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Themes

Olsen's story reveals a deeply skeptical attitude toward those who hold positions of power, whether they be the wealthy, the government, or institutions such as public hospitals and schools. Those in power are blind to the needs of the working class. Charity, it seems, is only an excuse not to give the working class real opportunities (such as a livable wage) to improve their own lives.

The skepticism is also informed by a post-World War II perspective that has witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bomb: political power is associated with death. The story attempts to make visible the real lives of the working class, from their own perspective.

Questions About Power

  1. Compare how different people perceive Emily: her mother, her teacher, childcare providers, clinic workers, the audience she entertains with her comedy act. How are these perceptions different? What do these attitudes tell us about the way different characters perceive a girl from a working-class background?
  2. Take a look at Emily's comments and actions. What is Emily's attitude toward the government, the schools, the hospitals? What does her attitude tell us about her feelings about people in power?
  3. People in the narrator and Emily's situation seem to be at a disadvantage: they have neither wealth, nor political clout, nor social standing. In what ways can the narrator and Emily empower themselves? What are some moments in the story that give us hope for Emily's future?

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," the simple love of a mother and daughter serves as a life-affirming alternative to the institutions that seem to repress, rather than nurture, life.

Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" provides an important portrait of American life in the 1930s and 1940s, not from the point of view of the "great men" of history, but from the perspective of the ordinary person.

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