I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen
In I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen we have the theme of helplessness, struggle, coming of age and confidence. Narrated in the first person by Emily’s mother it becomes clear to the reader after reading the story that Emily’s mother feels helpless. She has struggled in life with her first husband leaving her and forcing her to rear their children on her own. There is a sense of desperation for Emily’s mother. She struggles and is unable to give Emily or her siblings the things that they need. They are a poor family and it doesn’t help that the depression is occurring and other families also find it difficult to survive. The growth that would have been expected after the war never materialized and if it did Emily’s mother did not see a part of it. Emily’s mother would be part of a generation of women whose husband’s abandoned them when times got tough and there was no money. Men did not necessarily want the responsibility of looking after a family and thought only of themselves. This may be significant as Emily is brought up in a materialistic environment and an environment that her mother is finding hard to understand.
Emily’s reclusiveness or shyness in school may be a direct result of her father abandoning her. However it is noticeable as time progresses that she begins to become more outgoing. She takes part in some of the school plays. Showing great confidence despite her background. If anything some critics might suggest that Emily has found her feet. Though at the same time she is annoyed that her mother is always ironing. This may be significant as Emily may associate ironing with a defeatist attitude. However the reality is that someone in the family home has to do the ironing. Especially the ironing for the children’s school clothes. It is also possible that Olsen is placing a spotlight on the role of women at the time the story was written. Many wives and women did not have a voice and were stuck to working in the house. Even though Emily’s mother also works outside the house in menial jobs. Jobs that men would not do and as such were left for women to perform. It is interesting that for most of Emily’s mothers work in the house and outside. She is left standing with no modern comforts.
The fact that Emily does not want to go to school is understandable. She feels as though she stands out from the other children and may be lonely. Also her first love in school has rebuked her for another young girl. Something that is devastating for Emily. There does not appear to be two consecutive days in school in whereby Emily enjoys herself. That is till she partakes in the performing arts and finds her voice. She becomes a confident young woman who sees outside her own world and may have an understanding of the difficulties her mother goes through. She has come of age thanks to the talent she has discovered within herself. No longer is she hiding in the corner of the classroom and is now at the forefront despite all the difficulties she has incurred through life. Something which brings great relief to the reader. Emily has overcome every obstacle that has been put in front of her and is shining in school (and possibly elsewhere else).
The end of the story is also interesting as there is a sense that without knowing it Emily has discovered some kind of respect for her mother. She knows that she has always tried her best and provided for her the best she can. Though she may not necessarily understand why her mother has to iron all the time. Something that Emily can be forgiven for because of her youth. She may have come of age as a teenager but she has a long way to go to become an adult and understand how different life can be for adults. At the moment Emily is happy that she has found her place in the performing arts after being isolated for so long and viewed upon by teachers as being problematic. Overall the story tells the tale of two women, Emily’s mother and Emily. Who are both at different stages in their life and who Emily recognises that her mother has always acted responsibly for Emily. No matter how hard this may have been on Emily’s mother. Emily on the other hand has blossomed in comparison to where she came from despite all the negative advice her mother received about Emily. At the end the reader feels as though Emily and her mother will do fine.