The Riddle of Life and Death (Paperback)

Tell Me a Riddle and the Death of Ivan Ilych (2x2)

By Tillie Olsen, Leo Tolstoy

Feminist Press, 9781558615366, 158pp.

Publication Date: March 1, 2007



These two literary classics dare to pose difficult existential questions: What is the meaning of life? Was my life of value? Why am I dying? The narrative employed in Tolstoy's novella is linear and realistically detailed. The style of Olsen's story, set in the United States about a century later, is allusive, moving in psychological time, from the senses, voices, and scenes in the present to memories of the past.

Other differences are sharper still: Tolstoy's Ilych is a self-satisfied czarist official; Olsen's protagonist, Eva, once a proletarian revolutionary, is a sixty-nine year-old dissatisfied working-class housewife, mother, and grandmother. Tolstoy focuses entirely on the life of a "model" man of his generation, who is successful professionally, though less so in his private life. Ultimately, though, Olsen and Tolstoy demand that readers examine their lives, and consider questions about pain, suffering, inequalities, fate, and one's life work.

About the Author

Activist and author Tillie Olsen is best known for her prize-winning fiction Tell Me a Riddle and Yonnondio: From the Thirties. She has taught at MIT, Stanford, and Amherst. Olsen is an recipient of an Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Literature from the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a social reformer, pacifist, Christian anarchist, and vegetarian in his naive Russia. His masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, represent what is considered the peak of realistic fiction.