I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161

The first-person narrative technique permits the development of a very personal interior monologue and the examination of an entire lifetime of events. These reveal the development of the child Emily and her relationship to her mother in a way that exposes the mother’s anguish and sadness. The language of the mother in describing the daughter is always loving and tender. She speaks of her as a miracle, beautiful and happy. The simple, direct sentences are appropriate to the interior monologue and reinforce the sincerity and seriousness of the thoughts expressed.

The calm, reflective tone serves to emphasize the resignation of the mother to her ineffectiveness in influencing the course of her daughter’s future. It also provides a fitting contrast to the intensity of the final lines of the story, in which the mother admonishes the note writer to let the girl be but still urges this unnamed figure of authority to convince the girl that life is not futile.

Historical Context

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The Great Depression
The narrator of "I Stand Here Ironing" describes her daughter as "a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear." Though the story was published in 1961, it too has been seen as having ties to the Depression era and to the socially-conscious literature of the thirties. Regardless of whether Olsen's work in 1961 bears much resemblance to writings from the 1930s, the Great Depression remained very much a part of the American psyche long after the decade was over. Even during the more prosperous 1950s and 1960s, many people still remembered the severe deprivations caused by the country's disastrous economic collapse in the 1930s and lived in fear of repeating the experience. Differences in values present in those old enough to remember the Depression years and values held by children too young to remember those years have been cited as a major cause of the ''generation gap'' that came to characterize America in the 1960s.

Many people who lived through the Depression, including Olsen, were radicalized by their experience and joined communist and socialist movements. The United States government began massive efforts to provide relief to the poor through programs like the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Writers from the period such as John Steinbeck, Katherine Anne Porter, and Richard Wright hoped to inspire reform by creating literature that depicted the plight of the poor in a realistic manner.

The Eisenhower Era
The relatively prosperous 1950s were characterized by a growing conservatism and mistrust of radical intellectuals. Having won World War II after dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, the United States began its Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union. Many people felt it was important to root out radicals living in the United States and to neutralize the "threat" these people were believed to represent. Thus began the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, a series of public "trials" of suspected American Communists conducted by members of the U.S. Congress, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy. The HUAC hearings have since come to represent one of the darkest moments in American history. Before Senator McCarthy was exposed for falsifying evidence and otherwise violating the civil rights of those he accused, the lives and reputations of hundreds of innocent people were ruined.

The 1950s also saw a rapid expansion of the middle class and the rise to prominence of the suburban lifestyle. Some have seen it as an era of rigid conformism. For many of the women who had worked outside the home during World War II, the role of housewife into which they were recast seemed particularly oppressive. The repressed frustration and anger of suburban, middle-class housewives contributed much to the new "women's liberation" and feminist movements of the 1960s, particularly following the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.

Setting

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The story is set in the late 1950s or early 1960s in the working-class home of the narrator as she stands before the ironing board reflecting on her relationship with her eldest daughter.

Literary Style

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Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing'' tells the story of a mother's relationship with her eldest daughter in a stark and dramatic fashion that has impressed critics and fellow writers with its originality and accessibility. The story is told entirely in the voice of the mother, but nonetheless manages to convey a dynamic relationship between two believable characters without resorting to cliche and sentimentality.

Structure and Point of View
The story is told through the interior monologue of an unnamed mother as she irons her daughter Emily's dress. The catalyst for the monologue appears to be a request from an unspecified source, perhaps a school guidance counselor, for help in understanding the narrator's troubled daughter. The monologue consists of the narrator's fantasies, presented in a stream-of-consciousness manner, about what she might say in response to such a request.

Such a narrative structure not only provides a dramatic context to draw the reader's attention, but it also serves to quickly establish the story's confrontational tone and introduce the narrator's repressed, frustrated character. Olsen's challenge is announced in the very first sentence, with the unusual appearance of the second person pronoun: "what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." The narrator begins questioning the validity of her own perspective on her daughter's psyche early in the story and wonders whether what she has to say ''matters or ... explains anything."

In addition to the insights the narrator shares with readers directly, her character is also revealed indirectly through the occasional interruptions of her monologue, which are caused by pressing demands from her daily life: ''Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him." In the end, the central paradox in the character of the narrator is also illustrated through the story's dramatic narrative "frame": she in fact has many insights into herself and her daughter, but she chooses not to express them either to her daughter or to whomever asked her to "come in and talk.''

