I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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Autobiographical Elements in ''I Stand Here Ironing"

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"I Stand Here Ironing" is the first story in Tillie Olsen's awarding-winning collection, Tell Me a Riddle, which was first published in 1961 when Olsen was in her late forties. In this story, which is considered her most autobiographical, Olsen breaks new literary ground in creating the voice of the mother-narrator and in crafting a narrative structure that mirrors as well as describes female experience. Like the four other stories in the collection, ''I Stand Here Ironing" portrays the "aching hardships of poverty and the themes of exile or exclusion.'' This story, according to critics Mickey Pearlman and Abby Werlock in Tillie Olsen, ''presents us with the inexorable riddle of human existence: it paradoxically comprises not merely the endurance of poverty, bigotry, illness, and pain but the ultimate ability to transcend these."

Olsen is one of those authors whose life is so integral to her writing that any reading of her fiction is greatly enriched by comparisons between her life experiences and the fictional lives she creates. Olsen's critics, and Olsen herself in numerous speeches and interviews, have identified the three consuming passions of her life: politics, writing, and mothering. Her remarkable contribution to literature and to the advancement of women's causes, is her insistence that all three of these are connected: that motherhood always has a political dimension, and that politics cannot be separated from families, for example. What she also recognizes, however, is that the material conditions of women's lives prevent them from engaging in all three of these issues simultaneously; that political activism may disqualify one from motherhood; or that motherhood may consume the time and energy needed for writing. Twenty years separated Olsen's initial convictions that "she must write," and her first publications. In a 1971 speech, she explained that she "raised four children without household help... [and] worked outside the home in everyday jobs as well." She further stated that during "the years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks."

Alice Walker once praised Olsen for rescuing the lives of forgotten and invisible people, and other critics have agreed that Olsen's work has preserved the histories of people who have traditionally been under-represented in literature. Olsen's career proves her conviction that "literature can be made out of the lives of despised people." Walker also gave Olsen credit for her pioneering efforts to portray the lives of the poor, the working class, females, and non-whites well before these subjects received widespread attention. Critics have lauded "I Stand Here ironing" for articulating a strong female voice, especially in the mother-narrator's reflections on her life as a mother and a worker. The story is one of the best examples in literature—and certainly one of the first—to offer readers a glimpse into the lives of working-class women and families from a woman's perspective. The dedication to her book of essays, Silences, reads in part: "For our silenced people, century after century after their being consumed in the hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made—as their other contributions—anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost."

"I Stand Here Ironing" appears to be straightforward and simple on the first reading, but a closer study reveals a sophisticated narrative structure and a rich pattern of imagery. Olsen frequently mentioned in interviews that she was especially proud of the story's first sentence, and wished she could duplicate its directness and economy: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." The apparent simplicity of this sentence belies the complexity of...

(This entire section contains 1317 words.)

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the narrative situation. Readers are introduced to a woman who appears to be addressing them directly. While it quickly becomes clear that the "you" of the first sentence is in fact some school official, readers are drawn into the narrative and soon come to occupy the position of sympathetic listener. The mother revisits the nineteen years of her daughters life, but the narrative remains anchored in the present because of the act of ironing. Like most women with children, her story is constantly interrupted by other demands and she is accustomed to "engaging in her private thoughts while simultaneously carrying on with household tasks and family interactions." In fact, as her story reveals, her life has been interrupted by childbirth, desertion, poverty, numerous jobs, childcare, remarriage, frequent relocations, and five children. The pace and shape of this narrative is as familiar to the mother-narrator as is the act of ironing.

