Analysis of Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing

“I Stand Here Ironing,” first published in Prairie Schooner as “Help Her to Believe,” became the opening story of Tillie Olsen’s collection Tell Me a Riddle (1961). It is a mother’s monologue, instigated by a school counselor’s request that she go in to discuss her daughter Emily. She recalls the obstacles she faced as a single mother during the great depression and their inevitable consequences for her firstborn. She was forced to send Emily to live with her in-laws on two different occasions when she could not find work. When she was working and they were able to be together, she had to leave her daughter in inadequate day care with indifferent caretakers. She regrets the effect of her worries on Emily, especially when she compares Emily’s good behavior to the stubborn demands of the younger children in the family. Even after her second marriage, when circumstances improved, mother and daughter were again separated when she was convinced to send Emily, who was not recovering well from the measles, away to convalesce. But the convalescent home’s rules, which restricted parental contact and discouraged close attachments, only taught Emily isolation.

Tillie Olsen/Wikimedia

Thin and awkward as a young girl, labeled “slow” at school, Emily faced difficulties and disappointments in her peer world that were exacerbated by her family’s frequent moves. She resented her younger, more attractive, and more outgoing sister, Susan. She had to help care for her four younger siblings, whose needs often took precedence over her, leaving little time for her to attend to her schoolwork or for her mother to attend to her. Forced to become self-sufficient at an early age, she learned not to need attention and grew to shun her mother’s efforts to nurture her.

Her talent as an actor gained her attention and success: Audiences loved her humor and charisma. But her mother lacked the means to support her daughter’s talent with acting lessons, and Emily was left to develop her gift on her own. The mother knows Emily probably will never realize her full potential. Emily’s happiness when she bounds in at the end of the story reassures her mother, but the fatalism of her daughter’s final remark—that she is not going to take her midterm examinations because “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit” (11)—depresses her. Within her realistic resignation to the circumstances of her daughter’s life lies her decision “Let her be” and her hope “Help her to know,” she asks, “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron” (12).

Bauer, Helen Pike. “‘A Child of Anxious, Not Proud, Love’: Mother and Daughter in Tillie Olsen’s ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’ ” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1989.
Coiner, Constance. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Frye, Joanne S. “ ‘I Stand Here Ironing’: Motherhood as Experience and Metaphor.” In The Critical Response to Tillie Olsen, edited by Kay Hoyle Nelson and Nancy Huse. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.
———. Tillie Olsen: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1995. Olsen, Tillie. “I Stand Here Ironing.” In Tell Me a Riddle. Chicago: Lippincott, 1961.
Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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