
This is not a happy ending, by any means; Whitey is beyond help and headed for death, and will never experience the family life that Lennie has found. But he is not without a certain dignity; as he recites "Crown 'n' Deep" for the children, its words connect him with the hero of the poem; "I shall be speech in thy ears, fragrance and color/Light and shout and loved song … /O crown and deep of my sorrows, I am leaving all with thee, my friends." Whitey asserts his independence, and while his approaching end may be a sad one, he has displayed a kind of strength in taking a measure of control over his life and that instant of perception, and the taking of control, represents a "coming to writing" for his character.
Tillie Olsen believes that the potential to "come to writing" exists in every person:
Unlike many of her modern and contemporary peers who espouse individualism and the cult of self, Olsen believes in Matthew Arnold's communal "human struggle bursting the thick wall of self."
Her fiction reveals a deep understanding of stifling circumstances, but offers a glimmer of hope. If, as a colleague has asserted to me, Joyce Carol Oates is a "postmodern romantic, then perhaps Tillie Olsen is her immediate precursor—a modern romantic whose work is ultimately a "celebration of human beings," containing a belief that "there is so much more to people than their lives permit them to be."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7712
SOURCE: "Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle: The Dialectics of Silence," in Frontiers, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1994, pp. 1-22.
[In the following essay, Pfaelzer discusses the ways in which Olsen uses language and silence in Tell Me a Riddle to represent Eva's journey from alienation to engagement.]
Logos, the expressed word, empowers. "God said, 'Let there be light,' And there was light" (Gen. 1:3). By the act of speech, God ascribed reality and assigned meaning to the object of his desire. Inevitably, man arrogated this divine power to himself: "Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast in the field and every bird in the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them: whatever the man called every living creature, that was his name" (Gen. 2:19). And the word reified.
But by what word shall woman call every living creature? For the past decade, feminist critics have debated the phallocentric nature of language—the relationship between patriarchy and language, the relationship between patriarchy and silence. Feminist theorists Helene Cixous and Monique Wittig argue that phallocentrism is logocentrism; they find that a woman's speech, even rebellious or dissenting speech, is made up of the signs and signifiers of patriarchy. Hence, they call for a retreat from language, directly through silence or obliquely, through the discontinuities and disruptions of avant-garde rhetorical practices. Many feminist novelists, however, particularly ones who write from the "margins" of the American literary canon, such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Tillie Olsen, appear to reject the notion that language is inevitably repressive and that silence is inevitably resistant. In narratives about reclaiming women's power and/or ethnicity, these authors thematize female language. And they do not conclude that language is his. Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle (1956), is a powerful study of the politics of voice and suggests to us that there is a way to represent silence, not normatively, but historically and dialectically. This reading of Tell Me a Riddle explores the ways in which speech is marked by gender, ethnicity, class, and the tensions of bilingualism. Inevitably, it thereby considers differences between empiricist, Lacanian, Marxist-feminist, and post-structuralist theories of female speech.
Set in the 1950s, "Tell Me a Riddle" is the story of the death of Eva, an old Russian Jewish woman who emigrated to the United States as a young bride and surrendered her political voice and identity while she raised seven children in poverty. As Eva (Eve—the first woman, the first mother) faces cancer and death, we watch her negotiate the silence that represents first her alienation and then her freedom. Unaware of the true nature of her illness, Eva allows her husband to take her on a long voyage to visit the families of her grown children. Initially, her passage from involuntary to voluntary silence, from repression to quietude, forces her to relinquish her mothering role with its speech of comfort and self-abnegation. This verbal isolation precedes the recovery of her youthful political voice—the hopeful words she spoke and the songs she sang as a leader in the 1905 Russian revolution. Thus, silence marks Eva's passage from alienation to engagement and reconnection as Olsen rescripts the romance quest; "Tell Me a Riddle" begins where a domestic novel used to end, in marriage, and questions whether husband, love, motherhood, and family compensate for the atrophy of a woman's voice. Eventually, through the rediscovery of her political voice, Eva rediscovers her capacity to love.
Marguerite Duras, French novelist and deconstructionist, suggests that a woman who writes within the existing symbolic order is either a plagiarist or a mere translator of male discourse. Men, she observes,
have established the principle of virile force. And everything that emerged from this virile force—including words, unilateral words—reinforced the silence of women. In my opinion, women have never expressed themselves. It is as if you asked me: "Why aren't there writers in the proletariat? Why aren't there musicians among workers?" That's exactly the same thing. There are no musicians among the workers just as there are no musicians among women … To be a composer you must have total possession of your liberty.
In "Tell Me a Riddle", Tillie Olsen suggests that neither workers, immigrants, nor women, groups that of course are not necessarily distinct, have waited for the "total possession of their liberty" to sing or write. Rejecting repression as the sole explanation of female identity, Olsen inscribes silence, not just as a repudiation of male discourse, but as a way to represent radical subjectivity in the process of coming into being. In this regard, "Tell Me a Riddle" confirms critic Chris Weedon's observation that language is how we represent to ourselves our "lived relation" to our material circumstances. For Helene Cixous, the possibility of self-expressive language—for woman, man, or "ungendered individual"—assumes that a preexisting subjectivity awaits expression. By contrast, Eva's rediscovery of a radical subjectivity through the recovery of her speaking identity challenges the view that a woman's speech fixes her in either a "womanly" or an "alienated" position. In "Tell Me a Riddle", language itself is the site of struggle; verbal contact with other expressive and rebellious people who celebrate their historical and ethnic heritage transforms Eva's identity. Her language and consciousness evolve collectively, through the simultaneous processes of differentiation from and identification with her family and old radical Jewish friends. Which is to say, Eva's language and consciousness evolve dialectically, through the negation of silence as negation as she recuperates her political voice. Thus, "Tell Me a Riddle" offers an alternative to silence on the one hand or the recovery of an essentialist, ahistorical identity on the other. For Olsen, language is social, rebellious, and portends the possibility of change.
Eva, in a sense, like any woman, resides in what Elaine Showalter has termed the "wild zone," an abstract space that exists outside of ideology. Pictured by Showalter as a circle that overlaps that of the dominant culture, the "wild zone" survives and, indeed, thrives outside of patriarchy, its hegemonic but not enslaving neighbor. In this precarious geography, I believe women can speak of constriction, exclusion, dispossession, and resistance. And not in his tongue. While "Tell Me a Riddle" predates the contemporary debate over female utterance, Olsen defines the radical and feminist potential of language; in effect, she implicitly rejects the post-structuralist conclusion that language is a male activity, and she repudiates the romanticization of silence.
Xavière Gauthier has aptly described the trap of yielding language to men, nothing that throughout the course of history women "have been mute, and it is doubtless by virtue of this mutism that men have been able to speak and write. As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But if they begin to speak and write AS MEN DO, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it is a history that logically speaking their speech should disrupt." Olsen invokes a disruptive voice when Eva, on her deathbed, remembers and sings the revolutionary lyrics of Victor Hugo, while her husband longs for loving words of comfort and recognition. Olsen reproduces but subverts Hugo's lyrics through the pain of Eva's misdiagnosed disease and the rage of her repressed female life. Through Olsen, we find that we need not force feminist discourse completely outside the symbolic order, a sociolinguistic system reserved by Lacanians for patriarchy.
