Her first collection of short stories Tell Me a Riddle was published in 1961. From then on she went from heights to heights in her literary career. The title story in the above publication won her the O Henry Award for the best short story of the year 1961. Her highly acclaimed writing brought her teaching jobs in reputed universities like the Amherst College, the Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts.
Apart from writing famous short stories, she is also remembered for her collection of essays Silences and Yonnondio, her novel about the lives and times of the 1930s. In this research paper, we concern ourselves with Tillie Olsens famous short story I Stand Here Ironing. This story, like many others from her pen, is so steeped in feminist concerns and motherhood that it touches the heart and brings out emotions from the hearts deepest crevices.
It is told in first person, from the point of view of a mother who has not been able to give her daughter the best upbringing because of many constraints. She feels guilty and tries to make excuses for the miserable childhood that she gave her daughter that has contributed to her becoming reserved and self conscious. The mother is, all through the story, trying to evade responsibility for her daughters poor childhood. This is evident in the way the words have been crafted and the imagery been employed.
It is extremely though- provoking and even though the mother keeps on trying to convince herself and her audience that she is not guilty of ill- treating her daughter, she stills sounds guilty. The imagery however is such that guilty or not, the audience tend to sympathize with the mother. A number of literary tools have been used to create an effect of sorrow and guilt in the story. The most important literary tool used is the metaphor.
Metaphors are beautiful and clever in any piece of writing as they can be interpreted in a variety of ways, each interpretation adding its own to the narrative. The most obvious metaphor is the ironing itself. The story begins with the mother standing on an ironing board, moving back and forth as she manipulates the iron over the clothes. This can be considered synonymous with an effort the mother is trying to make to crease out or smoothing out the difficulties in her life, the foremost being her daughter.
At the end of the story, the daughter plaintively asks her mother if she does anything other than her ironing. It sounds as if the daughter is accusing her mother of being indifferent to her daughters pain and miserable life. The ironing is a very strong metaphor which continues throughout the story as the mother narrates her life story, all the while giving excuses for not coming to her daughters rescue. Motherhood has been shown in an increasing despairing light all through the story.
In the times when the story was written, being a single unmarried parent was a very bold decision. The mother took the bold decision but was unable to carry forward her responsibility properly because of societal pressure. Of all her decisions regarding her daughter, such as sending her away to relatives in infancy and sending her to the convalescent home in adolescence, the mother circumvents responsibility. We find that she says repeatedly of her decisions things like They persuaded me and It was the only way.
This is just her way of making it known that had it been in her power, she would have provided her daughter the best possible upbringing. There is irony in the story in the sense that the daughter is portrayed as a nineteen year old girl, precisely the age the mother as when she bore her. Still the daughter is unable to understand her mothers problems and even the love which the mother has for her daughter is unable to reach the daughter. The daughter however, keeps on believing that her mother does not have any love or affection for her.
The reason for this is perhaps that the mother was a product of another era in which being a single parent was cause for stigma and taboo. The daughter however has grown up in an era of relative freedom and less conservativeness. As a result, she is unable to understand why her mother had to send her away to the relatives at the age of just eight months. She is unable to appreciate how difficult it must have been for the mother to be a single and unmarried parent when her father had deserted her mother.
The difference in the eras is portrayed by the fact that Emily- the daughter is characterized as a college student, gifted, talented and assertive. Her mother however is shown as a housewife, who occupies herself by ironing clothes. There are several examples where we may find that the mother may be guilty in some ways about what has become of her daughter. The mother, as mentioned before, has taken a bold decision but has not been able to carry forward that decision with the same assertiveness and courage.
She has succumbed to various pressures applied on her by society and in doing so, she has not done justice to her daughter. Emily is left alone at night many times, while her mother and her stepfather pursue their social life (or so it seems). The mother does not realize that Emily is scared and pained by this. Also, it seems that the mother took another faulty decision in having more children while she was still struggling with Emily, both emotionally and financially.
All this comes to light when we analyze the story from the point of view of the daughter, considering that since the mother is herself the narrator, she may be skewed or biased. However, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions regarding the guilt. It may have under certain unavoidable circumstances that the mother had to send Emily away twice. Also, there may have been a perfectly plausible explanation for the mother and stepfather going out almost every night.