"I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen
An analytical Summary
"I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." The simplicity of this sentence introduces us, the reader, to the complexity of the narrative situation. Readers are introduced to a woman who appears to be having a subconscious monologue. However, it becomes clear that she is talking to some teacher or school counselor.
This story revolves around a woman who is revisiting her past and the nineteen years of her daughter, Emily's, life. The woman is very sensitive in her thoughts and we get the impression that she is very remorseful of the life she has given her daughter, "I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped."
The mother's thoughts begin with the memory of Emily as a baby and how beautiful she had been, "She was a beautiful baby." She makes a point in the conversation to comment that it might be difficult for a person who sees Emily now to understand that her current, lovely appearance came only after years in which the girl thought herself ugly and worried about how she looked.
Throughout the story we come to understand the hardships this woman must have endured. After all, "it was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression" and to be a single, working mother during that time was going against everything socially acceptable. The women were supposed to be the caregivers and the men were the providers.
There is a central metaphor in this story, the mother's ironing. This metaphor is significant because it belongs almost exclusively to the domestic world of women. On a more figurative level, mothering is also an act of ironing, of smoothing out problems, of making things right and ordered.
The story ends with the mother's conclusion to "let her be." This is not an abdication of her parental rights; rather it is recognition that her powers as a mother cannot control...