Issues of silence and repression have pervaded Tillie Olsen's life. She was born to Ida and Sam Lerner "somewhere" in Nebraska, in 1912 or 1913; "No birth certificate seems to exist," she has said. She recalls that in an articulate and lively family of Russian-Jewish emigrés who were active in socialist politics, she was a child who stuttered. Olsen found her voice, however, in writing politically engaged fiction, although this voice was frequently repressed by economic and political pressures. Deborah Rosenfelt has observed that few of Olsen's contemporary admirers realize the extent to which her "consciousness, vision and choice of subject" are rooted in the communist "Old Left" of the 1930s and 1940s; Olsen's early skits for the Young People's Socialist League, her membership, at age 17, in the Young Communist League (the youth organization of the Communist party), and her organizing projects for the congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). During these years of imprisonment, work in a ties factory, community organizing, and mother hood, she published some poems in the Daily Worker and, for a time, a column in the People's World. After her first story, "The Iron Thread," appeared in Partisan Review in 1934, two prominent editors failed to locate her because she was in jail, officially charged with vagrancy but in fact imprisoned for refusing to answer questions about her communist activities. The implications of this arrest frame her first study of silence and repression, "The Thousand Dollar Vagrant," published in 1934. Soon thereafter Bennett Cerf and Donald Klepfer of Random House heard an early version of her first novel, Yonondio, and offered her a stipend to write a chapter a month to complete the text. Even though she sent her daughter off to relatives in order to have time to write, Olsen never finished Yonondio, which was eventually published in its incomplete form in 1974.
Material pressures persisted during the forties and fifties. After her marriage to Jack Olsen, a union printer, and the birth of three more daughters, Olsen continued to write—on busses or after the children were in bed. In 1959, when she finally received a Ford grant that would give her the time that only money can buy, she observed, "I am a partially destroyed human who pays the cost of all those years of not writing, of deferring, postponing, of doing others work—its in my body too (deafened ear from transcribing) etc." In Silences (1962), her eloquent study of the circumstances that frustrate voice, Olsen wrote, "Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all…. The silences I speak of here are unnatural."
In "Tell Me a Riddle", Eva's silence is "unnatural" because it results from and is conceived within the repressions of immigration, poverty, housework, Post-holocaust fear, and the Cold War. When the story opens, Eva has refused her husband David's plea to sell their old house and move into his union's retirement home, "The Haven":
"What do we need all this for?" he would ask loudly for her hearing aid was turned down and the vacuum was shrilling. "Five rooms" (pushing the sofa so she could get into the corner) "furniture" (smoothing down the rug) "floors and surfaces to make work. Tell me, why do we need it?" And he was glad he could ask in a scream.
"Because I'm use't."
"Because you're use't. This is a reason, Mrs. Word Miser? Used to can get unused!"
"Enough unused I have to get used to already … Not enough words?" turning off the vacuum a moment to hear herself answer. "Because soon enough we'll need only a little closet, no windows, no furniture, nothing to make work, but for worms. Because now I want room…. Screech and blow like you're doing, you'll need that closet even sooner…. Ha, again!" for the vacuum bag wailed, puffed half up, hung stubbornly limp.
The couple's only shared activity is housework, but for Eva, without work, now there is only death. To sell the house would deprive her of her only power, if only the illusion of power. Overworked, she finds herself paradoxically "unused," a woman's pun on unfulfilled and unfamiliar. Olsen marks this couple's conflict as a struggle between sound and silence. As Eva attacks David for his postured speech, "screech and blow," he attacks her for her silences, "Mrs. Word Miser," with the masculine assault at verbal female withholding. Yet both Eva and David are empty; if Eva is "unused," David is associated with the limp, half-puffed-up vacuum bag, here a pitiable loss of male power. At this point Eva's only act of resistance is to "turn off her ear button so she would not have to hear." In this gesture that fails to stop David from selling their home, Eva mistakes silence for control.
One reading of this text might situate the repressions of Eva's language, and thereby her desire, in representation itself. The post-structuralist proscription against representation derives, in part, from the Lacanian view that the phallus is the enscriber and enactor of patriarchy. Helene Cixous, for example, argues that women, historically, have been "matter subjected to the desire he wishes to imprint." Eva's social condition would thus emerge as an analogy of her biology—a space, a gap, empty, waiting to be filled or defined. Along similar lines, Xavière Gauthier suggests that "women find their place within the linear, grammatical, linguistic system that orders the symbolic, the superego, the law. It is a system based entirely upon one fundamental signifier: the phallus."
One of the few ways out of this colony of silence is through the ruptures of the avant-garde. Julia Kristeva observes that because women are "estranged from language" they have no access to the phallocentric order, which adheres in symbolic discourses. If women do want to "have a role to play in this on-going (historical) process, it is only in assuming a negative function: reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning." Otherwise, as in most novels written by women, language will seem "to be seen from a foreign land."
Likewise, Helene Cixous endorses "only the poets—not the novelists, allies of representation. Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious, and because the unconscious is the place where the repressed manage to survive." Hence, only "a Kleist" or "a Rimbaud" can speak the feminine. For Kristeva and Cixous, according to Gayatri Spivak, evocative literature alone has "the power of indeterminate suggestion rather than determinate reference" and only indeterminacy can "overwhelm and sabotage the signifying conventions." (It is interesting that both Cixous and Kristeva focus on the white male avant-garde.)
Mary Jacobus, however, suggests that such a plea for a feminine language of indeterminacy returns us to "the pre-Oedipal phase of rhythmic, onomatopoetic babble which precedes the symbolic but remains inscribed in those pleasurable and rupturing aspects of language identified particularly with avant-garde literary practice." She concludes that this definition of women's language marks either a rejection of language itself or a return to a specifically feminine linguistic domain of oppression and confinement.
To avoid the masculine hegemony of connotation and denotation, should feminists talk baby talk? Another problem: this alternative female discourse, like male discourse, is hegemonic and appears to eradicate difference, dialect, and interpretation. Moreover, it does not account for languages of resistance. If phallogocentrism determines all our "signifying conventions," from whence comes the language that names and defines agents of repression? From whence come the linguistic constructions of a rebellious subjectivity?
It seems to me that earlier in the century, while understanding full well what Cixous would later term the "solidarity of phallocentrism and logocentrism," Virginia Woolf recognized defiant possibilities in referential language. In A Room of One's Own, she describes how a man uses a woman's word to inflate his power: "Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power, probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown." The female speaker, essentially an author, has participated in the creation of a fictitious hero/listener who is convinced by her speech of his omniscience. But here Woolf is identifying only the traditional activity of speech (la parole), not the very tools of speech (la langue). She adds, if woman "begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the size he really is?" For Woolf, oppression derives from the content and function of language rather than from words and symbols themselves. While she often played with language herself, she also saw that women can use words to "tell the truth." Therein lies the liberating potential of language: referential discourse can rupture the mystifications upon which patriarchy survives.
Clearly, as Sheila Rowbotham notes, "Language conveys a certain power. It is one of the instruments of domination." How to usurp this power? Donna Stanton, while accepting the concept of phallogocentrism, suggests that a woman can "deconstruct the myths of objectivity and truth, and challenge the authority of the Word only by using fragments, both materia and methods, from the phallocentric heritage she questions. And these relics from the past must ultimately be reinscribed within the bounds of the discourse she seeks to subvert, since no other exists which can transmit her visions." And this, I suggest, is what Olsen would have us do.
What then do Eva's gestures toward silence and her ultimate recovery of language signify? Eva's subjectivity is not solely an effect of language, nor is it solely constituted by language.
