Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” tells the story of a mother’s relationship with her eldest daughter in a stark and dramatic fashion that has impressed critics and fellow writers with its originality and accessibility. The story is told entirely in the voice of the mother, but nonetheless manages to convey a dynamic relationship between two believable characters without resorting to cliche and sentimentality.
Structure and Point of View
The story is told through the interior monologue of an unnamed mother as she irons her daughter Emily’s dress. The catalyst for the monologue appears to be a request from an unspecified source, perhaps a school guidance counselor, for help in understanding the narrator’s troubled daughter. The monologue consists of the narrator’s fantasies, presented in a stream-of-consciousness manner, about what she might say in response to such a request.
Such a narrative structure not only provides a dramatic context to draw the reader’s attention, but it also serves to quickly establish the story’s confrontational tone and introduce the narrator’s repressed, frustrated character. Olsen’s challenge is announced in the very first sentence, with the unusual appearance of the second person pronoun: “what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” The narrator begins questioning the validity of her own perspective on her daughter’s psyche early in the story and wonders whether what she has to say “matters or … explains anything.”
In addition to the insights the narrator shares with readers directly, her character is also revealed indirectly through the occasional interruptions of her monologue, which are caused by pressing demands from her daily life: “Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him.” In the end, the central paradox in the character of the narrator is also illustrated through the story’s dramatic narrative “frame”: she in fact has many insights into herself and her daughter, but she chooses not to express them either to her daughter or to whomever asked her to “come in and talk.”
Language and Imagery
In “I Stand Here Ironing,” Olsen attempts to portray experiences and characters not typically given expression in literature. Perhaps her most admirable technical accomplishments lie in her ability to use language and imagery to believably portray the voice and thoughts of an intelligent but overburdened mother. Olsen intersperses the story with run-on sentences and expressive coinages, such as “I think of our others in their three- and four-year oldness.” These techniques evoke the difficulty the narrator has answering unanswerable questions and imposing order upon the chaos that has been her daily life.
Simple images from the world familiar to the narrator are used to express complex emotions. The most notable of these is the act of ironing referred to in the story’s title. Associated with the social role of women, ironing—a back-and-forth motion that results in the elimination of wrinkles—becomes a symbol for the imperfections and frustrated desires of the narrator. One passage suggests that this also represents a less sentimental and more realistic image of motherhood: Emily muses that if she were to paint her mother’s portrait, the pose Whistler had used in painting his mother’s portrait—seated in a chair—wouldn’t do. “I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board,” she says. The act of ironing epitomizes the endless tasks that have beset the narrator. She expresses the hope that her daughter can transcend such frustration, rise above her circumstances and learn “that she is more than the dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Tillie Olsen, Published by Gale, 1997.