I Stand Here Ironing

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"I Stand Here Ironing" is a short story by Tillie Olsen. It was published in her short story collection Tell Me a Riddle in 1961.

Plot introduction[edit]

Point of view: The story is told from a mother's first person point of view. The narrator, a now remarried mother of five children, remembers the way she parented her first child, Emily. Her thoughts, and the story, are about what she would have done differently while parenting Emily if she had been more experienced and had better options. It is one of Olsen's most anthologized works.

Setting[edit]

The story moves through a fairly long timeframe; although it is set in the early 1950s, it looks back to the 1930s (the time of the Great Depression), and the 1940s (the time of the Second World War). The story is set in the working class home of the narrator, who comments that when her first child was born, they "were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth."

Plot summary[edit]

A mother is contacted by an unnamed "you" -- a guidance counselor at her daughter's school or a teacher -- informing her that her daughter is in trouble. While she irons, the mother works through her response to the summons, and has flashbacks to her daughter's childhood. Some of the things that the mother remembers in Emily's past include:

  • Her father left her when she was only eight months old;
  • Her mother worked for the first six years of Emily's life;
  • Emily was sent away to live with relatives because her mother could not work and take care of her at the same time;
  • Emily was sent away to a convalescent home where she was deeply unhappy.

Characters[edit]

  • Emily -- A shy nineteen-year old girl. She is the oldest of five children. Emily had a very difficult childhood, but has recently developed a talent for comedic acting. She is cynical about life, and the world, despite her youth. She believes the atomic bomb will soon destroy everything; so there is no point in caring about anything.
  • Emily's father -- deserted the family so as not to "share poverty with them" less than one year after Emily's birth.
  • Emily's mother -- A mother who is filled with regrets and worries about her daughter. She worked hard to support her family and take care of them, but in retrospect she realizes there are many things she would have done differently if she could.
  • Emily's stepfather -- called away to fight in WWII.
  • Susan -- the second child, golden and curly haired, chubby, quick, articulate and sure. By the time Susan was born, her mother had remarried and gained enough experience to show more affection than when Emily was born.

References[edit]

  • Kelly, Joseph, ed. The Seagull Reader Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.