Likewise, Eva's silence hardly comes from the inward folds and tunnels of her anatomy. She has been silenced by religion, history, class, and gender—shamed by her children for her accent, isolated from community by long hours of hand washing and repairing used clothes for seven children. Thus, when David tries to tempt her to move from their house by announcing that there is a reading circle in the "Haven," she responds: "'Enjoy!' She tasted the word. 'Now, when it pleases you, you find a reading circle for me. And forty years ago when the children were morsels and there was a Circle, did you stay home with them once so I could go? Even once? You trained me well. I do not need others to enjoy."
Images of eating inscribe Eva's anger as she "spews forth" words and accuses David of "diarrhea of the mouth." Food, in Olsen's story, is a layered metaphor for oppression and expression, suggesting a mixture of love and hate, dependence and autonomy, nurture and aggression, poverty and abundance, and significant domestic labor. To evocative oral associations, Olsen adds women's literal work of providing, buying, and cooking food; for example, Eva shamefully recalls asking the butcher for "dog bones" with which she would feed her family.
Thus images of silence and food mark this story of female deprivation and resistance. Soon after David announces his plan to sell their house, Eva becomes quite ill, with "a ravening inside," again the metaphor of hunger unfulfilled. Ironically, the doctor first suggests that Eva "get a new hearing aid," in essence, listen, internalize, respond. Eventually, he discovers that Eva has cancer of the stomach, a cruel irony for a woman who saw her life as one of feeding others. Again, the two images fuse: "More and more she lay silent in bed … a bellyful of bitterness," a mute surrender that precedes her quest for identity and social integration. In contrast, David uses words to placate, to be obsequious to other men and to lie to her. To Eva, who still sees language as betrayal, David is "a babbler," a "yesman, entertainer, whatever they want of you."
David has betrayed Eva by secretly selling their house, forcing her on a death-bound and homeless journey to their various grown children—a symbolic diaspora. For Eva the long cross-country trip becomes a journey into memory and silence, prompted and contextualized by the social choices her children and grandchildren have made, choices that she will reject. Her eldest daughter has returned to Judaism, which signifies gender betrayal and genocide to Eva: "Swindler! does she look back on the dark centuries? Candles bought instead of bread and stuck into a potato for a candlestick? Religion that stifled and said: in Paradise, woman, you will be the footstool of your husband, and in life—poor chosen Jew—ground under, despised, trembling in cellars. And cremated. And cremated." Her second daughter, consumed by mother-love, is raising four children with the "drowning into needing and being needed." At this daughter's house Eva refuses to hold the "warm, seductive babies," seeking, instead, to be "stilled of clamor, in the reconciled solitude, to journey to her self." Only in a grandson's rock collection does she find temptation, in a piece of obsidian, "frozen to black glass, never to transform the fossil memory." The silent and invulnerable stone resists imprint and rejects entanglement.
Motherhood, for Eva, represents a powerful symbiotic relationship that she must relinquish on this "journey to her self." In Silences, written at the same time as Tell Me a Riddle, Olsen observed:
"In motherhood, as it is structured, circumstances for sustained creation are almost impossible … the need cannot be first … Motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible. Children need one now (and remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health the outside world is not). The very fact that these are needs of love, not duty,… that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual…. Work interrupted, deferred, postponed makes blockage…. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be.
Olsen also portrays the contradictions of maternal subjectivity through the children's reactions to Eva's "journey to her self." Her daughters, in particular, bitterly resent her retreat. One, for example, calls Eva an "unnatural grandmother, not able to make herself embrace a baby."
As Nancy Chodorow has observed, many daughters learn from their mothers to repress their own dependency needs while mimicking the mother's nurturing skills. Often daughters (as well as sons) first construct autonomous subjectivity through conflicts with their mothers: "Differentiation, separation and disruption of the narcissistic relation to reality are developed through learning that the mother is a separate being with separate interests and activities that do not always coincide with just what the infant wants at the time." Although a child generally accepts her father's independence early on, she comes to understand her mother's autonomy more gradually. Over time, she may view her mother in particular, and women in general, with fear and dependency, anger and desire.
Perhaps a daughter's awareness of maternal mortality finally establishes her mother's autonomy. Despite the children's resentment of Eva's cancer, the dying woman comes to understand that she must repudiate mother-love en route to her recovery of an integrated self: "It was not that she had not loved her babies, her children. The love—the passion of tending—had risen with the need like a torrent; and like a torrent drowned and immolated all else…. Only the thin pulsing left that could not quiet, suffering over lives one felt, but could no longer hold nor help." The passion of motherhood, posed as a metaphor for language itself, is the hardest to "quiet." As Eva withdraws from motherhood she begins to put forth a radical alternative, "To look back and learn what humanizes—this to teach. To smash all ghettos that divide us—not to go back, not to go back—this to teach." Her utopian moment resides in historical memory and anticipates the recovery of her political identity and voice.
Silence for Eva, then, is a historicized muzzle that reinscribes rather than resists marginality. At first Eva finds that just as language secures authority, silence provides shelter. Initially, silence loosens the power of David's language of assertion and the children's language of need. As her journey progresses, she begins to identify the violence of their familial language. During one of the enforced visits to her grown children, Eva escapes from the family gathering of "blows and screams." Hiding on a shelf in a closet she discovers the silence found behind frilly dresses. This significant moment ends in empathetic reengagement with a granddaughter:
It was the afternoons that saved.
While they thought she napped, she would leave the mosaic on the wall (of children's drawings, maps, calendars, pictures, Ann's cardboard dolls with their great ringed questioning eyes) and hunch in the girls' closet on the low shelf where the shoes stood, and the girls' dresses covered.
Blows, screams, a call: "Grandma!" For her? Oh please not for her. Hide, hunch behind the dresses deeper. But a trembling little body hurls itself beside her—surprised, smoothered [sic] laughter, arms around her neck, tears rub dry on her cheek, and words too soft to understand whisper into her ear (Is this where you hide too, Grammy? It's my secret place, we have a secret now).
And the sweat beads, and the long shudder seizes.
Neither the enclosed domestic space of the closet, the frills of girlhood dresses, nor the possibly metaphoric dark and wombic retreat in fact protects her from the assaults of expectations. This passage recalls Eva's earlier experiences of defenseless enclosure in a Russian prison, thereafter on a steerage deck on an immigrant ship, and finally in her house; it also suggests Olsen's scattered references to shelves of stacked bodies in concentration camps and slave ships. The private is historical.
Both the structure and style of "Tell Me a Riddle" provide us with tools to consider alternative explanations of female speech and silence. Olsen was well aware of the problematics of gendered language. In 1981 she said, "I'm tormented by things having to do with the language we use, and whether it is indeed poisoned language, male language." However, as Eva reclaims her political identity, her language suggests radical possibilities of disjuncture. Unlike those who privilege the avant-garde for its attack on representation per se, Olsen accounts for the fissures in Eva's language and memory through her political, religious, economic, and sexual oppression. Indeed, "Tell Me a Riddle" is a modernist text. The narrative is discontinuous, with movements back and forth across time, in and out of omniscience and internal dialogue, the perspective deliberately disjointed. Olsen scripts Eva's voyage to identity through gaps, fractured discourse, written intervals, and disassembled point of view.
At the last stage of her enforced journey (paradoxically westward), David takes her to Venice, California, which, in the 1950s, was an impoverished beach community of retired Jewish immigrants, the "cast off old," who spend their days sitting on peeling park benches and looking out to sea. There, Eva and David encounter an old friend, Ellen Mays, who lives in one stench-filled attic room: "Thirty years are compressed into a dozen sentences; and the present, not even in three." Again, the metaphor of language fuses with images of poverty and repression. Similarly, the houses and the old Jews alike are "abandoned … all boarded up and still." Stunned by Ellen's poverty, Eva observes:
Shrinking the life of her into one room like a coffin Rooms and rooms like this I lie on the quilt and hear them talk
Please, Mrs. Orator-without-Breath
Once you went for coffee I walked I saw A Balzac a Chekhov to write it Rummage Alone On scraps.
