The marriage of an aging Russian immigrant couple - Eva and David - is fracturing apart in its forty-seventh year. Eva and David's tensions had been repressed during the years of raising children, but have resurfaced now that they live alone.
The latest conflict is over how to spend their retirement. David wants to move into a Florida retirement community (called the Haven) managed by his lodge, but Eva cherishes her freedom and her space, and refuses to move from their house in a Northeastern city.
Their adult children - Hannah, Paul, Vivi, Sammy, Lennie, and Clara - are confused over this animosity, and try to convince their parents to be reasonable. Eva resents a lifetime of putting her own needs on hold for those of others. Specifically, she resents how David has always been able to go to lodge meetings and card games, while she was forced to stay at home.
Now, she spends much of her time simply sitting around, resting. All she wants now is solitude and silence, but David constantly badgers about moving to the Haven, even threatening to sell the house without her consent.
One night, after Sunday dinner, their son Paul notices how inactive Eva has become, and suggests she see a doctor. Both Eva and Paul insist that the cost is unnecessary, but Paul's wife Nancy insists that she will drive Eva there herself.
He suggests that his wife Nancy take her to the doctor, and while David and Eva antagonistically discuss the financial strain of doctors, Nancy resolves to chauffeur Eva.
The doctor's tests reveal the possibility of a small kidney disorder, but his primary advice is that Eva become more active, start "living like a human being" (72). David exploits this advice to argue they should move to the Haven, to no avail. When she continues to resist activity, David stops going to meetings, and invites old friends and relatives to visit Eva, but she pushes them away. Finally, he gives up trying. One night, when he is leaving for a meeting, she begs him to stay. Instead, he mocks her for constantly changing her mind, and leaves her behind, sobbing and cursing him.
When he returns, Eva is lying on a cot on their sun-porch. She stays there for a week, refusing to talk to or go near him. He finds the bed seems empty without her. One day, he hears her singing an old Russian love song as she gets wet from the rain. He insists she come inside, but has to help her because she is so weak.
David finds a buyer for the house, and invites all their children who live nearby to dinner, in hopes that they can convince Eva to move. At dinner, when she continues to rebuke his idea and the childrens' attempts to broker compromise, he angrily chastises her. Paul and Hannah, the children who are at dinner, calm their father and argue that she can take her time in deciding. Because they can tell how weak she is becoming, they decide that Hannah's doctor husband, Phil, should examine her.
Phil discovers that Eva is in fact sick - she has cancer all over. An emergency surgery to remove her gall bladder buys her time, but the diagnosis says that she has "at best...a year" to live (77).
At the hospital, Paul tells David the truth, but insists they keep it a secret from Eva. While Eva is happily surrounded by flowers and visits, Sammy councils David to travel with Eva around the country to visit the other children. Though David mourns the threatened future of his move to the Haven, he realizes that she will not long be strong enough for such travel.
Eva wants to go home, and rejects the religious services which the hospital try to provide her. The attempts of priests and rabbis make her remember the Russian revolutions, and the "savage past" that she and her countrymen transcended (81).
Eventually, David convinces her to travel, so they fly to California to visit their daughter Vivi, son-in-law Tim, and the couple's new baby. Strangely, Eva feels uncomfortable around the baby, her well of nurturing having dried up long ago. Vivi is upset to realize this, but attributes it to Eva's sickness (which Eva still does not know about). She tries to interact with Vivi's other children, but she lacks the energy, and is unable to tell them riddles even when they ask for them.
Before long, she asks David to bring her home, but he refuses, insisting that Vivi wants them there. One day, while the children play in the backyard, Vivi speaks to Eva and David of her childhood memories, hoping to make her mother feel valuable and cherished. She remembers the nursing, the sewing, the washing, and she begins to cry. Even David becomes emotional. Secretly, however, Eva resents them, especially David, for crying now when they did not appreciate or acknowledge all this housework at the time.
The only solace Eva can find is in the afternoons, when she pretends to nap but actually hides in a closet to be alone. One of her granddaughters finds her, and though Eva initially tries to hide, they eventually share "their secret place" (90).
