Study Guide

I Stand Here Ironing Themes

By Tillie Olsen

  • Language and Communication

    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

    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.

  • Women and Femininity

    "I Stand Here Ironing" looks at the themes of women and femininity through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. Struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression, the narrator works long hours and is unable to care for her daughter. The narrator is a single, working mother at a time when a more traditional, middle-class, stay-at-home mom was the norm in mainstream American society. Olsen's story takes us inside the mind of the narrator as she juggles the role of mother and breadwinner. The story also gives us a sense of the challenges faced by her daughter, who comes of age in a society that values a Shirley Temple model of girlhood and adolescent femininity. Although the mother-daughter relationship in Olsen's story doesn't fit the mainstream stereotype, it reveals a strong bond; their love for each other is palpable as they share their struggles. 

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Consider the difficult choices the narrator had to make as a single, working-class mother. Do you think she is a good mother? Why or why not?
    2. Compare and contrast the ways Emily is represented throughout the story: as a baby, a child, and a teenager. Compare Emily with Susan, the narrator's second child. What do we learn about femininity from these different representations?
    3. What kind of relationship does the narrator have with Emily? What is Emily's attitude toward her mother?
    4. Do you think Emily will have a better life than her mother? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" considers how women's choices in life can be constrained by social circumstances.

    Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" challenges stereotypical images of womanhood and femininity through its representation of working-class women.

  • 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

    1. 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?
    2. Consider the institutions presented in the story: nurseries, convalescent homes, schools. What are these institutions like? Are they places that nurture development?
    3. 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.

  • Power

    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

    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.