"Scraps" becomes a metonym for hunger, aging, speech, and the politics of Chekhovian realism, which might enscribe female poverty.
On the one hand, Luce Irigary, a disciple of Lacan, might interpret this kind of disjointed speech as an analogue of female anatomy wherein a woman "at least when she dares to speak out … retouches herself constantly. She just barely separates from herself some chatter, an exclamation, a half-secret, a sentence left in suspense—When she returns to it, it is only to set out again from another point of pleasure or pain." Irigary finds that the distinguishing feature of a woman's statement is one of "contiguity. They touch (upon). And when they wander too far from this nearness, she stops and begins again from 'zero'; her body-sex organ." The implication of this view, as Chris Weedon has observed, is that there is no space for resistance within the terms of symbolic language, and hence, women who do not wish to repress their femaleness have no access to representation. They abdicate any claim to the symbolic order and must retreat into separateness.
In contrast to Irigary, Rachel Blau DuPlessis' view of ruptures in the conventional sentence and sequence in women's narratives comes closer to Olsen's historicized and politicized intentions: "Breaking the sentence severs dominant authority and ideology. Breaking the sequence is a critique of narrative, restructuring its orders and priorities precisely by attention to specific issues of female identity and its characteristic oscillations." Establishing her critique through an analysis of ideology rather than biology, DuPlessis refuses to define a universal or normative female form and also refuses to reduce female subjectivity to female sexuality. Following Woolf, she observes that a woman's sentence is a "psychological sentence," first, because it "deepens external realism with a picture of consciousness at work," and second, because it involves a critique of "her own consciousness, saturated as it is with images of dominance." DuPlessis finds nothing exclusively female about this sentence because writers of both sexes have used this "elastic" and "enveloping" form. Nevertheless she suggests that it is a woman's sentence "because of its cultural and situational function, a dissension stating that women's minds and concerns have been neither completely or accurately produced in literature as we know it. Breaking the sentence is a way of rupturing language and tradition sufficiently to invite a female slant, emphasis or approach."
Olsen's sentences in "Tell Me a Riddle"—fractured, evocative, representational, self-critical, and self-conscious—suggest a decentered and bicultural subjectivity rooted in the material as well as the psychological ruptures of lived history and daily life. Consider, for example, Olsen's description of Ellen May's rented room:
Singing. Unused the life in them. She in this poor room with her pictures Max You The children Everywhere unused the life And who has meaning? Century after century still all in us not to grow?
Absent punctuation marks, there is no indication regarding the status of this comment as dialogue, internal dialogue, or narration. Through Olsen's careful use of Russian-Jewish dialect, abbreviated phrases indicate the inversions and ellipses of Eva's partial bilingualism. The incomplete sentences also articulate the choppy phrases and pauses of a dying woman who is trying to catch her breath. Additionally, they articulate the choppy phrases and pauses of unutterable anger. Thus the prose inscribes Eva's "unused" gender and her psychological and historical "unused" particularities, while at the same time it subverts the authority of the omniscient narrator. Eva's final two questions, "And who has meaning?" and "still all in us not to grow?" betoken uncertainty and possibility. This decentered utterance is neither pre-conscious, pre-Oedipal, nor irrational. The social relations of the Jewish-American, the elderly, the Cold War victim, and the homeless are constituted within Eva's language. Olsen never presumes that Eva is the sole author of her thoughts. In the final weeks of her life, Eva's language has become both the site and the subject of her struggle about identity and about speech itself. In "Tell Me a Riddle" Olsen has also ruptured the traditional narrative sequence. The narration is a discourse of gaps, discontinuities, flashbacks, and written intervals. The non-linear sequence and the unexplained interruptions inscribe the development of Eva's memories and associations; the narrative form reproduces her repression. Each textual interruption contributes to the representation of Eva's frustrations: housework interrupted by the needs of family, comprehension interrupted by misunderstood English, her tired bedtime reading interrupted by David's sexual expectations or by her babies' needs to nurse. The gaps also represent Eva's minimal assertion of control, as she turns off her hearing aid to shut out the demands of others. Olsen's modernism has little to do with the shape of women's bodies but much to do with Eva's experience of exile, motherhood, and poverty.
Finally, in Venice, California, Eva comes to understand that rebirth involves an awareness of connections, both social and historical. Lying by the Pacific Ocean, she cradles herself in the sand and looks toward the "shore that nurtured life as it first crawled toward consciousness the millions of years ago." Through the relationships Eva forms in California, with the timeless creatures of the sea, with Ellen Mays, with her granddaughter Jeannie, and eventually with David, it becomes clear how Olsen's view of female subjectivity differs from that of either Sigmund Freud or Nancy Chodorow, both of whom argue that selfhood is largely achieved by separation. Olsen's notion of identity is closer to developmental theorist Jessica Benjamin's theory of "intersubjectivity"—identity that evolves through reciprocity and rapprochement. Eva's journey culminates in a "sing-along" at a community center with other impoverished Jewish exiles, where the lyrics penetrate her self-imposed deafness in an epiphany of sounds of an insurgent past and a hopeful future: "children-chants, mother-croons, singing of the chained love serenades, Beethoven storms, mad Lucia's scream, drunken joy-songs, keens for the dead, work-singing." As the faces become sound and the sounds become faces, they press from her the essential and real question: "On scraps Yet they sang like Wondrous! Humankind one has to believe So strong for what? To rot not grow?" Earlier in the story Eva rejected her children's medical, psychological, and political answers and also refused to pose the riddle: "Tell me a riddle, Grandma. (I know no riddles.)" The riddle: the manipulated question, the false question with the trick answer, the pun, which controls, frustrates, and undermines meaning. But here, in Venice, the answer emerges as the capacity for change and affirmation: "one has to believe."
In "Tell Me a Riddle" Olsen demystifies the Western notion of the self as separate, bounded, and autonomous and puts forward, in its place, a view of female identity that reflects a balance of separation and intimacy. For Olsen, independence need not exclude connection; hence, it need not exclude language. Eva's story appears to support Jessica Benjamin's analysis that the self does not proceed from oneness to separateness, but evolves by simultaneously differentiating and recognizing the other, by alternating between "being with" and being distinct—a materialist view of development. Eva's subjectivity, realized through her speech, evolves dialectically through relationships. Dependence, marked by communication, defines Eva's sense of political identity. Hence, her subjectivity has little in common with the solipsistic self of postmodern feminism (the refusal of identity) or the liberal humanist discovery of a buried essential or true self (the romanticized sovereign subject).
