Date Approved


Graduate Degree Type


Degree Name

English (M.A.)

Degree Program



Tillie Olsen's most piercing and poignant text, "Tell Me a Riddle," depicts inescapable circumstances as thwarting all avenues of meaningful pursuit for Eva, its aging protagonist. Throughout her work and philosophy, Olsen continually emphasized the power of external constraints, and in this lies her powerful legacy. Her texts outline tragic realities, drawing attention to those on the fringe of society. Regardless of successes and opportunities, she considered herself similarly stifled and downtrodden. In "Tell Me a Riddle," she framed Eva's plight in a way that resembles her own perception of herself, but despite her identification with Eva, her situation differed greatly from that of her fictional character. Olsen demonstrated greater autonomy than Eva, engaging in radical action throughout her life. Regardless of Olsen's superior ability to pursue meaningful activity, she experienced disillusionment and an inability to achieve personal fulfillment, a reality that does mirror Eva's.

Failing to consider internal constraints, Olsen consistently cited external constraints as the cause of her struggles. While Eva suffers from the stultifying effects of forces outside her control, such as economic hardship, patriarchal oppression, and terminal illness, Olsen's own ideological commitments seem to have had considerable impact on her life trajectory, including her chronic inability to write and the accompanying discontent that characterized much of her life. Unexamined commitments entangled, restricting Olsen‘s life trajectory, and her ignorance of such realities disallowed positive counteraction. Although she failed to identify the effects of internal constraints, posit a solution, or provide an example of a woman exercising her autonomy in productive ways, "Tell Me a Riddle" does provide a portrait of hope. Eva's granddaughter, Jeannie, exhibits potentiality rather than actuality, yet her actions suggest the possibility of progress.