I Stand Here Ironing
by Tillie Olsen
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Thoughtful, Honest, Guilty
We get the sense that the narrator doesn't often get much of a chance to stop and think; she's too busy doing housework and caring for her large family. This story captures her in a rare moment of quiet reflection about her life. The teacher's request for insight into her daughter prompts the narrator to look back over their life together, to recall painful memories, and to try to piece together how certain events and circumstances shaped her daughter's life.
The narrator seems to be looking back on her life with brutal honesty. She knows her decisions have hurt Emily. She feels guilty for that, but she also doesn't know what else she could have done. Here's an example:
Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now [...] the lacerations of group life in nurseries that are only parking places for children. Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. (13)
Ouch. That last bit – "it would have made no difference if I had known" – is totally honest. The narrator isn't hiding anything from us, but that doesn't mean that she's proud of the way she raised Emily.