In "Tell Me a Riddle" Tillie Olsen, like Eva, is again articulating history after a long silence. Eva's relationships designate a return to speech and consciousness within the context of contemporary history: the recovered memory of her son buried in an unknown grave in Germany, the "heavy air" of Los Angeles smog, the challenge of a grandchild insisting, "Mother, I told you the teacher said we had to bring it all filled out this morning. Didn't you even ask Daddy? Then tell me which plan and I'll check it: evacuate or stay in the city or wait for you to come and take me away?" The imperatives of Cold War ideology frame his patriarchal question, "Didn't you even ask Daddy?" Olsen's antinuclear stance also appears in the school's naive plans for evacuation. "Tell Me a Riddle" was written at a time when Olsen was seriously concerned about the threat of nuclear war, what she calls the "technological sublime." In Silences she observed that the atom bomb was in manufacture before the first washing machine. The final re-emergence of Eva's articulate and radical subjectivity develops through her granddaughter Jeannie, a public health nurse who, Eva sees, offers respectful and caring attention to Mexican patients. One day Jeannie brings Eva a Mexican cookie, modeled after a little girl who had died the day before. The cookie, "pan del muerto" (bread of death), is an image in food that suggests to Eva a culture's refusal to bury guilt, loss, and memory. Another day, Jeannie invites a Samoan friend to perform a native dance for the dying woman who weakly tries to imitate his beckoning hands and his low plaintive calls. Through Jeannie's visits, Eva discovers an aesthetic diversity of self-representations and she contrasts these experiences to her grandchildren's play, which mirrors televised identities. Finally, Eva realizes that Jeannie reminds her of Lisa, the "Tolstoyan" woman who taught her to read when they were imprisoned together over fifty years ago. She is then able to tell her son, who has come to her deathbed, the story of Lisa:
Like Lisa she is, your Jeannie…. I was sixteen, they beat me; my father beat me so I would not go to her…. To her, life was holy, knowledge was holy, and she taught me to read. They hung her. Everything that happens one must try to understand why. She killed one who betrayed many…. In one minute she killed, before my eyes (there is so much blood in a human being, my son), in prison with me. All that happens, one must try to understand.
Jeannie, like Lisa, represents the difference between speech and betrayal, reading and repression, intimacy and compromise.
For Olsen, history resides in memory, in economics, and in a social text that establishes a connection between Eva, her listener/son, and the reader. The recovery of history is the means of the recovery of both Olsen's voice and Eva's voice; it is also, I would argue, the subject of "Tell Me a Riddle." Eva's integration of her history is set against her grandchildren's ignorance of the Russian revolutions, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Rather than deconstructing the subject, therefore, Olsen offers a model of consciousness mediated through relationships with other subjects who are also positioned historically. It is an aesthetics that accounts for alienation and communication.
In dying, Eva begins to speak again, answering David's insistent question of life, "For what?" At first she speaks incessantly, and to David it seems "that for seventy years she had hidden a tape recorder, infinitely microscopic, within her, that it had coiled infinite mile on mile, trapping every song, every melody, every word read, heard, and spoken—and that maliciously she was playing back only what said nothing of him, of the children, of their intimate life together." Like Virginia Woolf's narcissistic speechifier, David initially rejects the words that do not glorify him, or even pertain to him, and he calls Eva "Mrs. Philosopher," "Mrs. Miserable," and "Mrs. Babbler," insults that hide his grief and dependence, insults that connote Eva's new ability to articulate her sense of political loss and challenge his passivity.
Eva's death is neither the price exacted for her resistance nor the emblem of her defeat, as it might have been in earlier narratives. Rather, as David finally comes to understand, it represents the merging of past and future, and the continuity of collectivity, idealism, and meaning itself. In the end Eva, no longer "Mrs. Word Miser," becomes "First mother, singing mother," hoarsely chanting passages from radical speeches, books, and songs, from memories of a year imprisoned in solitary confinement, from earlier fragmented memories of a sore-covered child dancing her ecstasy alone at a crossroads village wedding. The story ends in a contest of sounds as Eva, in dying, hoarsely chants Victor Hugo's songs of revolutionary possibility while David noisily slaps playing cards on the table, ironically loud and cynical in a game of solitaire:
Deuce, ten, five. Dauntlessly she began a song on their youth of belief:
These things shall be, a loftier race
than e'er the world has known shall rise
with flame of freedom in their souls
and light of knowledge in their eyes
King, four, jack "In the twentieth century, hah!"
They shall be gentle, brave and strong
to spill no drop of blood, but dare all …
on earth and fire and sea and air
Finally we do not know whether David or Eva is speaking; the boundaries between them, indeed, the boundaries between male and female, dissolve through dialogic voices. Her songs of freedom release David's disjointed memories of the "monstrous shapes of what had actually happened in the century," of his American grandchildren who never hunger, who go to school, who live unravaged by disease, and of Eva, the "mother treading at the sewing machine singing with the children," the "girl in her wrinkled prison dress, hiding her hair with scarred hands, lifting to him her awkward, shamed imploring eyes of love," and his wifely lover, "in all the heavy passion he had loved to rouse from her." Through Eva's deathbed songs he understands that the political and private endure as one in her, and he asks her his final question: "Still you believe? You lived by it? These things shall be?" Once articulated, her polemic becomes communal. And David loses both the freedom of non-comprehension and despair of the future.
Olsen here has avoided several dangers of representing the decentered self: superficiality, flatness, attention to form per se, and a waning of human affect. Indeed, Olsen recovers human affect by representing alienation. Discontinuities, fluctuations between voices and between past and present, signify the possibility of inscribing understanding and change. For Olsen, meaning endures through words. David decides to let Eva die and "with her their youth of belief out of which her bright, betrayed words foamed; stained words, that on her working lips came stainless." Eva's "working lips" have subverted, reclaimed, and purified the "stained words."
What is really at stake in this debate over language, which Elaine Showalter calls one of the most exciting debates in gynocriticism? Postmodernists, following Lacan, have predicted radical social and political consequences from the discovery of the "solidarity of logocentrism and phallocentrism." By bringing this solidarity to light Helene Cixous, for example, announces that she has "threatened the stability of the masculine edifice which passed itself off as eternal-natural." She wonders, as did Woolf, what "if it were to come out in a new day that the logocentric project had always been understandable to 'fonder' (to found and to fund) phallocentrism, to insure for masculine order a rationale equal to history itself? Then all the stories would have to be told differently, the future would be incalculable, the historical forces would, will change hands, bodies." But unlike Woolf, Cixous goes on to propose that "another thinking as yet not thinkable will transform the functioning of all society." What we need to do, she concludes, is "invent another history." But history, as our studies of utopia have shown, cannot be "invented." And "thinking," in and of itself, does not create change.
An alternative to inventing history is not to invent at all. Gauthier observes, "Perhaps if we had left these pages blank, we would have had a better understanding of what feminine writing is all about." Similarly, in Les guerilleres, Monique Wittig observes,
The women say the language you speak poisons your glottis tongue palate lips. They say the language you speak is made up of words that are killing you. They say the language you speak is made up of signs that rightly speaking designate what men have appropriated. Whatever they have not laid hands on whatever they have not pounced on like many-eyed birds of prey does not appear in the language you speak.
But where does it appear? Wittig finds it only "in the intervals that your masters have not been able to fill with their words of proprietors and possessors; this can be found in the gaps, in all that which is not a continuation of their discourse, in the zero, the o, the perfect circle that you invent to imprison them and to overthrow them." And so, women fall into the gap—the quiet enclosed space of their own anatomy.
Fredric Jameson calls this silent telos the "cultural logic" of postmodernism:
Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those social transformations, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself.
There are, nonetheless, interesting, and perhaps ironic, similarities between the postmodernist's and Marx's view of language. Language, for Marx, is a distorted instance of false consciousness, a type of communication that is unauthentic and alienated. Often it disguises the realities of exploitation and struggle. As Jean Bethke Elshtain observes, when Marx "drops Hegel's dialectic of self-conscious awareness as a linguistically grounded activity … the speaking subject goes too…. If the only voice in which man speaks is one of rationalization or 'false consciousness' … woman's relegation to public silence seems a less important deprivation, a less total denial of her subjectivity."
