“I Stand Here Ironing” is the first story in Tillie Olsen’s awarding-winning collection, Tell Me a Riddle, which was first published in 1961 when Olsen was in her late forties. In this story, which is considered her most autobiographical, Olsen breaks new literary ground in creating the voice of the mother-narrator and in crafting a narrative structure that mirrors as well as describes female experience. Like the four other stories in the collection,”I Stand Here Ironing” portrays the “aching hardships of poverty and the themes of exile or exclusion.” This story, according to critics Mickey Pearlman and Abby Werlock in Tillie Olsen, “presents us with the inexorable riddle of human existence: it paradoxically comprises not merely the endurance of poverty, bigotry, illness, and pain but the ultimate ability to transcend these.”
Olsen is one of those authors whose life is so integral to her writing that any reading of her fiction is greatly enriched by comparisons between her life experiences and the fictional lives she creates. Olsen’s critics, and Olsen herself in numerous speeches and interviews, have identified the three consuming passions of her life: politics, writing, and mothering. Her remarkable contribution to literature and to the advancement of women’s causes, is her insistence that all three of these are connected: that motherhood always has a political dimension, and that politics cannot be separated from families, for example. What she also recognizes, however, is that the material conditions of women’s lives prevent them from engaging in all three of these issues simultaneously; that political activism may disqualify one from motherhood; or that motherhood may consume the time and energy needed for writing. Twenty years separated Olsen’s initial convictions that “she must write,” and her first publications. In a 1971 speech, she explained that she “raised four children without household help… [and] worked outside the home in everyday jobs as well.” She further stated that during “the years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks.”
Alice Walker once praised Olsen for rescuing the lives of forgotten and invisible people, and other critics have agreed that Olsen’s work has preserved the histories of people who have traditionally been underrepresented in literature. Olsen’s career proves her conviction that “literature can be made out of the lives of despised people.” Walker also gave Olsen credit for her pioneering efforts to portray the lives of the poor, the working class, females, and non-whites well before these subjects received widespread attention. Critics have lauded “I Stand Here Ironing” for articulating a strong female voice, especially in the mother-narrator’s reflections on her life as a mother and a worker. The story is one of the best examples in literature—and certainly one of the first—to offer readers a glimpse into the lives of working-class women and families from a woman’s perspective. The dedication to her book of essays, Silences, reads in part: “For our silenced people, century after century after their being consumed in the hard everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made— as their other contributions—anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost.”
“I Stand Here Ironing” appears to be straightforward and simple on the first reading, but a closer study reveals a sophisticated narrative structure and a rich pattern of imagery. Olsen frequently mentioned in interviews that she was especially proud of the story’s first sentence, and wished she could duplicate its directness and economy: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” The apparent simplicity of this sentence belies the complexity of the narrative situation. Readers are introduced to a woman who appears to be addressing them directly. While it quickly becomes clear that the “you” of the first sentence is in fact some school official, readers are drawn into the narrative and soon come to occupy the position of sympathetic listener. The mother revisits the nineteen years of her daughters life, but the narrative remains anchored in the present because of the act of ironing. Like most women with children, her story is constantly interrupted by other demands and she is accustomed to “engaging in her private thoughts while simultaneously carrying on with household tasks and family interactions.” In fact, as her story reveals, her life has been interrupted by childbirth, desertion, poverty, numerous jobs, childcare, remarriage, frequent relocations, and five children. The pace and shape of this narrative is as familiar to the mother-narrator as is the act of ironing.
The mother’s ironing not only keeps us attuned to the immediacy of her experiences, it provides the central metaphor for the story. Like Alice Walker’s use of quilting in “Everyday Use,” Olsen’s ironing metaphor resonates both inside and outside the fictional boundaries of the story. On one level, the ironing metaphor is significant because it belongs almost exclusively to the domestic world of women. Not only is ironing women’s work, but more often than not women iron for other people. On a more figurative level, mothering is also an act of ironing, of smoothing out problems, of making things right and ordered. But as the story of her first child’s difficult upbringing unfolds, the iron begins to take on another, more sinister array of qualities. It is helpful here to recall another aspect of the author’s personal life that bears on the story. Olsen spent many of her working years in factories, and as a young girl worked as a tie presser, laboring long hours with hot and dangerous equipment under deplorable working conditions. She has dedicated her life to fighting for social change and the rights of the oppressed, especially workers. She also was an active socialist in the 1930s and even spent time in jail for her role in a factory strike. With these things in mind, the attentive reader listens to the mother struggling with “dredging the past,” knowing she will “never total it all.” The iron comes to represent, then, the pressures of outside forces and the accidents of history into which we are born, such as poverty, divorce, illness, and prejudice.
After she asks a total of thirteen questions, critics have noted, ranging from “how could I have known?” to “what was the cost?” the narrator suddenly pauses (we can imagine her lifting the iron from the board). She concludes that “all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.” The adjective heavy focuses our attention on the iron, which has not literally grown heavier, though the narrator may be fatigued. But on a figurative level, it has become heavier, taken on weight and significance as it has come to represent the pressures of outside forces on individuals in general and on Emily in particular. The mother’s conclusion to “let her be” is not an abdication of her parental rights; rather it is a recognition that her powers as a mother cannot control the oppressive forces of the outside world. She ends her monologue with a prayer-like hope that her daughter will come to know “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
This ending suggests that the narrator comes to this resolution not despite the fact that her life allows her time for introspection only while working, but because of the work. The twin process of ironing and thinking out loud about the past do not simply move “tormented back and forth,” but progress, from questions to answers, from unknown to known. Olsen’s narrator learns something in the act of ironing, and the iron itself has been a crucial part of that process, leading her to a fuller understanding of her motherhood through its insistent metaphorical meanings.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Tillie Olsen, Published by Gale, 1997.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997