In contrast to many other Depression-era novels, in which the teamwork of the common man is seen as society’s glue, Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio looks with great admiration at one family’s struggle to keep above water. Through the travails of a coal-mining/farming family, Anna Holbrook becomes the one constant in a society that turns man against himself, and where fortune is evanescent.The thirst for something stable is evident as the children show their awe of the physical world. As an adult explains the stars to Mazie, Olsen writes: “As his words misted into the night and disappeared, she scarcely listenedonly the aura over them of timelessness, of vastness, of eternal things that had been before her and would be after her, remained and entered into her with a great hurt and wanting.” (33) The present, the words describing the stars, hold no intrigue for Mazie; the idea of a permanence stronger than the Depression does. Two pages later, Olsen writes of Mazie stripping corn silk: “she would dream of weaving it into garments incredible. But the tassells withered, grew brown and smelly, and she had to throw them away.” (35) Her actual life results only in death, and she must again call up something enduring, “a poem learned from Old Man Caldwell.” (35)Olsen views the Holbrook’s struggle as heroic. Says Caldwell, “‘Mazie. Live, don’t existBetter to be a cripple and alive than dead, not able to feel anything. No, there is moreto rebel against what will not let life be.'” (37) It is this very nobility that allows the Holbrook family to survive past expectations. Life is filled with hurdles, most coming from other people. After learning about different nationalities in school, Mazie tells two girls about life on a farm. Another boy overhears them and snidely remarks, “‘So you come from the country where our milk comes from; ya learn about bulls?’ and smack, head butted her in the stomach.” (50) His use of the word country’ has an ambiguous effect; it could either mean the countryside or an actual country. With his comment, Olsen shows how the two worlds, country and city, are fundamentally separated. This is further emphasized when the teacher scolds Mazie: “‘Perhaps you indulged in rough play of this nature where you come from, but we do not permit it here, nor does it go unpunished.'” (50-1)The lack of cooperation between men is shown as Jim’s young, single work partner quits in protest of unfair conditions. Jim is keeps his fury silent: “Alright for him to talk, alright with nothing more important to worry about than getting canned up and stepping out a floosiehe couldn’t see what was really around and he believed the bull about freedomofopportunityand something about pursuit of happiness.” (62) Olsen’s condensation of the maxims of our country shows their value as clichés and their disconnection with the Holbrooks. The proper method living lies with the ants Erina observes: “‘Watch the little antsDont hurt their houses. They have to hurry and work so hard and carry heavy things and I sees them carry each other sometime.'” (120)Further insults are heaped upon the family. A doctor refers to the family in several derogatory ways. “These animals never notice but when they’re hungry or want a drink or a womanPigsty, the way these people live.” (77) They are denied credit at a grocery store by an immigrant: “‘All the time you say pay, pay, pay. No more trust.'” (137)The ultimate sacrifice is made, a conventional plot ploy in Depression novels, as Anna, discovering she has been impregnated by Jim on his quick visit home, consents to an abortion. The conflict is made somewhat surreal by Olsen: “To have this child, to give it its life, to see the shape of what this life would be. And a revulsion so violent it seemed every fiber in her body shuddered erect into a NO. (They’s five kids to take care on now.)” (150) Anna holds a strong feeling of self-resentment, shown by the passage leading up to the procedure: “Boiling the scissors. They had to be sterilized Christy said, or she would get infected. But how could she hold themso hotand not make them germy again?” (150) She soon dies, and Mazie is left as the emotional resource for the split family. The last passage reveals Mazie’s mixture of compassion and strength necessary for survival in the dusty, cold world: “Her hand on the arm around him was open and tender, but the other lay fisted and terrible like her father’s that night in the kitchen. Till the day” (152) Olsen has faith in the family; they have waded through hardship after hardship, encountered abandonment and death, and still they will wake the next day. Survival here is not accomplished by reliance upon others, but on one’s own reserve of will. This is a stark departure from Steinbeck’s and others’ views on the Depression; nonetheless, both schools of thought hold tremendous sympathy for the lives full of misery about which they wrote.
