Here are some ideas, seen before in our reading of short stories, that apply to reading fiction in general:
- become familiar with the vocabulary. Think about multiple meanings for one word. Read with a pencil and underline odd or unfamiliar words. Read with a dictionary nearby.
- remain engaged while reading. Write notes to self in the margins of the book. Underline parts that speak out to you. Keep a sheet of paper nearby for note taking and jotting.
- write, underline, make notes in the margin of your textbook or on a separate sheet of paper. Keep yourself on task and make a record for coming back to later.
- understand the piece. Read the title. Think about character, plot, theme and idea. How do the parts relate to the whole?
- find meaning behind the literal words and situations presented. Think about both literal and figurative meanings. Fill in the blank: “This is a piece about . . . .” In the blank think about an idea, a meaning, a commentary on life.
- find meaning behind the abstract images or situations. What do the particulars suggest more generally?
As you read a play, try to
- imagine what the sets, scenery, surroundings of the characters look like as the actors move through them
- imagine the tone of voice, the attitudes, the body language, the actions of the characters as they speak their lines
- note stage directions (usually given inside brackets in italic type immediately after the character name)–here the author tells actors how the lines are to be delivered, how they are to appear or seem to the audience, how the lines should come to life on the stage
Optional: Click below to see other ideas about how to read a play
You can access the play at Gutenberg eBooks
Optional: Links Related to A Doll’s House on the Internet
You might like to read some pages related to A Doll’s House found on the Internet:
Before Reading: A Bit of Background
A Doll’s House was first published for the stage in 1879. As you read, you must remember that the world of 1879 was quite a bit different from the world today. Women were not allowed to own property, to vote, could not take out a loan in their own name, and were expected by the conventions of society to be housewives focused on their home, their husbands, and their children.
Reading Act I
1. Why does Nora think that “this is the first Christmas that we have not needed to economise”?
2. What does Nora suggest as a Christmas present for herself from Torvald? What is the reason, we later find, that she wants this particular present?
3. Describe what we learn about the trip to Italy take by Nora and Torvald.
4. Describe the circumstances around Christine’s marriage and the death of her husband.
5. Christine tells Nora, “[Y]ou know so little of the burdens and troubles of life”. What secrets does Nora reveal to Christine to prove how wrong Christine is?
6. Nora tells Krogstad when he re-enters the house, “Today? It is not the first of the month yet” and, later, “I’m not afraid of you any longer. As soon as the New Year comes, I shall in a very short time be free of the whole thing”. To what arrangement with Krogstad do these two speeches refer? Explain.
7. In Act I, Torvald tells us about those who lie and his experience with them as a lawyer. Tell his experience with liars and his conclusions about them. Why would his ideas about liars be a shock to Nora?
8. Re-read Nora’s last speech in Act I. What effect have Torvald’s words had on her?
10. List all the lies Nora has told in Act I. What are their motivations? Are they serious breaches of morality? White lies? Sins? Is there a pattern to them?
11. What are all the pet names Torvald has for Nora in Act I? What are their effects on Nora? On you as a reader? Is there a pattern to them?
12. Go back to the discussion of the Christmas ornaments. What do you think was the real reason they never appeared on the Christmas tree? Go back to the unknown package referred to by Torvald. What do you think is in the package?
Reading Act II
1. When Nora opens the door at the beginning of Act II and checks the mailbox and says “No, nothing in the letter-box; it is quite empty”, what is she anticipating?
2. The Nurse tells Nora not to go out in the winter weather because she will catch cold, Nora replies “Well, worse than that might happen. How are the children?”. About her children, she tells the Nurse, “I shall not be able to be so much with [the children] now as I was before”. The Nurse tells her that the children will get used to, and Nora replies, “Do you think so? Do you think they would forget their mother if she went away altogether?”. Why all this concern for her children? How is it all related to what Torvald has said in Act II? How is it all related to Nora’s last speech in Act I?
3. What has Christine heard from Nora that makes her say to Nora, “[Y]ou ought to make an end of it with Doctor Rank”? Why is Christine glad to hear that Nora could not have borrowed any money from Dr. Rank?
4. Nora says, “[Y]ou must let Krogstad keep his post in the Bank.” Torvald answers, “My dear Nora, it is his post that I have arranged Mrs. Linde shall have.”. Why are these important lines?
