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ReFLE01: Eva Character Analysis and Title Meaning

“Tell Me a Riddle,” says the title of Tillie Olsen’s short story. “I know no

riddles,” declares Eva the dying grandmother when the phrase is echoed by

one of her grandchildren (85-6). And why is that? Her husband David knows

many riddles, and they have lived together for 47 years – so she certainly

hasn’t been lacking for time. Nor is it true that Eva is a shallow or simple

person, as evidenced by stream of consciousness-type italicized passages

throughout the story that offer glimpses of her intricate mind. In fact, Eva’s

private language is insightful and deeply introspective, represented through a

plethora of vivid metaphors. One such image is of rocks and stones, found

almost exclusively in Eva’s internal ruminations, which suggests that it means

something very personal i.e. they are deep reflection of her being. Assuming

that the suggestion is true is fruitful and the purpose of this analysis is to use

the implications to describe what Eva’s thoughts and overall self-identity are,

providing the reasons for them, and then explain why Eva claims to know no

riddles despite the plentitude of knowledge that she has.

The central rock image in the story is first instanced in a passing

remark by Eva’s grandson Richard. The child mentions how in geology, all

rocks are classified into just three types – “igneous, sedimentary,

metamorphic” (85). Eva characterizes them as “earth’s fire jetting; rock of

layered centuries; crucibled new out of the old (igneous, sedimentary,

metamorphic). But there was that other—frozen to black glass, never to

transform or hold the fossil memory” (90). The black glass is obsidian (87)

and it is something that has no effect on the world, nor is it affected by the

world. If Eva’s description of rocks is read as a metaphor for the different

kinds of human personalities, then her conception of obsidian is clearly

reminiscent of herself – she also is separated from the world. Eva hides in

closets so that she doesn’t have to talk with her family, and when she goes to

a concert she “turned off her hearing aid… as she would have wished to turn

off sight” (97). She is purposefully isolated. Eva makes a conscious effort to

avoid connecting with people around her because she doesn’t want to be

overwhelmed with other people’s emotions i.e. she does not want to feel

empathy. She says that it is “easy to keep your head above water” if it’s

empty as “empty things float” (97). By “becoming” obsidian, she is able to

stay empty, and afloat, because her head is clear of concern for the world

around her.

Because Eva consciously blocks out the world, her actions seem to

suggest that Eva just isn’t a very caring person – and this is true, somewhat.

Indeed, she does not physically care for others (she refuses to play with her

daughter’s new baby), but her lack of caring is more out of ignorance rather

than malice because Eva has never really been cared for as a person – she is

unable to “pay it forward” so to speak. As a girl growing up in Communist

Russia, she was not allowed to pursue her interests, such as reading Tolstoy,

since they conflicted with what she was “supposed” to be. So, consideration

for Eva never entered into the minds of her caretakers, and Eva grew up into

a life that held no value for her. In this manner, Eva is not fundamentally

uncaring, but her unsociability is due to external causes - her likeness to the

obsidian metaphor was not always present. Olsen sort of already hints at this

realization because obsidian is not really a fourth kind of rock as Eva states,

but is an igneous rock that formed of lava cooled before it has had a chance
to crystallize. Metaphorically, Eva’s passions were suppressed before they

could materialize. Also, a possibly more profound implication is that Eva’s

sense of self-identity is misguided as she is in fact no different from many

other people.

Olsen illustrates literally that Eva isn’t foundationally different from

other people when she has a radical change of attitude in the last days of her

life: “She, who in her life had spoken but seldom and then only when

necessary (never having learned the easy, social uses of words), now in

dying, spoke incessantly” (103). Moreover, the speech itself was near

incoherent, but not because the words or sentences were nonsensical but

because they seemed too deep to understand. To Eva’s piercing and

disturbing statements, her husband replies, “Who wanted questions?

Everything you have to wake?” (114). Eva, who had once said that she knew

no riddles, apparently knows more than anyone else can handle. Her

knowledge of riddles was suppressed along with her passion for life. In

actuality, the two are really inseparable because asking riddles requires a

person be involved in life, to care about it enough to wonder what it all


Olsen’s use of rock imagery points to a deep incongruence in Eva’s

perception of herself and the word – she perceives herself as innately

different from others, even though the reality is that she was indeed born like

many other people; she was only raised in such a negligent manner that she

came to believe that she was different, not formally a human. Eva changes

right before her death perhaps because she realized that despite her wasted

life, she could not maintain complete isolation from the world, to cover
herself against others, as if inside a layer of obsidian glass. Eva has a

husband and children who will carry on her memory, and have already

imprinted themselves on her despite her solitary temperament. They are in

some sense a part of her, and Eva seems to realize that she knows what they

know – and so she must know riddles.