I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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What is the central idea common to Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" and Paley's "A Conversation with my Father"?

The only thing I have come to is the father in Paley's story is fixed upon the woman in his daughter's story's limitation and undeniable tragedy; this is comparable to Olsen's opposing view on her daughter, Emily.

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In accord with your assessment, in an interview with the Shenadoah Review, Grace Paley, author of "A Conversation with my Father," declares that the story 

...is about generational attitudes about life, and it's about history...[The narrator] was really speaking for people who had more open chances. And so she brought that into literature, because we don't just hop out of our time so easily.

Likewise, "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen is concerned with the open-endedness of life.  In a conversation with a school official, Emily's mother is unable to account for "all that life that has happened outside me, beyond me."  She says that she will never "total it all."  There is too much that Emily has kept to herself and too much that the mother has learned too late.  But, the mother is resigned:

She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear. 

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-- 

In the case of Paley's story, the father, an immigrant from Russia has a different perspective on life from that of his daughter; he is similar to the school official who has a preordained idea of the structure of life.  That is, he feels that the woman's action of becoming an addict foretells her ultimate tragedy because in his life in Russia there were "no choices," as Paley relates.

Similar to the mother of "I Stand Here Ironing" is the author daughter of "A Conversation with My Father."  Declaring that her daughter is "a child of her age," she is "more than this dres on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."  Emily can change the direction of her life, she can make choices.  The daughter who writes the story for her father contends that people can change careers; things are "of small consequence."  But, the father, like the school official, believes everything in life is "of great consequence."

Clearly, one's perspective is determined by one's time and generation: "We just don't just hop out of our time so easily."  While the Russian father does not understand, Emily's mother whose metaphoric ironing takes her back and forth, back and forth through time, does comprehend that her daughter must be perceived through the open-ended lens of her time, as she is still "becoming" just as the boy's mother, who is only forty, still has time to improve her life.

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