“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” (Olsen, 1961). A touching sentiment that grabs ahold of a heart of the audience, because it as distressing as it sounds it comes a little too late. A story portrayal of a mother and daughter’s relationship, as well as a daughter’s devaluation during those times is tear-jerking. I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen is a representation of true emotion and somewhat guilt or the lack of, during a period when times were challenging.
The point-of-view, setting, and tone demonstrate the somberness in the theme of the relationship between an over-whelmed, unemotionally connected mother to her daughter, Emily who is devalued by everyone. I Stand Here Ironing begins and is narrated by Emily’s mother. Although, this narration is not a verbal, the internal conversation she appears to be having within her mind leads us to believe she is trying to justify yet still battle the guilt she feels. She appears to responding to a teacher of Emily’s, that desires helping her daughter, and flashbacks to the nineteen years of her life.
However, she is so disconnected emotionally from her daughter as demonstrated by this response “You think because Tam her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? … There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me” (Olsen, 1961). Her point-of-view allows us to enter into her world of what she witnessed and felt, and yet how she still could only give a piece of herself to her daughter.
As the sequence of events play out, we learn that she recognized when people undervalued her daughter as well as when her aughter began to drift away to her own darkness. The story takes place simply in the mother’s home. She is ironing as she reflects back upon Emily’s life. In one sense, we get the impression she is trying to justify her actions throughout Emily’s childhood, but as she continues the journey we can witness the guilt and regret regarding her relationship with her daughter. She takes us to every place she left Emily, and we are able to feel the coldness that she must have felt. “She was a beautiful baby…
She was a miracle to me… I had to leave her … to whom she was no miracle at all”, speaks volumes as to the beginning of Emily’s devaluation and the pre-cursor to the disconnected relationship with the mother, in spite of her obviously loving her (Olsen, 1961). The irony is we can see this as it is being told to us; therefore, we could have witnessed and made changes as it occurred, yet Emily’s mother only seems to have separated herself and now displays the thoughts of remorse.
The solemn tone of her depiction leads us to feel how bad it was during those times for Emily. The mother explains how Emily’s father left when she was only eight months. This is significant because it changes the dynamic of their relationship because now she must seek work, as well as demonstrates Emily was failed by both of her parents, and we are able to visualize the mother lose her connection to her daughter and Emily’s devaluation begin. Her tone is registered during the present time and her flashback narratives.
The mother describes leaving Emily with relatives and hardly recognizing her when she came home and the conditions of the nursery school being so bad that Emily would always have a reason for them to stay home, but in spite of it all she was well-mannered and never caused a fuss. She describes sending Emily to a convalescent home in an attempt to care for her in ways she couldn’t after the birth of her new baby.
A home that discouraged affection by making the children scream from the balcony to speak down to their parents, illustrated further by a ign stating “Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection” (Olsen, 1961). We can feel the coldness of this place simply by these words. The point-of-view, setting, and tone in which the story is told allows us to feel the stress upon the relationship of Emily and her mother. The audience develops a sadness for Emily and while the mother seems to be guilt ridden and overwhelmed, her justifying ways make it difficult to feel a compassion for her that otherwise would be felt.
I was drawn into this story and felt every sadness, disappointment, and withdrawal. Excitingly, I was filled with happiness when I read, “Mother, I did it, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go” (Olsen, 1961), because the elements captivated me in and made me feel a personal connection to Emily. All the elements working together expressed the story in such a way that it brought tears to my eyes, making this my best short-short story nomination.