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Interim Readings > I Stand Here Ironing

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message 1: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing (1961) offers a glimpse of the struggles faced by working-class women and their families. Told in the first-person point of view of the mother, the narrative takes the form of a rambling stream-of-consciousness. A visit from a social worker or teacher prompts the narrator/mother to talk about Emily, her eldest daughter. She irons as she talks, moving back and forth in time in a series of jumbled thoughts while recalling the struggles she faced as a nineteen-year-old single mother and then as a married woman with other children. She is riddled with guilt and regrets as she excavates the past, claiming she didn’t have the time or resources to bond with her daughter.

Emily’s formative years lacked stability. She was shuttled from one location to the next, from one caregiver to the next before being placed in a convalescent facility to recover from illness. The narrator blames her inability to connect with Emily on the material conditions of her life: poverty, work situation, lack of resources, and, after her second marriage, to her other children demanding her time and attention. As with all first-person narratives, we need to ask ourselves if she is a reliable narrator. Could she have made a greater effort to engage emotionally with Emily in spite of her circumstances? By recounting her struggles while Emily was growing up, is the narrator trying to alleviate her guilt and appear blameless in front of the social worker/teacher? Or is she attributing Emily’s current issues (whatever they are) to her own inability to mother adequately?

While she talks, the narrator irons. The repetitive back and forth movement of the iron replicates the mother’s back and forth narrative. Is there any other significance to the motion of ironing?

(This online edition of the story repeats pages 296-297. Apologies in advance but it’s the only online edition I could find.)

Since this is the last of the 2017 Holiday Interim Reads, I just want to say a quick thank you to all who participated in the discussions. I learned so much from your comments and insights. I especially appreciate the different perspectives. I hope you enjoyed the different voices that propelled this detour from our traditional paths.

I wish you all the best of health and happiness for the coming year.

http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/2010/...


message 2: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments What do you make of the last sentences?

So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

She seems to be reiterating that circumstances were such that she couldn't do any better than she did i.e. that she was "helpless before the iron." But it also sounds a bit defeatist--as if she doesn't expect a more promising future for Emily since all that is in her "will not bloom."

Do you think she's suggesting Emily will have an equally challenging future?


message 3: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4509 comments Tamara wrote: "What do you make of the last sentences?

So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause f..."


It is interesting to me that Emily has a gift for comedy -- is this ironic, or is this Emily's way of coping?

Emily's mother's expectations for her are almost entirely colored by the oppressive circumstances in which she was raised. None of these are the mother's fault, of course, but she still feels responsible for the poverty that made Emily's childhood so difficult. Her outlook is bleak, and with reason, but she projects this onto Emily. I'm not sure this is either fair or objective. I'd like to think that Emily has found a way around "the iron," via comedy. Though maybe this is my own wishful projection....


message 4: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments I have every sympathy for the mother. I know she struggled and did the best she could. It's hard enough raising a child when there are two parents. It must be a monumental challenge to raise a child when you are a single mother with no support structure to help.

But, to be honest, some of my sympathy for the mother erodes when I read that Emily was left alone to babysit her siblings. I don't understand how you can enjoy a night out knowing your young child is at home, terrified.

Except when we left her alone nights. telling ourselves she was old enough.

"Can't you go some other time, Mommy. like tomorrow?" she would ask.

"Will it be just a little while you'll be gone? Do you promise?"

The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid awake. "It wasn't just a little while. I didn't cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked."


I just don't get how you can do that to a child, especially since having an evening out is a matter of choice--unlike some of the other situations the mother had to confront. It sounds as if the mother burdened Emily with responsibilities and kept pushing her to grow up before her time. It isn't fair to do that to a child--regardless of one's circumstances. It's not surprising that Emily pushes her away and doesn't confide in or connect with her mother.

But maybe I'm being too hard on the mother.


message 5: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments Did the mother actually marry Emily's father? I don't remember that she says that.


message 6: by Susan (new)

Susan | 476 comments I felt for the mother in this story, but my real sympathy was with Emily, who of course had limited agency as a child. Some of what happened was outside the mother’s control, but it was all outside Emily’s. Also at the end, I was turned off at the end where the mother seems to say the teacher shouldn’t pursue her interest in helping Emily, maybe because no one helped her (the mother). Emily reminds me of a plant growing through a sidewalk, where the plant has an instinct to grow despite the environment.


message 7: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments Roger wrote: "Did the mother actually marry Emily's father? I don't remember that she says that."

No, she never says she married Emily's father. She refers to him as "her father."


message 8: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 531 comments Yes, but landlords were mostly unwilling to rent to couples who weren't married.
Seriously, it was next to impossible to 'shack up' in 1930.

I read the story, but I have to bow out of the discussion because I did not like it one little bit.


message 9: by Greg (new)

Greg | 88 comments I related to this story strongly. Yes, the mother is not perfect - no doubt whatsoever about that. She admits many times that she didn't behave how she wishes she would've behaved. In some specific "failings," it was a matter of her bleak circumstances only and completely unavoidable:

"She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now .... Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job."

But in other cases, it is definitely not just outer physical circumstances that the mother regrets:

"The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: 'You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.' What was in my face when I looked at her? .... It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them - too late for Emily."

The narrator is clear-minded about her own failings, and I respect that very much, this honesty with herself. Honesty like this is not at all easy. Most of us would rather see our pasts in a softened, idealized way, but she does not do this.

It's hard from the outside to understand everything the mother does. As you say Tamara, her going out and leaving Emily alone to babysit is not right - it makes my heart ache. She shouldn't have done it. I still sympathize with her though. In my own life, there are things in retrospect that I wish I hadn't done; I suppose everyone has some things in their life like this. The mother carries an enormous load of guilt in this story, and some of that guilt it is not unwarranted. She's imperfect for sure, but regardless, I do believe her when she says she loved Emily. Despite everything, I suspect that she loves Emily with all her heart.

