Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The first sentence in “I Stand Here Ironing” sets the tone and establishes the mood of the entire story: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” Prompted by the counselor’s concern for her daughter’s future development, the mother responds with a tone of resignation, even despair, as she tries to explain to her visitor the nature of her circumscribed life and the nature of her daughter’s desperate attempts to find her own identity within a self-limiting environment. Like the iron to which she refers, her daughter’s life has moved in a cycle of progression and retrogression, between moments of joy and satisfaction and moments of isolation and despair. Ironing is also a perfect metaphor for the limited roles imposed upon women—of wife, homemaker, and mother—and all that is lost to women because of those narrow roles.
The mother tells a story of self-denial, deprivation, and loss. Emily, the subject of the counselor’s inquiry, is the oldest of five children. The mother recalls a special memory of Emily as a baby—beautiful, joyous, full of life. “She was a miracle to me.” After eight months of bliss, however, her husband leaves them suddenly, and she is forced to find work to rear her child. She is even compelled to leave the child with her former husband’s family for a year. The mother remarries and soon is pregnant with her second child. For a time, she has to send Emily to a convalescent home...
(The entire section is 608 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The title of the story reveals that the narrator is engaged in a simple, routine household task. While she is ironing, she meditates about a note she has received from a teacher or adviser at the school her daughter, Emily, attends. She feels tormented by the request to come in and talk about Emily, who the writer of the note believes needs help. However, the mother has no intention of going to see the person who wrote the note. “Even if I came, what good would it do?” she asks.
The rest of the story is an interior monologue, reviewing the lives and relationships of the mother and daughter, followed by a brief exchange of dialogue between the mother and Emily, and a final paragraph of summary of the circumstances in which Emily grew up. At the end, the mother is still standing there ironing.
There is no action and no apparent plot in this story. The interior monologue rehearses the things that the mother might say to the teacher or adviser who wrote the note. Her memories of the daughter’s infancy and childhood serve to explain much about the personality and the difficulties of the girl. Her love and tenderness for the girl, and the barriers that separated them physically at first and then emotionally later, are revealed.
Emily was the first child of the mother, who was only nineteen at the time she was born. The mother adored her beautiful baby but was forced to leave her with an indifferent sitter when the child was only eight months old because the mother had to earn money to support them. The father had abandoned his wife and child, and in those days of the Depression and no welfare help, the mother had no choice but to leave the child and find a job. Emily greeted her with a cry each time she rushed anxiously home to gather up her precious infant, and the pain she felt is clear when she notes that the crying was “a weeping I can hear yet.”
The child was still an infant when the young mother had to take her to the father’s family to keep her for a while. When she finally raised the money to pay for Emily’s return, the infant got chicken pox and could not return for yet another period of time. When she came back, the child was thin and so changed that the mother scarcely knew her. The mother was advised to put the two-year-old in nursery school, and it was indeed the only way that they were able to be together at all, because the mother had to spend long hours at work. She recalls that she did not know at the time how fatiguing and cruel the nursery school was. It was only a parking place for children, and she came to realize how Emily and the other children hated it, but there was no other recourse. Emily did not clutch her and beg her not to go as some of the children did, but she...
(The entire section is 1124 words.)