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 means. 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.