The four didactic interludes present in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio: From the Thirties are vitally important in relation to the rest of the text. These narrative intrusions, as Constance Coiner prefers to call them, not only change but also deepen our understanding of the story. Through the use of these didactic interludes, Olsen is explaining to the reader in her own very special way, the causes and the remedies for the Holbrooks’ dire situation. Thus, these interludes add to the plot of the story and are essential to grasp its impact. Olsen uses her art as propaganda. She is not merely portraying one family’s tale of hardship, living in the 1920’s, instead, Olsen is taking this one step further. She is using her writing to convey her political ideology. Moreover, Olsen, in her writing, does not simply rely on the plot of Yonnondio to get her point across to her audience that revolution is the panacea the Holbrooks’ have been searching for. Instead, Olsen expects more intelligence of her readers, and incorporates these four didactic passages for explanation’s sake, thereby not only illuminating the need for rebellion, but also making its immediacy obvious, albeit blatant. Perhaps Olsen opted to include these narrative intrusions because she did not fully “trust” the novel without these instructive passages, to thoroughly impinge the reader’s consciousness, for the Holbrooks’ perspective is rather restricted, calling for a need for additional explanation.The first didactic interlude begins as Andy Kvaternick is described as stumbling through the night, his shipwrecked thoughts, plunging and whirling, breathing frantic, like an almost drowned man (Olsen 4-5). The narrator of this interlude instructs Andy to “Breathe and Breathe,” well aware of the inevitability of his fate, encouraging him, yet still reaffirming his futility. The narrator commands Andy to take action, because he is ignorant and does not have control of his self, owing to the fact that the mining company, by virtue of operating under Capitalism, has already defined his future, and is in full control of his life. At the same time, the narrator is commanding the reader to take action, like Andy, even though the future may seem bleak, and take control of their lives, by trying to escape what is inevitable. Because of Andy’s ignorance, he is unable to follow the commands of the narrator, consequently, they fall on deaf ears. We, however, the readers, do not fall victim like Andy. Olsen, through this interlude allows us to grasp that which poor Andy, in his glorious ignorance, will never truly comprehend. Olsen dramatically points out, “Earth sucks you in, to spew out the coal, to make a few fat bellies fatter. Earth takes your dreams that a few may languidly lie on couches and trill “How exquisite” to paid dreamers. Here, the narrator touches on an aspect that will resurface in the second didactic interlude. In this, she offers social commentary of the company bosses lounging around happily, viewing their all but damned workers as pieces of art. This is the first real hint that the poor are being exploited by the rich. Later on, the narrator offers a solution to put an end to this pervasive social structure, saying that someday strong fists will batter the fat bellies, and the skeletons of starved children will also batter them, indicating an insurgence that will fight for the “pursuit of happiness” (Olsen 6). In the second didactic interlude, Olsen departs from the commands she employed in the first. Speaking of the accident in the mine, Olsen questions, “And could you not make a cameo of this and pin it onto your aesthetic hearts?” (Olsen 20). This time, instead of speaking to a character in the story, she is directing her question at us, the readers. By using the cameo, Olsen is drawing on the “exquisiteness” of paid dreamers, as mentioned in the first didactic interlude. Olsen’s use of sarcasm in this narrative intrusion is pervasive, commenting, “surely it is classical enough for you the Greek marble of women, the simple, flowing lines of sorrow, carved so rigid and eternal” (Olsen 20). She is pointedly questioning us as to whether we find aesthetic pleasure in this scene at the tipple, telling us that if we do, then we too, are damned like Andy Kvaternick for not understanding our oppression. If we do “have the cameo,” as Olsen suggests, we will be illustrating our dependence on Capitalism, on the “fat bellies” that allowed something as horrific as this accident to occur. If we do accept this cameo, and wear it over our aesthetic hearts, then the difference between us and those “few who languidly lie on couches and trill, “How exquisite” to paid dreamers will be indistinguishable.In this interlude, Olsen sarcastically urges the company to issue a statement quickly or else, “they start to batter through with the fists of strike, with the pickax of revolution”(Olsen 21). Here, Olsen is intimating, as she will again, that this “pickax of revolution” is the key to unlock that