The narrator’s stream-of-consciousness narration reflects the free-flowing, unstructured form of her thoughts and reveals her struggle to make sense of her situation and find logic among the fragments of her past. The narrator tries to excavate the past to gain a clear idea of how her history has shaped Emily, but clarity ultimately eludes her. The narrator’s nonlinear, often jumbled thoughts and conclusions reflect Olsen’s belief that a tangled web of familial and environmental causes is what shapes character and that no single explanation can illuminate the complexities of an individual’s behavior. The narrator’s associative leaps and often rambling narrative style also infuse the story with realism and immediacy. The mother often repeats herself, such as “She was a beautiful baby,” and repeatedly mentions her struggle to “total”—draw conclusions from—her ruminations. These repetitions underscore the realism that infuses the story and offer insight into the issues that weigh most heavily on the narrator’s mind.
The stream-of-consciousness structure allows the narrator to reveal herself on her own terms, a strategy that gives the narrator a fuller, unfiltered presence in the story. At the same time, this strategy forces us to consider that the narrator may be unreliable. An unreliable narrator may lie or alter or withhold information to make him- or herself look good or serve a personal agenda of some kind. In this story, the narrator may be holding some memories back or shaping the memories she reports to lessen her feelings of guilt. The narrator makes some startling confessions, such as revealing that she and her second husband often left Emily home alone for hours, which suggests that the narrator is being honest and open about her parenting. But the narrator also quietly asserts that she alone is not at fault. She gestures to “what cannot be helped,” or broader social forces, such as the grinding poverty of the Depression years, that were beyond her control. The narrator has a personal reason for identifying a broad range of forces at play in shaping Emily: she wants to lessen her unbearable feelings of guilt. She is trying to convince herself that other factors are to blame as much as she is trying to convince us.