Tillie Olsen Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Tillie Olsen became a regularly practicing writer only in her forties. What factors account for this delay?

What unusual demands does Olsen make on readers?

What is the significance of the title of Olsen’s story “I Stand Here Ironing”?

In “Tell Me a Riddle,” how does the riddle symbolize Eva’s life and relationships?

What structural principles unify Olsen’s book Silences?

To what causes other than feminism has Olsen contributed?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Besides her short stories and the novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974), Tillie Olsen was the author of “A Biographical Interpretation,” the afterword published in Rebecca Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills (1972), which she edited, and Silences (1978), a collection of essays about women and writing. She edited two books: Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering—A Daybook and Reader (1984), a collection of excerpts, and Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality—An Exploration in Photographs (1987). In addition, she wrote uncollected magazine articles on women and writing and many uncollected poems, several of which appeared in Partisan Review, Prairie Schooner, New World Writing, Ms., Harper’s, and College English.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Even though Olsen secured her literary reputation on the strength of one collection of short fiction, her voice as a humanist and feminist extended her influence beyond this small output. Olsen wrote about working-class people who, because of class, race, or sex, have been denied the opportunity to develop their talents. Frequently she focused on the obstacles women have experienced. She understood them well. She herself was exactly such a victim of poverty during the 1930’s, and then she worked and raised a family for more than twenty years until she could begin writing. Both her fiction and her nonfiction deal with the problem women face: developing individual talents while combating socially imposed views.

Olsen was also known as a leading feminist educator. Her courses introduced students to forgotten writings, such as journals, to teach them about women’s lives. The reading lists she developed have provided models for other women’s studies’ courses throughout the United States. Besides the O. Henry Award for the best American short story of 1961 for “Tell Me a Riddle,” Olsen has also won the Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Literature from the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Her other awards include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1975-1976, an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska in 1979, a Ministry to Women Award from the Unitarian Women’s Federation in 1980, a Bunting Institute Fellowship from Radcliffe College in 1985, and a Rea Award for the short story in 1994. Her short fiction appears in more than one hundred anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories for 1957, 1961, and 1971, and Fifty Best American Stories, 1915-1965.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Aiken, Susan Hardy, Adele Marie Barker, Maya Koreneva, and Ekaterina Stetsenko. Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. In this series of essays/dialogues, Susan Aiken’s feminist reading of Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” focuses on home as a site of repression that relegates women to domestic work and child care. Argues that Olsen creates for her protagonist a free discursive space in which preestablished categories are redefined; by so doing, she contests the larger political forces of repression that divide people from themselves.

Bauer, Helen Pike. “‘A Child of Anxious, Not Proud, Love’: Mother and Daughter in Tillie Olsen’s ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1989. Analyzes the story as a dialogue between a number of opposites in which the basic issues are how much of the past determines the daughter’s future, how much of the mother is in the daughter, and how much responsibility the mother has for her daughter’s passivity and repression.

Cardoni, Agnes Toloczko. Women’s Ethical Coming-of-Age: Adolescent Female Characters in the Prose Fiction of Tillie Olsen. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998. A survey of Olsen’s adolescent female characters, comparing and contrasting their milieux. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Compares these two authors’ activism and writing styles. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Craft, Brigette Wilds. “Tillie Olsen: A Bibliography of Review and Criticism, 1934-1991.” Bulletin of Bibliography 50, no. 3...

(The entire section is 830 words.)