Analysis of Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

Tell Me a Riddle, the title Novella of Tillie Olsen’s 1961 collection, details the state of the relationship of an elderly married couple who, in their youth, emigrated from Russia. Now that their children are grown, husband and wife disagree about where and how they should live the rest of their lives. He wants to move to the Haven, a community where all their needs will be attended to by others, an arrangement that will free him from his financial worries and provide companionship. For her, however, freedom is “Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others” (68), and she refuses to move. Their dispute arouses long-repressed hostilities as she remembers all she has given up in the past, when money was short and the needs of husband and children prevented her from pursuing her own interests, especially reading. As the argument escalates, he threatens to sell the house without her consent, and she sinks into a depression and declining health. Her name is Eva, although Olsen withholds it until the end of the novella.

The first doctor she visits finds no serious problems and encourages her to enjoy life more. After her doctor son-in-law examines her, she undergoes emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder. The family does not tell her that the surgery revealed cancer. The children, who had been mystified that rancour could tear their parents apart at their age, now urge their father to make her happy in her last good months. Even as he tries to do so, however, he clearly misunderstands her wishes. He takes her to visit her children and grandchildren, but she does not want to travel. She feels that she is imposing in her children’s homes, where she cleans while her husband plays with the grandchildren. While life has stimulated his capacities and enjoyment of others, her life has drained her joy and isolated her from others. She can be her grandchildren’s audience but not their playmate, as her husband can: “ ‘Tell me a riddle, Grammy.’ ‘I know no riddles, child’ ” (85). She resents the demands of her grandchildren, no longer wanting to be at others’ disposal.

Tillie Olsen, Eric Risberg/Associated Press, 2001

The couple’s final visit is to Los Angeles, where their granddaughter Jeannie lives. Here Eva experiences a brief moment of ecstasy when she visits the beach and runs toward the waves, splashing her bare feet in the sea foam. But her health is declining and even her visits with her old friend Ellen Mays, who now lives in one squalid room, evoke her weariness and her disappointment in a humanity that reduces its elderly to such lives. Dying, she remembers her girlhood in Olshana, Russia, and finds consolation in music and remembered bits of literature. Her husband, at first resentful that she speaks of these interests rather than her family in her final days, finally contemplates their past as prisoners during the Russian Revolution and realizes his own pain and disappointments. He remembers the faith in humanity they shared and their confidence that the 20th century would produce happier lives and an end to wars and killing. He wonders how adequately their children’s and grandchildren’s physical comfort and education fulfill those dreams, and he wishes he could pass on to them that former, youthful faith. Eva’s dying is gradual, painful, and almost more than he can bear to witness. Jeannie, however, assures him that her grandmother promised that on the last day she would be back in Russia, hearing the music of her childhood, and that they must help her body to die.

Tell Me a Riddle was first published in 1960. It won the O. Henry Memorial Award for best short story in 1961 and has been widely anthologized.

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.
Nelson, Kay Hoyle, and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Olsen, Tillie. Tell Me a Riddle. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1961.
———. “Tell Me a Riddle: Tillie Olsen.” Edited by Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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