I Stand Here Ironing
by Tillie Olsen
I Stand Here Ironing Theme of Poverty
Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" is an intimate look at life from the perspective of the working class during the Great Depression. It begins in a time before the great work projects and social relief efforts of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, when it was difficult for someone with no education to find work – let alone a woman. Families such as the narrator's fall apart under the strain of immense poverty. Moving frequently as their parents seek work, the children attend crowded schools with uninspiring teachers. Charitable institutions such as clinics and hospitals are woefully inadequate. Is the American Dream, the dream of prosperity and material security, out of reach for the working class? The story suggests that perhaps the American Dream needs to be re-imagined to open more opportunities to people regardless of gender or class.
Questions About Poverty
- Take a look at the narrator's life before and after her second marriage. What are some of the difficult choices she has to make as a single, working mother? How does the relative comfort and stability of her second marriage change the way she raises her children?
- Consider the institutions presented in the story: nurseries, convalescent homes, schools. What are these institutions like? Are they places that nurture development?
- The narrator expresses frustration that she doesn't know how to foster her daughter's talent. What do you think the daughter needs to realize her potential? What would be your advice to the mother?
Chew on This
Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" shows how difficult upward mobility can be for the working class without access to adequate education, health care, and job advancement.
In Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," the narrator's mothering style changes with her economic status. With more economic stability, she becomes a better mother.