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, Emily chooses to sleep through her exams and quips that “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit.” Though her mother is convinced that “all that is in her will not bloom,” she expresses hope that Emily may nevertheless know “that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
The narrator in “I Stand Here Ironing” is never described physically nor referred to by name. Her identity is revealed through the explanation she gives of her relationship with her eldest daughter, Emily. The narrator has endured a great deal of hardship in her life. She was deserted at age nineteen by her first husband, less than a year after Emily’s birth, during the worst of the Depression. Money has always been short, and the necessity of working long hours made it impossible for her to be sufficiently attentive to her daughter. She remarried and had more children, to whom she feels she has been a better mother. She seems to regret much about how her first daughter was raised and feels that, as a result of her shortcomings as a mother, “all that is in [Emily] will not bloom.” Readers have had varying reactions to the narrator’s final resolution about her daughter—to “let her be.” While some see passive resignation in this statement, others see it in a more positive light as an acknowledgement of her daughter’s independence and ability to “find her own way.”
Susan is Emily’s younger half-sister. According to their mother, Susan is a better student than Emily, as well as better looking and more popular: Emily’s “younger sister seemed all that she was not.” Emily is competitive with Susan and feels slighted when their mother is more attentive to Susan. The mother feels that because Susan was raised in a more nurturing environment than Emily, it was inevitable that Susan would outshine her older half-sister.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Tillie Olsen, Published by Gale, 1997.