The narrator's daughter in "I Stand Here Ironing," Emily is described by her mother as "a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear." Though a talented comedian, Emily has performed poorly at school, and a counselor has come to interview her mother. The narrator explains how Emily feels distant from others because of a difficult childhood.
The narrator of "I Stand Here Ironing," Emily's mother speaks of how her daughter was shaped, and in the process paints a picture of a woman's life in the age of the Depression and World War II. Despite her hard life, she maintains a dignity and hopes her daughter can transcend her limitations.
Emily's younger sister in "I Stand Here Ironing," Susan is the more traditionally beautiful daughter. Emily has always envied her this, leading to a strained relationship between the two.
The narrator's youngest child in "I Stand Here Ironing." He is still a baby, and receives nurture from the narrator that Emily never received.
The narrator's second husband in "I Stand Here Ironing," and a veteran of World War II. He never enters the story directly.
An aging merchant marine, Whitey is the protagonist of "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" He is an alcoholic with few remaining social ties, except to a family in San Francisco. He is a very lonely man, despite his desire for a faded brotherhood of sailors.
Though Whitey calls himself M. Norbert Jacklebaum at one point, it is also suggested that his real name is Michael Jackson.
Lennie is mentioned in three stories. He is husband to Helen, and father to Carol and Jeannie.
In "Hey Sailor, What Ship?", he and his family are Whitey's oldest friends. He used to enjoy hearing Whitey's adventure stories, but has since become very worried about his friend.
In "O Yes," Lennie struggles with his daughter Carol's encounters with racism.
In "Tell Me a Riddle," he struggles with his mother Eva's impending death.
Helen is mentioned in three stories. She is wife to Lennie, and mother to Carol and Jeannie.
In "Hey Sailor, What Ship?", she is the matriarch of the family Whitey considers his oldest friends. Though she cares for him, she worries about his alcoholism and the example he sets for her daughters.
In "O Yes," she directly confronts her daughter Carol's issues with racism.
In "Tell Me a Riddle," she is merely mentioned as Eva's daughter-in-law.
Carol is Helen and Lennie's daughter, and appears in two stories.
She is a minor character in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?", a girl who loves to play with Whitey.
She is the protagonist of "O Yes." In that story, Carol is a twelve-year-old girl who confronts the insidious effects of racism as she drifts apart from her African-American friend, Parry Phillips.
Lennie and Helen's youngest daughter, Allie shows Whitey the greatest affection in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?"
Lennie and Helen's oldest daughter, Jeannie appears in three stories.
In "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "O Yes," Jeannie expresses a world-weary cynicism. In the former, she despises Whitey for his alcoholism, and in the latter, she demands her parents confront the truth of racism in her sister Carol's life.
In "Tell Me a Riddle," Jeannie is older, and works as a nurse. She takes care of her dying grandmother, Eva, and provides some of Eva's only joy during her final months.
M. Norbert Jacklebaum
The name that Whitey uses to refer to himself in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" It is never explained.
Carol's oldest friend in "O Yes," Parry (full name: Paraialee Philips) is an African-American girl. Her friendship to Carol has suffered due to racist and classist pressures.
Parry's mother and Helen's friend in "O Yes," Alva Phillips is a single mother who works at Hostess Foods. She has worked hard in life, and is very religious.
Also known as Lucy, Lucinda Phillips is Parry's younger sister in "O Yes."
Bubbie Phillips is Parry's younger brother in "O Yes."
Mr. Chairback Evans
In "O Yes," Mr. Evans delivers the invocation at the Phillips' church.
Melanie is one of Carol's white friends in "O Yes," and serves to illustrate how Carol is being affected by racist pressures.
Vicky is an African American girl in "O Yes." She frequently gets into trouble at school, but Carol realizes her situation is more complicated than first glances suggest.
Eddie is a boy from Carol and Parry's school. Carol sees him singing in the choir at Parry's church, and later reveals that he dates Vicky.
One of the main characters in "Tell Me a Riddle," Eva is David's wife, and a Russian immigrant who discovers she is dying from cancer. Having lived a life dedicated solely to others, she wants to spend her final days in solitude, but is thwarted by both her disease and her husband.
Eva's husband in "Tell Me a Riddle," David wants to move into a retirement community until he learns that his wife is dying of cancer. He struggles with Eva's bitterness and anti-social nature, but he eventually rediscovers his love for her.
Hannah is one of Eva and David's children in "Tell Me a Riddle." Her husband, Phil, is the first to diagnose Eva's cancer.
Vivi is one of Eva and David's children in "Tell Me a Riddle." She lives in California, and Eva and David fly there to visit her and her new baby.
Paul is one of Eva and David's children in "Tell Me a Riddle." He first suggests that Eva see a doctor, and his wife Nancy brings her there.
Sammy is one of Eva and David's children in "Tell Me a Riddle." He suggests that David bring Eva to visit their children who live elsewhere.
Clara is Eva and David's eldest child in "Tell Me a Riddle." She is bitter with Eva for neglecting her once the other children came along.
Davy is Eva and David's deceased child in "Tell Me a Riddle." They never speak about him.
Nancy is Paul's wife in "Tell Me a Riddle," and the one who brings her mother-in-law Eva to the doctor.
Phil is Hannah's husband in "Tell Me a Riddle." He is the doctor who discovers Eva's gall bladder cancer.
Tim is Vivi's husband in "Tell Me a Riddle."
One of David and Eva's old friends from Russia, Max is married to Rose and is relatively wealthy and contented. They run into the couple while in California.
One of David and Eva's old friends from Russia, Rose is married to Max and they are relatively wealthy and contented. They run into the couple while in California.
Mrs. Mays was Eva's friend and neighbor from when they lived in Denver, and a close companion during Eva's final days. She invites David and Eva to the community sing, and helps them when Eva feels faint. Mrs. Mays is all alone in the world.
Rosita is a little Mexican girl who dies in "Tell Me a Riddle." Jeannie brings a cookie version of her to comfort Eva.
Chris is a doctor in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" who is invited by Lennie and Helen to examine a drunk Whitey. He once idolized Whitey.
Tell Me a Riddle Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tell Me a Riddle is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Tell Me a Riddle study guide contains a biography of Tillie Olsen, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of the collected short stories, including I Stand Here Ironing.