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I Stand Here Ironing

I Stand Here Ironing

by Tillie Olsen

Language and Communication Theme

Tillie Olsen's groundbreaking 1978 work on feminism and class in American literature was called Silences. It's not surprising, then, that this story shows as much concern for language as it does for the unspoken, the unwritten, the silenced. The working characters in "I Stand Here Ironing" live in a world in which eloquence is a luxury, where the burden of work and the demands of motherhood leave little time for conversation or dialogue. But the absence of spoken words in the story doesn't mean an absence of thoughts or feelings. In the narrator's interior monologue (the conversation going on inside her head), we hear these thoughts and feelings emerge as they develop on the page.

Questions About Language and Communication

  1. In response to the teacher's question, the narrator says she is unable to provide a "key" to her daughter's character. Why do you think it's so hard for the narrator to express herself? What are some of the factors that make it difficult for her to tell her and Emily's life story?
  2. Take a look at scenes where Emily speaks. How does she express herself? Does she speak in a straightforward way? What kind of language does she use – direct, imaginative, metaphorical?
  3. Take a look at scenes where the narrator has to interact with people in positions of authority: the counselor or the people who run the convalescent home for children. Does the narrator seem confident expressing her opinion with such people? Do the people themselves seem receptive to her concerns?
  4. What are some instances where the narrator, in the process of telling the story, seems to realize something new about herself or her daughter? How does the act of telling the story help her come to these realizations?
  5. How would the story be different if, instead of being told though the narrator's thoughts, we instead witnessed the actual conversation the narrator will have with the teacher?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

In Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," a teacher/counselor's question gives the narrator a rare opportunity to reflect on and make sense of her life.

Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" shows how social circumstances affect the way people communicate their feelings with one another.

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