The mother's ironing not only keeps us attuned to the immediacy of her experiences, it provides the central metaphor for the story. Like Alice Walker's use of quilting in "Everyday Use,'' Olsen's ironing metaphor resonates both inside and outside the fictional boundaries of the story. On one level, the ironing metaphor is significant because it belongs almost exclusively to the domestic world of women. Not only is ironing women's work, but more often than not women iron for other people. On a more figurative level, mothering is also an act of ironing, of smoothing out problems, of making things right and ordered. But as the story of her first child's difficult upbringing unfolds, the iron begins to take on another, more sinister array of qualities. It is helpful here to recall another aspect of the author's personal life that bears on the story. Olsen spent many of her working years in factories, and as a young girl worked as a tie presser, laboring long hours with hot and dangerous equipment under deplorable working conditions. She has dedicated her life to fighting for social change and the rights of the oppressed, especially workers. She also was an active socialist in the 1930s and even spent time in jail for her role in a factory stake. With these things in mind, the attentive reader listens to the mother struggling with "dredging the past," knowing she will "never total it all." The iron comes to represent, then, the pressures of outside forces and the accidents of history into which we are born, such as poverty, divorce, illness, and prejudice.

After she asks a total of thirteen questions, critics have noted, ranging from ''how could I have known?" to "what was the cost?" the narrator suddenly pauses (we can imagine her lifting the iron from the board). She concludes that ''all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight." The adjective heavy focuses our attention on the iron, which has not literally grown heavier, though the narrator may be fatigued. But on a figurative level, it has become heavier, taken on weight and significance as it has come to represent the pressures of outside forces on individuals in general and on Emily in particular. The mother's conclusion to "let her be" is not an abdication of her parental rights; rather it is a recognition that her powers as a mother cannot control the oppressive forces of the outside world. She ends her monologue with a prayer-like hope that her daughter will come to know "that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

This ending suggests that the narrator comes to this resolution not despite the fact that her life allows her time for introspection only while working, but because of the work. The twin process of ironing and thinking out loud about the past do not simply move "tormented back and forth," but progress, from questions to answers, from unknown to known. Olsen's narrator learns something in the act of ironing, and the iron itself has been a crucial part of that process, leading her to a fuller understanding of her motherhood through its insistent metaphorical meanings.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is the coordinator of the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Literary Foremothers and Writers' Silences: Tillie Olsen's Autobiographical Fiction

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In 1954... Olsen published the brilliant short story ''I Stand Here Ironing,'' having served a prolonged apprenticeship during which "there was a conscious storing, snatched reading, beginnings of writing" and always "the secret rootlets of reconnaissance." This reconnaissance involved not only obsessive reading but internalizing the lives of women writers, especially writers who were also mothers.

Their emergence is evidence of changing circumstances making possible for them what (with rarest exception) was not possible in the generations of women before. I hope and I fear for what will result I hope (and believe) that complex new richness will come into literature, I fear because almost certainly their work will be impeded, lessened, partial. For the fundamental situation remains unchanged Unlike men writers who marry, most will not have the societal equivalent of a wife—nor (in a society hostile to growing life) anyone but themselves to mother their children ...

"I Stand Here Ironing" depicts a nameless mother-narrator, who, having received a phone call from her daughter Emily's high-school guidance counselor that Emily is an underachiever, pushes an iron to and fro across the board on which Emily's dress lies shapeless and wrinkled. The narrator begins "dredging the past and all that compounds a human being." Her thoughts flow with the rhythm of the iron as she attempts to grasp the "rootlet of reconnaissance" to explain why it was that her oldest child was one "seldom smiled at." What would appear as understandable reasons—the Depression, the nineteen-year old mother, who at her daughter's present age worked at menial jobs during the day and at household chores at night, the iron necessity that made her place Emily in a series of foster homes, the desertion of her first husband, bearing and rearing four other children of a second marriage, all clamoring for attention—should account for Emily's chronic sorrow; but somehow they do not. Necessity dominating the mother's life could have tempered Emily, but the reader soon perceives that there may be another reason why Emily and the mother-narrator are silenced counterparts. The mother has remarried, but material comforts, an emotionally secure middle-class existence, cannot assuage her loneliness. Never having experienced the celebratory rituals of working-class communality, middle-class anomie distances her from other women. Her entire adult life has been interrupted by child care described by Olsen quoting [Sally Bingham in Silences]:

My work "writing" is reduced to five or six hours a week, always subject to interruptions and cancellations ... I don't believe there is a solution to the problem, or at least I don't believe there is one which recognizes the emotional complexities involved. A life without children is, I believe, an impoverished life for most women; yet life with children imposes demands that consume energy and imagination at the same time, cannot be delegated—even supposing there were a delegate available.

