I Stand Here Ironing | Study Guide

Tillie Olsen

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I Stand Here Ironing | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


The Caller

The narrator stands and irons clothes while she has an internal conversation. She has just ended a phone call with a teacher or mentor of the narrator's daughter Emily. The narrator's conversation is addressed to the caller but takes place inside the narrator's head instead of on the phone. The caller has expressed concern about Emily and wants to help her reach her full potential. The narrator muses that she has no magical insight or key to unlocking Emily's potential, nor does she have time in the day to scrutinize Emily's life and find the secrets to making Emily a success.

Great Depression Childhood

The narrator looks back over Emily's life starting at infancy. Emily grew up during the Great Depression (1929–39), a period of worldwide economic downturn. The frail economy caused stress for Emily's parents. The narrator recalls that Emily was a beautiful baby from birth unlike her other four children, and Emily was breastfed. The narrator was a new mother and unsure of herself so she followed a strict feeding schedule instead of feeding Emily whenever she cried. The narrator questions this parenting choice.

The narrator's husband abandoned the family when Emily was eight months old. He left a note explaining that he could no longer stand to live in poverty with his small family. The narrator was destitute and had to look for work, and she left Emily with a neighbor. The narrator felt guilty because she knew the neighbor could not cherish Emily as much as she deserved. Every day after work, the narrator would leap from the streetcar and run all the way to the apartment to see Emily as soon as possible. Emily would cry deep, unsettling, uncontrollable tears every time the narrator picked her up at the end of each day. The memory still haunts the narrator.

Although the narrator did find work, it was not enough to sustain them both, and she had to send Emily to live with her father's family for a time. It took a long time for the narrator to save enough money to bring Emily home again, and then their reunion was delayed when Emily contracted chicken pox. When Emily finally returned home, she had transitioned from a baby to a toddler and closely resembled her father. She was shy and thin, and all of her charms of babyhood were gone. The narrator felt that Emily was almost a new, unknown person.

The narrator returned to working during the day and enrolled Emily in nursery school. The narrator starts to muse that if she had known that nursery school was just a place to "park" her child while she worked, she wouldn't have done it. However, the narrator quickly changes her mind and notes that nursery school was the only option she had that would allow her to work while keeping Emily in her home.

The narrator's thoughts shift, and she confesses that she knew at least partially how awful the nursery school was for her daughter. She heard the director yelling at kids and calling them names like "scaredy" for running away from bullies. The director's unkind words to children and the way she yelled made Emily afraid to go to nursery school. The narrator remembers the ways Emily would try to get out of going to school. Emily never fought the narrator or threw a tantrum like a typical child might. She would try to convince the narrator that staying home was better by saying that the narrator needed to rest, or the building had burned down, or the school was on holiday. The narrator compares her other children at that age to Emily. The narrator notes that her other children were prone to throw tantrums as toddlers, but Emily never did.

The narrator suddenly feels a wave of illness brought on by guilt. She wonders why Emily was so gentle and different from a typical toddler and questions what she did to earn such a sweet and kind daughter at such a young age. She wonders if she somehow damaged Emily by taking advantage of her remarkable kindness as a young child.

The narrator experiences a rapid sequence of memories and emotions. Her thoughts jump to a kind neighbor's advice to smile more. She worries that her lack of expressing joy contributed to Emily's demeanor. When she had more kids later, she remembered the neighbor's advice and made sure to drop the worried expression from her face when she looked at her children. However, she wondered if the changes she made were too late for Emily. The narrator notes while reminiscing that Emily doesn't smile often or freely, but her face is expressive, fluid, and enthralling when she wants it to be.

The caller mentioned Emily's gift for acting and comedy during the talent show. This prompts the narrator to recount how the humor Emily now possesses was not apparent the second time she returned from an extended stay with relatives. Emily's second return was different because she now had a stepfather and more stability at home.

Alone Again

The narrator launches into another reason to feel guilty about her parenting choices. She remembers that she and her new husband would sometimes leave Emily at home alone at night so they could enjoy time together. Emily did not want to be left by herself at night. She would ask the narrator not to go or try to make her promise to only stay out for a short time, but her parents did not honor her pleas. The narrator and her husband returned home one night to find that Emily had left the front door open, knocked down the wall clock because it was "talking" to her, and waited for them near the front door. Emily tried to convince her parents that she wasn't afraid of being alone even though her actions indicated otherwise. Emily tried to tell her parents that she wasn't afraid, but they had been gone for a long time.