5. Torvald says, “You will see I am man enough take everything upon myself,” and Nora is horrified and says, “You will never have to do that.” What is she thinking that Torvald is referring to?
6. What is Dr. Rank dying of? Is his death in some way parallel to Nora’s situation with her children?
7. Besides the approach of his death, what does Dr. Rank reveal to Nora?
8. Krogstad reveals to Nora that he has received the letter of his dismissal from Torvald. He now no longer wants Nora to pay off the loan. What is it, instead, that he wants and why?
9. Krogstad and Nora discuss the possibility of suicide. Dr. Rank discusses the possibility of his suicide. Each declares that he or she does not have the courage for such a thing. What is the motivation that each one has for committing suicide?
10. In Act II, Nora is literally dancing for Torvald in front of Rank. Behind all the lines here, what is going on in terms of the larger plot and themes of the play?
11. Note speech about “a wonderful thing” that is to happen. Compare this to Act III.
Reading Act III
Now that you have been lead by your professor in looking for important speeches, events in the plot, ideas, and recurring themes in the play, read Act III on your own.
Topics for Draft 4A
After reading A Doll’s House, choose one topic from the list below to write about. If you want to use a topic other than these, given below for Draft 4A please email your instructor to choose or develop a topic of your own.
- At the close of Act II and in Act III, Nora speaks several times of her “most wonderful thing of all.” What is her “most wonderful thing”? In what ways does Nora think that she and Torvald do NOT have her “most wonderful thing”?
- Does the play suggest that women must leave their oppressive husbands or lovers in order to gain their independence and selfhood?
- When audiences first saw A Doll’s House on stage, they were shocked that Nora leaves her husband at the end of the play. Today, many audiences are shocked when they realize that Nora also abandons her children at the end of the play. The author of the play, however, seems to support the idea that Nora should leave her children with her husband. What in suggests to you that Ibsen feels Nora must leave her children behind in order to be a better person and have the independence that she needs to grow as a woman and a person?
- Does Nora come to discover that the greatest and most damaging lies are the lies that she tells herself? What leads you to this conclusion?
Write a paragraph of at least 150 words for Draft 4A
Documenting Quotations from a Play
When you quote from the play, you will need to document where you find the quotation. For a prose play (such as A Doll’s House), provide the page number followed by the act (as a Roman numeral) and scene number, if any.
Torvald wishes to keep Nora perpetually playing at being his beautiful and devoted wife without being a woman with actual reasoning capability. He calls her his “little featherhead” (3.I.6) and his “poor little girl” (8.I.13), suggesting that he believes her to be completely helpless, dull-witted, and incapable of being able to think on her own.
Revise Draft 4A
Revise your paragraph to include
- an opening sentence, if needed
- a thesis that gives your opinion about the topic (chosen from the list above)
- underline the thesis
- the name of the author and the title of the play (italicize the title of the play)
- at least one quotation from the play with an in-text citation
- at least 150 words
- a final sentence that wraps up the paragraph and brings the paragraph to some finality (a conclusion or clincher sentence)
Paper 4 Requirements
1. Paper 4 focuses on your interpretation of the theme (meaning, important point) of A Doll’s House.
2. Paper 4 uses at least two quotations from a secondary source found in the Literature Resource Center database.
3. The paper has a short introduction paragraph, which includes
- a lead-in line to get the paper started [don’t start the first line of the paper with the thesis]; this is just a general statement of the topic of the paper,
- the title of the play [in italics],
- the name of the playwright,
- the thesis [your opinion about what the play means or its major theme or idea].
4. The thesis makes one arguable point about the theme (point, meaning, your interpretation) of the play. Your thesis is arguable; that is, it takes a stand that other people who read the story might disagree with but one which you support. The thesis is your interpretation of a theme, point, or meaning of the play.
5. The body of your paper contains several paragraphs. In the body paragraphs, you will want to
- thoroughly explain all your ideas,
- make every sentence clear and understandable to the reader
- not use any contractions,
- avoid using first (I, me, mine, our…) or second (you, your, you are…) person point of view in a formal college essay.
- use the literary present tense of verbs to talk about your play. For example, the boy walks through the house, not “walked”; or the poem is about a young boy, not “was.”
6. Back up your ideas in your body paragraphs with quotations from the play. Put quotation marks around the quotations. After the quotation, cite in parentheses according to play format. Be sure to lead into the quotation before giving the quotation. After the quotation, tell what the quotation suggests to you or your interpretation of the quotation. Link this discussion to the topic sentence of the paragraph and to the thesis of the paper.
