Tell Me a Riddle

Olsen, Tillie

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Willms, Janice
  • Date of entry: Jun-14-2004


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.


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.


First published: 1956. Winner of the O. Henry Award for best American short story (1961).

Primary Source

Tell Me a Riddle



Place Published

New York



Page Count