I Stand Here Ironing, Tillie Olsen: Summary & Analysis

‘I Stand Here Ironing’: Plot Summary

The short story 'I Stand Here Ironing' by Tillie Olsen, originally titled 'Help Her to Believe', was first published in Prairie Schooner in 1956 and later included in Olsen's collection 'Tell Me a Riddle' in 1961. The story is presented as a monologue by a mother who reflects on her relationship with her daughter, Emily, while ironing clothes.

A Mother's Reflection

The story begins with the mother contemplating a meeting requested by one of Emily's teachers. The teacher wants to discuss Emily's situation, and the mother acknowledges that she doesn't possess all the answers to help her daughter navigate life. She reflects on the beauty of Emily's infancy and reveals that Emily's father abandoned them when she was young. The mother had to work and leave Emily with a neighbor, experiencing the challenges of the Great Depression.

As Emily grew older, she faced adversity. The mother recalls Emily's struggle at nursery school, where the teacher was harsh and cruel. Despite these difficulties, Emily attended nursery school dutifully. However, the mother ponders the cost of such obedience and questions the toll it may have taken on Emily's well-being.

Challenges and Changes

The mother notices that Emily finds it challenging to smile, although her teacher acknowledges her natural comedic talent. Due to the mother's circumstances, she had to send Emily away multiple times, but when she found a new partner, Emily returned home to meet her new "daddy." When Emily was seven, she contracted measles and was sent away for convalescence. Upon her return, Emily was thinner, less affectionate, and developed self-consciousness about her appearance.

Emily struggled to form close friendships and grappled with asthma. The mother reflects on how Emily often had to take on the role of a mother to her younger siblings, particularly during the years of World War II. Despite the challenges, Emily's talent as a performer emerged when she won a school talent competition. However, this newfound recognition led to a sense of imprisonment, as she was singled out for her talent rather than embraced for her individuality.

A Final Reflection

As the mother continues ironing, Emily interrupts her thoughts with a lighthearted comment about the ironing process. The mother inquires about Emily's exams, to which Emily dismissively responds, believing that the impending atomic war renders them insignificant. The story concludes with the mother acknowledging that she can never fully express everything about Emily. Despite the hardships, the mother affirms her daughter's worth beyond societal expectations and encourages Emily to be her own person, free from limitations.

‘I Stand Here Ironing’: Analysis

Tillie Olsen's 'I Stand Here Ironing' offers a profound exploration of adolescence and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. Although the narrator is the mother, the story provides insights into the experiences of both the mother and her teenage daughter, Emily. Olsen skillfully depicts the ways in which their identities are intertwined and shaped by their shared experiences.

Forging Identities in Relation to Each Other

Olsen's approach allows readers to observe Emily's coming-of-age journey through the lens of her mother. The narrator acknowledges her limited understanding of her daughter's identity and behaviors, dismissing the notion of possessing a singular 'key' to unlock Emily's true self. This narrative technique underscores the mother and daughter's ongoing process of identity formation, their interconnectedness, and the complexities of their relationship.

Emily, who has shouldered various roles in her childhood, including that of a surrogate mother to her younger siblings, discovers her sense of self in the realm of drama and theater. Paradoxically, her identity is rooted in the absence of a fixed 'self,' as she immerses herself in performing different roles. This exploration of identity is influenced by her experiences and the multifaceted roles she has played within her family.

Motherhood, Parenting, and Strains

The mother character in 'I Stand Here Ironing' reflects on the impact of her multiple roles within the family and the strain it has placed on Emily's upbringing. As the absent father figure leaves a void, the mother assumes the responsibilities of both breadwinner and homemaker. This dynamic highlights the challenges faced by single mothers and the resulting effects on the mother-child relationship.

Moreover, the story situates the domestic sphere within the broader social and historical context of the Great Depression. The economic hardships of the time likely contributed to the father's abandonment, placing increased pressure on both Emily and her mother to adapt their roles. Olsen illustrates how external circumstances, such as the historical context, shape the family's dynamics and impact their experiences.

Interplay of Home and Society

While 'I Stand Here Ironing' centers on the domestic sphere and motherhood, Olsen underscores that the home does not exist in isolation. The title itself alludes to the mother's engagement in a traditional maternal task expected during the 1950s. However, the story emphasizes that the domestic realm is not separate from the broader social landscape. The narrator recognizes the influence of external factors, such as the Great Depression, on the father's abandonment and the subsequent role shifts within the family unit.

Olsen's narrative highlights the complex interplay between individual identity, societal expectations, and the impact of historical circumstances on motherhood and adolescence. The story invites readers to reflect on the intricate dynamics of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of navigating adolescence, and the ways in which external factors shape personal identity and family dynamics.

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