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I Stand Here Ironing

“I stand here ironing,” a unique phrase uttered by a woman in her conquest of life. It may seem like an unwanted phrase to many, but it has deep meaning behind it. This phrase is almost whispered by the narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen, and also by many other mothers going through an important stage in their lives. The stage in life that the mother in the story is going through is called child development, and within this complicated stage arise many new worlds of imagination, emotional journeys, and soothing memories. The whole story is based around a mother’s view, and joy, of her child growing up in a world filled with barriers and hurdles that she must overcome. The entire point of view is that of the narrator, as a mother concerned with the way her child is being raised and the hardships she must overcome. She also witnesses her daughter’s happiness and the colorful meanings of life that she discovers herself. I believe this story is based around the hardships of growing up as a woman in the Nineteen-hundreds. It has all the symbolism of being a true feminist short story. As Elaine Orr expresses in her criticism, Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision, about how “Suddenly Emily is emblematic of all children, of the next generation…”(EO 84) that the times were of the early feministic era. When feminists were about conquering oppression and rising above the rest of the doubt that society places upon them. She talks about how “Emily will not survive. If she does not believe in future presence, in beginnings latent in her own life, all is lost: past, present, and future.”(EO 84) expressing once again how the times were different then and how Emily better take care of herself or she may be in a never-ending struggle with human nature. I feel, however, that this story was based on the emotional pull a mother has to one of her children and how the feelings of emotion race wildly with every moment and situation in that child’s life. The fact that her mother, the narrator, felt so attached to her daughter, Emily, makes me feel that the two had some sort of connection within each of their respected childhoods. It almost appears that the narrator wants us to feel that connection by expressing her emotions so vividly and with such emotional detail that you are almost forced to feel that child’s pain, happiness, and struggle through the narrator views and battles. When Elaine Orr expresses the mother’s connection with her daughter, as though it is her same childhood that is being examined as the basis for Emily’s existence, she states: “Emily, without father and often separated from the mother, is ‘skeleton thin,’ dark, quiet, slow, and thoughtful.”(EO 80) The narrator is, seemingly, expressing how she grew up. The question that is posed here is, why would a mother say such words about her daughter, with such animosity, and describe her in such a way; unless she too was brought up the same way or had the same experiences as her child? This leaves a statement on the narrator’s views and feelings during the time of her daughter’s childhood about how she feels Emily will grow up as well. The narrator, her mother, is almost predicting her daughter’s future by stating many detailed descriptions of feelings, which she may have felt as well in her childhood, and applying them to her life. Now this story has many contrasting images in it to provoke the ever on-going experiences that the narrator speaks about in such graphic reality. She speaks of the iron, and how it is a very “……Alienating object, which pulls the daughter and her mother apart……”(EO 80) And that at one point in time it actually acts as a “…… Alienation from her mothers (narrator) work”(EO 80). Now the narrator points out, with the distinction of the iron, that maybe it showed how her mother was in the same situation that she is now, and that the feelings that she felt, too, at that point in her life, are being expressed.

This story has many turns and angles which can be explored. To find a true meaning in this story is almost unprecedented, and is a very confrontational form of literature. The surprising acts of the mother and the descriptions, which are presented to us from her, are very conclusive and need to be further examined to draw out any further conclusions on how she “really” felt. The mother-daughter relationship between the narrator and her daughter bring up many questions as to their exact connection. At times it seems strong, as when the narrator is relating her childhood and recounting the good times. Other times it is very strained. All in all the connection between the two seems to be a very real and lifelike account of an actual mother-daughter relationship.



1. Orr, Elaine. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press, 1987

2. Responding to Literature. “I Stand Here Ironing”. Mayfield Publishing Company: Judith Stanford. 1999. Pg. 815-821.

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