When Eva demands again that David bring her home, he decides to take her to Los Angeles, where she can relax in the sun. There, they settle in a cottage that their granddaughter Jeannie has arranged for them. Eva enjoys going to the beach, where she looks at sand through a magnifying glass. They also visit two of their old friends from Russia, Max and Rose, who subtly flaunt their material and familial wealth while Eva sulks in a corner.
Later, while walking on the beach, they run into Mrs. Mays, Eva's old friend and neighbor from when they lived in Denver shortly after coming to America. Mrs. Mays invites them to a community sing-along, where Eva becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the many choirs. David and Mrs. Mays bring her to the lady's house to recuperate. While there, Mrs. Mays leaves to make tea, and Eva begins to panic over the emptiness of her old friend's life - Mrs. Mays lives alone in a one-room apartment, her husband dead and her children scattered, and she is clearly quite poor. As Eva reflects upon the misery of growing old and dying, she has a panic attack. As she sees David's pity while he helps her lie down, she suddenly "knew that she was dying" (99).
Over the next days, she continues to ask David to take her home, but knows it is likely impossible. Jeannie often comes to visit her, and one day brings a "pan del muerto" (a Mexican cookie) shaped like a little girl who recently died (100). She explains how Mexicans mourn and bury their dead, how mothers bake cookies in the likeness of the deceased, and how they have a party to celebrate that person's life. Before Jeannie leaves, Eva asks her to leave Rosita - the cookie - to keep her company.
Other days, Jeannie brings her a radio, or invites her Samoan marine friend to perform cultural dances for Eva. Hannah and Phil send flowers, and Lennie and Helen come to visit from San Francisco. Eva is sick with a fever, however, and she babbles on in a delirium, telling them how their daughter Jeannie resembles a Russian noblewoman who once taught Eva how to read, and who had killed a man for betraying their community. On another occasion, she babbles to Mrs. Mays about not wanting funeral arrangements, and she refuses to take the medicine David tries to give her.
Eva grows sicker, vomiting often and breathing poorly. David decides to move her to the hospital, but she revolts, calling him "weakling" and "betrayer" (106). They keep her inside the cottage, and Jeannie moves close by to take care of her.
Their children come to visit. Clara, the eldest, silently berates Eva for the neglect she felt because of the other children, but simultaneously mourns the fact that she never knew her mother. Eva grows lighter and sicker, and David begins to wish her a quick death. He stops leaving the house, and just sits by Eva's bed. In her fever, she sings and speaks softly to herself, songs that have nothing to do with him or their children. David feels hurt and excluded from Eva's words, trying to figure out when their relationship changed.
One night, as Eva recites Victor Hugo's hopeful words about the twentieth century, David bitterly decries them, and begins to mourn both their lives and the monstrous events of the twentieth century. As he cries, he reflects on his grandchildren's lives, thinking how much easier they have it, how they have become an embodiment of the American Dream. He thinks of asking the doctor to let Eva die, as he watches her writhe and read the Book of Martyrs, making kissing motions with her mouth. She continues to speaks nonsense to him, repeating phrases from their past, particularly about raising the children.
David is torn apart by sorrow, and eventually lies next to Eva in her bed, holding her hand. The next day, Eva dies, and David weeps for her.
Like many of Olsen's stories, "Tell Me a Riddle" grapples with a multitude of voices. Although Eva is ostensibly the main character of the narrative, the reader also sympathizes with David, largely because we receive such insight into both of their struggles. Their children are also given voices from the outset - when they hear of the marital troubles their parents are undergoing, almost every single child comments on the behavior, revealing something about their personalities and attitudes. As she often does, Olsen accomplishes this multiplicity not through a traditional use of dialogue, but by frequently shifting the perspective, often without any explicit transition between one character and the next.
However, Eva remains thematically central to this idea, particularly because she has spent a lifetime sacrificing her voice and identity in order to be a mother to her seven children. In her old age, all she wants is to be alone - she would rather live in her memories of Russia than in memories of a lifetime in which she subsumed herself to others.
