How does the mother/narrator connect to the theme and her environment? (society)"I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In "I Stand Here Ironing," there is an ambivalence of both environment and in completion of themes.  For instance, in the Search for Identity theme, the mother queries of the person who asks about her daughter,

You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key?  She has lived for nineteen years.  There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

Yet, while she does not lay claim to many years, the mother tells this other person, "You did not know her all those years she was considered homely," thus indicating some knowledge of her child.

Both identities of mother and daughter are incomplete.  The mother is still ironing, running the iron back and forth just as she rewinds the memories in an effort to define herself as mother.  The daughter becomes someone only by pantomime, pretending to be someone other than she is.

Regarding another theme, Limitations and Opportunities, the mother feels a sense of guilt that she has not been able to provide for her daughter as she would have liked because of having to work so much after the abandonment of her husband.  When she remarries, she feels guilty because the daughter is neglected when new babies arrive.  In addition, the mother, trapped in her low socio-economic position--still ironing--cannot provide the opportunities that may foster her daughter's comedic career.

By the end of the story, there is an apparent apathy with the title again pointing to this theme.  Here, the mother performs this repetitious, dull activity in a mindless state, convinced of the dead end into which she has worked.  The daughter skips her exams in college, flippantly remarking, "in a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit."

However, the story does not end on this apathetic note.  For, the mother reflects that although her daughter is a child of "her age, of depression, of war, of fear," she still has "enough left to live by....she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

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