Who should take the blame for Emily’s childhood unhappiness?"I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," the mother's internal monologue indicates her guilt over her neglect of Emily while she was forced to work and care for her other children.  In fact these many hardships that both mother and daughter have had to endure seem to have impaired the mother's ability to encourage her daughter's budding talent as an actress and the mother suffers from anguish and a defeatest apathy.

However, the mother does realize that although she "will never total it all," the question of selfhood is, essentially, an existential one that the individual must answer.  So, although Emily "kept too much in herself...My wisdom came too late," her daughter is an indivicual who "has much to her.... a child of her age," and the search for selfhood is, ultimately, Emily's own.

In her essay entitled, "'I Stand Here Ironing: Motherhood as Experience and Metaphor," Joanne S. Frye writes,

The narrative structure....generates a unique capacity for metaphorical insight into the knowledge that each individual--like the mother and her daughter--can act only from the context of immediate personal limitations, but must nonetheless act through a sense of individual responsibility.

That the mother loves her daughter and recognizes her independence is evidenced at the story's end as she urges the school official to encourage Emily out of  her own apathy into selfhood by acting to

"help her to know...that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

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I Stand Here Ironing

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