Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” is a monologue, a speech delivered by a narrator with whom the reader comes to identify. In the first few lines the narrator explains what she is doing—ironing—and what she is responding to—a request that she meet with a school official about her daughter, now nineteen years old. The occasion prompts her to recall her daughter’s childhood and the effect she had on the girl as her mother. All the while she continues to iron, drawing parallels for herself and the reader between telling the story and ironing the wrinkles from a dress.
At the outset the mother confesses her powerlessness over her daughter, asking “You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key?” She is worried that if she is asked to recall those early days of parenting she “will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.” Despite these fears, the mother begins at the beginning: “She was a beautiful baby.”
Gradually the mother reveals the details of her daughter Emily’s childhood, and a pattern of poverty and abandonment emerges. She was only nineteen herself when Emily was born. Her husband abandoned her, and she had no access to welfare or other services. Eventually she was forced to “bring her to [the father’s] family and leave her.” Emily was two years old before her mother could afford to come and pick her up. The little girl dutifully attended nursery school with “never a direct protest, never rebellion.” As she recollects these days, the mother wonders about the long term effects of that kind of obedience: “what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?”
The narrator recalls how different Emily was from her siblings; she did not smile or laugh easily. The narrator had loved her as much as the others but had not yet learned to show it. Even with a “new daddy” the somber child’s troubles were not over. She developed a terrible case of measles that isolated her from her mother and siblings and caused her to be sent to a convalescent home in the country. She did not get better; instead she became even thinner and sadder. The mother vividly recalls the scene during their brief visits: “The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard, and between them the invisible wall: ‘Not to be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.'”
After eight months of convalescence, Emily returned home thin, frail, and resistant to physical affection. Her adolescence provided little relief. Her mother remembers her as “thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every girl was supposed to look or thought she should look like a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple. “But one day in the midst of”that terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy,” Emily called her mother from school, weeping with joy and fear. She had taken her mother’s advice and had entered the talent show and had won: “suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.”
This memory returns the narrator to the beginning of her train of thought. What is she supposed to do with a talent like that, “the control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives”? Emily herself interrupts her mother’s thoughts at this point, dismissing her mother’s anxieties with a quick kiss and teasing her for spending so much time ironing. Emily has no concern for the future, especially tomorrow’s exams. Her mother, however, has “been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful,” she “cannot endure it.”
Finally, Emily’s mother takes stock of Emily’s life and confesses “I will never total it all.” But she does total it all, reducing her rambling monologue to one terse paragraph. Finally she decides on a course of action: “let her be,” and adds only the hope that Emily will come to know “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” In other words, that she is more than the sum of her experiences.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Tillie Olsen, Published by Gale, 1997.