I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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What is the theme of "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen?

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In the short story by Olsen, "I Stand Here Ironing ," one of the themes is a mother's regret. As the mother stands at her ironing board pressing a dress, she recounts the childhood of her eldest daughter, Emily. Emily was the most beautiful baby out of the five...

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children. However, after the father left, leaving a note that told his wife he no longer desired to share "want with us" (para 8), Emily's life became complicated. The mother recollects the times she had to send Emily away, so she could make a living. Through these absences, Emily's beauty vanished, and she became thin and "foreign-looking," like her father.

The mother regrets the years that have passed while she and her daughter grew further apart. However, even though the mother regrets those years, by the end of the story, she admits to herself that she did the best she could, given the situation. The mother rationalizes that Emily was simply a product of her environment, which included the war and uncertain economic times. There seems no clear cut resolution by the end of the story as the mother hopes that Emily is not the dress she is ironing; that is, she is not "helpless before the iron" (last para).

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The major theme of the story is a search for understanding. During the entire story, the mother is searching for reasons why she is not close to her daughter. As she irons, a metaphor for trying to iron out her problems, she recounts her difficult life and the limited time she had to spend focused on her daughter because she had to earn a living. She is searching for answers about why her life turned out the way it did. As she irons, she begins to see that she allowed life and circumstances to shape her; she did not try to shape her own life. She was like the dress she is ironing. It just sits on the ironing board waiting to be pressed over. Her daughter, she hopes will realize ''that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

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What is the theme of "I Stand Here Ironing"?

Written in the 1960s, this was one of the first stories to deal with the ambivalence of motherhood just after the age when motherhood and family were seen as a woman's highest goal and just before the feminist movement began to change the way women felt about themselves and their own identities. The narrator of the story obviously loves her daughter but doesn't seem to understand her. She has faced many other obstacles in her life (poverty, single parenthood) and somehow her relationship with her daughter got pushed out of the way. Now, when the girl is 19-years-old, the mother is frustrated that her relationship and understanding of her daughter is so limited. Women during that age were supposed to be motherly types, yet the narrator seems to both acknowledge and regret the fact that she put other things first. This explains the popularity of the story over 40 years after it was published because many women today face the same conflicts as the narrator.

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