Tell Me a Riddle

Tell Me a Riddle Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does the ironing metaphor enhance the meaning of "I Stand Here Ironing"?

    The iron provides a lens through which to understand both the narrator's life and the lives of women at the time. It is a symbol of domesticity, which is a concept central to the story. At many points, Emily's mother (and Emily herself) note that the former is always ironing - her domestic duties demand it. The iron symbol also showcases the narrative structure - Emily's mother moves back and forth between the past and the present, over and over again, much as an iron moves over clothing. Perhaps most importantly, the iron serves as a metaphor for the oppressive forces of society that iron out individuality, forcing complex women to accept the simple title of mother. At the end of the story, the mother's one wish for Emily is that she embrace a more complex personality for herself, to become her own person full of wrinkles that have not been ironed out by life.

  2. 2

    How do cultural forces shapes characters' lives in Tell Me a Riddle?

    One of the most recurring themes throughout these four stories is that of cultural forces, which repress a character's individuality and force him/her to conform to social expectations. Examples include Emily's mother, Whitey, Parry, Carol, and Eva. In general, these forces seek to put an individual into a limited, stilted role, such as: loving mother, obedient wife, ignorant black girl, or drunken sailor. The characters who attempt to counter these forces often find themselves left out (Whitey) or confused by their conflicted feelings (Carol). Cultural forces are in many cases the strongest antagonists to Olsen's characters, since they force a dishonest simplification of the characters' lives, silencing truth and understanding in the name of conformity.

  3. 3

    Explain Tillie Olsen's use of multiple voices in her stories. How does she use this approach, and how does it enhance the meaning of the work?

    In many traditional narratives, a single voice is given unbroken dominance over the story. Historically, these voices were also patriarchal, representing 'heroic' men. In Olsen's work, many voices, both spoken and unspoken, work together to present a more complete and more complicated version of individuals and society than a single voice would have allowed. In particular, Olsen works to give voices to individuals who might not otherwise have been given a means of expression. Most notably, she gives voice to stay-at-home mothers, characters whom traditional narratives might have dismissed as dull. However, she also expands this approach to include an alienated sailor, immigrants, and oppressed African-Americans. Overall, Olsen's approach suggests that any individual's story is complex and fascinating, and equally deserving of our attention as the more traditional, patriarchal voices are.

  4. 4

    In what ways is Tell Me a Riddle a book about authorship itself?

    Particularly through its depiction of the complexity of motherhood, Tell Me a Riddle explores the difficult relationship between an author and her work. When the narrator of "I Stand Here Ironing" claims that she cannot fully explain her daughter Emily since Emily has had many years of experience outside of her, we can draw a parallel between an author and her work. Much as a child must eventually be released to define her own identity, an author's story must be allowed to flourish in its readers' imaginations. Similarly, in the title story, Eva reflects on how her entire life was defined by children who then left her, leaving her depleted. One could understand in this the despair an author feels when her story is released, and no longer reliant on her for its existence. Works like Tell Me a Riddle take on a different meaning for each individual, a process which Olsen has little control over. In this way, one's children and one's work can simultaneously be familiar friends and unfamiliar strangers.

  5. 5

    How does Tell Me a Riddle engage with its historical setting (the American 1950s)?

    Tell Me a Riddle implicitly engages with many aspects of 1950s life, including the emphasis on the nuclear family in several stories, tense race relations in "O Yes," and McCarthyism in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" Although the issues that Olsen tackles are universal and still applicable today, understanding this era helps to both illuminate the particular struggles the characters go through, and to explain many of the references. In "I Stand Here Ironing," Emily's mother describes herself and Emily as products of the Great Depression and World War II. Whitey's interest in union activity certainly resonates within a period of anti-communist hysteria. Further, the immigrant experience of Eastern Europeans is central to the title story, and reflects the early 20th century Russian revolutions in which the title characters participated. Perhaps most of all, however, the 1950s was an era of great conformity in America, which helps to understand why Olsen so explicitly explores questions of individuality and social forces in each of these stories.