Emily was left home alone once again on the night the narrator gave birth to Emily's sister Susan at the hospital. Emily came down with measles just days before her sister's birth and was very sick with fever and illness. She was not allowed to come near her mother or the baby for a week after they came home. Emily did not recover well from the measles. She barely ate and developed night terrors. The narrator had a hard time balancing her attention between Emily and Susan. The narrator admits that she was not always patient or empathetic to Emily's need for comfort or attention at night. Now, when the narrator checks on Emily at night, Emily rejects her attempts at comfort.


The narrator continues to remember Emily's childhood. Emily's health did not improve, and a social worker convinced the narrator to send Emily to a convalescence house to receive special care. This would also give the narrator time to focus on the baby. The narrator agreed and sent Emily away from the family for the third time in her seven young years. Her mind wanders to the beginning of Emily's time there and how the family couldn't visit Emily for six weeks.

The conditions in the convalescence house were strict and unloving. The children were not allowed to keep personal effects, so the letters the family wrote to Emily every other day were read to her once and then thrown away. The children were discouraged from making friends with the other children. Emily spent eight months in this lonely and unloving care facility which added to her years of separation and lack of love and affection.

Emily looked more frail at each visit, and she did not gain back any of the weight she had lost from being sick. It took the narrator eight months to convince the social worker to allow Emily to come back home.

Emily's Homecoming

The narrator's mind wanders to the time Emily returned home from the convalescence house. The narrator tried to hug and cuddle her, but Emily seemed uncomfortable with the affection and pushed the narrator away. As Emily grew a little older, she began to worry about her appearance. She seldom had moments of light, carefree childhood joy. Instead, she seemed to be sickened by food and life in general.

Emily became increasingly self-conscious. She had a dark complexion and thin frame in a time when chubby cheeks and blonde ringlets were the ideal beauty standard for little girls. Emily was not popular with the boys at school. Rejection made Emily question what was unlikeable about herself, and the narrator didn't have an answer.

The narrator's thoughts shift back and forth between events in the past and her current feelings of guilt and failure. Emily was melancholy and deliberate in a world that valued cheeriness and quick wit. Teachers saw Emily as a child who was always trying to catch up from many absences, and the narrator admits to the caller and to herself that she often let Emily stay home even when she wasn't really sick. The narrator realizes that these were the only times her daughters got along. She reminds herself that she was never good at balancing her attention between the wants and needs of her daughters. She blames herself for the resentment Emily harbored for Susan. Susan appeared to be Emily's antithesis with her light hair, fair complexion, and cherub face. Susan would steal the spotlight away from Emily by retelling Emily's jokes and riddles while Emily looked on from the sidelines.

The narrator recalls the way Emily tormented herself over her appearance and compared herself to her peers and to Susan who was five years younger but was physically more developed. Emily constantly scrutinized herself and wished she had different skin or different hair. She was exceedingly unhappy with the way she looked and felt that she would never measure up to her peers.

Leaving Her Mark

The narrator's youngest son Ronnie interrupts her thoughts. He is crying because he has a wet diaper and needs to be changed. She cuddles with Ronnie after his change to get him ready to go back to sleep, and he whispers the word "shoogily." It's a made-up word the family uses that was first created by Emily. It means "comfort."

The narrator puts her son back to bed and goes back to ironing. She says aloud to herself that this is where Emily has left her mark, and she startles herself by speaking aloud. She thinks about the unfair responsibilities and burdens Emily has had to endure. Emily's role as the eldest child forced her to take on parenting responsibilities for her siblings. She is overlooked and struggling to find her place at school.

The narrator begins recounting Emily's high school years and her knack for impersonations. She remembers how Emily developed a habit at home of imitating people or situations from school. Her impressions were accurate and entertaining, and the narrator suggested Emily take her talents to the stage. Emily decided to perform in the school amateur show, and she won first place for her comedy act. She called the narrator while crying tears of happiness to say that the crowd clapped and clapped and wouldn't let her leave the stage. She was invited to perform at other high schools and local events and received ovations and praise for her performances.

Emily went from anonymity to popularity overnight, but the jump in social status brought its own challenges and another way for the narrator to let Emily down. Before her talent was evident, Emily was mostly unknown and flew under the radar, but now people are suggesting that Emily's parents do something with her talent. The narrator has no extra money and no knowledge of the entertainment industry and doesn't have the means to help nurture Emily's gift. The burden of honing her talent falls completely on Emily, and the narrator notes that Emily does not always try to develop her raw talent as much as she should.

