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理想的乌托邦 生活的埃瑞璜




Silences and Sounds--Feminism in Tell Me…  

2010-04-24 21:21:00|  分类: 作业及论文 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Tell Me a Riddle, the first story of the four as a collection with the same name, is an exemplum of Olsen’s feminist aesthetic. The protagonist Eva, a Jewish immigrant woman, who used to be a ceaseless labor as a wife and mother and now in her dying bed, finally breaks her silences. However, the process of her gaining force to break silences is rather complicated, prolonged and anguishing.

Being a Jewish immigrant working-class woman, Eva’s silences “result from circumstances of being born into the wrong class, race, or sex, being denied education, becoming numbed by economic struggle, muzzled by censorship or distracted or impeded by the demands of nurturing.” Most feminists believe that our culture is a patriarchal culture. In the patriarchal society, especially Jewish patriarchal society women have there stereotyped roles to play—washing, scrubbing, sewing, ironing, feeding, nurturing, nursing, nourishing, etc. They lose their voices being confined at home. “And their silences are the silences of the centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”(HCA, p.197) Therefore Mrs. Olsen reveals their impediments and entitles them to break their silences.

Being repressed by the circumstances, Eva hears various sounds come in over another. Actually the sounds are from the circumstances with two different sources. One is from the dominant patriarchal society, which wants to submerge and silence her while the other is from the minor culture, which conjures her to subvert and to break her silences. With the prolonged conflict between the two sounds pressed in her ears, she comes to her consciousness. She rebels, breaks silences and recovers her voice.

The following chapters are going to analyze in detail how Eva recovers her voice after struggling with the conflicting sounds.

Chapter 1  About the Story

The protagonist Eva, an elderly woman, finds her solitude and peace after her seven children have gone. Her husband David, however, thinks it better to sell the house and join his lodge’s Haven for the aged. He tries very hard to persuade her, but she refuses. Then their disagreement turns to quarrels, separating in beds and heated or cold wars.

But one day Eva is found to have suffered from serious cancer and has at best a year to live. Trying to conceal it from her and to make her happy, David rushes her around the country to visit each child in succession.

On her journey more about Eva’s past and the sources of the gap that separate her from her children are revealed. And Eva struggles painful against the force that silences her. She finally breaks silence and recovers her voice.

Chapter 2 Silence and Sound in the story

Eva has been repressed for fifty years and her struggle in the crucible of the dominant culture is really harsh. Her previous silences become her weapon to fight in the conflict between the sounds of dominant culture and minor culture.

Stage 1 Repressed and silent

In her girlhood, Eva was an eloquent orator devoted to her revolutionary causes in Russia. Her faiths and beliefs came from her tutor Lisa, a Tolstoyan, who said that “life was holy’ and “knowledge was holy”(p.1356). She learned that “all that happen, one must try to understand”(p.56). But before she could understand, her father beat her in order for her not to go to Lisa. And before long she was caught and imprisoned and Lisa hanged.

After that she got married to another Jew David. For fifty years, Eva has to sacrifice her literary interests, revolutionary faiths and to endeavor in housekeeping and bringing up seven children, one of whom died in the war. The family has always been in harsh impediments. “The children’s needings, that grocer’s face or this merchant’s wife she had had to beg credit from when credit was disgrace; …the soups of meat bones begged ‘for-the-dog’ one winter…”(p.34) When she tries to stay awake for the only time that is to read, David “would find her…, coax,…--put the book away, don’t read, don’t read.” Jewish religion “stifled” and said” that “in Paradise you will be the footstool of your husband”(p.42).

Her father, her husband and the circumstances representing a dominant society, especially the Jewish patriarchal society, forms a dominant sound to have deprived women’s desire for knowledge and right for education. Women are repressed under statue of their husbands like the “footstool”.

Eva has been able to endure all the suffering, irrationality and despair and to turn such sufferings into peaceful acceptance. She says that “enough unused I have to get used to already”. And the summoning sound, “that singing from childhood forgotten sound – not heard since”(p.58) she was married. She has been repressed under the statue, numbed and silent. In silence she has lost her selfness, her identity.

