Essay: ‘As I Stand Here Ironing' By Tillie Olsen

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  • Subject area(s): English Language
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  • Published on: 6th June 2012
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‘As I Stand Here Ironing' By Tillie Olsen

'As I stand Here Ironing' by Tillie Olsen, displays a strong use of first person narration. So much can be gained from reading the first few paragraphs of the story. For example, the mysterious person who is on the phone with Emily's mother asking questions, due to Emily's social withdrawal. This foreshadows that this figure on the phone with the narrator could possibly be a schoolteacher, or maybe a counselor. The author gives the reader a great avenue to dig in and really get to feel the narrator resentment, and regrets on the way Emily was raised.
The Story sets its stage during the Great Depression. This era was a time of turmoil for most families, as many struggled to make ends meet due to harsh economic conditions. Gender roles usually placed the father to support the family financially, and the mother to take care of the children, which was not the case in this story. Tired of living in poverty Emily's father abandoned her and her siblings, leaving the mother to raise five children on her own. The story is narrated from the mother's point of view with Emily being the focal point. Emily is age 19 in the story and is experiencing depression and withdrawal. The cause of her depression falls back to the way she was raised. Her mother, who frequently put other matters over her, often neglected Emily.

The Story begins with the narrator on the phone with a person. This random person is deeply worried about Emily, so it can be concluded that it may be a teacher or even a counselor from her school. The person goes on to say 'I wish you would manage time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I'm sure you can help me better understand her. She's a youngster who needs help and whom I'm deeply interested in helping.' (Olsen, 292) After hearing this the narrator reacts in a repulsive manner 'Who needs help. Even if I came what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you can use me as a key'? (Olsen, 3) In reading this statement one can conclude that Emily and her mother didn't have a strong relationship, and by the way the narrator responds to the person on the phone it feels as though she regrets not building that relationship with Emily. The narrator's depiction of Emily is how she stresses the differences between them. She feels as though Emily is to separate from her, based on how she dealt with Emily in her childhood. It is therefore possible to visualize the narrators' objective here, which includes creating an identity for herself in the life of Emily, and trying to understand her. In doing this Olsen gives the audience a protagonist, who is haunted by the past, one who is searching for an identity in the life of her daughter. Her mind takes a distant trip to the past as she reflects on how beautiful and precious Emily was as a baby, 'She was a beautiful baby. She blew shiny bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color, music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls parting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur.' (Olsen, 292) she then leaves us in irony when she talks about consistently dropping Emily off at a neighbor's place each day while she went to work. As she came to pick her up one day from her husband's relative house, the narrator is in such disbelief. Emily seems different to her and she is stuck thinking, 'I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous just like her father, looking like her father, thin and dressed in shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pocket marks. All the baby loveliness was gone.' (Olsen, 293) Emily who was once a child, who glowed and was full of energy, now seemed as though she was struggling to stay alive.

Essentially the narrator of the story isn't a bad person. She is just conflicted and torn. The narrator is able to provide her children with essential needs, but is unable to form a deeper emotional bond with them, which is the primary role of a mother. Beyond the scope of simply making sure the kids are okay, a mother must provide emotional support. In the article 'Emotional Support is the most Important thing a parent can give a child' Carole Billingsley describes the effects that parents have on their children. She states ' A child's self-esteem and sense of self worth begins with their interpretation of what the parent thinks and feels about them. It is not enough for us to put a roof over his/her head and food on the table. We must give and show unconditional love and support.' (Billingsley, 2) Of course this idea proved difficult for the narrator to follow, due to the era Emily was raised in. Though the story doesn't directly state the time period as to which it is written, one can conclude that its written in the Great depression through World War II era. Knowing this makes it easier to understand the theme plus the social and historical context in which it is derived from. During World War II women were called to replace men in the workforce as majority of men went to battle. On the contrary many women became widowed creating a load of new pressure and stress. In the narrators' case, her husband had grown tired of the families' poverty, and couldn't bare to sustain it anymore. The father essentially forsakes and abandons the family leaving behind a wife and 5 children. The narrator says, 'I will never total it all'. This use of figurative language is used to give the reader an image in his/her head. In saying this statement she gives account of the tough times and struggles with Emily through out the years. She talks about how she often left Emily with her husbands' family 'she was a child seldom smiled at. Her father had left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home to his relatives.' (Olsen, 40) Upon reading this statement one can feel as though the narrator may be trying to ask for sympathy towards the whole situation, and her position in the life of Emily.
All of the themes suggested in this story can be portrayed through ironing. Ironing gives us a different perspective, and ultimately ties in the troubles that haunt the narrator in the present time. The ironing can be looked at as a symbol that is reinforced by pain and regret, as the narrator constantly goes back and forth trying to smoothen all the creases in the clothing. This in turn gives a representation of how the narrator feels in the present. The ironing of the clothing is a manifestation of the past and how she views it. She hopes that by ironing out all the creases she can smoothen out all the rough edges and gain insight. The authors narrative style mirrors this approach, as she is constantly switching from past to present.

Mothers can be seen as having more burdens on their shoulders, especially in the case of their children. In an article titled 'Surviving and Thriving as a single mom' Rachael Sarah speaks first-hand on her experience as a single mother. Sarah like Emily's mother is placed in a similar situation, with her husband leaving her and her daughter in similar. Throughout her article Sarah describes her first year experience as a single mom. Initially she is torn and struggles to face reality, and that life must indeed go on, ' The first year was chaos. It didn't help that there were no single mom role models in my life, except say Madonna, who was also parenting solo at the time. If she can do it I can do it.' (Sarah, 2) In this statement Rachael Sarah displays to the reader that it's all about ones mindset. She takes a different approach compared to Emily's mother. Instead of folding and feeling sorry for herself, she asks herself is she up to the challenge. Mothers like Emily's, who were left to struggle as a single mom with five kids, was forced to juggle all the emotional needs of her children while maintaining financial balance. All the blame truly should not be bestowed upon her for Emily's upbringing, but she could have made more of an effort. Realizing of her past mistakes the narrator aims to provide Emily with a better future when she states, 'Let her be. So that all that is in her will not bloom, but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only to help her know, help make it so there is a cause for her to know, that she is more than just a dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.' (Olsen, 298)
The distinction between mother and child in 'As I stand here Ironing' by Tillie Olsen isn't the traditional view. Instead Emily somewhat plays an antagonistic role, as she seems to oppose the narrator. She plays this role by being the reason the narrator struggles to cope in present time. As Emily continues to come in and out of the room as the narrator is ironing she is constantly having flashbacks of the past. This situation creates a more dramatic type of irony, as the reader can understand that the author is currently battling with three factors, herself, the past and Emily. She battles with herself by constantly blaming herself, portraying herself as a victim in the situation. She battles with Emily internally by comparing her as a child to her present self. Towards the end of the story she describes Emily as ' having much to her and probably little will to come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.' (Olsen, 298)

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