Mention Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle" in a roomful of academics, and they are likely to respond with an almost unanimous interpretation of the text. Most critics see the work as an emotional tale of a woman's re-emergence into "person-ness" after years of entrapment in the roles of wife and mother. Appearing first in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Olsen's stories that are collected in Tell Me a Riddle are now, in this era of feminist consciousness, seen as being harshly critical of the ways in which patriarchy injured countless women by forcing them into domestic roles that constrained their creativity and denied their sense of identity.
I do not deny that these elements appear in "Tell Me a Riddle." Yet I find such feminist readings too narrow and as reductionist in approach as the initial reviews which sought to pigeonhole Olsen as merely another ethnic working class writer.(1) Olsen speaks not only of the plight of women in her story "Tell Me a Riddle"; she also tells of the ways in which American patriarchal, capitalistic powers so shape the nature of American culture that they invade the domestic sphere as well, thereby affecting all people within a home through the institution of marriage. She portrays this invasion with people who are not only working class, but who are also immigrants to show how deeply embedded into the "American Dream" such cultural values are. To tell the tale of this family, Olsen does not rely on the forms of "proletarian realism" that her Communist peers advocated in the 1930s (Rosenfelt 388); instead, she draws on a fictional technique that previously had been reserved for elitist or especially exceptional protagonists--stream of consciousness.
Olsen had given up her writing as a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s for family responsibilities, and did not focus again on her writing until the 1950s. Not surprisingly, her fiction of this period draws on the same political and social concerns that she had explored earlier. In her works of the 1950s, though, Olsen draws directly upon her own experiences as a working class mother and wife. She writes of this twenty-year period in her book Silences:
In the twenty years I bore and reared my children, usually had to work
on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not
exist. Nevertheless writing, the hope of it, was "the air I breathed, so
long as I shall breathe at all." In that hope, there was conscious storing,
snatched reading, beginnings of writing, and always "the secret
rootlets of reconnaissance." (19)
While she writes of the demanding chores and obligations of this period, she does not seem to regret those years, which she describes as having for her "a full extended family life" (19). Instead, these years fed her writing, helping to provide her with material to counter one of the prevailing American myths of the 1950s--the myth of the domestic ideal.
Although Olsen found academic support for her writing from Stanford, the social and political atmosphere of the late 1940s and early 1950s was hardly comfortable for Leftists such as Olsen. Deborah Rosenfelt observes that McCarthyism directly touched Olsen: "...she and her family endured the soul-destroying harassment typically directed at leftists and thousands of suspected leftists during that period" (380). Olsen had seen some moderate successes of Communism in the greater unionization of the industrial workplace. Yet post-World War II ideology differentiated "working men" from the Leftists of the 1930s because it was economically desirable to do so. As Joanne S. Frye observes, "The prevailing anticommunist feeling made it difficult to communicate the power of these [communist] beliefs, the socialist conviction that human beings must work together in social movements to implement necessary changes" (82). Lary May similarly explains that industrial unions had been slow to develop in the United States because "a largely Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie remained separated from a racially and ethnically divided working class" (130). …