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 happened outside of me, beyond me.” Yet, even as the narrator questions “what good” her insights into her daughter are, she also lays claim to a special knowledge of her daughter, more complete than that of any hypothetical questioner: “You did not know her all those years she was considered homely.”
The story presents the identities of both mother and daughter as incomplete, still in the process of “becoming.” The adolescent daughter is still struggling to find independence, and her guilt-ridden mother is still working through her assessment of her role. The shy daughter appears to have talent as an actress, much to the surprise of her mother who is prompted to wonder,”Was this Emily?” The daughter becomes “Somebody,” it seems, by pretending on stage to be someone else. Yet, even in the apparent freedom Emily achieves through acting, she is still “imprisoned” by the public nature of acting and by the people in her audience whose applause “wouldn’t let [her] go.” Her mother feels at a loss for how to nurture this talent in her daughter, and readers are left wondering whether Emily’s gift will end up being left unexpressed— “clogged and clotted” inside of her.
The mother’s desire to define herself also seems unfulfilled in the end. She concludes that the task of “dredging the past” and sifting through “all that compounds a human being” is too much for her. Convinced that she will never be able to “total it all,” she resolves not to heed the request that she “come in and talk” to the school official. Her thoughts about her daughter and about her own role as a mother remain private, communicated only to the reader.
Limitations and Opportunities
A deep sense of deprivation pervades “I Stand Here Ironing.” The mother describes numerous limitations she has had to confront: poverty, abandonment by her first husband, housework, and motherhood itself. The many hardships in her life seem to compound one another and even impair her ability to tell the story: “And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again.” The limited resources of the mother limit the daughter as well. The mother feels helpless to encourage her daughter’s budding talent as an actress. The mother seems to blame her own youth and distractedness for the fact that”little will come” of her daughter’s potential.
Both daughter and mother appear to be apathetic at the end of the story: the daughter toward her future, the mother toward her own perceived failures. The daughter decides to sleep late despite having exams the next morning because “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit.” The mother, exhausted from “dredging the past,” resolves to “[l]et her be.” Yet the story also presents evidence that there is at least a desire to overcome this apathy. The image of the mother’s iron, which frames the story, provides an interesting emblem of this desire. In the first sentence, the iron, along with the narrator’s thoughts, “moves tormented back and forth.” In the last sentence, she articulates her hope that her daughter will be able to break free and learn “that she is more than this 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.