7. Back up your ideas in your body paragraphs with at least two quotations from the secondary source. Or, you may use quotations from the secondary source that run counter to your own interpretation of the play. Put quotation marks around the quotations. After the quotation, put the name of the author of the secondary source in parenthesis if you have not already mentioned him/her in your paragraph. If you have already mentioned him/her in your paragraph, do not cite his/her name in parenthesis again.
In this paper you are NOT asked to summarize what you read in the secondary source. You are NOT asked to use the same thesis that the secondary source uses. You are NOT asked to agree with what the secondary source has to say about the play. You are merely asked to use two quotations from the secondary source.
8. You may also back up your ideas in your body paragraphs with summaries and paraphrases from the secondary source. Or, you may summarize and paraphrase ideas from the secondary source that run counter to your own interpretation of the story. Do NOT put quotation marks around summaries and paraphrases. After the summary and paraphrase, put the name of the author of the secondary source in parenthesis if you have not already mentioned him/her in your paragraph. If you have already mentioned him/her in your paragraph, do not cite his/her name again in parenthesis.
9. When you quote, quote accurately. Use ellipsis to indicate any omissions you have made from the original quotation. Use square brackets to enclose any change you make in the original, including ellipsis. Use the single quotation marks inside double quotation marks to indicate words already in quotation marks in the play. If your quotation from the play is long (more than 4 lines of your paper), display the quotation as a long (blocked) quotation.
10. End the paper with a short conclusion paragraph that echoes or mirrors the thesis in some way and that wraps up the entire paper.
11. In word processing, type the outline page (with at least As and Bs under each Roman numeral), the paper itself, and a Work Cited page.
12. Write the words “Paper 4” somewhere on the title page of your paper.
13. Give your paper a title that is NOT the title of the play. Type the title, at the top and centered, on the first page of the paper itself.
14. Assigned length: 1000 to 1500.
15. Underline the thesis in your introduction paragraph. It should be the last sentence of the introduction paragraph.
Writing a Thesis
Your thesis is your interpretation of an idea, a point, a theme you see in the poem. All thesis statements should be
- An opinion
- Your opinion
- The main idea of your paper
- A complete sentence
- Prepare your readers for the content of the paper
- Argumentative: an opinion that you believe but one that many people do not. Your job in the paper is to convince your readers of the validity of your thesis.Writing Draft 4B
Write a draft of at least six paragraphs for your Draft 4B. In your draft, include:
an introduction paragraph
- underline the thesis in your introduction paragraph
at least four body paragraphs
- write topic sentences in the body paragraphs (usually the first or second sentence of the body paragraphs)
- make sure the topic sentences directly and explicitly support your thesis
- use quotations from the play as supporting evidence; cite with in-text citations
a conclusion paragraph
- make sure the conclusion paragraph wraps up the essay and brings it to finality.
If you are ready to do so, you may include information from the secondary source. If you include information from the secondary source, be sure to cite it. You are NOT required to use information from the secondary source in your Draft 4B
Finding Secondary Sources for Paper 4
Now, it is time to find a secondary source on the play you want to write about. To do this, you will be using the database in the Virtual Library called the “Literature Resource Center.” Click on the link called “Literature Resource Center–LRC” and enter the password when you are prompted to do so. If you are working from your campus, you will not even have to give the password. If you are working from home or other non-campus locations, you will need to give the password.
password = “elvis” (with NO quotation marks)
Access the Literature Resource Center (LRC)from the link below. Enter Password when prompted:Literature Resource Center – LRCPassword: elvis
About Literature Resource Center
An Essay Using Primary and Secondary Sources
Here is a short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, an American poet who was born in 1917 and lived until about 2000. Herself black, Brooks’ poems often concern the experience of the black working class citizens of her native Chicago, especially about their sense of powerlessness and poverty in the inner city and ghetto.
The Bean Eaters
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good. 5
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering . . .
Remembering, with tinklings and twinges, 10
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases, and fringes.
Now, read a student paper about Brooks’ poem. The paper, entitled “Making Time Versus Enduring in Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘The Bean Eaters,’ ” appears in the Little-Brown Handbook on pages (please ask your instructor for page numbers in the new edition). In this paper, the student uses the primary source (the poem entitled “The Bean Eaters”) and several quotations, summaries, and ideas from the secondary sources.