Stage 2 Disturbed and dignified (Chapter I in the story)

Eva may have been defeated, but she is not “routed”. “Subjected to enormous indignities, [she] remains dignified”.

After all the children have gone, Eva decides, “She would not exchange her solitude for anything” and “never again to be forced to move to the rhythm of others”. She turns off her hearing aid button to shut out the sound from David. This is a development for her to silence the other after she is long silenced by them. David also tries to turn on the television to submerge her voice. In their conflict, they both want to deprive the other of the right for discourse. And the result is that she is silenced yet the dominant sound is not heard. She has “won to a reconciled peace” (p.35) at least. Jean Pfaelzer says, “silence is repression. Silence is rebellion. But it is not freedom.”(CLC, p.243)

Later on, she has quarrels with David. Her consciousness of her repressed selfness forms a sound disturbing her. She feels a “tumult”, “a noise” several times but confused if the tumult was outside or in her”(p.35, p.36).

After that, the conflict between them becomes intensified because David refuses to accompany her. She doubts, “Oh, shall you[Eva] be like a chandelier, to hang, and to burn.” She is disturbed by her husband’s decision. She has considered her responsibility of keeping the house as the value of her life and feels dignified at his attempting deprival. She removes from their usual bed to cot and “all week she did not speak”, for which, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, “reacting and fighting with silence as a weapon may be more powerful than uttering the harshest words”(The Language and Silence of Tillie Olsen, p.17). Eva uses this weapon to resist. She succeeds at last. One night, when it rains, she begins to sing “a Russian love song of fifty years ago”.

Stage 3 Struggling and escaping (Chapter II)

The intensified conflict between Eva and David comes to a halt when Eva is found to have cancer and has at best a year to live. Then after an operation in the hospital, Eva visits her daughters Hannah and Vivi. There she looks back at her youthful mothering and remembers the poverty and want, the old humiliations and terrors and the “endless defeating battles” of housekeeping. The bitterness of her poverty and lack of David’s caring, though endured half a century, is now unthinkable and unendurable. When staying at Vivi’s house, she is frightened by the grandchild and “could not touch the baby”(p.44). And she cannot entertain or tell a riddle for the older grandchildren. All usual courses a mother and a grandmother are supposed to take seem disasters to her. She reconciles to “musing” and “gentleness”(p.43) and escapes in the girl’s closet”(p.47).

The “quick constant raps”, the “knockings” and “the old old noise” come to her all the time, “like a great ear pressed under her heart”(p. 46). However Eva resists in anguish the submerging sound from the family chaos and the quest for the stereotyped role. She keeps silence voluntarily, hides herself and begs for home.

Stage 4 Recovering and questioning (Chapter III)

After having visited her two daughters, Eva comes to one of her granddaughter Jeannie’s place. There she met her old friend Mrs. Mays, who has eight children and is now widowed in a one-room lodge. Mr. Mays is also in bad health and she has to pay rent for the room, which is now like a coffin.

Eva hears various sounds from “thousand various faces of age”(p.52). And “faces became sound; and the sound became faces; and faces and sound became weight –pushed, pressed”. She is suffocated and she struggles for air to breathe. She finally discovers her dying state. She begins to speak, babbling. She questions about the meanings of motherhood and humanity, “The children Everywhere unused the life And who has meaning?” “We’ll destroy ourselves?”(p.53) She looks for answer yet in vain.

Here in this chapter, the sound summons her to resume her girlhood revolutionary causes. She responds with revolutionary lyrics and revolutionary speeches in her disruptive voice.

Stage 5 Liberated and freed (Chapter IV)

During the last days, Eva pours out her heart to Jeannie, because she attends her and understands her very much. In their talk, her girlhood radicalism and devotion to revolutionary causes are awakened. She subverts her silences and declares, “let me feel what I feel.”(p.57) Her words become roaring delirium. She escapes from the present life, goes back to her girlhood and “light she grew, like a bird”(p.59). She is freed at last and dies, yet her delirium instructs Jeannie, and other children-- “taught me to mother myself”(p.58), and shakes her husband “lost, how much I lost”(p.61). “Death deepens the wonder” (p.64).

