I Stand Here Ironing | Study Guide

Tillie Olsen

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide." Course Hero. 21 Sep. 2020. Web. 29 Sep. 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2020, September 21). I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 29, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/

In text

(Course Hero, 2020)



Course Hero. "I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide." September 21, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/.


Course Hero, "I Stand Here Ironing Study Guide," September 21, 2020, accessed September 29, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Stand-Here-Ironing/.

I Stand Here Ironing | Quotes


Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do.

The narrator

The narrator reflects on the ways she has failed Emily and becomes overwhelmed with guilt because she should have been a better parent. Guilt is a theme throughout the story and weighs heavily on the narrator's mind as she examines Emily's childhood.


But the seeing eyes were few or non-existent. Including mine.

The narrator

In hindsight the narrator recognizes and appreciates how beautiful Emily was as a baby, and she feels guilty for not seeing Emily's beauty in the moment. The narrator notes that she has done a better job raising her other children, but it is too late for her to change Emily's childhood.


I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore.

The narrator

The narrator was forced by circumstance to send Emily to a place she knew Emily hated. Instead of throwing a tantrum like a typical child, Emily showed early signs of her characteristic restraint and cleverness by trying to convince her mother to stay home from work. Emily retains this cleverness and restraint as a young adult.


You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.

The narrator

The narrator remembers the words of a kindly old neighbor who thought the narrator should show Emily more affection. Emily's mother was struggling to make ends meet and was always worried. She didn't hide her worried expression and rarely looked at Emily with a smile. The narrator was unable to hide her burdens from Emily, and Emily adopted the same demeanor. The responsibilities that weighed down the narrator's mood passed on to Emily. The recollection of this exchange is an indication of the narrator's guilt.


Can't you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?


As a young child, Emily was always looking for reassurance or comfort from her mother, and she didn't receive enough. Emily asked for her mother to stay home and her mother declined which is a recurring theme throughout Emily's childhood. Emily could not rely on her mother to comfort her through difficult times and the separation compounded Emily's loneliness.


Between them the invisible wall 'Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.'

The narrator

The convalescence house placed physical and emotional distance between Emily and her family which further sterilized Emily's relationship with her mother. The many separations Emily suffered during her childhood damaged her relationship with her mother the narrator.


I used to try to hold and love her after she came back.

The narrator

After months of separation from her family, Emily was uncomfortable when her mother tried to show her physical affection. The many long-term separations she had to endure impacted the way she received and rejected affection. The rift that developed between Emily and the narrator is one of many reasons why the narrator feels guilt and failure as she examines Emily's childhood.


She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking.

The narrator

Emily is different from her peers and her own siblings, and this physical difference added to the feelings of alienation and rejection she felt as a child. She noticed that she did not look or act like the more popular girls in school, and she questioned what was wrong with herself that made other people reject her. This is another example of Emily's feelings of rejection and not fitting in.


To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an over-conscientious 'slow learner.'

The narrator

Emily's teachers didn't appreciate her quiet and reflective personality and unfairly label her a slow learner instead of recognizing the things she could do well. The narrator understands that Emily's teachers did not give her a fair chance to reach her learning potential. Emily's potential and the lack of support at school added to the unfair circumstances Emily had to endure her whole childhood.


I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them.

The narrator

The narrator knows that she gave Susan more affection than she gave Emily which poisoned Emily's feelings toward her sister. The narrator notes that Susan benefitted from the affection that Emily could not receive as a child, and Susan represents the things Emily could have been if she'd had a better childhood.


A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, Shoogily, invented by her to say: comfort.

The narrator

Despite her flaws or deficiencies, Emily has left her mark on the family, and they have adopted her expressions as family phrases. The narrator begins to realize that Emily's childhood may have been difficult, but Emily still imparts humor and personality into the family. Emily's positive impact on the family and the world around her indicate that she will be okay despite the narrator's parenting mistakes.


Now suddenly she was Somebody ... as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.

The narrator

Emily was ignored before she took part in the talent shows at school. Now, too much is expected of her and she cannot escape scrutiny or suggestions for ways to develop into something greater than she is. The family's working-class status means they don't have the resources to help Emily develop her talents. The narrator's guilt continues to grow as she counts this as yet another way she has failed Emily.


We have left it all to her.

The narrator

Emily has the responsibility to use or ignore her talents, and she has been ignoring her gifts just as much as she has been using them. Emily must take on the responsibility of developing her talents all by herself because her mother doesn't know what to do to help Emily grow.


She was a child of anxious, not proud, love.

The narrator

The narrator knows that the love she had for Emily was different from the affectionate love her other children received, and anxiety shaped Emily into a more morose character. The narrator's status as a single working-class mother shaped Emily into a perceptive but melancholy child.


She is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

The narrator

The narrator believes Emily does not have to be the victim of circumstance and can shape her own future. Emily is in control of her own future and does not have to be steamed and flattened by life like the dress is steamed and flattened by the iron.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about I Stand Here Ironing? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!