Calling out Our "Aesthetic Hearts": Narratorial Interjections in Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Alexandra G Helms


Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties, written from 1932-36 and published in 1974, follows the Holbrook family as they attempt to survive the Great Depression. They move from the coal mines of Wyoming, to the tenant farms of Nebraska, to the slaughterhouses of Omaha, unable to escape the cruelty and indifference of American capitalism to the working class. An active Communist herself, Olsen wrote Yonnondio not simply as a work of fiction, to be admired and critiqued, but also as an exposé on the realities of a suffering working class, one that she tells with didacticism and sympathy. She does so partly through the use of an omniscient narrator and free indirect discourse, which allows the audience access into the family's thoughts and emotions. This narrative technique alone is enough to make a reader sympathetic. However, in order for Yonnondio to escape its aesthetic trappings and enact change, the reader must be directed in some way; this paper explores how Olsen's use of narratorial interjections provides that direction. These interjections are presented as four indented passages voiced by the same omniscient narrator as the rest of the text. In these passages, the narrator addresses specific characters and the audience directly, adopting the dialect and tone of the addressees in order to relate to them in a way they can understand. These direct addresses and tonal shifts, along with the plainly Marxist commentary, direct the audience's emotional and critical response. Consequently, the audience's sympathy is guided on a course toward revolutionary action, rather than aesthetic appreciation.


Literature; Communism; Sympathy; Great Depression

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