Tillie Lerner Olsen (b. 1912)
Contributing Editor: Deborah S. Rosenfelt
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Olsen's work is relatively easy to teach since it addresses themes of concern to contemporary students and since its experiments with language remain within the bounds of realism. Tell Me a Riddle is among the most difficult of Olsen's works and some students have trouble for two reasons: They are unfamiliar with the social and political history em- bedded in the novella and they are confused by the allusive, stream-of-consciousness techniques Olsen employs for the revelation of that history's centrality in the consciousness of the protagonist.
Since the knee-jerk negative reaction to "communists" is often a problem, I make sure I discuss thoroughly the historical soil out of which Tell Me a Riddle grows. Sometimes I show the film Seeing Reds. I always read students a useful passage from A Long View from the Left: Memoirs of an American Revolutionary (Delta, 1972, p. 8) by Al Richmond.
Showing the film version of Tell Me a Riddle can be a good strategy for provoking discussion. The film itself is one of the rare representations of older people's lives and one of the few in which an older woman figures as the protagonist. Reading passages from Olsen's Silences, especially the autobiographical ones, also proves helpful and interesting to students.
Students respond most immediately and deeply to Eva's rage and anger about the sacrifices her life has involved. They also get into painful discussions about aging and dying, and about the limited options for the elderly in American society. The questions they ask include the following: Why won't the grandmother (Eva) hold her grandchild? Please help us figure out the configuration of family relationships in the story (here it helps if students have also read the other stories in the Tell Me a Riddle volume). Why doesn't Eva want to see the rabbi in the hospital? Where do they go when they go to the city on the beach (the answer to that one is Venice, California, an area near Los Angeles that houses an old Jewish community lovingly documented in the book and film, Number Our Days ). Why won't David let her go home again?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Tell Me a Riddle is very rich thematically, historically, and personally. Its central themes include the confrontation with aging, illness, and death; the deprivations and struggles of poverty; the conflicts, full of love and rage, in marital relations; the family, especially motherhood, as a site of both love and nurturance and of repression; the burying of women's sense of self and the silencing of their capacities for expression over years of tending to the needs and listening to the rhythms of others; the quest for meaning in one's personal life; and the affirmation of hope for and engagement on behalf of a freer, more peaceful, more just and humane world.
The themes of Tell Me a Riddle are in many ways the themes of Olsen's life. Olsen's parents took part in the 1905 revolution and became Socialist party activists in the United States. Olsen herself became a communist in the years when communism as a philosophy and as a movement seemed to offer the best hope for an egalitarian society. Eva is modeled partly on Olsen's mother, who died of cancer, as does Eva.
I see Olsen as belonging to a tradition of women writers in this country associated with the American left, who unite a class consciousness and a feminist consciousness in their lives and creative work.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In Tell Me a Riddle, Olsen is deliberately experimental, fracturing chronological sequence, using stream-of-consciousness techniques to represent the processes of human consciousness, insisting on the evocative power of each individual word. Though remaining within the bounds of realism, she draws fully on the techniques of modernist fiction to render a humanistic and socially impassioned vision rare in modernist and postmodernist writing.
The question of audience is, I think, less relevant to contemporary writers than to those of earlier centuries. I do speak about Olsen's political background and about her special importance for contemporary women writers and readers. It is also important that the stories of the Tell Me a Riddle volume were written during the McCarthy era. All of them, especially Tell Me a Riddle, subtly bear witness to the disappointment and despair of progressives during that era, when the radical dreams and visions of the thirties and forties were deliberately eradicated. Olsen's family was one of many to endure harassment by the FBI. Riddle 's topical allusions to Nazi concentration camps and the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and David's yearning for a time of belief and belonging, contribute to the subtext of anguish and betrayal so characteristic of the literature of the period.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I find it useful to compare Tell Me a Riddle to other works by women authors that record the tensions of "dual life," especially those which, like Riddle, deploy an imagery of speech and silencing not only to delineate the protagonist's quest for personal expression but also to develop her relationship to processes of social change. Among the many works that contain some configuration of these themes and images are Agnes Smedley's novel Daughter of Earth, Harriet Arnow's The Dollmaker, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, much of the poetry of Lorde and Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and Joy Kogawa's Obasan.
As stories of "secular humanist" Jewish family life, the work might be compared with Paley's fiction or Meridel LeSueur's The Girl.
As part of the tradition of working-class writers, she could be compared with Davis's Life in the Iron-Mills, Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth, Mike Gold's Jews Without Money, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, and Fielding Burke's Call Home the Heart.
As a story exploring the consciousness of one who is dying, students might want to compare Riddle to Tolstoi's The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What is the immediate cause of the conflict in this story? Does the author take sides in this conflict? Does this conflict have a resolution? What underlying causes does it suggest?
2. Try to explain or account for the story's title. What about the subtitle?
3. Who is the "hero" of this story? Why?
4. This is a story about a woman dying of cancer. Did you find it "depressing" or "inspiring"? Why?
5. Why is Eva so angry about the appearance of the rabbi in the hospital? What does she mean by "Race, human; religion, none"?
6. What do we learn about Eva's girlhood? Why do we learn it so late in the story?
7. Discuss Jeanne's role in the story.
8. Is David the same man at the end of the story as he was at the beginning? Explain your answer.
Olsen's personal/critical essays, those in Silences and that in Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother, are very important sources of insight and information. Especially recommended: pp. 5-46 in Silences, "Silences in Literature" (1962), and "One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century" (1971).
Other recommended reading:
Coiner, Constance. "Literature of Resistance: The Intersection of Feminism and the Political Left in Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur." In Politics of Literature: Toward the 1990's, edited by Lennard Davis and Bella Mirabella. New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming.
Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Especially Chapters II and IV.
Rosenfelt, Deborah. "From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition." Feminist Studies 7:3 (Fall 1981): 371-406.