Tillie Lerner Olsen
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
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
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
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
Rosenfelt, Deborah. "From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical
Tradition." Feminist Studies 7:3 (Fall 1981): 371-406.