The primary source is the entry for “Brooks”
The secondary sources are the entries for “Kent,” “Melhem,” and “Shaw.”
Notice also that in this paper, the secondary sources are all print materials which use page numbers in parenthesis for the citations of the secondary sources while the primary source uses line numbers in parenthesis for the citations.
Your Assignment for Source 4C
1. Find the secondary source that you plan to quote from in Paper 4.
2. Copy that secondary source into a Word file
3. Post that file to the discussion board called “Source 4C” under the discussion boards for Module 4.
1. Locate the secondary source you will be quoting in the Literature Resource Center.
2. Use your cursor to highlight the file.
3. Hit CTRL C to copy.
4. Open up your word processor and start a new file.
5. Click your cursor into the new file.
6. Hit CTRL V to paste.
7. Save the file.
8. Make any changes or adjustments, as needed, to the file.
9. Then, use the same process, as above, to post to the discussion board. As an alternative, you may attach your file to your posting.
An Example of the Assignment
(This is an example of a secondary source for the short story by Tillie Olsen called “I Stand Here Ironing.)
Limming: or Why Tillie Writes
Critic: Ellen Cronan RoseSource: The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIII, No. 2, April, 1976, pp. 1-13. Reproduced by permissionCriticism about: Tillie Olsen (1913-)
[(essay date April 1976) In the essay below, Rose explores Olsen’s philosophy on writing and suggests that Olsen, a renowned feminist, is as powerful at depicting men as she as at depicting women.]
Tillie Olsen was born in Nebraska 65 years ago. In 1960, when she was 50 years old, she published her first book, a slim volume of short stories called Tell Me A Riddle. In 1974 she finally published a novel–Yonnondio–she had begun in 1932 and abandoned in 1937. To women in “the movement” she is a major literary figure, not so much despite as because of the paucity of her publications.
Since 1971, when Delta reissued Tell Me A Riddle in paperback, Olsen has been stumping the country, speaking about women who have been prevented by their sex from utilizing their creative talents. These are her words:
In the twenty years I bore and reared my children, usually had to work on the job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist. When the youngest of our four was in school, the beginnings struggled toward endings. . . . Bliss of movement. A full extended family life; the world of my job; and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around with me through work, through home. Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work, enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: “I stand here ironing.” In such snatches of time I wrote what I did in those years, but there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible. The fifteen hours of daily realities became too much distraction for the writing.
As for myself, who did not publish a book until I was 50, who raised children without household help or the help of the ‘technological sublime’ . . . who worked outside the house on everyday jobs as well. . . . The years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks. . . . The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for the writing to be first; habits of years: response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters, stay with you, mark you, become you. I speak of myself to bring here the sense of those others to whom this is in the process of happening (unnecessarily happening, for it need not, must not continue to be) and to remind us of those (I so nearly was one) who never come to writing at all. We cannot speak of women writers in our century without speaking also of the invisible; the also capable; the born to the wrong circumstances, the diminished, the excluded, the lost, the silenced. We who write are survivors, ‘onlys.’ One–out of twelve.
I heard Olsen speak these words to a class at Dartmouth College last year, and I observed their galvanic effect on the students–mostly women–who heard them. My first exposure to Tillie Olsen was to Olsen the feminist. It was with this preparation that I first read Tell Me A Riddle and Yonnondio. I was thus unprepared for their impact on me.
For in her books, Olsen is no politician, but an artist. Her fictions evoke, move, haunt. They did not seem, when I read them, to belong to any movement, to support any cause.
And so I returned to Olsen’s words about the situation of the woman writer to see if there was something I had missed, something the women’s movement had missed.
In “Silences: When Writers Don’t Write,” originally delivered as a talk to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in 1963, Olsen asks, “What are creation’s needs for full functioning?” The answer women have heard is an echo of Virginia Woolf’s “ï¿½500 a year and a room of one’s own”–independence, freedom, escape from the restriction of traditional feminine roles. This is the answer Olsen herself gives on the lecture circuit. But in this early Radcliffe speech, her question seems not so much political as aesthetic.