In "I Stand Here Ironing," characteristic stylistic clues embedded in the occasionally inverted syntax, run-on sentences interspersed with fragments, repetitions, alliterative parallels, an incantatory rhythm evoke the narrator's longing not only for a lost child but for a lost language whereby she can order the chaotic dailiness of a working mother's experience.

She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her pouring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been—and would be, I would tell her—and was now to the seeing eye But the seeing eyes were few or non-existent Including mine.

Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one's own but must always be racked and listening for the child to cry, the child call. We sit for awhile and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. "Shoogily," he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep Shoogily A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, invented by her to say: comfort.

Emily's word play appears rooted in Yiddish (shoogily—meshugah) and there is something archetypically talmudic in her fascination with riddles (for which a younger sibling gets recognition) ''that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan...," foreshadowing the leitmotif Olsen will orchestrate in "Tell Me a Riddle." When language inventiveness fails to mitigate against Emily's lack of achievement at school, when she tries and fails to authenticate herself, she escapes into another's role. Desperate for attention, identity, she responds to the mother's suggestion that she try out for a high school play—[Olsen notes in Silences that] "not to have an audience is a kind of death"—and becomes a comic crowd-pleaser to the sound of thunderous applause. Thus, Emily finally commands some attention and affection and to a limited extent a control of life's randomness. Nonetheless, only articulation through language can free her from oppression. Silenced at home she lacks and will probably continue to lack centrality.

The story ends with the mother still ironing out the wrinkles in Emily's dress; like Emily she is "helpless before the iron," aware that this Sisyphus-like ritual cannot atone for the past, nor can she ultimately answer the riddle Emily poses within and without the family constellation. Certainly the chains of necessity should have justified the mother's past relationship with her eldest child.

We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother. I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were many years that she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much to herself ... My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably nothing will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

Source: Rose Kamel, "Literary Foremothers and Writers' Silences: Tillie Olsen's Autobiographical Fiction," in MELUS, Vol 12, no. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 55-72.

"I Stand Here Ironing": Motherhood as Experience and Metaphor

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Motherhood as literary metaphor has long been a cliche for the creative process: the artist gives birth to a work of art which takes on a life of its own. Motherhood as literary experience has only rarely existed at all, except as perceived by a resentful or adoring son who is working through his own identity in separation from the power of a nurturant and/or threatening past. The uniqueness of Tillie Olsen's ''I Stand Here Ironing'' lies in its fusion of motherhood as both metaphor and experience: it shows us motherhood bared, stripped of romantic distortion, and reinfused with the power of genuine metaphorical insight into the problems of selfhood in the modern world.

The story seems at first to be a simple meditation of a mother reconstructing her daughter's past in an attempt to explain present behavior. In its pretense of silent dialogue with the school's guidance counselor—a mental occupation to accompany the physical occupation of ironing—it creates the impression of literal transcription of a mother's thought processes in the isolation of performing household tasks: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." Indeed, this surface level provides the narrative thread for our insights into both Emily and her mother. The mother's first-person narrative moves chronologically through a personal past which is gauged and anchored by occasional intrusions of the present: "I put the iron down"; "Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him"; "She is coming. She runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that occasioned your call did not happen today."

The story is very fundamentally structured through the mother's present selfhood. It is her reality with which we are centrally concerned, her perception of the process of individuation to which the story gives us access. Her concerns with sorting through Emily's past are her concerns with defining the patterns of her own motherhood and of the limitations on her capacity to care for and support the growth of another human being. As she rethinks the past, she frames her perceptions through such interjections as "I did not know then what I know now" and ''What in me demanded that goodness in her?"—gauges taken from the present self to try to assess her own past behavior. But throughout, she is assessing the larger pattern of interaction between her own needs and constraints and her daughter's needs and constraints. When she defines the hostilities between Emily and her sister Susan—"that terrible balancing of hurts and needs''—she asserts her own recognition not only of an extreme sibling rivalry but also of the inevitable conflict in the separate self-definitions of parent and child. Gauging the hurts and needs of one human being against the hurts and needs of another: this is the pattern of parenthood. But more, it is the pattern of a responsible self living in relationship.

