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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.