I Stand Here Ironing

by: Tillie Olsen

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Absence

Absence figures heavily in “I Stand Here Ironing,” as the narrator feels guilty about her emotional distance and decision to send Emily away for periods of care or recovery. Emily and the narrator have been absent from each other’s lives during significant portions of Emily’s development. In fact, Emily has known almost nothing but distance and displacement. The narrator sent her to an unaffectionate neighbor for day care when she was eight months old, then to the home of her father’s relatives, then to another caretaker, and finally to a convalescence facility. Each time Emily returned, she was forced to reintegrate into the changing fabric of the household, and the narrator notes how Emily grew slowly more distant and emotionally unresponsive.

After so much absence, the narrator intensifies her attempts to show Emily affection, but these attempts are rebuffed, coming too late to prevent Emily’s withdrawal from her family and the world. Although Emily is now at home with the narrator, the sense of absence continues even in the present moment of the story. Emily, the narrator’s central preoccupation, appears only as a fleeting presence. She enters the story only long enough to interrupt the narrator’s musings on the past. Mother and daughter exist on the edges of each other’s lives, and the narrator sees Emily as a mystery, even a stranger. The narrator tells her audience that she is not a key to Emily and is as unsure as anyone else about what kind of help Emily needs. All the narrator can do is benignly hope that Emily’s life will improve, although she must also confront the fear that what has been a virtually lifelong absence has created an unbridgeable gulf between them.

Doubles

Emily is a double for the narrator, reflecting the narrator’s fears that she has transferred her hard, hopeless life to Emily, continuing the legacy of poverty and lack of opportunity that plague some women of limited means. A “double” in fiction is a character that serves as a twin for another, usually more central, character, embodying either similar or opposite characteristics. In a flashback, the narrator recalls having Emily when she was only nineteen, the exact age Emily is in the present moment of the story. This similarity links the two characters, fusing their experiences and potential futures. The narrator remembers being nineteen and a single mother during the Great Depression, while Emily is now nineteen and in a similarly dire, though unspecified, situation. Both women began or are beginning their young adulthood facing a personal challenge of some kind.

Just as the narrator was left to deal with problems on her own two decades ago, Emily is left on her own to face whatever problem is plaguing her now. The narrator does not make an effort to help Emily or intervene in her life, despite an unnamed person’s attempt to draw the narrator in. The narrator’s own life could have been altered had she been helped, but she fails to see that the same could be true for Emily. In this way, Emily’s life starts to clearly mirror the narrator’s. Actual mirrors appear briefly in the story when the narrator brings Emily and Susan “two old dresser mirrors,” subtly suggesting the ways in which a generation mirrors the one that came before it. The doubling of mother and daughter in this story is not positive. Instead, the narrator dreads the idea of Emily being a reflection of her, because she understands that Emily’s grim nature is likely a result of the narrator’s pervasive worries and inattention, and that Emily’s future may turn out as burdened and unfulfilled as her own.