Wondering what keeps writers from writing, Olsen turns to what writers–men writers–have themselves said about their unnatural silences, not periods of gestation and renewal, but of drought, “unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.” She points to Hardy’s sense of lost “vision,” to Hopkins, “poet’s eye,” curbed by a priestly vow to refrain from writing, to Rimbaud who, after long silence, finally on his deathbed “spoke again like a poet-visionary.” She then turns to writers who wrote continuously, in an effort to understand what preserved them from the unnatural silences that foreshortened the creativity of Hardy, Hopkins, Rimbaud, Melville, and Kafka. She cites James’s assertion that creation demands “a depth and continuity of attention,” and notes that Rilke cut himself off from his family to live in attentive isolation so that there would be “no limit to vision.” Over and over in these opening paragraphs of “Silences,” Olsen identifies the act of creation with an act of the eye.
In order to create, the artist must see. Margaret Howth, in Rebecca Harding Davis’s novel of that name, is the type of the artist for Olsen, “her eyes quicker to see than ours.” And one of the special handicaps of the woman writer, confined traditionally to her proper sphere in the drawing room or the kitchen, is that she is restricted to what Olsen calls “trespass vision” of the world beyond that sphere. But although she echoes Charlotte Bronte’s lament that women are denied “facilities for observation . . . a knowledge of the world,” Olsen does not equate the reportorial with the creative eye. Vision is not photography. Olsen quotes, approvingly, Sarah Orne Jewett’s advice to the young Willa Cather: “If you don’t keep and mature your force . . . what might be insight is only observation. You will write about life, but never life itself.”
In Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, to which Olsen has added an appreciative biographical afterword, the distinction between vision and mere seeing is dramatized in the reactions of two viewers to the statue Hugh Wolfe has sculpted out of slag. The mill owner’s son has brought a party of gentlemen to see the mill. On their way back to the carriage, they stumble on Hugh’s statue, the crouching figure of a nude woman, with outstretched arms. Moved by its crude power, the gentlemen ask Hugh, “But what did you mean by it?” “She be hungry,” he answers. The Doctor condescendingly instructs the unschooled sculptor: “Oh-h! But what a mistake you have made, my fine fellow! You have given no sign of starvation to the body. It is strong,–terribly strong.” To the realist, a portrait of starvation must count every rib. But Mitchell, who is portrayed as the dilettante and aesthete, a stranger to the mill town and of a different cut than the doctor, foreman, and newspaperman who round out the party, “flash[es] a look of disgust” at the doctor: “‘May,’ he broke out impatiently, ‘are you blind? Look at that woman’s face! It asks questions of God, and says, “I have a right to know.” Good God, how hungry it is!'”
So Olsen’s vision is, in a sense, trespass vision. It is “insight, not observation,” the eye’s invasion of outward detail to the meaning and shape within. It is this creative trespassing that Rebecca Davis commends in Margaret Howth, whose eyes are “quicker to see than ours, delicate or grand lines in the homeliest things.” And it is precisely that quality in Rebecca Davis herself that makes her so significant to Tillie Olsen, who says of her that “the noting of reality was transformed into comprehension, Vision.”
Tillie Olsen’s edition of Life In the Iron Mills, published by the Feminist Press, is central to an understanding of what she means by the creative act. It may or may not be one of the lost masterpieces of American fiction. Olsen herself admits that it is “botched.” But it fascinates her because it is a parable of creation, a portrait of the artist. And significantly, that artist is a sculptor.
One of the unsilent writers Olsen quotes in “Silences” is the articulate Thomas Mann, who spoke of the act of creation as “the will, the self-control to shape a sentence or follow out a hard train of thought. From the first rhythmical urge of the inward creative force towards the material, towards casting in shape and form, from that to the thought, the image, the word, the line.” Vision is perceptive seeing, which sees beneath and within the outward details the essential shape of the meaning of the thing perceived. Doctor May saw only the anatomy of Hugh’s statue; Mitchell saw through to the woman’s soul.
Sculpting is cutting away the exterior surface to come to the shape within the block of marble. Hugh spends months “hewing and hacking with his blunt knife,” compelled by “a fierce thirst for beauty,–to know it, to create it.” His struggle is first to see the beauty within and then to give it form, Mann’s urge towards the material and then casting it in shape and form.