According to Julia Kristeva, "it seems that certain feminist demands revive a kind of naive romanticism—a belief in identity" unlike her own perspective of "la femme ce n'est jamais ca." But if woman's meanings lie beyond language, how do we even talk about her? "Tell Me a Riddle," I suggest, (re)presents this ineffable woman. Luce Irigary, Julia Kristeva, and Helene Cixous propose a feminine semiotic language that has its roots in pre-symbolic and pre-Oedipal expressions. These nonrational discourses arise in the unconscious, which is the site of resistance to the masculine symbolic order. Only the semiotic discourses can enscribe a radical subjectivity. Further, they alone have the capacity to challenge the social and economic orders of patriarchy. Thus the postmodern concept of social change merges with the concept of subjectivity in a view that is tied to a model of psychosocial development that is particularly resistant to change. It appears to preclude the impact of historical activities and the power of rhetorics to shape consciousness. Implicitly, it puts forth a universalist view of personal development that crosses cultures and epochs. [It is not surprising, then, that postmodernism is not primarily concerned with the project of canon reform.]
Tillie Olsen, by contrast, proposes that politics, work, and love can purge language, which is itself purgation. Language is a mediation. It has the capacity to arise from and interact with history, to reflect, reproduce, and create change and to alter consciousness. Silence is repression. Silence is rebellion. But it is not freedom.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4530
SOURCE: "Balancing the Hurts and the Needs: Olsen's 'I Stand Here Here Ironing,'" in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 15, Nos. 1-2, March, 1994, pp. 78-86.
[In the following essay, Kloss examines the daughter's emotional deprivation in "I Stand Here Ironing."]
Few modern short stories move readers to feel as much compassion toward the inherent vulnerability of the human child as does Tillie Olson's "I Stand Here Ironing." In the mother's wrenching narration of simple fact in response to a school psychologist's inquiry about her troubled nineteen-year-old daughter, she reveals all her anguish, past and present. At the same time, she tries not to "… become engulfed with all I did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped."
Indeed, this tale does raise significant questions about what can and cannot be helped in the upbringing of a child, and discussions of the story usually center on emotional deprivation, personal responsibility, and the question of guilt. Linda Kirschner, in her brief consideration, phrases her inquiry this way: "Yet, how much guilt must the mother bear for Emily's sense of alienations? For how much is she truly responsible?"
Though the question is certainly paramount, at least three separate and separable definitions of responsible become conflated and confused in examinations of this tale. Two of them (the third will be cited shortly) raise the issue of guilt and, for many naive readers, blame: To be responsible can mean to be ethically accountable for the care or welfare of another, as are all parents of minors. It can also mean, on the other hand, to be the source or cause of something—in this instance, Emily's difficulties.
It is virtually impossible, however, to tease out once and for all the complexities of the emotional relationships in this story. Nor is it useful. Fixing blame on any one of the characters or events as the source of Emily's problems does not help. As Alexander Portnoy discovers while lying on his analyst's couch, "it alleviates nothing fixing the blame—blaming is still ailing."
What may be useful, though, is to understand why—specifically—Emily suffers as she does and, as well, observe how Olsen, with consummate artistry, creates an integral pattern of maternal-filial interaction that is more than a clinical case study to be filed by the psychologist whose question precipitates the narrative.
In the story, as Joanne Frye has observed, we get motherhood "stripped of romantic distortion." Frye would make of motherhood a metaphor of developing a responsible selfhood, concluding that "We must trust the power of each to 'find her way' even in the face of powerful external constraints on individual control." From the mother's point of view, this may indeed be true, as she attempts in extreme adversity to balance her own hurts and needs. But common sense tells us that this simply cannot be true for the child. Given her helplessness, what infant or toddler can possibly have it within her power or control to "find her own way," or, as Frye phrases it elsewhere, "can act only from the context of immediate personal limitations but must nevertheless act through a sense of individual responsibility?"
To maintain this is to project adult sensibilities and capabilities into an infant. While the mother can find reasonable and mature ways to satisfy her own needs and allay her hurts (e.g., a job, a new husband), Emily must somehow, first as infant, then child, cope with and defend against persistent, overwhelming fears and fantasies as best she can. As Nancy Chodorow, in her pioneering feminist re-examination of mothering, states it, "At first, the infant is absolutely dependent and, because it does not experience itself as separate, has no way of knowing about maternal care and can do nothing about it. It 'is only in a position to gain profit or to suffer disturbance.'"
To understand the story, then, from the inside out—that is, from Emily's point of view—the third definition of responsible can help: to be responsible is to be able to be trusted or depended upon. It is in this respect that the nurture of the child is significantly deficient, for whatever reason, and there are many; and it is this deficiency that so scars the child, making her a source of anguish to the mother and an object of concern to the psychologist. From Emily's vantage point, the world itself is simply not to be trusted—ever: nothing, no one is reliable, can be counted on to be there, consistently through time.
Olson demonstrates this lack of basic trust but has so skillfully structured the narrative with flashbacks, for instance, that she obscures the fact that by actual count, Emily suffers at least one dozen traumatic separations from significant people and objects before she is even seven years old.
A brief summary of these may be in order. The first comes when her mother nurses her not on demand but by book, separating the infant from her and her nurturance, both nutritional and emotional. The father has already abandoned them both—another separation—and when Emily is eight months old, she is placed with the woman downstairs so the mother can work to support them. When she finally gets a night job so she can be with the child days, she is then forced to leave her with her grandparents, a stay lengthened by chicken pox until the child is two years old. At that point, Emily is separated from her mother once more by being sent to nursery school. When a new father enters the picture, the parents leave the child alone nights (she is now five) when they go out.
Shortly afterward, Susan is born, and Emily, separated from the mother who goes to the hospital to give birth, contracts measles and is prevented from going near mother and baby when she returns, prolonging the separation. Emily never fully recovers and is sent to a convalescent home for eight months, an institution that separates her from close friends and from personal belongings like letters from home. When she returns, she pursues a potential boy friend who rejects her blandishments. We learn here that Emily has no friends at all because the family has "moved so much", and we discover as well that she has lost another significant object: World War II is being fought, and the new father is now in the service.
Caring figures thus come and go—the woman downstairs, the grandparents, the mother, the nurses. As the child is moved from house to house to institution to yet another house, even the environment itself does not remain stable. From the child's vantage point then, it seems clear that nothing or no one can be depended on. That these separations are traumatic to Emily can readily be inferred from the fact that they eventuate in significant symptoms. At one time or another throughout her childhood Emily suffers from nightmares, eating disorders (either overeating or undereating), failure to thrive, and at the end of the tale, depression. She exhibits, in fact, the classic symptoms of the syndrome known as separation anxiety disorder.
In his discussion of this problem, Richard Gardner notes that DSM-III [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Mental Diseases] enumerates its manifestations as follow unrealistic fears that the mother will be harmed or that she will leave and not return, unrealistic fears that a calamitous event will separate the child and the mother, persistent reluctance or refusal to go to school in order to remain home with the mother, persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without the mother, complaints of physical symptoms on school days, signs of excessive distress upon separation or in anticipation of separation, social withdrawal, apathy, and sadness.