I had a different interpretation of the final lines, when she says, "Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." For me, this is the mother coming to an understanding of why she did some of the wrong things that she did. The circumstances of the mother's life were so bleak, so repetitive, and so hopeless that at some point she had stopped being able to act, stopped being able even to hope. After stroke after stoke of the hot iron upon her life that she couldn't avoid, she eventually lay hopeless like the dress and just let the iron of life fall upon her again and again, even sometimes when perhaps she could've done differently. That's partly why she didn't always show Emily the proper warmth she should have, why she couldn't smile upon her despite her worries. She let her hope and belief die. In many ways, it's completely understandable - I think it would take a rare spirit to not let this happen in the life she has lived, but she rightly sees it as her main failing. And in these final lines of the story, she's begging the social worker/teacher that she's addressing to help instill more hope in Emily than she herself had. She wants Emily to know that she is meant for more than just drudgery, more than just the repetitive, routine work that has filled up and used up her own life. "Help her to know ... that she is more than this dress."

When she says, "Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom-but in how many does it?", I don't think she is saying that the social worker/teacher shouldn't help. I think she is acknowledging the hard truth that in their extreme poverty there will be some limitations. If Emily were born with money, she could probably have been more than she will be - she could've had the right contacts and attended the right schools, had the right people to shepherd her career and her make the absolute most of her talent. She wouldn't have had to fear at each moment where food would come from; so she could've focused instead on her talent alone. But the important thing is that, even within these limitations, there must be hope. That to me is what the mother means by the vital final line, "Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."

Looking back at this story, I am amazed at the depth Olsen conveys in just seven pages!

The iron to me represents more than anything else a routine drudgery. It is the work that will never be done. Also, it becomes a metaphor for everything in this life of poverty she describes that flattens, that drives down - the heat and the weight of that metal that presses down so heavily.

What a wonderfully written story! I had read it once long ago when I was in my early 20's, but I didn't fully appreciate it then. Now I am old enough for some true regrets, and I find my heart aching for this mother. Emily of course I feel deeply for too, but she still has her life to live - who knows what will come for Emily; perhaps she will even escape this poverty. The mother though is the one with regrets that cannot be undone. All she can do is to see clearly and do whatever she can with what is left to her.


message 10: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments Greg wrote: "I related to this story strongly. Yes, the mother is not perfect - no doubt whatsoever about that. She admits many times that she didn't behave how she wishes she would've behaved. In some specific..."

A wonderful post, Greg. A very sensitive and articulate reading of the story. Your sympathy and compassion for Emily's mother shines through in your words. Thank you for sharing it.

I can understand fully when you say you have a much greater appreciation for the story now than you did when you first read it in your early 20s. That happens to me a lot if I read the same work at different stages in my life. I believe you can seldom read the same story or book or poem twice because you are no longer the same person you were the first time you read it. Each reading offers something new depending on where you are in life.

Thank you, again, for an inspiring post. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story.


message 11: by Greg (last edited Dec 29, 2017 12:11PM) (new)

Greg | 88 comments Thanks so much Tamara!

And I love what you say about not reading the same story twice and each reading offering something new at different stages of life.

There was a wonderful passage in The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser where she talks about poetry being like lightning, energy exchanged between charged particles on the earth (the reader) and differently charged particles in the sky (the work itself). There's some truth to that I think. A work of art isn't a Rorschach blot by any means - it has some objective truths to it, and the author has an intent - but the real power is in the communication itself. That is the power, the energy, the lightning. And we as the second half of the equation change continually.


message 12: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments I love Rukeyser's poetry. I hadn't heard of The Life of Poetry but have now added it to my gotta read list.

That's a beautiful way of expressing the interaction between poem and reader.


message 13: by Greg (last edited Dec 29, 2017 02:03PM) (new)

Greg | 88 comments Tamara wrote: "I love Rukeyser's poetry. I hadn't heard of The Life of Poetry but have now added it to my gotta read list.

That's a beautiful way of expressing the interaction between poem and reader."


Me too Tamara!

I've read a couple of her books of poetry - The Speed Of Darkness and Theory of Flight as well as A Muriel Rukeyser Reader and The Life of Poetry. Her non-fiction can be quite discursive, but for a reader that doesn't mind some discursion, I do recommend The Life of Poetry regardless. Her way of seeing things is brilliant and iconoclastic, in my opinion well worth the trouble!

I wish I had seen these interim readings earlier. Borges, Gilman, Chopin, Welty - some great choices!


message 14: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1598 comments Greg wrote: "I wish I had seen these interim readings earlier. Borges, Gilman, Chopin, Welty - some great choices!"

The threads remain open so you're welcome to post your thoughts any time.


message 15: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments Note that Emily is the same age her mother was when she had her: nineteen. We certainly hope she won't get into the same trouble.


message 16: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments Christopher wrote: "Yes, but landlords were mostly unwilling to rent to couples who weren't married.
Seriously, it was next to impossible to 'shack up' in 1930.

I read the story, but I have to bow out of the discussi..."


You only had to pretend to be married. (The landlord wasn't going to demand to see the license if you paid your rent on time.) Then, after seven years or so, you really were married, by the Common Law.


message 17: by Greg (new)

Greg | 88 comments Roger wrote: "You only had to pretend to be married. (The landlord wasn't going to demand to see the license if you paid your rent on time.) Then, after seven years or so, you really were married, by the Common Law. ..."

Good points Roger!


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