The story's immediate reality continually opens onto such larger patterns of human awareness. Ostensibly an answer to the school counselor, the mother's interior monologue becomes a meditation on human existence, on the interplay among external contingencies, individual needs, and individual responsibilities. The narrative structure creates a powerful sense of immediacy and an unfamiliar literary experience. But it also generates a unique capacity for metaphorical insight into the knowledge that each individual—like both the mother and the daughter—can act only from the context of immediate personal limitations but must nonetheless act through a sense of individual responsibility.

The narrator sets the context for this general concern by first defining the separateness of mother and daughter: ''You think because I am her mother I have a 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." Almost defensively, she cites too the difficulties of finding time and being always—as mothers are—susceptible to interruption. But in identifying an even greater difficulty in the focus of her parental responsibility, she highlights the thematic concern with guilt and responsibility: "Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped." She is, in other words, setting out to assess her own responsibility, her own failure, and finally her need to reaffirm her own autonomy as a separate human being who cannot be defined solely through her parental role.

When she identifies the patterns of isolation and alienation between herself and her daughter, she is further probing the awareness of her own separateness and the implicit separation between any two selfhoods. The convalescent home to which she sent Emily as a child is premised on establishing an "invisible wall" between visiting parents and their children on the balconies above. But, in fact, that wall is only an extreme instance of an inevitable separateness, of all the life that is lived ''outside of me, beyond me." Even in her memory of deeply caring conversations with her daughter, the mother can only claim to provide an occasional external eye, a person who can begin to narrate for the daughter the continuity of the daughter's own past and emergent selfhood but who must stand outside that selfhood separated by her own experiences and her own needs....

The tension in Emily's personality—which has continually been defined as light and glimmering yet rigid and withheld—comes to a final focus in the self-mocking humor of her allusion to the most powerful cultural constraint on human behavior: nothing individual matters because "in a couple years we'll all be atom-dead." But Emily 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. Though the mother feels more heavily the horror of this judgment, she feels its weight most clearly in relation to the complexity of individual personhood and responsibility: "because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight." And when she goes on from her despairing inability to "total it all" to the story's conclusion, she recenters her thoughts on the tenuous balance between the powerful cultural constraints and the need to affirm the autonomy of the self in the face of those constraints: ''Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. 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."

Her efforts, then, ''to gather together, to try and make coherent" are both inevitably doomed to failure and finally successful. There cannot be— either for parent or for story-teller—a final coherence, a final access to defined personality, or a full sense of individual control. There is only the enriched understanding of the separateness of all people—even parents from children—and the necessity to perceive and foster the value of each person's autonomous selfhood. Though that selfhood is always limited by the forces of external constraints, it is nonetheless defined and activated by the recognition of the "seal" each person sets on surrounding people and the acceptance of responsibility for one's own actions and capacities. At best, we can share in the efforts to resist the fatalism of life lived helplessly "before the iron"—never denying the power of the iron but never yielding to the iron in final helplessness either. We must trust the power of each to ''find her way'' even in the face of powerful external constraints on individual control.

The metaphor of the iron and the rhythm of the ironing establish a tightly coherent framework for the narrative probing of a mother-daughter relationship. But the fuller metaphorical structure of the story lies in the expansion of the metaphorical power of that relationship itself. Without ever relinquishing the immediate reality of motherhood and the probing of parental responsibility, Tillie Olsen has taken that reality and developed its peculiar complexity into a powerful and complex statement on the experience of responsible selfhood in the modern world. In doing so she has neither trivialized nor romanticized the experience of motherhood; she has indicated the wealth of experience yet to be explored in the narrative possibilities of experiences, like motherhood, which have rarely been granted serious literary consideration....

Source: Joanne S. Frye, "'I Stand Here Ironing' Motherhood as Experience and Metaphor," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, no 3, Summer, 1981, pp 287-92.


Critical Overview