Emily's Potential

Emily runs up the stairs to get something to eat and interrupts the narrator's thoughts. Emily moves quickly and gracefully up the steps and is talkative which indicates that she is in a good mood and whatever prompted the caller to reach out today did not affect Emily's mood. As Emily talks, the narrator's internal conversation with the caller continues. She sees how lovely Emily is and asks why the caller wants her to talk about Emily. Emily will make her way in the world.

The narrator has a final reflective evaluation of Emily. The narrator was a young, poor mother forced by circumstance to leave Emily with relatives, babysitters, and strangers. She raised Emily during a desperate time in her life, and she acknowledges that she was a better mother to Emily's younger siblings because of those trying times. The narrator was an inexperienced, unsupported, distracted mother, and Emily had to keep too many of her needs and emotions to herself. She is a child of economic depression, war, and fear of the future.

The narrator implores the caller to "Let her be." She knows Emily has potential that might never be fulfilled but wonders if anyone ever really reaches their full potential. The narrator says there is enough of Emily's potential blooming now that she will be able to get by in the world. The internal conversation ends with the narrator hoping the caller will help show Emily that she has enough value just the way she is. Emily is not a victim shaped by circumstance the way the dress is steamed and flattened by the iron.


Internal Conversation

The conversation about Emily takes place within the narrator's mind. The caller phoned the narrator to talk about Emily and how to help her be more successful. The narrator is imagining that she is addressing the caller as she narrates a biography of her parenting choices and mistakes throughout Emily's life. The phone call sparks a guilt trip in the narrator's mind. Instead of addressing these concerns aloud, the narrator wrestles within herself and analyzes all the ways she feels she failed Emily as a mother. She doesn't address her guilt or apologize to Emily at any time during the story. The narrator reflects on the ways she's neglected her daughter but doesn't bring herself to open lines of communication with Emily or try to work out any of these unspoken issues with her. The imaginary response to the caller allows the narrator to examine her parenting flaws and "to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total" all the ways she was inadequate for Emily. Focusing the story on Emily and the narrator's choices involving her allows the narrator to work through her feelings of guilt and inadequacy for how she raised Emily.

Poverty and Circumstances

The narrator and Emily faced uncertain circumstances early in Emily's life. The country was experiencing an economic depression. Emily's father abandoned the family before Emily was a year old because he said he could no longer live in poverty with the young family. The narrator raised Emily in "the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression" and had no way to care for her child except to send her away. The narrator is laden with guilt, but she had no other options.

Poverty forced the narrator to send her daughter away first to relatives and then to a terrible daycare because there was no money to afford the luxury of choice. The narrator didn't have the budget to choose a better daycare, and she couldn't afford not to work. These were not pleasant decisions for the narrator, but she had no other options if she wanted to keep Emily with her. Her choices reflect the hard decisions of the poor and working class that had negative impacts on families and children. The narrator had to give up what should be basic necessities for a mother and child so that her small family could survive. She could not spend enough time with her daughter, and she couldn't even live with her for an extended time in some cases. The narrator acknowledges her powerlessness in her circumstances by saying, "Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job." The narrator made the best choices she could for Emily, but poverty did not give her many good choices to start with.

The narrator's unpleasant choices reflect the hard decisions poor and working-class parents have to make every day and show how unfair the circumstances are for the lower classes. The narrator loved Emily and tried to carve out a life for the two of them, but she couldn't avoid circumstances that were damaging to Emily's personality and spirit. How could Emily build a trusting and loving relationship with a mother who left her with a mean babysitter or who sent her away to live elsewhere for months on end? The narrator had limited options because of her poverty and abandonment by her husband. There were no people in Emily's household to care for, love, or support them, and it was not possible for the narrator to do it all alone. The lack of affection from the narrator contributed to Emily's melancholy, shy, and withdrawn nature. The narrator had to use what little resources she could to hold down a job and support her small family financially but at the cost of giving Emily the loving affection every child needs.

