Tillie Olsen’s (January 14, 1912 – January 1, 2007) Tell Me a Riddle contains four stories arranged chronologically in the order in which they were written: “I Stand Here Ironing,” “Hey Sailor, What Ship?,” “O Yes,” and “Tell Me a Riddle.” All but the first story contain, as major or minor characters, members of the same family, whose parents emigrated from Russia. The characters in the first story could also belong to the same family, although there is no evidence to prove it and the names of the children are different; nevertheless in “I Stand Here Ironing” characters, situation, and tone are similar to those found in the other three stories. A difference between “I Stand Here Ironing” and the remaining stories in the volume is that the former story is told in the first person, being a kind of interior monologue (actually an imagined dialogue), whereas “Hey Sailor, What Ship?,” “O Yes,” and “Tell Me a Riddle” are told in varieties of the third person.
I Stand Here Ironing
Exterior action in “I Stand Here Ironing” is practically nonexistent, consisting of a woman moving an iron across an ironing board. Interior action is much more complicated, being a montage of times, places, and movements involving a mother in interaction (or lack of interaction) with her firstborn, a daughter, Emily. Questions arise as to whether the montage can define or even begin to define the daughter; whether the mother or anyone else can help the daughter or whether such help is needed; whether the daughter will continue to be tormented like the mother, who identifies herself with the iron moving inexorably back and forth across the board; or whether, as the mother hopes, the daughter will be more than the dress on the ironing board, “helpless before the iron.” “She will leave her seal,” the mother says, the only words spoken aloud in the story; but the words could express only the mother’s fervent hope for the well-being of a daughter born to a mother of nineteen, impoverished, alone, distracted, in an age of depression, war, and fear.
Hey Sailor, What Ship?
“Hey Sailor, What Ship?” introduces Lennie and Helen and their children, Jeannie, Carol, and Allie; but the story is not so much about them as it is about Whitey (Michael Jackson, a sailor and friend of the family who seems more lost at sea than at home in any port or ship). Filtering through Whitey’s consciousness, the story explores his frustrations and anger, pain and despair. At the same time, however, the living conditions of Lennie and Helen and their children and the relationships among the family and between various members of the family and Whitey are carefully delineated.
Whitey is a mariner, a perpetual wanderer whose only contact with family life is with Lennie, a boyhood friend. As the story opens, Whitey is drunk, a condition he finds himself in more and more, and with almost nothing left of his pay. His anguish, born of his desire to be with Lennie and the family and his reluctance to bear the pain of such a visit, is evident from the beginning, as is also the shame and degradation he feels associated with his lifestyle. What had started out as a dream, a life of adventure on the sea, with comrades who shared the good and the bad, has become a parade of gin mills and cathouses, clip joints, hock shops, skid rows, and lately hospitals. Lennie’s dreams, however, have also been frustrated. Lennie is a worn likeness of his former self; Helen is graying and tired from holding a job as well as caring for house and home. They live in poverty in cramped quarters. Still, as Helen explains to her oldest daughter, Jeannie, this house is the only place in which Whitey does not have to buy his way. The tragedy is that he feels he does. He comes bearing presents, distributing dollars and at the same time too drunk to share in meaningful interaction with the family he loves, where he is brother, lover, and father to a family not his own.
“O Yes” picks up the family several years later when Carol, the second daughter, is twelve and about to experience the pain of parting with a close friend, Parry, a black girl. Carol and her mother, Helen, have accompanied Parry and her mother, Alva, to a black church to witness Parry’s baptism. Carol is uncomfortable, however, both with the surroundings and with Parry, who is growing away from her. As the services rise to a crescendo of passion, Carol asks her mother to take her home and then faints. Later Alva tries to explain to Carol that the religion is like a hope in the blood and bones and that the music offers a release to despair, but Carol will not listen.
Later Jeannie tries to explain to her mother that Carol and Parry are undergoing an almost inevitable “sorting out” process, a sorting out demanded by the culture— their environment, their peers, their teachers—a sorting out that “they” demand. The separation is hard on both girls. Nevertheless, Parry seems better equipped to handle the crisis, while Carol continues to suffer and question. Helen knows that Carol, too, has been baptized, immersed in the seas of humankind, and she suffers with her daughter. The irony is that white people have no means of catharsis through their religion; they are unable to cry “O Yes.”