which the people of this company town are so desperately seeking. Elias Caldwell, in the third didactic interlude, although possessing much more perspective than Andy, is equally as ignorant as he, because Caldwell has never looked down the long barrel of oppression himself; he has never had to struggle. Despite all his acquired wisdom, this learned man has absolutely nothing to offer Mazie, save some nonsense poems and classical books. What good, however, will any of these be for Mazie, however, in contemplation of the harsh realities of her own life? Elias Caldwell, whom the reader expects to shed great light on Mazie, in the end, is incapable. Perhaps one of the most memorable truths Mazie will walk away with and will remember well into her adult life is, trivially, that stars are not “splinters offn the moon,” as Caldwell rightly enlightened her. Again, this “splinter” of knowledge will not amount to anything in Mazie’s life. Caldwell’s words are “incomprehensible” to Mazie who “thirstily” watches his eyes, actively searching for answers, yet, not receiving them. Almost immediately after Caldwell asserts that “No, there is more to rebel against what will not let life be,” the didactic interlude begins (Olsen 37). Caldwell wants to tell Mazie “something of what he would have her live by and hears only incoherent words come out (Olsen 37). Caldwell failed to make something of his life; however, his true failure lies in his inability to express to Mazie, who is symbolic of all those who are struggling, in his final moments, that which would save her. In this didactic interlude, Olsen is trying to educate the reader that conventional wisdom, which elevates education as a saving force, is inherently flawed. What good is an education to Mazie? It may certainly increase her individual condition, but what of the human condition? Olsen is leading the reader in the direction of the truth the answer and makes it abundantly clear in the final didactic interlude. In the last narrative intrusion, Olsen comments on the “individual revolt” of Jim Tracy. Tracy stood up for himself and refused to prostrate himself for the fat bellies of Capitalism. He refused. In the character of Tracy, Olsen is portraying the answer to the working class’ oppression. In the three previous interludes, through her didactic voice, Olsen has shown us who is not the answer. Ignorant Andy Kvaternick is clearly not the answer and Elias Caldwell, whose wisdom is just as useless as Andy’s is obviously not the solution. Finding aesthetic beauty in the turmoil of working class America, too, is not the answer. Jim Tracy, when he revolted, Olsen informs us in this didactic passage, was headed down the right path. He has been enlightened, but it is a shame he could not do so collectively. In the final paragraph of this narrative intrusion, Olsen, for the very first time, speaks in the voice of a collective narrator, saying, …I’m sorry, Jim Tracy, sorry as hell we weren’t stronger and could get to you in time and show you that kind of individual revolt was no good . . . you had to bide your time and take it till there were enough of you to fight it all together on the job, and bide your time, and take it till the day millions of fists clamped in yours, and you could wipe out the whole thing . . . and a human could be a human for the first time on earth. (Olsen 64)Here, in this final didactic interlude, Olsen speaks collectively, in the voice of the Communist Party to lament Tracy’s failure to see that individual revolt was worthless when compared to the progress full-blown revolution would propel. In her last intrusion, Olsen identifies, albeit obviously, that revolution against Capitalism is the answer the Holbrooks of the working class have long been searching for. Olsen also makes it crystal clear that this kind of revolution, if meant to be successful, must be done collectively to effect change. The various voices of the didactic interludes paint a richer picture of radical consciousness in the novel, which would not have been present if these passages were not interpolated. Prevalent in the novel is the concept of silence. In almost all of the narrative intrusions, someone is being stripped of voice, whether it be the “inarticulate” Andy Kvaternick, the sobless, wordless sorrow at the scene of the mine accident, or the “incoherent” drivel of Elias Caldwell. Through her voice in these passages, Olsen is identifying the causes as well as the remedies for the turmoil of the working class, and the plot would not have moved in its intended direction if stripped of these didactic passages. Through these interruptions in the text, Olsen is speaking for the voices of those who lost their’s long ago: the powerless, the poor, and the afraid. In the novel, Olsen is trying to reclaim their lost, stripped, and stifled voices through the only way possible: revolution.”How Exquisite”: An Examination of Yonnondio: From the Thirties’ Didactic Interludes Lesley Pallathumadom