Impact of the Great Depression on the Characters in Tillie Olsen’s novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties
The Great Depression of the 1930’s, which has been called the “invisible scar, the absent presence,” continues to impact American culture (Rabinowitz 17). The devastating effect of failed businesses, the dust bowl, farm foreclosures, and an unemployment rate of 30 percent reminds us that capitalism is fallible. Although we recall with humility this bleak period of our history, we seldom reflect on the plight of the Depression’s most vulnerable victims--the underpaid, uneducated working poor. In Yonnondio: From the Thirties, Tillie Olsen gives readers a searing personal account of a family struggling to escape, or at least manage, abject poverty. Their journey from a Wyoming mining town to a farm in South Dakota to a slaughterhouse in Omaha presents one disaster after another for the Holbrook family. Because of this cycle, they represent thousands of unsung heroes who struggled to survive and maintain a family unit during difficult times.
Although the novel depicts the family’s struggle as a unit, three members emerge as the main characters. Trapped by lack of opportunity and a faltering self-image, Jim Holbrook works under subhuman conditions to provide for his family. His struggle demonstrates how patriarchal culture oppresses both men and women into ascribed roles based on impossible ideals. Anna, his wife, holds the family together with the meager resources brought in by her husband, who devalues her role because she is a woman and earns no money. As a result of this oppression, she grapples with her own identity, as motherhood and domestic responsibility limit her opportunities for personal fulfillment and expression. In turn, Anna and Jim’s daughter, Mazie, emerges as the novel’s heroine as she determines to escape the hopelessness of her childhood and define her own reality.
Through these characters, Olsen creates a narrative that simultaneously dramatizes and propagandizes the experience of the poor working-class. The novel serves as an outcry against an economic system that dehumanizes both labor and laborers, forcing them into silences that alienate them from society and each other. As a result, Yonnondio explodes with “connections between class and gender, domestic work and wage work, production and reproduction” (Jameson 1). Olsen also challenges the American Dream as a false, oppressive illusion, and she explores patriarchal culture as a snare which victimizes both men and women. Although this novel speaks with profound melancholy and despair, it does not abandon hope as a significant survival mechanism.
In the opening section of the novel, the Holbrooks live in a Wyoming mining town where Jim works for a meager salary, “part money, mostly company scrip” (7). The financial hardships, together with the harsh surroundings, create an atmosphere of helplessness and hopelessness in the Holbrook...