What does the “iron” represent in Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing"?

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I think it is towards the close of the story that we get the surprising, full import of the relationship between the mother, the daughter, and the iron in Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing ” (1961). Before the last section, the impression we have received from the...

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I think it is towards the close of the story that we get the surprising, full import of the relationship between the mother, the daughter, and the iron in Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” (1961). Before the last section, the impression we have received from the mother’s reminisces about her eldest daughter, Emily, is one of futile longing and regret. A dress can be ironed smooth and free of wrinkles, the mother seems to be saying, but it is not so easy to press away the flaws in a child or the mistakes a mother has made. For the duration of the story, the mother is bent at her ironing board, lost in the physical act of pushing and pulling the iron. Mirroring the movement of the iron are her thoughts about nineteen-year-old Emily, the most troubled of her children. We conflate the physical action and the memory, imagining that it is really Emily whose troubles the mother wants to iron out.

That is, till we come to the final lines of the story, when the mother’s true wish for Emily is unveiled. Directed to a school official who has suggested to the mother that Emily needs "help," at another level this line is the mother's own secret desire for her daughter's future.

Only 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.

Now this is a volte-face, a twist, because for most of the story we have heard the mother lament the ways in which Emily is “wrinkled," as we can see in these lines on two-year-old Emily's return from the house of her paternal grandparents:

When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks.

The mother also reminisces about the specific ways in which she herself has rumpled up Emily’s life and personality. As a nineteen-year-old single parent, the mother had no choice but to often neglect Emily in order to make a living, she tells us. The coming of a “new daddy” and siblings, all of them quicker and more energetic than Emily, further alienated the girl, driving her into loneliness.

She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend.

Yet, we now have the mother wishing Emily understands that she is more than a dress on the ironing board. If Emily is so troubled, why does the mother want life never to iron her out? How do we interpret the mother’s actual feelings for Emily and the iron? A closer reading of the story throws up some clues to the mother’s wish at the end. Very early on, the mother has expressed worry about Emily becoming too docile because of her desire to placate the grown-ups in her life.

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

In this light, the mother’s biggest worry for Emily is not that “no one seemed...to be a best friend” for her, but that she grows up to be “helpless” and beaten down into “goodness.” Secretly, the mother wants Emily to retain her individual peculiarities and her spirit. We also sense the mother’s pride in Emily’s achievements as a comedian in theater, her “control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience.” Note the strong words used to describe Emily on stage—“command, convulsive, deadly clowning”—and contrast these with the mother’s earlier descriptions of her as “stick-thin” and “stiff,” and rasping with asthma. It is also interesting to note the many details the mother includes to flesh out Emily’s character for us. In her “foreign, dark appearance” and her “legendary appetite,” we see Emily emerge as her own person. Compare the mother’s descriptions of Emily with her generic description of Susan, her second child.

Susan, the second child, Susan, golden-and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not...

Not only does it become clear that Emily may be the child whom the mother most identifies with, but she is also the daughter who represents the mother’s own unrealized potential. There are quite a few suggestions that the mother and Emily may be doppelgangers: for instance, Emily is nineteen in the story, the same age at which the mother was abandoned by her first husband. As a single mother during the "world of the depression" who went on to remarry and have four more children, the mother has never had an option but to live life mechanically, like the iron’s motion. She has always had a course laid out for her, a purpose defined by financial constraints and domestic minutiae. Even in the course of the story, we see her interrupted by her youngest child, Ronnie, who is “wet and demanding to be changed.” In a feminist reading, we can also see that the iron represents both the mother’s discomfort with the confines of domesticity and her desire for Emily to escape its weight. Earlier in the story, she expresses happiness that Emily is "slow" to develop physically, which has kept her away from the grown-up, demanding world of vanity and romance. In the mother's mind, this world can be said to be linked with the world of domestic chores and mundane life. She wants Emily to be on life’s stage instead and not behind the ironing board.

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In a sense, the iron signifies the regret and sadness that the narrator feels for not being able to engage in her daughter's life. The iron is a symbol of all of the mundane chores and tasks that had to be completed just to get by, the same jobs that anchored her to her work and allowed her no time to spend with her growing child.

The back and forth of the iron is indicative of the conflicted nature of the narrators position as a mother. Everything she does is for the better of her daughter's life, and yet everything she does takes her further away from an emotional connection with the same daughter. The entire story is an attempt for the narrator to reconcile these two contradicting points, all framed by the movement of the iron.

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The iron in Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Her Ironing" is symbolic of the mother's attempt to straighten out her feelings about her daughter Emily, and about herself.  The movement of the iron parallels the internal and external monologue of the mother as she moves back and forth from memory to the present in her reconstruction of the daughter's past in order to explain Emily's present behavior to the school official who has questioned her:

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

In addition, the iron represents the mundane tasks which have demanded so much of the mother's time that she was not able to nurture Emily as she should have.  A single mother in a time in which there were little other than menial jobs for women, the mother has been forced to place Emily, who becomes ill, in a convalescent home where "They don't like you to love anybody here."  As a result, Emily has had to deal with life on her own; and, in this aloneness and vulnerability she has developed her comedic personality with its "control...and deadly clowning." 

In a sense, then, the iron is a symbol of the movement of the mother's thoughts and of the restraints upon her, as well as hers and her daughter's apathy--the mother towards her motherhood, the daughter towards her future.  As she rests the iron, the mother concludes, "I will never total it all"; however, she realizes that Emily is her own person apart from her, and she urges the school official to help her daughter out of her apathy:

Only 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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