Tone, which is an integral part of a narrative, is produced by the writer's diction as well as stylistic choices concerning syntax, line or sentence length, imagery, and other figurative language. In Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," the tonal shifts of the narrator/ mother, indicate her shifts from anything from ambivalent to sardonic to ironic, angry to remorseful, analytical to wistful and back to ambivalent.
In the beginning of Olsen's story, the mother says, "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." Here the frustration of the mother is illustrated by the metaphor of the ironing back and forth with the choice of words: "tormented" and "back and forth." Clearly, the mother is frustrated and ambivalent about her daughter's psychological problems that the counselor wishes to address. She does not feel she can help since "There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me....And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weight, to estimate, to total?"
A tonal shift comes as the narator becomes reflective, remembering that she nursed her beautiful baby with the "fierce rigidity of first motherhood." Then, she wonders why she has mentioned these things. Yes, she was a beautiful baby, the mother continues, but Emily's father told her he "'could no longer endure (he wrote in his goodbye not) sharing want with us'" she adds, switching from ambivalent to sardonic humor.
As the mother remembers her hardships, tone changes again to regret and resentment for the necessity of neglecting her daughter and putting her under the care of an "evil" teacher.
Analytical of Emily's wishes to stay home and her other behaviors--"And even without knowing, I knew"--the mother asks reflectively, "What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?" "What was in my face when I looked at her?"
Again, the tone shifts from ambivalence to one of remorse and strained remembrance. The mother recalls the words of an old man to smile at Emily, and she realizes too late that she has not done so. With wonder, the mother asks, "Where does it come from, that comedy?" meaning that comedy of Emily, for there was none when Emily returned to her. Instead Emily was sick much of the time.
Then, with a sense of futility, the mother recalls how Emily never asked her mother for anything as a child, even when she travelled by car to the clinic to be cared for by strangers. Here the tone shifts from anxious recalling to wistful and reflective:
She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or think she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple.,,,,She was not glib in a world where glibbness and quickness were easily confused with an ability to learn.
Analytically, the narrator again shifts her tone, mentioning that there are conflicts between Emily and the others. But, she adds up what Emily has contributed: "In this and other ways she leaves her seal....Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she has been in anonymity."
Finally, the mother returns to her ambivalent tone about Emily, "She will find her way," but adds, "Only help her to know--help her so there is cause for her to know....that she is more than this dress on the ironing board."