Language and Imagery
In "I Stand Here Ironing," Olsen attempts to portray experiences and characters not typically given expression in literature. Perhaps her most admirable technical accomplishments lie in her ability to use language and imagery to believably portray the voice and thoughts of an intelligent but overburdened mother. Olsen intersperses the story with run-on sentences and expressive coinages, such as "I think of our others in their three- and four-year oldness." These techniques evoke the difficulty the narrator has answering unanswerable questions and imposing order upon the chaos that has been her daily life.

Simple images from the world familiar to the narrator are used to express complex emotions. The most notable of these is the act of ironing referred to in the story's title. Associated with the social role of women, ironing—a back-and-forth motion that results in the elimination of wrinkles—becomes a symbol for the imperfections and frustrated desires of the narrator. One passage suggests that this also represents a less sentimental and more realistic image of motherhood: Emily muses that if she were to paint her mother's portrait, the pose Whistler had used in painting his mother's portrait—seated in a chair—wouldn't do. ''I'd have to paint mine standing over an ironing board," she says. The act of ironing epitomizes the endless tasks that have beset the narrator. She expresses the hope that her daughter can transcend such frustration, rise above her circumstances and learn "that she is more than the dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

"I Stand Here Ironing" tells the story of a mother's relationship with her eldest daughter in a stark and dramatic fashion that has impressed critics and fellow writers with its originality and accessibility. The story is told entirely in the voice of the mother but nonetheless manages to convey a dynamic relationship between two believable characters without resorting to cliche and sentimentality.

The story is told through the interior monologue of an unnamed mother as she irons her daughter Emily's dress. The catalyst for the monologue appears to be a request from an unspecified source, perhaps a school guidance counselor, for help in understanding the narrator's troubled daughter. The monologue consists of the narrator's fantasies, presented in a stream-of- consciousness manner, about what she might say in response to such a request.

Such a narrative structure not only provides a dramatic context to draw the reader's attention, but it also serves to quickly establish the story's confrontational tone and introduce the narrator's repressed, frustrated character. Olsen's challenge is announced in the very first sentence, with the unusual appearance of the second-person pronoun: "What you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." The narrator begins questioning the validity of her own perspective on her daughter's psyche early in the story and wonders whether what she has to say "matters o r . . . explains anything."

In addition to the insights the narrator shares with readers directly, her character is also revealed indirectly through the occasional interruptions of her monologue, which are caused by pressing demands from her daily life: "Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him." In the end the central paradox in the character of the narrator is also illustrated through the story's dramatic narrative "frame": she in fact has many insights into herself and her daughter, but she chooses not to express them to the person who asked her to "come in and talk," nor to her daughter.

In "I Stand Here Ironing," Olsen attempts to portray experiences and characters not typically given expression in literature. Perhaps her most admirable technical accomplishments lie in her ability to use language and imagery to portray believably the voice and thoughts of an intelligent but overburdened mother. Olsen intersperses the story with run-on sentences and expressive coinages, such as "I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness." These techniques evoke the difficulty the narrator has answering unanswerable questions and imposing order upon the chaos of her daily life.

Simple images from the world familiar to the narrator are used to express complex emotions. The most notable of these is the act of ironing referred to in the story's title. Associated with the social role of women, ironing—a back-and-forth motion that results in the elimination of wrinkles—becomes a symbol for the imperfections and frustrated desires of the narrator. One passage suggests that ironing also represents a less sentimental and more realistic image of motherhood: Emily muses that if she were to paint her mother's portrait, it wouldn't do to have her pose as Whistler had posed his mother in the famous portrait—seated in a chair. "I'd have to paint mine standing over an ironing board," she says. The act of ironing epitomizes the endless tasks that have beset the narrator. She expresses the hope that her daughter can transcend such frustration, rise above her circumstances, and learn "that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

Compare and Contrast

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1963: Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique, the first notable publication of the modern women's movement, in which Friedan outlines the position of women as second-class citizens in contemporary life.

1994: Mary Pipher publishes Reviving Ophelia, in which she illustrates how adolescent girls are forced to conform to strict societal conventions that are often at odds with a girl's true emerging identity.

1960: 39 percent of married American women work outside the home.

1995: 61 percent of married American women work outside the home.