  6. 6

    How does Tillie Olsen invert gender roles?

    Olsen works to challenge gender roles on two fronts. By giving voices to otherwise marginalized women and presenting them as not merely mothers but as complex individuals, she challenges the restrictive roles that women face, and the patriarchal narrative tradition of focusing on male protagonists. For instance, through Eva, we understand the complexity of motherhood as both a positive and negative force that can not be easily compartmentalized. Olsen also challenges the social norms regarding men, however, especially through the socially-isolated Whitey. Whitey represents masculine companionship to Lennie, but he also represents nurturing support to Helen; he happily helps her with the dishes and the childcare. He is so much more than the hyper-masculine sailor. Instead, he, like the many women who populate her stories, is a complex, difficult-to-pigeonhole individual. Overall, the suggestion is that we should see ourselves and each other not as manifestations of a gender, but as individuals.

  7. 7

    What is the role of social stratification within Tell Me a Riddle?

    Olsen focuses almost exclusively on characters who live on the lower ends of the social stratosphere. For subjects, she chooses women, marginalized men, and African-Americans. She vindicates them as individuals, reasserting their importance to society and decrying social stratification at the same time. Though her most notable themes concern gender and race, it is clear that she sees class as an equally difficult force that separates people. Consider the way Jeannie (in "O Yes") insists that the separation between rich and poor is equally vicious to that between white and black. What is tragic is stratification in general, since it overwhelms individual relationships. Overall, Olsen wishes not to push a political agenda, but to give equal weight to all individuals, whether young, old, rich, poor, male, or female.

  8. 8

    Analyze each story's title. How does each title illuminate the meaning of its story?

    While not the only way to approach the stories, the titles provide keys through which to open up the texts. "I Stand Here Ironing" stresses the centrality of the ironing metaphor, which helps explain both the protagonist and her larger critique of society. "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" suggests both the pain of memory (since Whitey has always used that greeting to amuse the children) and the confusion and lack of direction that Whitey - and by extension, society overall - feels. "O Yes" evokes the African-American spirituality that provides a community for the black characters, while confusing a character like Carol (who is both attracted to and repulsed by it). Finally, "Tell Me a Riddle" suggests the complexity of Eva's life, which she grapples with as the world tries to pigeonhole her into simply being a mother. Overall, since all the stories explore this very confusion, "Tell Me a Riddle" serves a wonderful umbrella title for the entire collection.

  9. 9

    How does Tillie Olsen use confusion and disorientation to emphasize a story's message?

    Many of the stories in this collection are told through confused lenses, such as: Whitey's drunkenness; the narrator's constant movement between the past and the present in "I Stand Here Ironing"; Carol's fainting spell in the African American church; Alva and Parry's interludes; and Eva and David's miscommunications and misunderstandings. While these disjointed narratives can sometimes deter the reader, they ultimately prove both engaging and affecting, since they mimic the complications of everyday life, and the difficulties of understanding oneself in the face of aggressive social pressures. Olsen's overall message and approach - which entails giving a voice to the voiceless, and representing those people left out of mainstream society - are underlined through these narrative methods, since they both represent confusion and yet suggest the importance of struggling to declare one's individuality nevertheless.

  10. 10

    What riddles does Tillie Olsen explore in Tell Me a Riddle? What approach does she suggest we should take to these riddles?

    Olsen uses her stories to explore the many social riddles that confound an individual's search to understand him or herself. She explores gender and racial riddles, as well as the more general riddles of individual identities. Within the book, relationships between different characters (like Eva and David) are posed as riddles with no apparent answer, riddles that must be parsed through in order to make any sense at all. Ultimately, what Olsen suggests is the life's complexity should not be avoided but confronted, since truth, understanding and compassion can only come when we acknowledge complexity rather than settling for the comforts of an unjust and untrue social conformity.