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I Stand Here Ironing

Tillie Olsen

Important Quotations Explained

Historical Context

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. 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 punctuate 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 act of ironing imparts smoothness and order to a garment, and the narrator wishes that Emily’s life could run more smoothly as well—although she stops short of taking steps to help Emily achieve this goal. The word tormented reveals the extent of the narrator’s guilt at the lack of attention and limited opportunities Emily has suffered. However, the act of ironing, part of the never-ending cycle of domestic duties, is what the narrator falls back on when she subtly pleads her defense. With so many chores to perform, the narrator argues, there was little time to devote too much attention to Emily’s personal development. 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.

2. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

This quotation appears at the end of the second-to-last paragraph, immediately preceding the narrator’s exhortation regarding Emily to “Let her be.” This attitude is representative of the narrator’s feelings toward her performance as a mother. Although the narrator has guiltily listed the personal shortcomings that prevented her from adequately caring for Emily, she also indicts larger, uncontrollable forces—depression, war, and fear—that thwart even the best of intentions. The poverty that arose during the Great Depression clearly influenced what went on in the household. It kept the narrator away from home because she needed to work. Armed conflict and the ensuing climate of fear that accompanied the Cold War were other powerful and looming presences, diminishing the hope and faith that had prevailed after World War II.

This quotation encapsulates the narrator’s belief that individual lives can be waylaid by uncontrollable, overpowering forces. This belief applies not only to Emily’s life but to her own life as well. The narrator herself struggled with bleak prospects and despair, which she attributes to inescapable social factors. The narrator does bear some responsibility for Emily’s problems, but as a single mother, she had no choice but to prioritize work and wage earning. Ultimately, the narrator admits her own guilt in creating Emily’s unspecified problem, but she freely blames depression, war, and fear as well.

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