I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

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How does the historical context in "I Stand Here Ironing" help the author convey the theme of resilience amidst adversity?

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The author chose the particular historical context of the story to get across one of her key themes, that even when life beats us down, we are valuable and worthy of a chance to rise above our circumstances. This is demonstrated through the conflicts which the narrator faces, from being a young mother who doesn't have the support of the baby's father to eking out a survival during the Great Depression.

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In many ways, "I Stand Here Ironing" has a rather ordinary setting. A mother performs routine household work in a rather typical home as she ponders her own maternal successes and shortcomings. Yet we also learn about this story's historical context through various details in the story.

The narrator writes, "I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression." This places the early events of the story in the 1930s, at a time when much of the country languished under extreme poverty and when opportunities were scarce. Circumstances were even more dire for young girls who found themselves left alone with children to raise, deserted by men who "could no longer endure … sharing want with [them]."

The narrator thus faces some impossible choices. She finds work herself to support her daughter, which requires leaving Emily with various people. Emily sobs desperately due the separation from her mother, and those cries continue to haunt the narrator. Her financial situation becomes more dire, and she is forced to leave her child with her father's family for a while. Later, she enrolls Emily in a "nursery school" because it provides a "parking place" for her while she works. Although not ideal, her temporary separation from Emily provides the time the narrator needs to generate income for both of them—a sacrifice Emily's own father is unwilling to make.

The setting is also significant in Emily's health struggles. After she contracts red measles, she fails to return to health. Her mother notices that Emily is "skeleton thin" and that her appetite is dismal. At this time, a typical treatment for such children was to place them in convalescent homes, which is where the narrator sends Emily. Charity-run, this facility's methods defy many practices of quality medical care by today's standards. For example, parents are forbidden from touching their own children, and Emily's own preferences are not considered as they try to increase her appetite, serving her only runny eggs or lumpy mush for breakfast. The narrator has to fight to get Emily released from the home once it proves incapable of improving Emily's health. Yet in this struggle, she also demonstrates both her successful reliance on a mother's intuition and her ability to successfully intervene in matters of her child's health.

Later, the narrator has more children and less time for all of them, particularly at the beginning of World War II. She mentions that her evenings are spent writing "V-mail," or "victory mail" to her new husband. She is forced to rely on her oldest daughter's assistance as she attempts to care for all of the children, and they both work themselves to exhaustion each day with "so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down." World War II was a time of great uncertainty with new technological threats on the horizon, particularly with the use of the atomic bomb. The setting reflects the way political powers shape even the rather ordinary lives of mothers who are primarily focused on the needs of their own children.

The narrator's life is riddled with conflict, from the lack of support inside her home to the dire economic situation she faces. The start of a new world war exemplifies a larger setting of a world that is increasingly destructive and violent. Yet the narrator never falters in her resolve to bring order and hope to herself and her children. She pieces together their next steps with the best information she has at her disposal and utilizes every available resource to try to improve their outcomes. Her steadfast determination in the face of constant conflict speaks to the power of a woman to create her own destiny in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The narrator proves that she is capable of overcoming life's trials because she is resilient and resourceful.

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