Tell Me a Riddle
The most haunting story in the collection Tell Me a Riddle is the title story. Longer than the other stories, this one focuses on Lennie’s mother and father while at the same time it brings to a culmination themes Olsen explores in the other stories: the frustration of dreams unrealized; the despair of never having enough money; the anger and hostility of women who have had to cope with too much with too little and who have lost themselves in the process; the search for meaning and explanation; the continuing hope of the young in spite of the tensions around them; the pain of mortality. If the story has a fault, it may be that it is too painful as it grasps readers and pulls them too close to raw feeling. “Tell me a riddle, granny,” a grandchild demands. “I know no riddles, child,” the grandmother answers; but she knows, and the reader knows, that the riddle is of existence itself. Why claw and scratch; why hold on? Aged and consumed by cancer, the grandmother’s body will not let go.
Russian emigrants of Jewish extraction who have fled persecution to come to the American land of promise, the grandfather and grandmother have been married forty-seven years and have reared seven children, all of whom are married and have families of their own. Now the grandfather wants to sell the house and move to The Haven, a retirement community, where he will have freedom from responsibility, from fretting over money, and will be able to share in communal living, to fish or play cards or make jokes with convivial companions. The grandmother refuses, however, countering every argument her husband puts forth. She was the one who worked eighteen hours a day without sufficient money to keep the house together. Not once did he scrape a carrot or lift a dish towel or stay with the children. He is the one who needs companions; she lived a life of isolation. “You trained me well,” she tells him. “I do not need others to enjoy.” She is adamant: “Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.” The argument between them erupts continually, fanned by his desires and her anger and resentment.
The children do not understand. How can people married forty-seven years and now at a time of life when they should be happy get themselves into a power struggle that threatens to pull them apart? Unknowingly the children take their father’s side, considering their mother to be unreasonable or sick. They advise him to get her to a doctor. The doctor finds nothing seriously wrong and advises a diet and a change in lifestyle—“start living like a human being.” The grandmother continues to deteriorate; more and more she keeps to herself, stays in bed, and turns her face to the wall. One night she realizes that although the doctor said she was not sick, she feels sick, and she asks her husband to stay home with her. He refuses, once again bringing up the old argument, and as he leaves she sobs curses at him. When he returns he finds that she has left their bed and retired to a cot. They do not speak to each other for a week until one night he finds her outside in the rain singing a love song of fifty years ago. The husband and the children bring her to a son-in-law who is a physician, and during surgery he finds cancer. The children advise their father to travel with her and visit all the children; and now begins an exodus of pain. She does not yet realize she is terminally ill, and the constant movement causes her utter despair when all she wants is to be at home. From house to house they carry her and she refuses to participate, will not touch a baby grandchild, and retreats finally to sit in a closet when they believe she is napping. Once a granddaughter, herself upset, hauls her little body into the closet and finds her grandmother there—“Is this where you hide, too, Grammy?”
Finally the grandfather brings her to a new apartment close to a seaside resort, dismal in the off-season and filled with the impoverished aged. The grandmother, ill in bed for several days, is tended by her granddaughter, Jeannie, daughter of Lennie and Helen, and now a visiting nurse. When she is better, the grandmother wants to go by the sea to sit in the sand. More and more now she loses control of her conscious self, sings snatches of songs, remembers pieces of quotations, tries in herself to find meaning while noticing that death, decay, and deterioration are all around her. Then she realizes that she, too, is dying and knows that she cannot tell her husband of her realization because a fiction is necessary to him; and she wants to go home.
One day Jeannie brings her a cookie in the shape of a real little girl who has died and tells her of a Spanish custom of partying at funerals, singing songs, and picnicking by the graves. From this interaction Jeannie draws solace, from what she takes to be a promise from her grandmother that at death she will go back to when she first heard music, to a wedding dance, where the flutes “joyous and vibrant tremble in the air.” For the others there is no comfort. “Too late to ask: and what did you learn with your living, Mother, and what do we need to know?”
Anthologies: Life in the Iron Mills, 1972, revised 1984; Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: Mothers on Mothering—A Daybook and Reader, 1984; Mothers and Daughters: That Special Quality—An Exploration in Photographs, 1987 (with others).
Novels: Yonnondio: From the Thirties, 1974.
Nonfiction: “A Biographical Interpretation,” 1972; Silences, 1978.
Barstow, Jane M. “Tell Me a Riddle.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 7. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
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 Press, 1989.
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.
Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
Frye, Joanne S. Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1995.
Gawthrop, Betty G. “I Stand Here Ironing.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 4. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Jacobs, Naomi. “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in Tell Me a Riddle.” Studies in Short Fiction 23 (Fall, 1986): 401-406.
Nelson, Kay Hoyle, and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Niehus, Edward L., and Teresa Jackson. “Polar Stars, Pyramids, and Tell Me a Riddle.” American Notes and Queries 24 (January/February, 1986): 77-83.
Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991.