I Stand Here Ironing Essays and Criticism
by Tillie Olsen

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Autobiographical Elements in ''I Stand Here Ironing"

(Short Stories for Students)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 3,826 words.)