I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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Emily
Nineteen-year-old Emily is the eldest child of the narrator. Her mother regrets much about Emily's upbringing, saying: "She was a child seldom smiled at." Her father deserted the family less than a year after her birth, during the worst of the Depression. While her mother struggled to make ends meet, young Emily was handed over to a variety of temporary caretakers. As young girl, Emily was considered homely—"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"—and she became shy and passive. After her mother's second marriage, Emily was eclipsed by her younger, more self-assured half-sister Susan. To her mother's surprise, Emily has developed a talent for comedic acting—a "deadly clowning"—which wins her an audience, but she seems to lack motivation. At the end of the story, Emily chooses to sleep through her exams and quips that "in a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit." Though her mother is convinced that ''all that is in her will not bloom,'' she expresses hope that Emily may nevertheless know ''that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

Narrator
The narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing'' is never described physically nor referred to by name. Her identity is revealed through the explanation she gives of her relationship with her eldest daughter, Emily. The narrator has endured a great deal of hardship in her life. She was deserted at age nineteen by her first husband, less than a year after Emily's birth, during the worst of the Depression. Money has always been short, and the necessity of working long hours made it impossible for her to be sufficiently attentive to her daughter. She remarried and had more children, to whom she feels she has been a better mother. She seems to regret much about how her first daughter was raised and feels that, as a result of her shortcomings as a mother, "all that is in [Emily] will not bloom." Readers have had varying reactions to the narrator's final resolution about her daughter—to "let her be." While some see passive resignation in this statement, others see it in a more positive light as an acknowledgement of her daughter's independence and ability to ''find her own way.''

Susan
Susan is Emily's younger half-sister. According to their mother, Susan is a better student than Emily, as well as better looking and more popular: Emily's "younger sister seemed all that she was not." Emily is competitive with Susan and feels slighted when their mother is more attentive to Susan. The mother feels that because Susan was raised in a more nurturing environment than Emily, it was inevitable that Susan would outshine her older half-sister.

Themes and Characters

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In "I Stand Here Ironing," an unnamed narrator reflects on her somewhat distant relationship with her eldest daughter. It is a story about the search—by both mother and daughter—for individual identity despite the limitations imposed by a history of poverty and other social constraints. While it examines the difficulties of a mother and daughter in finding identities separate from one another and independent from social expectations about women, it raises questions about the nature of intimacy itself.

The issue of the boundary between the individual identities of the mother and daughter is raised early in the story. The narrator seems disturbed by the idea of being asked to help someone understand her daughter: "You think because I am her mother I have a...

(This entire section contains 1160 words.)

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key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me." Yet even as the narrator questions "what good" her insights into her daughter could provide, she also lays claim to a special knowledge of her daughter, more complete than that of any hypothetical questioner: "You did not know her all those years she was considered homely."

The story presents the identities of both mother and daughter as incomplete, still in the process of "becoming." The adolescent daughter is still struggling to find independence, and her guilt-ridden mother is still working through her assessment of her role. The shy daughter appears to have talent as an actress, much to the surprise of her mother, who is prompted to wonder, "Was this Emily?" The daughter becomes "Somebody," it seems, by pretending on stage to be someone else. Yet even in the apparent freedom that Emily achieves through acting, she is still "imprisoned" by the public nature of the role and by the people in her audience whose applause "wouldn't let [her] go." Her mother feels at a loss to nurture this talent in her daughter, and readers are left wondering whether Emily's gift will end up being left unexpressed—"clogged and clotted" inside of her.

The mother's desire to define herself also seems unfulfilled in the end. She concludes that the task of "dredging the past" and sifting through "all that compounds a human being" is too much for her. Convinced that she will never be able to "total it all," she resolves not to heed the request that she "come in and talk." Her thoughts about her daughter and about her own role as a mother remain private, communicated only to the reader.

A deep sense of deprivation pervades "I Stand Here Ironing." The mother describes numerous limitations she has had to confront: poverty, being abandoned by her first husband, housework, and motherhood itself. The many hardships in her life seem to compound one another and even impair her ability to tell the story: "And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again." The limited resources of the mother limit the daughter as well. The mother feels helpless to encourage her daughter's budding talent as an actress. The mother seems to blame her own youth and distractedness for the fact that "little will come" of her daughter's potential.

Both daughter and mother appear to be apathetic at the end of the story: the daughter toward her future, the mother toward her own perceived failures. The daughter decides to sleep late, despite having exams the next morning, because "in a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit." The mother, exhausted from "dredging the past," resolves to "let her be." Yet the story also presents evidence that there is at least a desire to overcome this apathy. The image of the mother's iron, which frames the story, provides an interesting emblem of this desire. In the first sentence the iron, along with the narrator's thoughts, "moves tormented back and forth." In the last sentence she articulates her hope that her daughter will be able to break free and learn "that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

The narrator in "I Stand Here Ironing" is never described physically, nor is she referred to by name. Her identity is revealed through the explanation she gives of her relationship with her eldest daughter, Emily. The narrator has apparently endured a great deal of hardship in her life. She was deserted at age nineteen by her first husband, less than a year after Emily's birth, during the worst of the Depression. Money has always been short, and the need to work long hours made it impossible for her to be sufficiently attentive to her daughter. She remarried and had more children, to whom she feels she has been a better mother. She seems to have many regrets over how she raised her first daughter and feels that, as a result of her shortcomings as a mother, "all that is in [Emily] will not bloom." Readers have had varying reactions to the narrator's final resolution about her daughter—to "let her be." While some see passive resignation in this statement, others see it in a more positive light as an acknowledgment of her daughter's independence and ability to "find her own way."

Nineteen-year-old Emily is the eldest child of the narrator. Just one of her mother's regrets about Emily's upbringing is that "she was a child seldom smiled at." Her father deserted the family less than a year after her birth, during the worst of the Depression. While her mother struggled to make ends meet, young Emily was handed over to a variety of temporary caretakers. As a young girl, Emily was considered homely, and she became shy and passive. After her mother's second marriage, Emily was eclipsed by her younger, more self-assured half-sister Susan. To her mother's surprise, Emily has developed a talent for comedic acting—a "deadly clowning"— which wins her an audience, but she seems to lack motivation. At the end of the story Emily chooses to sleep through her exams and quips that "in a couple of years when we'll all be atom-dead they won't matter a bit." Though her mother is convinced that "all that is in her will not bloom," she expresses hope that Emily may nevertheless know "that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

Susan is Emily's younger half-sister. According to their mother, Susan is a better student than Emily, as well as better-looking and more popular: Emily's "younger sister seemed all that she was not." Emily is competitive with Susan and feels slighted when their mother is more attentive to Susan. The mother feels that because Susan was raised in a more nurturing environment than Emily, it was inevitable that Susan would outshine her older half-sister.

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