Olsen writes of Davis’s art in similarly sculptural words: “It may have taken her years to embody her vision. ‘Hewing and hacking'” like Hugh. The first pages of Life in the Iron Mills are the narrator’s injunction to the reader to “look deeper” into the sordid lives of the mill workers, to ask whether there is “nothing beneath” the squalor. This preamble concludes with the artless confession that “I can paint nothing of this” inner reality, “only give you the outside outlines.” But the strength of the tale is in Davis’s ability to sculpt that inner reality, to dissolve the outside outlines and uncover the moral shape of her simple tale. For Olsen it is “a stunning insight . . . as transcendent as any written in her century.”
Vision is not photography. Sculpting is not cameo carving. Rebecca Harding Davis excoriated the Brahmins she met on her trip north from her native Wheeling, West Virginia. Emerson and Bronson Alcott, she wrote in her journal, “thought they were guiding the real world, [but] they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was . . . their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range.” In other words, they imposed their vision of the world on the world of fact, pasted their carvings on the surface of things. Davis criticized them for ignoring the “back-bone of fact.” To see the inner shape, you have at least to acknowledge the contour of the surface.
In her own tale of the down-trodden, Yonnondio, Olsen addresses the Brahmins of our day:
And could you not make a cameo of this and pin it onto your aesthetic hearts? So sharp it is, so clear, so classic. The shattered dusk, the mountain of culm, the tipple; clean lines, bare beauty–and carved against them dwarfed by the vastness of night and the towering tipple, these black figures with bowed heads, waiting, waiting.
The aesthetic eye sees “at too long a range.” It abstracts from surface detail a pleasing pattern. But the creative eye, the visionary eye, apprehends the surface in order to comprehend the inner shape which gives it meaning.
Thus by accreted detail, Olsen’s definition of the creative act comes into focus. The artist stands, always, in relation to a world of fact. He can record it or he can transform it. In the one case, the standard by which he measures his achievement is fidelity to fact. In the other, his standards are formal. Between these extremes, Tillie Olsen places the creative act. Fidelity to fact, but essential fact. Form and pattern, but exposed, not imposed.
It is not surprising that, of all the literary people she met on her northern trip, Rebecca Davis should have been drawn to Hawthorne. This aesthetic stance in relation to reality that I have discerned in Olsen and Davis is also, as I understand it, the method of Hawthorne’s romances. Coming to Hawthorne’s tales early in her life, Davis was “verified” in her feeling that “the common-place folk and things which I saw every day had mystery and charm . . . belong to the magic world [of books] as much as knights and pilgrims.” Ethan Brand, that tale of another furnace tender, sees under the surface of fact a fable of the unpardonable sin; Life in the Iron Mills, as Olsen points out, is about “another kind of unpardonable sin,” but its method of uncovering that sin is akin to Hawthorne’s. It is not an abstraction from reality–that is the method of the cameo cutter, the formalist–but a reduction of facticity to its primary form.
When I began this study of Tillie Olsen, I was motivated by my sense that beneath the polemic about the predicament of the woman writer lay something like this more comprehensive aesthetic. What gave me this sense, or suspicion, was Olsen’s fiction, which transcends her oratory. But before I turn to an appreciation of that fiction, I want to examine briefly the source of the disparity between Olsen’s real aesthetic and her current feminist articulation of it.
Throughout her non-fiction writing, as we have seen, Olsen uses the metaphor of sculpture to define the creative act. To be a writer, one must “be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions.” But in an article published in College English in 1972, “Women Who Are Writers in Our Century: One Out of Twelve,” Olsen uses this sculptural imagery to describe, not the artist, but the situation of women, who are “estranged from their own experience and unable to perceive its shape and authenticity,” prevented by social and sexual circumscription from the essential act of self-definition and affirmation. The paradox of female reality, as Olsen understands it, is that immersion in life means loss of perspective, or vision.
The artist-visionary can supply that perspective, can “find the form” which constitutes the “shape and authenticity” of what Olsen calls “common female realities.”
Thus in “One Out of Twelve” and on the lecture circuit, Tillie Olsen exhorts women artists to take women’s lives as their subject matter, finding a therapeutic link between the situation of women in our society and the peculiar kind of discovery implicit in the aesthetic creation. Accordingly she feels “it is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: ‘I stand here ironing‘.”
It is possible to read the first of the four stories that comprise Tell Me A Riddle as an exemplum of Olsen’s feminist aesthetic. The mother-narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing” looks back over a life where there has been no “time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total.” Caught in the mesh of paid work, unpaid work, typing, darning, ironing, she has suffered, but never had time and leisure to perceive and shape, to understand, the passionate arc of motherhood. Helplessly she looks back over her memories of her daughter’s childhood and concludes, “I will never total it all.”
