What does “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron” mean to the rest of the story?  Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The opening line of Tillie Olsen's short story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is a metaphor for the ambivalence of the mother about her skills as a parent and about the future of her oldest daughter when asked about Emily's recent behavior. Absolutely central to the plot is this metaphor of ironing, as the mother attempts to straighten out the problems of her often uneasy relationship with her daughter.  This effort is performed in much the same manner as she irons:  in a stream-of-consciousness the mother moves backward and forward in time repeatedly establishing a pattern of poverty and abandonment.

This self-examination of the mother also involves her attempts to understand.  For instance, she speaks of Emily's desire to stay home from school when she had to go to nursery school, the "parking place" for children:

"She always had a reason...never a direct protest, never rebellion.  I think of of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness--the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands--and I feel suddenly ill.  I pput the iron down.  What in me demanded that goodness in her?  And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?"

Coupled with the mother's confessions and self-examination is an admiration of Emily's resilience and strength.  So, even though there are wrinkles in their relationship and in Emily's personality, and the mother concludes that she will never "total it all"; nevertheless, her daughter, "a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear," has much to her.  Concluding with the controlling metaphor of ironing, the mother urges the school counselor to

help her to know--help make it so there is cause for her to know--that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron. 

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