I Stand Here Ironing
by Tillie Olsen
In "I Stand Here Ironing," the narrator tells us from the beginning of the story that she cannot provide the "key" to her daughter Emily's character: "There is all that life outside of me, beyond me," she explains (3). And since we the readers can only know Emily through the narrator's perspective, she is something of an mysterious presence in the book.
It seems strange for a mother to say that her own daughter's life is "beyond" or "outside" her. But we learn that for much of Emily's life, her mother was so busy struggling to make ends meet that she just didn't have the time to pay attention to her daughter.
Emily also doesn't demand attention. As a child, Emily is low maintenance: she never complains or asks for anything. She's generally quiet, and if she does want to express something, like her desire to see her mother, she does so indirectly. To others, she is virtually invisible: she doesn't have the beauty or the charismatic personality that might attract attention. Her mom thinks she's almost too good – a child who doesn't want to make life harder for her mother by complaining, who accepts the responsibility of helping her mother care for the other children and do the housework (16).
Even though she remains enigmatic, Emily does, as her mother says, "leave her seal" (44). Glimmers of her daughter's unique personality emerge: the jokes her sister Susan steals, the silly words she makes up (like "shoogily") that the other children use, her talent for mimicry and comedy. We get a flash of her wit when Emily herself enters the story, comparing her mother to Whistler's mother, joking about her ironing. Whatever her future holds, the story holds out the hope that Emily will not remain "hopeless before the iron" like the dress on her mother's ironing board, but emerge as a distinct character who will leave her stamp on the world.Timeline