What Olsen does, in “I Stand Here Ironing,” is to perceive and give form to the meaning of her narrator’s motherhood, that “total” which the mother has no time to sum. As every female reader I have spoken to attests, this story movingly succeeds in articulating what Olsen calls “common female realities.”
It is also possible to fit the title story of the collection into the Procrustean feminist aesthetic Olsen propounds in “One Out of Twelve.” “Tell me a riddle, Grammy. I know no riddles, child.” But the grandfather “knew how to tickle, chuck, lift, toss, do tricks, tell secrets, make jokes, match riddle for riddle.” Why? Clearly because during all the years when she “had had to manage,” to contend with poverty, to raise five children, to preserve domestic order, he “never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” The man is free, the woman bound. Women cannot “riddle” or form the experience they are utterly immersed in.
But “Tell Me A Riddle” is far more than a feminist document. In it, Olsen riddles the inscrutable by perceiving the meaning beneath and within the old woman’s life and death. But this service is not rendered solely to the grandmother, but to all the characters in the story, and to the reader as well. Lennie, her son, suffered “not alone for her who was dying, but for that in her which never lived (for that which in him might never live).” And keeping his vigil by the dying woman’s bedside, the grandfather achieves an epiphany, which the reader shares:
The cards fell from his fingers. Without warning, the bereavement and betrayal he had sheltered–compounded through the years–hidden even from himself–revealed itself,
and with it the monstrous shapes of what had actually happened in the century.
“Tell Me A Riddle” is a story about “common female realities,” but it is also a story about “common human realities.” We are all bound slaves, all immured in immanence, pawns of economic and political forces we cannot comprehend. Stepping from moment to moment, we do not see that we are pacing out the steps of a “dance, while the flutes so joyous and vibrant tremble in the air.”
Olsen has made the mistake, in her recent oratory, of confusing the general human situation and the particular plight of women in our society. What she empathically knows because she is an artist she thinks she knows because she is a woman, that our greatest need is to “be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for [our] own life comprehensions.” In her fiction, if not in her rhetoric, Olsen does not reserve that need to the female half of the race.
Like the mother in “I Stand Here Ironing,” the protagonist of “Hey Sailor, What Ship?”, the second of the Tell Me A Riddle stories, has spent his life day by day, immersed in “the watery shifting” from one port to another, the animal rhythm of work/pay check/binge/hangover. Yet Olsen rescues this inchoate history into meaning, by showing how Whitey fits in to a larger pattern, of which he himself is unaware. To his old friends in San Francisco, to whom he continually returns no matter how wide the arc of his dereliction, he is “a chunk of our lives.” When Jeannie, the ruthless teenager, says, “he’s just a Howard Street wino, that’s all,” her mother insists, “You’ve got to understand.”
Understand. Once they had been young together. To Lennie he remained a tie to adventure and a world in which men had not eaten each other; and the pleasure, when the mind was clear, of chewing over with that tough mind the happenings of the times or the queernesses of people, or laughing over the mimicry. To Helen he was the compound of much help given, much support; the ear to hear, the hand that understands how much a scrubbed floor, or a washed dish, or a child taken care of for a while, can mean.
With understanding, Whitey’s sordid life is illuminated and valued. For us, who view it by way of Olsen’s trespass vision, his life has meaning.
If Olsen, like Rebecca Harding Davis, owes her aesthetic to Hawthorne, it is with another American writer that she shares her sympathies. In a revealing remark to a class of Dartmouth students, Tillie Olsen said that when she began writing her tale “From the Thirties” in 1932, she knew she would call it Yonnondio. Furthermore she has another unfinished novel she also calls Yonnondio. Like Walt Whitman’s, from whom she borrowed the name, her fiction is one continuous poem, dedicated to the common man.
Yonnondio, as the subtitle reminds us, is a tale “From the Thirties.” It records several years in the life of the Holbrook family, as they move from a mining town in Wyoming to a tenant farm in South Dakota to the slaughter-houses of Denver. But although the settings and their squalor have equivalents in other writing “from the thirties,” Olsen is neither Upton Sinclair nor John Steinbeck. Yonnondio is not a protest, but a perception.