1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson declares a "national war on poverty" and creates the Office of Economic Opportunity, which coordinates programs such as Job Corps and Head Start. Head Start provides low-income, at-risk children with early education and nurturing.

1994: A Republican-dominated Congress, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, declares a national war on welfare and suggests a return to the use of orphanages.

For Further Reference

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Bauer, Helen Pike. '"A Child of Anxious, Not Proud, Love': Mother and Daughter in Tillie Olsen's 'I Stand Here Ironing.'" In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature. Edited by Mickey Pearlman. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 35-39. Bauer focuses on the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship in "I Stand Here Ironing."

Frye, Joanne S. '"I Stand Here Ironing': Motherhood As Experience and Metaphor." Studies in Short Fiction 18 (Summer 1981): 287-92. Frye asserts that the theme of identity pervades Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing."

Garrett, Kathleen Grimm. "Tillie Olsen: Overview." In Reference Guide to American Literature. Third Edition. Edited by Jim Kamp. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. An overview of Olsen's career and works.

Kamel, Rose. "Literary Foremothers and Writers' Silences: Tillie Olsen's Autobiographical Fiction." Melus 12 (Fall 1985): 55-72. Kamel focuses on the commonality among Olsen's works of fiction.

Kloss, Robert J. "Balancing the Hurts and the Needs: Olsen's 'I Stand Here Ironing.'" Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 15 (March 1994): 78-86. Kloss focuses on the daughter's emotional deprivation in "I Stand Here Ironing."

Lyons, Bonnie. "Tillie Olsen: The Writer as a Jewish Woman." Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1986): 89-102. Lyons argues that Olsen's writing is influenced more by her womanhood than by Judaism.

Piedmont-Marton, Elisabeth. "An Overview of 'I Stand Here Ironing.'" In Reference Guide to American Literature. Edited by Jim Kamp. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Piedmont-Marton explores the autobiographical aspects of "I Stand Here Ironing" and also discusses the broad range of character types in Olsen's work.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. "Limming: or Why Tillie Writes." The Hollins Critic XIII (April 1976): 1-13. Rose discusses Olsen's motivations and techniques and lauds her ability to depict men as well as women.

Wolfe, Kathy. '"Coming to Writing' through the Impressionist Fiction of Tillie Olsen." In Midwestern Miscellany XXI. Edited by David D. Anderson. East Lansing, MI: Midwestern Press, 1993, pp. 57-67. Wolfe compares "I Stand Here Ironing" with "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and examines each for Olsen's common theme of hope.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Atwood, Margaret, "Obstacle Course," in The New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1978.

Elman, Richard M., "The Many Forms Which Loss Can Take," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXV, no 11, December 8, 1961, pp. 295-6.

Fisher, Elizabeth, "The Passion of Tillie Olsen," in The Nation, April 10, 1972, pp. 472-4.

O'Connor, William Van, ''The Short Stories of Tillie Olsen," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol 1, no. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 21-25.

Pearlman, Mickey and Abby Werlock, Tillie Olsen, edited by Warren French, Twayne, 1991.

Further Reading
Faulkner, Mara, Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 1-34.
Faulkner examines the political aspects of Olsen's work and its representation of the lives of people outside of the literary mainstream

Frye, Joanne S., Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1995, pp. 3-36.
Explores Olsen's works and their connections to her life as well as the lives of her readers.

Orr, Elaine Neil, Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision, University Press of Mississippi, 1987, p. 193.
Examines Olsen's works within a feminist context.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Boucher, Sandy. “Tillie Olsen: The Weight of Things Unsaid.” Ms. 3 (September, 1974): 26-30.

Cuneen, Sally. “Tillie Olsen: Storyteller of Working America.” The Christian Century 21 (May, 1980): 570-574.

McElheny, Annette Bennington. “Alternative Responses to Life in Tillie Olsen’s Work.” Frontiers 2 (Spring, 1977): 76-91.

Martin, Abigail. Tillie Olsen. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1984.

Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

Schwartz, Helen J. “Tillie Olsen.” In American Women Writers. Vol. 3, edited by Lina Mainiero and Langdon Lynne Faust. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

Shulman, Alix Kates. “Overcoming Silences: Teaching Writing to Women.” Harvard Educational Review 49 (November, 1979): 527-533.

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