“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen is a short story about a mother who ponders how she has raised her first daughter. The author involves a reader into the world of painful revelations, unanswered questions and reflection on one of the most controversial aspects of life – motherhood. Blunt straightforward confession reveals determination and bitter realism that borders on sense of guilt and deep regret. The context of the Great Depression period emphasizes the atmosphere of exposure and susceptibility. By words of the given story Olsen appeals to parents and children, those who try to strike a balance in upbringing and gain a foothold in life or have at least once faced the fact wisdom comes too late.
The theme of the literary work is presupposed by an unfavorable time span of the American history, namely the Great Depression. The United States were on the verge of taking a new historic turn. This instability and confusion is reflected in one short but meaningful sentence, “It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression.” (Olsen 293). Capitalism failed to provide population with the expected reward. People survived on dead-end jobs. A mood of gloom and despair was strengthening. Political and social contradictions determined the fate of one of the main characters and, at the same time, the narrator of the story. Becoming a mother at the age of nineteen and being abandoned by her husband “who could no longer endure”, the woman had to face severe reality of life. The country was headed into economic crisis so her unsteady income barely enabled her to survive. Having no choice, she had to stay strong and to provide herself and her children with what she could get. The bitter irony is traced in a seemingly playful remark of Emily, her first daughter, another central character, “Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” (Olsen 297). Once you chose a way, you have to keep it. It is very difficult to break away from the life cycle you have stuck to: trying to save money, looking after children, ironing. Total alienation reminded that you are the only one you may rely on.
The main theme of the story is the hardship of motherhood. Olsen depicted it realistically, bluntly, without pink glasses. A woman who tried to supply her children in terms of physical needs realized that all her efforts were in vain with respect to emotional support and moral connection. Feeling that was torturing her deep inside suddenly came to the surface. Having received a note, obviously from a school teacher, with the request to help to understand Emily, the mother had to face the bitter truth, “She [Emily] has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.” (Olsen 292). What did she feel? What could she do? Did she fail as a mother? The narrator felt a burden of guilt for having left gaps in the up-bringing process. From the point of view of representation, the text is the first person’s narration, i.e. a monologue, a kind of confession to yourself. Olsen presented it through the prism of retrospection, analysis, range of memories recalled by the mother. “It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them – too late for Emily.” (Olsen 293). She recollected year after year having so many stories to tell about. She remembered all the difficulties her daughter suffered from – illnesses, unrequited love, problems at school, just feeling different – but the question is if she was there for Emily when she needed it? The mother tried to catch one end of the rope, yet she lost another one. Now it is too late to make up for lost time, “And the answer is always the same: "No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother."” (Olsen 294). In spite of the difficulties, the woman tried to do everything for the sake of her children, especially Emily. The signs of her motherly love may be demonstrated in the following sample: “After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better.” (Olsen 293). However, attempts of the mother to support her children on the opposite drove them apart. She was obliged to send her daughter to relatives or the clinic, which again proves how poor the financial situation was.
Both the mother and the daughter needed each other. Let us look at Emily’s childish naive waiting, “I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster.” (Olsen 294). The clock that “talked loud” (Olsen 294) and was thrown away because it scared Emily may also symbolize the heaviness of times they were experiencing, which was flowing too densely and slowly. Furthermore, all the excuses about being sick which showed Emily’s unwillingness to go to school and mother’s approval (even though she knew the sickness did not exist) prove that they lacked unity, family tranquility and emotional comfort. Was it really insurmountable – “the invisible wall "Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection."”? (Olsen 294).
The narrator understood how her daughter felt. She had to sweep under the carpet all the discrepancies since there was simply nothing she could do. She could not spend nights with Emily when she was ill so as not to spread the disease. Emily could not read mother’s letters during her stay in clinic because there was no space for private belongings. The mother could not influence the fact Emily was a black sheep so long as society established certain patterns her daughter did not comply with. Even when Emily discovered her great talent she could not help her to go further, “You ought to do something about her with a gift like that – but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her.” (Olsen 297). She went with the flow of life and her apathy may be justified. She could not overstep herself.
Naturally, Emily is affected by the decline in the state and lack of mother’s presence. Moreover, inborn predisposition to different diseases, low academic achievements and her appearance made a negative contribution to her self-esteem, “She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple.”(Olsen 295). She lacked a strong bond with her mother, true friends, at least somebody to share with. In addition to this Emily had a sister who was a total opposition to her, “Susan, the second child, Susan, golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not.” (Olsen 296). All these conditions were stirred up by social and economic unsteadiness and poured into the depths of despair: “In a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they [midterms] won’t matter a bit.” (297). How hopeless should everything be when a 19-year-old girl accepts the fact about probable death for granted? Olsen answered this question: “She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.” (298).
Last but not least, the key symbol of the story is an iron. Olsen foregrounded this element yet in the title, as well as in the form of a literary frame – both the beginning and the ending contain the same image – ironing. On the one hand, iron stays for daily working routine and household chores of the mother which kept the characters apart from each other. She was standing there ironing and reaching a conclusion that she was fated not to form a deep affinity with her daughter. Olsen emphasized the lost cause with rhetorical questions, “Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key?” (292). The narrator’s wisdom came too late and her only wish was that Emily did not repeat her mistakes, “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” (Olsen 298). On the other hand, one may draw a parallel between hard metal base of iron and tough times for the family as a representative of the whole country.
To conclude, Olsen wanted to show how difficult motherhood is and how scarcity of mother’s attention may affect a young ripening girl. Therefore, when there is time “to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total” (Olsen 292), you do not have to feel that the burden of everyday duties has separated you and your child. Do not let the iron of routine and financial hardship flatten out your aspirations, strength and love.
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