Olsen told the Dartmouth students she was “fortunate” to have been brought up “working class, socialist.” She thus credited her strength as an artist, not to her sex, but to her roots, her heritage, her sense of belonging to a living culture. It is her sympathetic love for the common people she identifies with that leads her to perceive in their lives the luminous beauty she limns, to articulate the inarticulate, to give voice to what might otherwise be a note as fleeting as JimJim’s song in Yonnondio:
a fifth voice, pure, ethereal, veiled over the rest. Mazie saw it was Jimmie, crouched at the pedals of the piano. “Ma,” she said after the song was done, “it’s Jimmie, JimJim was singin too.” Incredulous, they made him sing it over with them and over and over. His words were a blur, a shadow of the real words, but the melody came true and clear.
Olsen’s ears are quick to catch that ethereal melody, and her pen is incomparable at notating it.
Olsen’s fiction is full of privileged moments, instants prized from the flux of time and illumined by a vision of their essential meaning. For the characters, the moments are fleeting. At the end of a day of gathering greens and weaving dandelion chains, a day wrested from the stink and squalor of Slaughterhouse City, Mazie sees her mother’s face transfigured, senses in her “remote” eyes “happiness and farness and selfness.” Anna’s peace suffuses the place where she sits with the children, so that “up from the grasses, from the earth, from the broad tree trunk at their back, latent life streamed and seeded. The air and self shone boundless.” But the sun sinks, Ben gets hungry for supper, and “the mother look” returns to Anna’s face. “Never again, but once, did Mazie see that look–the other look–on her mother’s face.”
For Mazie, the privileged moments are so evanescent that she sometimes wonders if they ever occurred: “Where was the belted man Caldwell had told her of, lifting his shield against a horn of stars? Where was the bright one she had run after into the sunset? A strange face, the sky grieved above her, gone suddenly strange like her mother’s.” Snatched from the grinding, degrading poverty of her life’s daily texture, such moments of beauty as Mazie had with the old man Caldwell, who directed her nï¿½ive eyes to Orion and his luminous companions, are so rare that they might never have existed, might be dreams, or promises, like the books the dying Caldwell wills her and her father sells “for half a dollar.”
More often, the privileged moments do not “come to writing” for Olsen characters. “Come to writing,” a favorite phrase of Tillie Olsen’s, expresses her vitalistic conception of the creative process. It means the inarticulate finding words, the dumbly sensed becoming sensible, the incipient meaning finding, form. For the writer, it is breaking silence. For the actor in an Olsen fiction, it is a moment of perceiving, of knowing that there is shape and direction in the ceaseless flow of what must be. Mazie comes to writing occasionally; so does her mother, Anna, who “stagger[s]” in the sunlight and moves beyond the helpless “My head is balloony, balloony” to sing her love for her eldest child and her joy in motherhood: “O Shenandoah, I love thy daughter, / I’ll bring her safe through stormy water.”
But more often, when Mazie is immersed in a potentially luminous moment, she perceives it as “stammering light” and when “she turns her hand to hold” it, “she grasps shadows.” Anna moves through the daily drudgery “not knowing an every-hued radiance floats on her hair.” As for Jim, her husband, “the things in his mind so vast and formless, so terrible and bitter, cannot be spoken, will never be spoken–till the day that hands will find a way to speak this: hands.”
The hands are Olsen’s hands, grasping her pen to copy a fragment of Walt Whitman’s poem as the epigraph to her novel “From the Thirties”:
No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future:
Yonnondio! Yonnondio!–unlimn’d they disappear;
To-day gives place, and fades–the cities, farms, factories fade;
A muffled sonorous sound, a wailing word is borne through the air for a moment,
Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.
Yonnondio! That evocative word is the emblem of Tillie Olsen’s aesthetic. It is her plea, and her pledge: that the unobserved should be perceived, that the fleeting should be fixed, that the inarticulate should come to writing.
Source: Ellen Cronan Rose, “Limming: or Why Tillie Writes,” in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIII, No. 2, April, 1976, pp. 1-13. Reproduced by permission.
Source Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism
Integrating Information from the Secondary Sources into Your Paper
Now you will want to incorporate material from the secondary source into the draft of Paper 4 you have already written. Read “Integrating Sources into Your Text” pp. 204-212 and “Avoiding Plagiarism” pp. 212-218 in The Little, Brown Essential Handbook.