The Unfinished Novel — Evan Donahue

So we are all aware by this point that the ending of Yonnondio wasn’t exactly, well, an ending. It more or less just stopped. Now, I understand that Tillie Olsen was young when she started the novel, but out of this lack of conclusion comes the “interpretive tension” that bothers me. We have spent so much time talking about the politics behind the story, and how Olsen’s communist ideals are heavily present. The idea that as individuals, we are nothing, but if all of the “little” people on the factory floor team up, then we can overthrow the villain in charge is something that the story tried to advocate. However, because there is no ending, it’s almost as if Olsen was either afraid to let her literature take a stance, or that she didn’t know her audience. On the one hand, we can all assume that the Holbrook family will not have a happy ending. Maybe Olsen thought that making their story one of “rags to riches” or just “rags to sort of nicer rags” would have lost the tension and tone of the hopeless struggle she thought the American workforce and lower class was facing. On the other hand, I bring up Olsen’s audience because I’d like to know what she wanted to accomplish in telling this story. If she wanted it to be a lesson to the lower class(es) then by not finishing the story, she implies that the struggle for a better life might in fact be hopeless. If the novel was intended for the upper class, something to be used to show just what was happening during the Depression, and the plights of capitalism, then maybe not having an ending to this story would have been a plus. Like I said, we all know that the Holbrooks probably struggled their entire lives. It’s unfortunate that the story wasn’t published until decades after it was written, because by the 70s, Olsen’s audience was much different.  It saddens me that this story never saw the light of day in its intended time, but no ending regardless, I’m left wondering just why Olsen wrote this story in the first place. Are you all comfortable, now knowing who Olsen was, with the story that was told? The tension for me comes from the fact that Olsen was apparently a strong communist, but her work (at least this story) did nothing to try and fix the problems of the 30s, other than point out what was already obviously wrong (on top of the fact that it is unfinished and went decades without being published).


8 thoughts on “The Unfinished Novel — Evan Donahue

  1. I think this novel stirs conversation which was Olsen’s intention. During the 30’s there were many communist text and media. Being a young artist herself, Olsen probably wanted to stray away from the blatantly obvious communist reform. Olsen simply wanted to highlight the social problems and agitate her audience. With no happy ending, I certainly believe she did so. Also the use of language and her experimental writing style mimicked many modernist texts. Doing so Olsen thumbed her nose at modernism and industrialism, and brought attention to the less pleasant life style of workers treated as commodities and cattle. I disagree with you on the fact you believe Olsen only pointed out the problems of lower class life and didn’t rely a solution. Olsen wanted to change America, but only America could change America. So Olsen tried to do the next best thing, she sparked a fire. I agree that it is sad this book wasn’t published until 1970’s, but I’m glad it wasn’t lost forever because this novel becomes a true artifact from one of the worst economic crisis in America.

  2. I have to wonder, since Olsen was writing this when she was young, if she actually thought she was going to publish it at all. She was living a life very similar to the Holbrooks as she was writing it, so that makes me wonder if she wasn’t simply writing it as a sort of catharsis. It might be a stretch, but I do wonder that. But if she did write the book with publication in mind and if she had finished it, I’m not sure that the ending would have been much different. While reading the book, I got the feeling that Olsen was mostly trying to convey the feeling of the lower class. She wrote it in a way that makes the reader feel oppressed. She was trying to illustrate the cycle that the working class endures and she continues that illustration by not really ending the book. Like Anita said, only America can change America so she was simply trying to portray an aspect of depression area living that she wanted to change. She was trying to start a conversation that would hopefully spark the flames of change. I have to wonder also what would have happened if she had published the book during the thirties. I wonder how it would have been received.

  3. For an artist to blatantly speak their mind, and in this case that would involve calling for a complete overhaul of the Capitalist system in favor of Communism, they must first have the credentials to back up their statements. In a talent competition, one judge once criticized a contestant for preaching to the audience, saying that an audience will not accept critical comments from an unproven singer, a nobody. That logic can be applied directly to this question. As a young, unaccomplished author, Olsen had not yet crossed the threshold of social relevance. Therefore, to incite a rebellion without fear of repercussion was beyond her at this time. Comparisons from today’s world are endless. If I ask you all to donate money to African relief efforts, no one raises a finger. When Bono does it, millions of dollars pour in. If this novel was written by John Steinbeck instead of an unproven female author (and a teenager), the response may have been much different.

  4. If Olsen’s intent was to highlight the injustices capitalism produced during the Depression, she succeeded. But if she was attempting to highlight the horrible lives people were living during the Depression, I question her motive. I do not think people needed to be made aware how terrible the Depression was; many people were living it everyday, and we are not talking about the margins of society. She successfully relays how capitalism contributes in keeping the man down (i.e. the relationship between banks and farmers), but I do not see how, as a novel, the book attempts to better the lives of those she was profiling. The reality she describes was certainly true, but does nothing to counteract what was happening.

    Andrew Doughty

  5. I think that Olsen may have left the novel unfinished because it was so far from a conclusion. She had lots of ideas, but didn’t know how to complete the novel at her age. I doubt she really approved of violent overthrow as in the USSR, so the thought ended up incomplete.


  6. I believe that the first chapter of Olsen’s book was the first one published, then a publishing company tracked her down (and found her in prison on communist charges) and offered to pay her for each additional chapter. She wanted to finish it but personal issues got in the way, she choose to move home instead to be with her baby girl. When it was published in the 70’s she said that she would not add anything to it even to tie up the loose ends or relieve confusion. I have to commend her on this point even if it is rather frustrating. If it was the voice of the older Tillie Olsen coming out of the novel rather than 19 year old Tillie I do not think it would be as genuine or true to the era. I think, ironically that it was published at the perfect time. As Andrew pointed out, this novel offers no hope and during the 30’s the people did not need to be reminded how awful the depression was. Though she was trying to emphasis the negative repercussions of Capitalism I doubt that it could have truly incited a revolt amongst the masses. I think it proved more effective as a voice from the past.

  7. I think Olsen’s communist views are heavily present as well because she displays the democratic society of the 1930s at its worst. Even though there was a Depression in the 1930s and very little hope of recovery, the Holbrook family seems worse off than most. It seems like no matter what they do or how hard they try; they still fail. Metaphorically, I think Olsen is implying that if the United States were communist; everybody would be equal and families, such as the Holbrooks would not have to suffer the setbacks that they have. She means well, but as a young, inexperienced writer; she has trouble getting her message across the same way a more experienced writer would. Yes, her story is pieced together and ends abruptly. As readers, we have trained ourselves to expect a complete ending but I think sometimes situations are not completely resolved and just continue on in limbo. I think the Holbrook’s story will never be resolved. Christina stated that Olsen had issues that kept her from completing the story. I think this adds more sadness to the story because it seems never-ending and I think Olsen would have liked the way it came out because she wanted to display absolute hopelessness and “no light at the end of the tunnel” so to speak.
    Erika K.

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