I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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What is the symbolism of the mother's task of ironing in "I Stand Here Ironing"? What does her final statement about Emily signify?

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In “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, the narrator has a troubled relationship with her daughter Emily. Emily's father left them when Emily was still a baby, for he was unable to cope with poverty. The narrator was often separated from her daughter as she struggled to find work. That separation continued mentally and emotionally even after the two were reunited physically. Emily's gift is comedy, for it allows her to step out of herself.

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In Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” the mother’s ironing can be seen as symbolic because, just as an iron pushes the wrinkles out of a piece of clothing, the mother has, through circumstances not entirely her fault, pushed and flattened some of the life and “bloom” out her daughter, Emily.

Throughout the story, the reader learns how, time and time again, Emily had experiences in which she, like a dress being ironed, had no control. We learn how her mother was so poor that she had to send Emily away to live with Emily’s absentee father’s parents. We are given an account of how the mother left Emily at a horrible daycare that Emily hated. As the story progresses, we learn that Emily was sent to “a convalescent home in the country,” and that, upon her return, her mother had little time for her. All of these experiences were done to Emily, mostly by her mother. Additionally, they were all out of Emily’s control. In fact, Olsen conveys Emily as passive throughout most of the narrative. We learn that Emily never issued a “direct protest, never rebellion.” In that sense, Emily is as compliant as the dress her mother is ironing. Just like the hot iron is forcing the wrinkles out of the dress on the ironing board, Emily's mother has forced much of the “bloom” out of Emily.

That's why the novel’s last line is so symbolic. In the story's final paragraph, and really throughout the entire text, the mother's guilt over her inability to care for Emily is palpable. This guilt is what causes her to say that she hopes Emily “is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” She doesn’t want Emily to be passive, like a dress being pressed by a hot iron. She wants her daughter, who we learn is a gifted comedian, to actively take control of her life.

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In “I Stand Here Ironing,” consider the mother’s relationship with her daughter, her other children, and Emily’s father. Why does Emily develop her particular art form?

Tillie Olsen's “I Stand Here Ironing” is a meditative piece in which a mother reflects on her oldest daughter, a girl named Emily. Emily was born during the early years of the Great Depression, and her father soon abandoned his wife and daughter when times got too hard and he “could no longer endure.” The narrator had no choice but to leave Emily with relatives or at a care center while she tried to find work or worked at any job she could get.

The narrator develops only a shaky, troubled, somewhat distant relationship with her daughter. They are often apart in Emily's early years, and by the time Emily returns to her mother full time, she is a different girl, quiet and somber. Her new circumstances are not easy for Emily either. By now, her mother has remarried, and Emily must adjust to a new father and soon a bunch of new siblings. Her mother's attention is most often focused on the younger children, and she has little time or energy left to spend on Emily or to comfort her.

Emily's health disintegrates after a bout with measles, and her mother and stepfather send her to a convalescent home. Emily is more lonely than ever and sees her parents seldom. She is not even allowed to keep their letters. Her mother visits when she can, but her focus in still on her new husband and her other children.

When Emily returns to the family, she shies away from her mother's attention. The narrator now reaches out to her daughter, perhaps trying to make up for all the times she couldn't or didn't, but Emily remains stiff or pushes away. Her mother has pushed her away so often that Emily no longer fully trusts her or feels comfortable with attention.

Emily does have one special enjoyment, however. She is a comedian. This seems rather odd considering her shyness and reserve, but perhaps her pantomimes and routines allow her to escape from her world and from herself for a while. She can be someone else, someone who encourages people to laugh and enjoy themselves, someone who receives the kind of attention she has always wanted. She is an excellent performer who commands the audience with her gift. Finally, on stage, Emily is happy.

An unnamed official at Emily's school wants her mother to come in and talk about her daughter. The girl has talent and needs help to develop it. But the narrator wonders why anyone at the school should be concerned. It is not their business. Her daughter will find her way; she always has and without help.

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In "I Stand Here Ironing," why does Emily's mother iron, and what does the iron represent?

Emily's mother is ironing seemingly to prepare for the next day: She has been asked to come to school to talk about Emily and Emily has mid-term exams. She is also ironing because in 1961, people still ironed clothing as a matter of course. Ironing is a process that smooths out wrinkles and puts creases, such as pleats, in where they belong. It is basically a process that manages and regulates fabric that has become unruly.

Emily's mother has been asked to make time to come to school because Emily is "a youngster who needs help," a youngster who needs managing. In this sense, the iron and the dress are symbolic of Emily's troubled past and need of managing. The iron then represents those who try to manage her.

Emily's mother is not included in the iron symbol. For one thing, she is contemplating the request for her time and the unidentified individual who made the request, which separates her from those who wish to manage Emily. For another thing, she describes herself as encouraging Emily and trying, if perhaps failing, to breach the separation between them.

In the end, after Emily's mother's contemplation of managing an unruly young woman through the process of managing unruly fabric, she comes to the conclusion that Emily doesn't need managing because she is more than an unruly outer shell of a person. Emily's mother concludes that with greater help to know herself, she will see that she is more than a empty garment that has become crumpled or unruly.

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