Chapter 3  Eva’s Delirium as Mrs. Olsen’s Manifesto

Mao Zedong once said, “where there is repression, there is rebellion” and the more fierce the repression, the more violent the rebellion. Eva’s life reveals the fierce repression of the dominant sound upon marginalized women. She struggles painfully and seeks persistently for “her selfhood”, “certain permanent truths about Man and Nature and life”(SSC, p.168)

In delirium, Eva shuts out her husband who longs for loving words of comfort and recognition from her. She goes back to “when she first heard music, a little girl on the road of the village where she was born”(p.60), and babbles the great books abd culture, philosophy and music. She dies. Her death is neither the price exacted for her resistance nor the emblem of her defeat. And David finally comes to understand that her death “represents the merging of past and future and the continuity of collectivity, idealism and meaning itself”(CLC, p. 224). Her delirium releases David’s disjointed memories of the “monstrous shapes of what had actually happened”(p.60) shames him of having escaped to the grandchildren who has no hunger, no diseases, but schooling and can stand tall, compared with the impediments Eva has experienced and endured.

Mrs. Olsen borrowed Eva’s delirium as a feminist manifesto. It explodes like dynamite in the patriarchal world. Lennie recognizes that in her nothing lived but can bring him to live.

Chapter 4 Other Female Characters in the Story

During her visit of the children, Eva contemplates her lost selfness and identity, and mirrors herself into the other characters. There are tree major female characters in function: Vivi, Mrs. Mays and Jeannie

Like her mother Eva, Vivi is also a typical mother and has borne several children. She is very attentive to her mother and the family. Yet all her life, she is submerged in her mothering and housekeeping. She has not yet realized her tragic stances. In “flaying” and “exasperating”(p.46) she sees the beauty in nursing the baby and remembers with the mother about their old days. Because of her endless labor, she cannot stay the vigil by her dying mother’s bedside and hear her manifesto. Michael Staub says,

“To be denied an audience that cares to listen, or fails to listen, women—and particularly poor women—will die or descend into madness. For such women, the struggle for ‘selfness’ was often nothing less than a struggle for survival.”(CLC, p.225)

Mrs. Mays is her contemporary and Eva’s present and future state would be like hers if she gave up resisting. Living in a one-room “coffin”, Mrs. Mays joins in a community sing”(p.52) as expected. Thinking of her, Eva feels stifled. “Century after century, still all in us not to grow.”(p.53) Their lost selfness will never be found again while most people, especially women, do not realize it.

Jeannie, being the youngest generation, grows. She is a visiting nurse and is going to resign her job because she refuses to report a family who committed an illegal funeral ritual for their dead daughter. She accepts the legacy of Eva’s political and social experiences and personal knowledge. In this sense, she will be the only and most creditable hope for the future development of women after Eva’s death.


In the magic weaving of past and present, utterances and thoughts, comes out most strongly the “disadvantaging of woman”, the denial of intellect and aspiration, the “utter thanklessness” (CLC, 226) of the mother’s role. Eva’s capacities of such endurance and persistence of selfness-seeking embody the radical and feminist potential of discourse. Eva’s breaking silences and her recovering voice will surely “portend the possibility of changing [of the dominant sound]”(Ibid).

Lu Xun says, “Silence, silence. Either erupt in silence or die in silence.” Eva struggles painfully and finally erupts and breaks silences. Her breaking silence is the milestone for women to struggle for their rights. Being a Jewish immigrant from Russia, not white, rich, male and from a dominant culture, Eva is undoubtedly a typical representative of the marginalized women. And her finding voice is undoubtedly the manifesto of women’s enlightenment and liberation.

For Olsen, women will surely break silences. She, together with her characters in the story subverts the dominant notion that “silence is inevitably resistance”(CLC, p.236) The delirium Eva utters on her deathbed represents Olsen’s manifesto towards male, and dominant culture. After the appearance of Tell Me a Riddle, the women’s movement broke out; the feminist literary world was renovated.

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