I Stand Here Ironing

by: Tillie Olsen

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Main ideas Symbols

The Iron

The iron represents the chores and responsibilities that prevented the narrator from engaging with Emily’s life more profoundly. As the story’s title suggests, the narrator is constantly embroiled in the duties she must perform to effectively care for her family. This is ironic because it is these duties that drew her away from Emily and lessened the quality of her care. The repetitive motion of the iron moving back and forth across the surface of the ironing board mimics the narrator’s thought processes as she moves back and forth over her life as a mother, attempting to identify the source of Emily’s current difficulties. The distance the narrator feels from Emily is embodied in this simple act of ironing. Although Emily’s welfare is the central concern of the story, the narrator is more actively engaged in unwrinkling her daughter’s dress than in the life of the young woman who will wear it. The narrator’s final wish is that Emily will have a strong sense of self-worth and believe that she is more than the dress that is “helpless before the iron.” This comment suggests that the narrator hopes Emily will be able to transcend the narrator’s mistakes, rather than succumb to the circumstances of her birth.

The Convalescent Home and Emily’s Balcony

The convalescent home where Emily recovers from tuberculosis represents the narrator’s inability to effectively care for her children. A social welfare agency has stepped in to provide Emily with the care and attention she does not receive at home—Emily can recover only if she is looked after by strangers in an unfamiliar place. The facility is supported by society women who have placed the children’s convalescence center on their list of causes, and they help support the facility through fundraisers. These women couldn’t be more different from the narrator, who has struggled for her entire life to make ends meet. The wide green lawns and “fluted flower beds” contrast starkly with the narrator’s drab world of ironing in her cramped walkup apartment.

Emily’s balcony in particular represents the emotional distance between the narrator and her daughter. While Emily is at the recovery center, she is cut off from almost all communication. Even the letters the narrator writes to her are read to her once and then thrown away. Parents are allowed to visit only every other Sunday, when the children line up on the balconies of their cottages and conduct shouted conversations with the parents who stand below. The narrator seems unable to establish direct contact with Emily, either in the recovery center or their home life. The narrator refers to the “invisible wall” that divides them, both then and now. A sign instructing visitors not to “contaminate” their children through “physical contact” suggests that the narrator herself is a source of contamination, allowing her daughter to sicken while she devoted her attention to other responsibilities. The mother’s emotional neglect of Emily has permanently “contaminated” her as well, infusing her with a bleakness that the narrator fears will never disappear.