Jelinek was born on October, 20 1946 in Mürzzuschlag, Styria, Austria. Her father, a chemist of Jewish-Czech origin ("Jelinek" means "little deer" in Czech) managed to avoid persecution during the Second World War by working in strategically important industrial production. However, several dozen family members became victims of the Holocaust. Her "dominating" mother, with whom she shared the household even as an adult (compare The Piano Teacher) and with whom she had a difficult relationship, was from a formerly prosperous Vienna family. As a child, Elfriede suffered much from what she considered an over-restrictive education in a Roman Catholic convent school in Vienna. Her mother planned for Elfriede a career as a musical Wunderkind. From an early age, Elfriede was instructed in piano, organ, guitar, violin, viola and recorder. Later, she went on to study at the Vienna Conservatory, where she graduated with an organist diploma. Jelinek also studied art history and drama at the University of Vienna. However, she had to discontinue her studies due to an anxiety disorder that prevented her from following courses. Critics have noted that Jelinek's biography is often reflected in her opus.
Jelinek started writing poetry young. She made her literary debut with the collection Lisas Schatten in 1967.
In the early 1970s, Jelinek married Gottfried Hüngsberg.