I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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Critical Overview

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The four stories which Olsen wrote during the 1950s and then published as Tell Me a Riddle in 1961 are the only short stories she has published. Besides these stories, her published work totals one novel and a number of essays. Nonetheless, Olsen's four short stories have had an impressive impact on the literary world since their first appearance. They have been reprinted in countless anthologies, and Olsen has been heralded as an early champion of a new feminist movement in literature. In The New York Times Book Review, prominent contemporary novelist Margaret Atwood describes the importance of Olsen and her work, particularly to women: "Few writers have gained such wide respect based on such a small body of published work. Among women writers in the United States, 'respect' is too pale a word: 'reverence' is more like it.''

When Olsen published her volume of stories upon completion of her studies at the Stanford University Creative Writing Program, her work was immediately well-received by critics. Initially, her stories were often seen as beautifully crafted but bleak in outlook. In a 1961 review in The Commonweal, for example, Richard M. Elman describes "I Stand Here Ironing,'' in his view the most excellent of Olsen's stories, as "a catalogue of the failure of intimacy." A 1963 essay by William Van O'Connor in Studies in Short Fiction also seems to find nothing but despair in a story which features a daughter who imagines that nothing matters because we will all soon be killed by atomic bombs and a mother who wants to believe that there is ''still enough to live by," but is unable to convince her daughter.

Subsequent critics, perhaps informed by more feminist sensibilities, have seen more optimistic elements in the story. For example, Elizabeth Fisher, editor of Aphra, The Feminist Literary Magazine, suggests in a 1972 essay in The Nation that ''I Stand Here Ironing'' is "also a hopeful story of how children survive, sometimes even making strength, or talent, out of the deprivations they've endured." Joanne S. Frye, in a 1981 Studies in Short Fiction essay, argues that Emily, despite her quip about everyone being "atom-dead" soon, "does not, in fact, succumb to that despairing view; rather, she is asserting her own right to choice as she lightly claims her wish to sleep late in the morning.'' Frye goes on to argue that the mother, despite her despair over being unable to "total it all," does finally manage to ''recenter her thoughts," and ultimately triumphs as a parent in her acknowledgement of her daughter's independence. Frye reads the mother's final resolution—"Let her be"—as an indication that the mother "trust[s] the power of each to 'find her way' even in the face of powerful external constraints on individual control."

Olsen's work has also inspired a great deal of critical analysis which takes a biographical approach, perhaps because the author has been so candid about how circumstances in her life have affected her writing. Olsen, an acclaimed critic and lecturer in her own right, has acknowledged that the demands of her marriage and four children have distracted her from writing and limited her literary output. Many of Olsen's fellow writers and critics have expressed admiration for her ability to overcome these obstacles. Women writers, in particular, have seen her as a role model.

Many critics have pointed to the obvious parallels between Olsen's life and that of the narrator in ''I Stand Here Ironing." Olsen, too, was abandoned by her first husband during the Depression after giving birth to one child and later had more children with a second husband. Critics have found metaphors in Olsen's story for her own literary career and for the process of writing in general. Just as Olsen's literary career has been interrupted by the heavy demands placed on a working mother, so the narrator has been distracted from providing the kind of nurturing she would have liked to for her eldest child. The narrator is also interrupted from telling her story and from finding its "total." Critics have suggested that the mother-narrator and her account of the special challenges she has faced through motherhood parallel the unique challenges faced by women waters.

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