Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Criticism and analysis

Much literary criticism has been produced about Yonnondio since its publication in 1974. Critics have focused on a large variety of issues ranging from socialist-feminist portrayals of film in the novel to a diverse spectrum of various psychological concerns.[6] MacPherson, for instance, has looked extensively at the ways in which Olsen’s characters’ representations portray complicated issues of class in relation to psychological escapism.[7]

Other Marxist-feminist criticism has also been produced including Rosenfelt’s essay “From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition.”[8] Rosenfelt worked directly with Olsen while writing this article and she looks at the many ways in which Olsen's biography directly relates to her works of fiction, especially Yonnondio. By comparing Yonnondio with Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth, Rosenfelt reveals the ways in which female sexuality is downplayed in the novel. Rosenfelt suggests this occurs as a direct result of Olsen’s readings of communist theory, much of which was surprisingly conservative and patriarchal in its attitudes towards women in the 1930s. Rosenfelt also argues that the Holbrook children (especially Mazie) are explicitly socialized into accepting traditional, limiting views of sex and gender. Rosenfelt links the cruel behaviors of Anna (her abuse of her children) directly back to the inevitable result of living within a patriarchal, capitalist regime. Other notable criticism has been produced regarding Olsen’s representations of Jewishness in Yonnondio. Lyons has argued that, although somewhat sparsely portrayed, Olsen’s own Jewish background is uniquely represented within the characterization of Anna during her recollections of her grandmother, and also her numerous candle-lighting rituals.[9] Lyons links Anna’s practices with the behaviors of Eva in Olsen’s famous short story "Tell Me a Riddle."

The scholar Anthony Dawahare has notably written on the book’s "dialectical and utopian consciousness" as it relates specifically to "the authorial voice." Dawahare’s primary argument concerns the level of capitalist exploitation exhibited within the consciousnesses of the Holbrook family. He recognizes the crucial role Yonnondio plays in representing the resurrected ideals concerning certain dialectical, utopian philosophies that were increasingly being revived during the mass labor movements occurring in the U.S. during the era of the Great Depression.[10] Thus, this article is useful for both its philosophical and its historical arguments.

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