The Great Depression
The narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing” describes her daughter as “a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.” Though the story was published in 1961, it too has been seen as having ties to the Depression era and to the socially conscious literature of the thirties. Regardless of whether Olsen’s work in 1961 bears much resemblance to writings from the 1930s, the Great Depression remained very much a part of the American psyche long after the decade was over. Even during the more prosperous 1950s and 1960s, many people still remembered the severe deprivations caused by the country’s disastrous economic collapse in the 1930s and lived in fear of repeating the experience. Differences in values present in those old enough to remember the Depression years and values held by children too young to remember those years have been cited as a major cause of the “generation gap” that . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
In Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” an unnamed narrator reflects on her somewhat distant relationship with her eldest daughter. It is a story about the search—by both mother and daughter—for individual identity despite the limitations imposed by a history of poverty and other social constraints. While it examines the difficulties a mother and daughter have in finding identities separate from one another and independent from social expectations about women, it raises questions about the nature of intimacy itself.
The Search for Identity
The issue of the boundary between the individual identities of the mother and daughter is raised early in the story. The narrator seems disturbed by the idea of being asked to help someone understand her daughter:”You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has . . . Read More
Nineteen-year-old Emily is the eldest child of the narrator. Her mother regrets much about Emily’s upbringing, saying: “She was a child seldom smiled at.” Her father deserted the family less than a year after her birth, during the worst of the Depression. While her mother struggled to make ends meet, young Emily was handed over to a variety of temporary caretakers. As young girl, Emily was considered homely—”thin and dark and foreignlooking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blonde replica of Shirley Temple”—and she became shy and passive. After her mother’s second marriage, Emily was eclipsed by her younger, more self-assured half-sister Susan. To her mother’s surprise, Emily has developed a talent for comedic acting—a “deadly clowning”—which wins her an audience, but she seems to lack motivation. At the end of the story, . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez published his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, both the author and the writing technique he used, magic realism, were catapulted into the international spotlight. Magic realism (the term was first used in 1925 by a German art critic, and about twenty-five years later, it was rediscovered by a Caribbean writer) explores the overlap between fantasy and reality and thus reveals the mysterious elements hidden in day-to-day life. As a literary style, it was born in Latin America where writers such as Garcia Marquez, who were raised hearing tales of mystical folklore, were open to viewing the world through a more imaginative, less rigid lens than “realistic” writers. Magic realism creates a different type of background for the events of the day to play themselves out against, one in which the inhabitants are accepting of extraordinary occurrences and thus forge amongst themselves a new set of shared beliefs. Combining elements of the . . . Read More
During the period of European imperialism following Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Colombia’s indigenous tribes could offer little resistance to Spanish conquest. For the most part, these tribes amalgamated (intermarried and lived together in society) with their Spanish conquerors. Consequently, much of the Colombian population consists of mestizos—people of both native Colombian and Spanish origin.
A former part of the Spanish colonial empire named New Granada that gained its freedom from Spain in 1810, Colombia suffered from several civil wars throughout the nineteenth century. By the mid-1800s Liberals and Conservatives comprised the opposing political groups that would subject Colombia to frequent and bloody revolutions. Severe fighting reached its height between 1899 and 1903, a period known as the War of a Thousand Days. During this time there was a continuing separation between wealthy . . . Read More
The arrival of a large drowned man on their shores inspires the imagination of the inhabitants of a tiny fishing village.
Point of View
The simplicity with which “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” is told conceals a rather complex narrative technique. The villagers, finding a drowned man on their beach, begin to admire and then love him as they prepare him for proper burial. The third-person narrator, however, only describes the man through the eyes of the villagers. It is their conceptualization of the drowned man, not any objective viewpoint, that the reader receives. Furthermore, the point of view shifts away from the villagers at certain times in the narrative, such as when the imaginary hostess worries about her chair and he “never knowing perhaps that the ones who said don’t go, Esteban, at least wait till the coffee’s ready, were the ones who later on would whisper the big boob finally left, . . . Read More
When a large drowned man washes up on the beach of a tiny fishing village, his presence inspires the villagers to create fantastic stories about him and to improve their own lives as well.
Myth and the Human Condition
“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” illustrates the collective human tendency to create myths. The form of the story makes clear that the “long ago and far away” setting of the story takes precedence over a reading of the story that places the village in an exact location or time period. Myths often center around heroic figures whose special powers or deeds create an ideal that members of that society may attempt to live up to. Esteban becomes such an ideal for the villagers, who are so inspired by him that they plant beautiful gardens and improve their homes “so that Esteban’s memory could go everywhere without bumping into beams.” Thus, this once dirty and diminished . . . Read More
Although he is a stranger—and a dead stranger at that—Esteban plays a central role in the villagers’ lives. He does not speak, yet his face and his body speak for him, telling the villagers how sorry he is to be such a bother, large and cumbersome as he is. They intuit that he is kind and considerate, yet authoritative enough to command the fish to jump into his boat when he is fishing. The women of the village find him “speaking” to them in other ways, making them compare their husbands to his splendid size and handsome features. His presence in the village forces them to examine their lives and to work together to beautify their village. Esteban exists, then, not in the body of the dead man the village children have found on the beach, but in the minds of the villagers themselves, who are inspired to better their lives.
The inhabitants of this tiny fishing . . . Read More