Being Alone

Emily was separated from the narrator in both physical and emotional ways during her early years. Sometimes the circumstances were beyond the narrator's control, but other times the choices could have been different. The narrator sent her to live with relatives twice for financial reasons, and when Emily returned the second time, the narrator had remarried. The new couple sometimes left Emily home alone at night even though she asked the narrator not to go every time. They convinced themselves she was old enough to be left alone in the house while they were gone. In hindsight, the narrator knows Emily was too young. By repeatedly leaving young Emily home alone at night, the couple further triggered her abandonment issues. The narrator adds this instance to the list of reasons for Emily's anxious nature and difficulty accepting affection from the narrator.

Emily was alone again when she contracted the measles just before the narrator gave birth to her second daughter Susan. Emily had to stay away from the narrator and the baby for a week when they finally returned home from the hospital. This separation was necessary for the health of the narrator and the baby, but Emily needed her mom, too. Emily was still suffering from her illness and often woke up in the middle of the night in pain and discomfort from the measles. New motherhood exhausted the narrator, and when Emily called out to her in the night in pain or fear, she did not go in to check on her. This was a different kind of abandonment than Emily experienced earlier in the story. Instead of physically leaving her somewhere, the narrator refused to go in and check on Emily. The lack of comfort damaged the trusting relationship Emily should have had with the narrator. In her teen years, Emily refused any comfort or care the narrator offered to her because she'd become too self-sufficient.

Emily experienced yet another instance of separation from the family when she had to stay at the convalescence home for eight months. The separation hindered Emily and the narrator from nurturing the mother and child bond that the narrator has with her younger children. The convalescence home discouraged family visits or physical contact. For eight months Emily did not receive affection from anyone around her. Emily had a hard time accepting physical affection when she returned from the convalescence home. The narrator tried to hug or cuddle Emily, but Emily's body "would stay stiff, and after a while she'd push away." Emily continued to have a hard time developing close relationships as she grew older. When Emily finally returned home, she'd been gone for so long that it was hard to fit back in with school and friends. Emily's naturally introverted personality meant that it was difficult for her to make or keep friends. The narrator notes that "The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend."

The narrator expresses guilt over leaving Emily alone in the house, not checking on her at night, and allowing her to be taken to the convalescence house. When the narrator made the choice to send Emily to live with relatives, she did so in Emily's best interest. However, she was acting in her own best interest instead of Emily's when she chose not to comfort Emily in times of need. The narrator recognizes that she had many opportunities to show Emily more affection and comfort. She now feels she made the wrong choice in each situation. The narrator agonizes over these mistakes and notes that she has gained wisdom from her experiences and does not make the same mistakes with her other children.

Potential and Resources

The narrator receives praise and advice when Emily finally begins to discover her talents. People tell the narrator that she "ought to do something about her with a gift like that." The narrator is at a loss for how to develop Emily's talent and wonders, "but without money or knowing how, what does one do?" Emily has a talent for comedy and performance, but the family doesn't know where to start. Should she have acting lessons or a talent agent? Even if they knew what next steps to take, they don't have the money for any kind of investment into Emily's talents. They are no longer living in the abject poverty of the Great Depression, but Emily's family is still working-class and their resources are very limited. The family's inability to nurture Emily's talents reflects a disadvantage of the poor and working class. Emily is at the mercy of her economic circumstances. The family has no way to help Emily become better at her acting and comedy, and her talents may never be developed and may not help her gain anything substantial in life.

Emily has been subjected to unfair disadvantages her whole life, and this lack of resources to develop her potential is just another example of how Emily is dealt an unfair hand in life. She has a talent that may never take her anywhere in life because her family doesn't know how to support and nurture it. However, the narrator knows that Emily is enough as she is. She thinks, "so all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it?" The narrator points out that not many people reach their full potential because all people have to grapple with their own disadvantages and difficulties. She concludes that just because people don't always maximize their capabilities, it does not mean they are not valuable nor does it mean they can't lead meaningful lives. Emily will have to figure out what to do with her talents on her own, but the narrator is confident that she is enough and will be able to figure out her own path in life. Emily will contribute something valuable and meaningful to the lives she encounters even if she doesn't reach her "full potential."

I Stand Here Ironing Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The caller asks the narrator about her daughter Emily.

Rising Action

2 The narrator thinks back over Emily's childhood.

3 The narrator remembers the poverty they endured.

4 The narrator remembers sending Emily to live with relatives.

5 The narrator reflects on Emily's illnesses and recovery.

6 The narrator describes Emily's jealousy of Susan.


7 Emily discovers a talent for comedy and performance.

Falling Action

8 The family cannot invest in developing Emily's talents.


9 The narrator believes Emily will find her own way in life.

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