I Stand Here Ironing Questions and Answers
by Tillie Olsen

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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 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...

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