The characters of Yonnondio seem strangely static to me. After the scare when Mazie is almost murdered, there is no progression in the development of characters. Mazie and Will and Jimmie and Ben are stuck in time, unable to mature, stuck in a ceaseless rut of shirking and arguing and crying, in shame of their lack of wealth and desires for things unattainable. For all the years that pass, none of them shows signs of aging other than questionable portrayals of Mazie and Will becoming ever so slightly more intractable.
Even the parents show the same immutability: The mother argues ceaselessly with her husband over money, but both use it to their own ends. Anna remains victim to her constant desire for control, spending her days endlessly sweeping and mopping and canning and whining about education, her end all cure all for their lowest class subsistence although she herself seems to have already obtained the education she desires for her children yet cannot overcome her miserable existence.
The father, on the other hand, is doomed to repeat the same problems – he will work, he will be startled into action by something uncontrollable (the attempted murder, the loss of the farm, the near death of Anna), but these attempts are all abortive. In the end he is becomes a caricature, endlessly suffering from revelation and backsliding into alcoholism and abuse and rape of his wife.
Does this lack of progress signify anything, or is it simply mere lack of skill on the author’s part?



9 thoughts on “Static

  1. Luke, you always bring up good points. 😉
    In my opinion, the author has somewhat to do with the progression of the characters. I really do think that it was her purpose to leave the characters as they are…. It may just be that the characters are undeveloped because the book itself was pieced together from many sources and it is unfinished. On the other hand, I also think they author purposely made this happen to show that in poverty, you cannot go far.. You cannot gain knowledge, power, education, and most importantly, for that era, MONEY. It could be both of these things, but to me personally it seems like this was something that was intended by the author. I may be wrong though… What do you guys think?

  2. there are many habits that are deemed as “poor people’s habits” which seem foolish to those with money. To the rich it seems wasteful, why not save up money to buy something nice rather than spending it all on cheap stuff which means nothing? However to those without money, as we said in class, it gives them a sense of empowerment to be able to spend something. Those accustomed to having money have been taught how to handle it, not so for those that never had any. Therefore they are often stuck in their poverty, making the same choices over and over which are keeping them poor. I see the same traits in this family. They are living a life of habit unaware that their very choices are keeping them from moving ahead.
    I also think it is very characteristic of human nature. How often do we see instances where people change for a period of time as a result of a huge event yet soon forget the impact of that event and slip back into the same habits. I think it is a great portrayal of society rather than a failure on Olsen’s part.

  3. I agree with Samka. I think it was the author’s intention to keep the characters from developing. It puts added pressure on the novel because we are used to reading about character development. We also have to consider the fact that Yonnondio is an incomplete novel. Maybe if Tillie Olsen had finished it back in the 1930s, the novel would be different.

  4. Luke,
    I think the fact that the characters didn’t progress or move up in social class was because Olsen wanted the reader to experience the same social class suffocation. It makes me aggravated to read books where the protagonist does the exact opposite of what I would do. When they get money, they squander it away. The reader knows there is a possibility to move out of poverty, but the parents of Mazie and Mazie don’t realize this. I think Olsen did this on purpose so the reader becomes uncomfortable and pays extra attention to their down fall. Olsen wanted the reader to highlight their immobility and poverty, maybe to signify the feeling of a linear life, or give a false sense of hope that something good has to happen? I agree with Erika, since the book was unfinished maybe Olsen was planning an alternative ending.

  5. Great post Luke. My guess is that Olsen purposely didn’t allow the characters to move up in social class because she was against capitalism. Danielle R

  6. It’s the Man, man. I also noticed this lack of development and the repetition of a vicious, vicious cycle, but rather than it being lack of skill on Olsen’s part it’s a tool she was using. She wants the reader to feel oppressed the way these characters are oppressed by the Capitalist system. They are of the working class–that which will always be held down and forced into established roles by Capitalism. She is trying to show that this is awful and no matter what they try to do, they will never be able to break out of their established roles (unless, of course, there is a proletarian uprising). Another big part of the novel was the displaced anger of the entire family. After having been beat up at work all day, Jim would come home and beat Anna. Anna in turn would beat the children. The children would beat up on each other. This cycle repeats throughout the novel to the point where it is almost exhausting to even read it. Same thing, over and over. Static. Horrible oppression. I think Olsen did a wonderful job of making me feel oppressed by reading it so I end with this: WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE.

  7. Luke,
    I definetly understand your frustration with Olsen’s writing style, but I believe there is a method to the madness in this situation. Characters don’t change over time because, in all reality, people do not change over time. Sure, our preferences change and adapt to our experiences. Values change as we become educated and dreams change when we become disillusioned. But our circumstances, barring an exception to the norm, never really change. There is a song out now whose lyrics state, “Monday thru Friday at 5, man I work, work, work, but I don’t climb, climb, climb.” That sums up the Olsen’s underlying message behind her characters lack of development. No matter where her protagonists move, no matter how hard they try, they remain oppressed and poor at the hands of an unseen enemy (the mine boss, the banks, etc). It is the system keeping them down and therefore preventing real development. The misplaced rage is a great concept because we can all identify. How many of us take our bad moods out on other people? I cannot scream at the cop who gave me a ticket or the professor who flunked me, but I can direct that aggression at someone who cannot fight back. I recently sold a video game to get some cash. I used that cash (ten whole dollars) to get a haircut. Immediately after the haircut I attended the funeral of my cousin who passed away suddenly at the age of 41. To call that a low point in my life would be accurate, even if only lasted a matter of hours. Middle class frustration is something with which I am very familiar. The maiming power of circumstance, at least for a short time, got the best of me as well. If only for that reason, Olsen’s style is very appealing to me. Sorry for dragging this one out. Good post Luke.

  8. Aw, you guys, this is a great thread! So smart…and on the money. I think Shelby hits it on the head. The fact that we even ask for “characterization” is a symptom of our bourgeoise desire. There’s only one story: society…and capitalism’s effects on it. We aren’t individuals, but “effects” of primary economic causes. Thus we see a whole family of individuals blown about by the necessities of their environment.

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