Tell Me A Riddle Essay, Research Paper
Summary An older woman is diagnosed as having cancer. The story is of the progression of her symptoms and the effects of her illness and eventual death on her husband and grown children. The years of silent compliance with the expectations of children and spouse begin to erode as the woman becomes sicker. The relationship between the aging couple, and the place of the ill mother in the priorities of her children clarify. The tale ends with the death, and a tiny glimpse of resolution of decades of strife and unexpressed rage between man and wife. Commentary This long short story is beautifully crafted and painfully real in the issues of family that it raises. It serves as a study of the variety of responses of spouse and children to the news of terminal illness. In attempting to show their love, husband and children fail to listen to the dying woman’s expressed wishes. It is this inability to be heard that has tormented the entire life of this woman–and will torment her into her death bed. The lesson for the reader is: hear, believe, and heed the wishes of the dying.
Tell Me a Riddle
By Tillie Olsen
After forty-seven years of clinging to each other through poverty, parenthood, the death of a son, and the burials of unrealized dreams, a married couple finds their union on the brink of dissolution. The apparent catalyst of their blowup is the Haven, a retirement community that the husband wants them to move into while the wife insists on staying put in their family home. Their battles over this issue unearth many of the woman’s long pent-up resentments about their marriage.
What finally stops the couple from separating, legally or physically, is news of the wife’s terminal illness–news that the husband wants to keep hidden from her. He tries to submerge the reality of her dying in a blitz of enforced togetherness. He lays the matter the of Haven to rest and takes her on trips to the homes of friends and children and to warmer climates. Yet even before she realizes that death is imminent, the woman makes her break from the marriage and her current circumstances. The husband can only watch helplessly as the cancer erodes his wife’s body and she shuts herself off from him and others–first by turning down the volume of her hearing aid, later by soaring on wings of memory to distant times, both treasured and tragic.
Increasingly oblivious of her loved ones, the woman recounts incidents and reveals feelings that made her someone more than the children’s mother or the husband’s wife; that made her an avid student whose beloved reading teacher had been murdered during the Russian Revolution; a young woman who, drained by the demands of marriage and motherhood, was not allowed to indulge in the luxury of reading; an explorer who liked to examine sand under a magnifying glass; a little girl who loved to sing. Her “babblings” (as her mate calls them) and her actions (including her refusal to touch a baby) dismay her children and perplex and embitter her husband. But, at last, they also reach him. Laying aside the derisive nickname he usually calls her, he finally recognizes her as Eva and embraces her with a fervor he has not demonstrated in years. Through dying, Eva recaptures her identity.
“Greenleaf,” “Holiday,” and “Tell Me a Riddle” all chronicle the final days of hard-working women who dedicated their lives to the support of their families. Were the returns they received for their devotion worth the prices they paid? In a few paragraphs try to answer that question, basing your responses on your observations on these matters related to Mrs. May, Mother Muller, and Eva: the accomplishments of each woman; the satisfaction with her life each felt; the appreciation each received for her achievements; the state of mind each was in during her final days and the state her loved ones were in as well.