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Tillie Olsen’s 1956 short story ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ was initially published in Prairie Schooner under the title ‘Help Her to Believe’. It was republished under its more famous title in Olsen’s 1961 collection Tell Me a Riddle. The story is presented in the style of a monologue spoken by a woman ironing clothes while contemplating her relationship with her daughter, Emily.
The story is set after World War II and during a period of great depression. Furthermore, it talks about the rising feminist movement in America as a reaction to the oppression of women. Furthermore, Olsen criticizes American society’s duties in the 1950s. In addition, the story emphasizes the economic turmoil of the time. The plot centers around Emily, a schoolgirl who had a poor and neglected upbringing. Her mother couldn’t offer her the utmost care because she was constantly working. They are also abandoned by the male authority of the home. As a result, Emily has a complicated personality.
About the Author
Tillie Olsen was an American writer and social activist recognized for her compelling fiction portraying the inner lives of the working poor, women, and minorities. She was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1912. Her interest in overlooked female authors inspired the formation of university-level women’s studies programs. Olsen gained to prominence among scholars, receiving nine honorary doctorates and funding from organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite the fact that she never completed high school, her modest output and complicated relationship with her past have left a mixed legacy.
The narrative opens with an anonymous figure (most likely a teacher or counselor at Emily’s school) inviting the narrator to come and talk about Emily, whom the official believes “needs help.” This request starts the narrator’s in-depth reflection on Emily’s early years and her own mothering duties. The narrator is ironing at home the entire while she shares her thoughts with the reader.
The narrator suggests at the beginning that she is overwhelmed by thinking about Emily’s life, but she nevertheless goes into great detail about it. The narrator describes Emily as a lovely baby who she adored from the day she was born. But soon after Emily is born, her father abandons the family, forcing the narrator to find employment and enroll Emily in the nursery. The family’s circumstances eventually deteriorate, and the narrator sends Emily to live with her father’s family for a long time.
The changes in Emily when she returns—being underweight, anxious, and prone to illness—make the narrator feel guilty and depressed. The narrator sends Emily to nursery school during the day, even though she knows Emily hates there. Emily makes an effort to avoid going to school, the narrator observes that Emily never openly protested, and she questions Emily about “what was the cost” of acting appropriately even if she was unhappy.
The narrator continues to recount Emily’s upbringing, during which she is serious, anxious, and frequently sick. The narrator recalls that Emily was particularly afraid of clocks. When Emily gets sick, the narrator and her new husband decide to send her to a convalescent hospital for eight months, where she ends up feeling far worse. When Emily comes home, she feels distant from her family and friends and is still very self-conscious about her looks and schooling.
The narrator has another daughter, Susan, who is happy and conventionally gorgeous. Emily hates Susan and is frequently in conflict with her, and the narrator is concerned she has failed to maintain the sisters’ relationship. Later, while the narrator is busy working and managing the house, Emily helps take care of three more younger siblings. Again, the narrator feels that those domestic responsibilities made Emily’s life difficult and worries that she, the narrator, was too busy showing her love for Emily.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator talks about Emily’s transition into an established comedian who performs at her high school and other events. Though Emily has discovered a way to express herself joyously, the narrator is still concerned that she will not be able to sustain Emily’s talent. Towards the end of the narrative, Emily herself walks into the room where the narrator has been ironing and thinking all along. The narrator finds herself wondering why anyone would be concerned about Emily, who is in a happy, talkative mood.
Emily makes a joke about dying in an atomic bomb attack and then goes to bed, leaving the narrator to face the full, complex truth of her daughter’s life. The narrator concludes that she will “never total it all,” but she hopes that even if Emily does not reach her full potential, she will have a richer and happier life than her mother.
In some respects, even though the story’s narrator is the mother rather than the young daughter, it makes sense to view “I Stand Here Ironing” as a story about teenage years and coming of age. One of the unique aspects of Olsen’s strategy is that she only lets us see the nineteen-year-old Emily through the eyes of her mother, who admits early on in the narrative that her own understanding of her daughter is limited and rejects the idea that she holds some sort of “key” to understanding Emily’s identity and behavior.
Additionally, this narrative stroke of genius serves another purpose. It transforms ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ into a story about both Emily and her mother, and how they are still constructing their identities in relation to one another. To help their mother out, Emily had to play many different “roles” as a child, most notably that of “mother” to her younger siblings. Emily finally finds her sense of self in the world of drama and theatre; ironically, her identity is built on the lack of a singular “self” that is truly hers.
Olsen’s mother character in ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ is curious about how the different elements of her daughter’s young existence should have led to this conclusion, this arrival at a sense of self that is, oddly, about erasing or deleting one’s genuine inner self for the sake of performance. She is interested in learning if her upbringing, as well as the genetics that caused Emily to start physically resembling her missing father, played a positive or negative influence in “making” Emily who she is.
Naturally, even though the narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing” is doing one of the domestic and maternal duties that a loving mother might be expected to do in the 1950s, she is aware that her efforts to perform multiple roles in the family have complicated Emily’s childhood. Just as Emily has had to play mother at times to support her mother, so has the narrator had to play father, especially when Emily’s own father abandoned them, leaving her to be both earner and housewife.
Olsen, therefore, depicts how the domestic environment of motherhood and the house does not exist in a vacuum, despite the fact that her story is, as the title implies, based on the environment of the home. At a time when so many men were struggling to fulfill the role of the breadwinner and put food on the table, the Great Depression of the 1930s, which is mentioned by the story’s narrator, may have been the cause of the father’s abandonment of his family, and both Emily and her mother have had to shift their respective roles of daughter and mother to become, at least part-time, “mother” and “father” respectively.
The story focuses on Emily’s reactions to war and the Great Depression, as well as the narrator’s attempt to provide the best care for her daughter. The sorrows of women are highlighted by the narrator’s experiences throughout the war and the development of feminism. The characters adopt new identities over time, with Emily becoming a comedian and the narrator growing more resilient. The challenges of single mothers are highlighted in the novel, along with Emily’s residual effects from the war and the Great Depression.