A glance at these reveals that they appear to virtually catalog Emily's conflicted behavior throughout the story, especially in infancy and early childhood. Emily's problems indeed begin when the mother, in the ignorance and innocence of youth herself—she is but nineteen—chooses to nurse the newborn Emily as she does "… With the fierce rigidity of first motherhood. I did like the books then said Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness. I waited till the clock decreed. Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters or if it explains anything." Intuitively, however, she appears vaguely aware of the enduring significance of her not supplying food to the infant when she needed it and that it does provide a partial explanation for Emily's conflicts. We hear, as well, in her choice of "battered" and "ached" the emotional pain she suffered, and the infant as well, in abiding by the authorities instead of her own maternal sense.
More frequent breast feeding, for instance, would have offered to both mother and infant the opportunity to gaze into each other's even, smiling in mutual satisfaction. Emily's mother, however, dissuaded by experts, does otherwise, and the old man in back reminds her one day. "You should smile at Emily more when you look at her" By the end of her tale the mother, while attempting to deny it, finally does admit that "She was a child seldom smiled at." She wonders that Emily did see in her face and tries to smile more often at her successive children, but admits that Emily herself, as a consequence, "does not smile easily." her face being "closed and sober."
Saunder has observed that any infant needs its mother's attempt to induce a smiling response as an appropriate social stimulus to interaction with others. "The degree to which mutuality will be established," he says, "seems to depend, in part at least, on the balance the mother can maintain between her empathy with what she feels are the child's needs and her objectivity in viewing [her] as an individual apart from her own projections and displacements." We see, then, the initial instance of the mother's difficulty in balancing hurts and needs, of moving beyond the "fierce rigidity," her own anger at being abandoned, toward concern for her newborn. Yet, given her poverty and arduous struggle, can we really blame the mother for not smiling enough, however much that might have been?
The mother's own needs to escape, to enjoy the outside world again with her husband, prompt her to leave the five-year-old Emily alone nights, a fearful time for any child that age. Emily's separation anxiety manifests itself here in several ways. She remains awake, "rigid," until the parents return, and she defends against her fears by denial: "I didn't cry. Three times I called you, just three times…." As well, she engages in typical magical behavior in order to constrain the mother to return sooner: "I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked." Had mother been psychologically sophisticated, she would have known that the clock's message (actually, of course, Emily's internal fear projected) was "Your mother is never coming back!"
It is this fear, never allayed, that manifests itself as the school phobia from which the child suffers. At the age of two, again because authorities say it is appropriate for the child and because she desperately needs to hold a job, the mother places Emily in a nursery school which she eventually realizes is just a "parking place for children." From the start, though, she admits that "Even without knowing, I knew. I knew that the teacher was evil" because of the way she treated the other children. The mother acknowledges that Emily hates leaving her, yet "she did not clutch and implore 'don't go Mommy' like the other children, mornings." She wonders why there was "never a direct protest, never rebellion…. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?"
The cost to Emily, of course, is depression, and we see here its evidence in submissiveness masking and defending against powerful emotions. Mackinnon and Michels explain the relationship between the intense separation anxiety and such passive posture by noting that "perhaps the simplest psychodynamic basis for this is the patient's anger at the lost love object for abandoning him." But "… Any outward expression of hostility is dangerous—he might destroy what he most needs. He therefore turns it against himself in the form of self-accusation and condemnation, a cardinal feature of depression." This self-accusation will appear later, in Emily's adolescence.
As Emily grows older, she does indeed refuse to go to school. This behavior is consistent with Gardner's finding that "Generally, the younger the child the greater is the fear element. And the older the child, the greater is the refusal element." We learn, too, that the mother is frequently complicitous in Emily's manipulations, rationalizing that "We had a new baby, I was home anyhow." Indeed, she eventually allows the younger child, Susan, to stay home as well, "to have them all together." She claims she is trying hard to establish a warm environment and create rapprochement between the sisters, where now only "poisonous feeling" and "corroding resentment" reign. Her attempts she labels "that terrible balancing of hurts and needs", for Emily's emotional conflicts have become significantly worse since the birth of her younger sister.
Part of the mother's explanation for allowing Emily to absent herself from school is that the child was sick, "though sometimes the illness was imaginary." We should not be surprised that Emily's affliction is asthma, a condition clinically linked to the dependent character which expresses an "exaggerated need for a bond with the mother … accompanied by an acute fear of loss of the mother's love…." The asthmatic seizure itself, as Fenichel points out, is first and foremost "an anxiety equivalent. It is a cry for help, directed toward the mother, whom the patient tries to introject by respiration in order to be permanently protected." It accomplishes its purpose in Emily's case by constraining the mother to attend to her every need, and the latter seems half aware that the attack resolves a conflict, for she notices that Emily's "breathing, harsh and labored, would fill the house with a curious tranquil sound."
Susan's birth has contributed to Emily's distress by precipitating this asthma and other symptoms. Still recovering from measles upon her sister's arrival, Emily "stayed skelton thin, not wanting to eat, and night after night she had nightmares." Olsen's use of "skelton thin," prefigures the deadened affect of Emily's depression and speaks as well to the deadliness of emotional deprivation. Emily's not eating in this instance most probably serves multiple functions, expressing both her insatiable desire for attention from the mother and her own extreme defensive denial that she needs food, which has understandably become equated with both love and mother.
Emily engages in a similar hunger strike, for example, when she is sent to the convalescent home to recover from the measles and loses seven pounds during her stay. These oral conflicts continue, interfering seriously with the child's growth. The mother observes of Susan, for instance, that "for all the five years difference in age [she] was just a year behind Emily in developing physically." We thus obliquely discover that Emily's emotional deprivation has resulted in an actual lack of physical growth, a not uncommon phenomenon.
The child's psychic dwarfism may also have other, defensive functions, serving, for example, to reject adulthood. To not grow up is to not become an adult with all attendant responsibilities. The mother herself has informed us that responsibility was thrust on Emily, now with four younger siblings, much too soon. "She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal." Regression under these conditions is common, especially when those whose own emotional needs haven't been adequately met are constrained to nurture others. As Gardner has noted, "… Adolescents may regress and entrench the dependent tie with the mother to provide protection from venturing forth into a demanding and less benevolent world."
And Emily has already discovered that the outside world is less than benevolent. She had "painfully" loved a little boy for a year and stole money from her mother's purse to buy him candy daily, "but he still liked Jennifer better'n me. Why, Mommy? The kind of question for which there is no answer." Though we too cannot answer the child's poignant question, we can understand why Olsen chooses this particular enactment to express symbolically Emily's disappointment in love. Raiding mother's purse is typical behavior among children who are excessively dependent. "Some children steal as a way of acting out hostility, and anything that can reduce their anger may be helpful. Others do it because of feelings of deprivation of affection, the stolen object symbolizing love or a prized possession or present." Both of these motives are consistent with what we already know of Emily, and it is additionally interesting that she chooses to bribe the little boy with food to obtain love, that is to do actively to someone else what she most fervently would like done to her.
The sleep disorders typical of separation anxiety disorder also begin with Susan's birth when Emily begins having nightmares, crying out for the mother. The mother, however, refuses to tend her in her anguish and gets up only twice when she has to get up for Susan anyway. The mother's indifference may be due to her exhaustion and distraction, but it is also possible to see it as stemming from hostility, perhaps unconscious.
Olsen herself has provided us with a clue to this aspect of the mother's troubled relationship with Emily during the child's chicken pox. Having been sent to the in-laws so that the mother could hold a job down, Emily returns home, and says the mother, "… I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous tike her father, looking like her father,… all the baby loveliness gone" (italics added). It is a reasonable inference to discern in the child's resemblance to the abandoning father the source of mother's hostility toward her, displaced from him. This helps us better understand why the mother finds it so difficult to balance her own hurts and needs and why despite her continual best intentions, aside from external reality factors (her job, etc.), she seems unable to act beneficially in the child's best interests, giving her enough food, enough love of herself.