Eva's main struggle throughout the story and her life reflects the limited role that women have faced in society. It is first important to realize that Eva did not come to America as a submissive female. Instead, she was a fierce revolutionary, one who learned to read from a murderer, and who harbors deep, passionate ideals of freedom and history. (All of this comes from being raised during a tumultuous time of change in Russia.) Her literary hero is Anton Chekhov, suggesting both that she is learned and that she empathizes with those who are voiceless and weak, like that playwright's characters.
However, forced to mother an unending supply of children, Eva had to sacrifice her revolutionary past and love of learning. Worse, nobody ever really acknowledged or understood that sacrifice; instead, they took it for granted. The dramatic irony when Vivi tries to thank Eva for those sacrifices is heartbreaking, since Eva is only resentful over having done those things. Vivi assumes that Eva was supposed to do those things, while Eva understands the gulf between her true identity and those repetitive, menial tasks.
Although much changed since Eva and David first moved to America, women were still struggling with restrictive gender roles. Notably, at the beginning of the story, when the idea of the doctor is introduced, it is Nancy who must take the task. It falls to the daughter-in-law to be the nurturer.
Eva is well aware of this injustice. By refusing to submit to her husband's desires to go to the Haven, she is standing up for herself. She has helped shape their home, and she intends to now enjoy it. Consider the moment when Eva watches Vivi's children play in the yard, and she silently encourages the daughter to join her brother climbing a tree, rather than settling for the pretend kitchen. Bitter at the loss that traditional gender roles have inflicted upon her, Eva grimaces at the idea of her grandchildren encountering the same problems.
Of course, "Tell Me a Riddle" is more complicated than a simple attack on gender roles. Eva's role as mother is both pleasurable and painful. Olsen characterizes Eva's love for her children as being like a torrential waterfall - Eva drowns in her love for them; it overwhelms her other desires. Afterwards, however, the river of love runs dry as they leave her. She is therefore left dried out and alone, mourning for the "self" that got destroyed by her motherhood. In "Tell Me a Riddle," motherhood is not the tragedy - the tragedy is that it for so many women becomes the sum total of their identities, leaving them with nothing once the duties are complete.
Olsen conveys these radical ideas through a radicalized form. Besides using more than one protagonist, she also refuses to tell the story in a straightforward, linear fashion. At the outset, many critical events from the past are hidden from the reader: Eva and David's son Davy's death in World War II, their revolutionary past in Russia, etc. As the reader slowly gathers information on these events, he or she begins to understand the way that people's past and circumstances shape their characters. Moreover, the reader understands the impossibility of ever knowing someone fully, of completely understanding everything about them.
Ultimately, coming to this recognition is David's journey in the story. As Eva gets closer and closer to death, she sings songs and recites words that David does not recognize, and he bitterly realizes that she has had a life outside of him, even if only in her mind. Eva is an individual who cannot be fully comprehended by anyone, not even her lifelong partner. The great tragedy is that she was forced to live a life that suggested she was a stereotype, which in turn forced her to repress her greatest desires.
These struggles to understand can be viewed as the titular riddles of the text. "Tell Me a Riddle" asks whether women can be both mothers and career women, whether relationships can be equal, as well as many other riddles. As is often the case with Tillie Olsen's work, these riddles do not have simple answers, but we can begin to try to understand them. Through recognizing the tragedy of wasting a human life and being open to new forms of narrative, we can seek new ways to comprehend human experience. David can never fully reconcile with Eva at the end, since she has regressed back to her childhood, but she can reconcile himself to her complexity. He can admit that she is and was always more than he thought, and thereby afford her the dignity she deserves.
Finally, Olsen does give a hint of optimism for this type of change, through Jeannie. As the youngest member of the family with agency, Jeannie offers hope and brightness as she cares for Eva. Especially considering how Jeannie in earlier stories expressed such a caustic view of life, the fact that she is now able to recognize the social forces that have diminished her grandmother but also give her grandmother dignity suggest that awareness can bring change. If, like Jeannie, we seek to be understanding and compassionate, we can all come to grow and afford dignity to everyone.