Impact of the Great Depression on the Characters in Tillie Olsen’s novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Impact of the Great Depression on the Characters in Tillie Olsen’s novel Yonnondio: From the Thirties

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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 an...


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