Emily, however, eventually ceases her hunger strikes and develops "her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family", probably using food as a substitute for love. The mother refers to this change as taking place only as "in those years," but it appears to be during high school and World War II since the mother occasionally writes "V-Mail to Bill." This, of course, tells us that as a consequence of the war, Emily's second father has, from her point of view, in a sense, "abandoned" her and his family.
As important as mother is to Emily, we should not underestimate the significance of these various fathers and their presences and absences on the psychic development of the child. Chodorow points out that "The child uses its father not only in its differentiation of self. The father also enables more firm differentiation of objects. The infant, as it struggles out of primary identification, is less able to compare itself and its mother, than to compare mother and father, or mother and other important people she relates to This comparison indicates the mother's boundedness and existence as a separate person. The comparison also reveals the mother's special qualities—finding out that the whole world does not provide care increases her uniqueness in the child's eyes." How much more poignant, then, that from Emily's point of view neither mother nor the world—represented here by father—provides adequate care.
In her adolescence, of course, the separation anxiety symptoms persevere and others develop. She "tomented herself about not looking like the others", like a typical teen, and it is probable that this self-accusation is fed by the hostility felt against the mother but deflected toward the self in order not to endanger the relationship. Frye, though, sees in it "the limitations of a parent's capacity to foster a child's growth in selfhood …," noting that "a human being cannot rely on the perpetual presence of external seeing eyes to validate her own authenticity as a separate self."
While this is to some extent true, what Frye overlooks is the reason Emily still seeks that validation: she has never had her own existence and separateness from her mother fully confirmed by adequate mirroring, the reciprocal gazing into the eyes of the mother that establishes the basic trust of consistency, continuity, and sameness of care provided by that mother. Through this process, intimately linked to breast feeding and stimulation of the smile response, the infant makes mother, once an outer predictability, into an inner certainty, a sense that the world is a good place where one's needs are provided for. "Hopefully," as Robert Coles has put it, "the infant is held and feels held, craves food and finds his appetites satisfied, looks and sees in return his mother's eyes." In these eyes, the infant finds confirmation of his own existence, the initial sense not of who I am but that I am.
The infant, literally mirrored in his mother's eyes, apparently constructs a series of connected notions: "(1) the infant-child in the mother's eyes (that is, the actually observed reflection); (2) the infant-child in the mother's eyes (that is, as she sees him); (3) the primitive self observation, the earliest mirror of self; and (4) the gradually developing sense of reality—what I really am, as compared with what the mirror tells or seems to tell of what is my identity." Optimal mirroring therefore aids the child in consolidating his own identity because it enables him as a separate entity and to realize the existence of a separate object out there, an "I" vs. a "not-I." On the other hand, poor mirroring—insufficient holding, smiling, gazing, nurturing—leads to deeply rooted conflicts such as those Emily exhibits.
Olsen, however, strikes a single optimistic note when she provides the child with, if not an ostensible path to salvation at least a means of obtaining attention and adulation and alleviating her anguish. This is, of course, of Emily's talent for producing laughter in others. "Sometimes," the mother says, "to make me laugh or out of despair, she would imitate happenings or types at school." A chance remark of the mother's encourages her to enter a school talent show which she wins, starting her amateur career as a comedian. As the mother phrases it, "Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in her anonymity", the statement revealing the confirmation of separateness in the eyes of others that she had not been able to find in the eyes of the mother.
We should remember, too, that earlier Olsen has stated that Emily would relate jokes and riddles to Susan with which the latter would then amuse the mother and company, while Emily sat silent and resentful, complaining later that they were hers originally. In her public career, then, she appears to be imitating her younger sister's method of finding favor with the mother. The latter harbors her own suspicions that Emily's levity has its origins in the darker recesses of the girl's conflicted mind, as revealed by her speculation that it is done "out of her despair" and by her own anguished remark that her daughter's talent is "deadly clowning."
This deadliness appears in Emily's final words in the story when she reveals her fantasy about the future. Asked by her mother about her midterms as she kisses her goodnight, Emily blithely responds, "… In a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit." Frye believes that this does not indicate Emily "succumbing to that despairing view; rather she is asserting her own right to choice as she lightly claims her wish to sleep late in the morning." This unwarranted optimism, however, conveniently overlooks virtually all the evidence of the girl's depression and despair. Given this, it is impossible not to see in Emily's remark both her projected rage and a fantasy of her ever undependable world violently disappearing. It symbolizes that long-feared calamitous event that would separate her absolutely and forever from the mother she has longed for since birth.
Indeed, the mother herself finds the remark unbearable: "She has said it before. She believes it." Returning then to her symbolic ironing, she tries to remove the wrinkles of life and stress, hoping that Emily will recognize that she is "more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." The probability is low. Kirschner, like the mother, retains hope for Emily, yet is forced to admit that "a childhood of poverty and emotional deprivation have obviously taken their toll …," and that there are "lasting psychological implications that Emily may never overcome."
These psychological implications are enormous, for the findings in regard to children like Emily are consistent: significant personality disturbances almost inevitably result from "repetitive separations associated with other traumatic and depriving experiences," and that "reversibility becomes improbable with increased age." It is no wonder then that, from Emily's point of view, the future seems hopeless, and the world she could never trust or depend upon may vanish shortly in a tremendous roar, a blast of light, and a mushroom cloud.
Martin, in her biographical sketch of the author, has observed that "Though Olsen disclaims the 'autobiographical' label for her work, she does admit that this story is 'somewhat close to my own life.'" This is a courageous statement on the author's part, and yet that "somewhat" spans the often vast distance between reality and artistic creation. Whatever the former, the latter is a faithful depiction, compassionate to both, of a mother and daughter trapped in circumstances frequently not of their own making and struggling as best they can to win out over those circumstances. The portrait is clear, the harrowing anguish of both evident.
Abandonment by an irresponsible father, the innocence and ignorance of youth on the mother's part, an unstable home situation, chronic illness, birth order, poverty and deprivation—all these combine to affect Emily deeply, and perhaps irrevocably. The mother, trying to balance her own hurts and needs, does her best trying to help Emily balance hers, hoping out of desperation that the child may prove more than the inert dress from which she attempts to press the symbolic wrinkles and creases.
It is testimony to her heroism that she irons throughout her narration and continues to do so at story's end, her Sisyphean labor depicting her maternal love for her daughter and her desperate hopes for her well-being. A chance remark about a talent show, after all, once saved Emily, moved her from anonymity to being Somebody; some other event just might again change her life for the better. In a world as bleak as theirs, one must hope for the best and, like a Beckett character who can't go on, simply go on.
Last Updated on February 8, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182
Coiner, Constance. "Literature of Resistance: The Intersection of Feminism and the Communist Left in Meridel Le Sueur and Tillie Olsen." In Radical Revisions: Rereading the 1930s Culture, edited by Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon, pp. 144-66. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Places Le Sueur's and Olsen's work against the backdrop of Leftist culture in the 1930s.
Connelly, Julia E. "The Whole Story." Literature and Medicine 9 (1990): 150-61.
Explores the roles of patient and physician in Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle" and Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch."
Neihus, Edward L. "Polar Stars, Pyramids, and 'Tell Me A Riddle.'" American Notes and Querries XXIV, Nos. 5-6 (January-February 1986): 77-83.
Explains the significance of the reference to pyramids and pole stars in "Tell Me a Riddle."
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