Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing” is a short story that takes place during the Great Depression about a mother that is ironing while speaking on the phone with an unnamed individual who is most likely a social worker, teacher, or counselor. The mother moves the iron back-and-forth to her own mental process as she considers the cautionary statement made by this outside party. The person has asked the narrator to help him or her understand the narrator’s daughter, Emily, who is a young woman whom the person claims is in need of serious assistance.
She believes that she has no special insight into Emily’s behavior simply because she is her mother. The narrator feels she would become mired in the abstractions of the situation, all the things she should have done or those things that cannot be altered. When Emily was eight months old, the narrator was forced to leave her in the care of a neighbor. Emily’s father had left unexpectedly, unable to bear the family’s poverty. Eventually, the narrator sent Emily to live with her father’s family.
Emily returned to her mother’s care when she was two, but the narrator worked long hours and placed Emily in day care. The narrator eventually remarries and has four more children, yet another reason Emily struggles along with schoolwork and her health. The narrator also struggles with regrets and wished she were a better mother for Emily. Olson uses the narrator’s series of unfortunate events to show that life is all about having confidence and knowing with strong potential, anything is possible.
The narrator, the main character, becomes stronger and more independent as the storyline progresses; she is described as a “forty five year old woman” who struggled severely while she puts her life back together after her husband left her to raise Emily alone during the midst of the Great Depression. After her first husband left her, she struggled with raising Emily, who is the supporting character and holds a special place in her mother’s heart. Emily symbolizes the pain and suffering her mother went through and how her life has turned around in the craziness of everything.
After the narrator remarried and had more children she settled into a more stable life. She sometimes reflects on the past and the intervening challenges she faced as a mother. Her guilt about the lack of attention and affection she gave Emily as she grew up is especially pronounced. The conflict in this story is between the narrator and herself. The mother's desire to give her daughter a good life versus the fact that the narrator was not the best mother to Emily because of unfortunate events and she struggles with regret now.
The narrator's remarriage brings more stability and four more children into their lives, but Emily continues to be plagued with health problems and has trouble keeping up in school. Emily was very involved in high school with drama and everyone loved and adored her. Throughout the short story Emily receives attention from her classmates that she had never received as a child. The fact that there seems to be no progress in the narrator's thoughts and actions suggests that she hasn't come to any conclusions about her daughter's life.
This ending is pretty inconclusive: the narrator still hasn't resolved her conflicting feelings about Emily. She is not completely sure if Emily will ever fulfill her promise, or if she will let her talent go to waste. She ends her imaginary conversation with Emily's teacher by asking the teacher to help Emily realize her potential. The narrator feels guilty about her shortcomings as a mother, but her guilt is not enough to make her put the ironing aside. The ironing is an inescapable fact of life, and the narrator, although “tormented,” can do nothing about it.
In “I Stand Here Ironing” the character is telling the story in her perspective. Therefore the point of view is first person. There is an exception for a few scraps of dialogue here and there, but mostly the story is told from inside the narrator's head. “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron. ” The opening line of “I Stand Here Ironing” establishes the oppressive world of domestic tasks that show the narrator’s life and form the background for any consideration of more abstract concerns.
The quotation also provides one of the story’s central metaphors. Just as the narrator is pressing her daughter’s dress, so too is she “ironing out” the path of Emily’s development and the problem she is facing. The point of view affects “I Stand Here Ironing” due to the fact that the main character is telling the story and she explains her thoughts. As the reader, it makes it easier to fully understand how and what she is feeling and experiencing.