I Stand Here Ironing

by

Tillie Olsen

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The Narrator Character Analysis

The narrator is a working class woman and mother of five children. The entire story occurs as the narrator, while ironing clothes, worries about her oldest daughter Emily. Given that she was nineteen when her daughter Emily was born and Emily is nineteen at the story’s start, it’s safe to assume that the Narrator is about 38 years old. She has worked extensively outside the home at a number of jobs, as well as acting as the primary caretaker for her children. She was a single mother for some time after Emily’s father left the family and then remarried a few years later to a man described only as Bill. The narrator reveals little about her own background and instead tells her story through the lens of her relationship with Emily. Although the narrator seems to be a hardworking and responsible mother, she is overcome with feelings of guilt and uncertainty about the mistakes she might have made in raising Emily, and hopes that Emily will have a richer life than she, the narrator, did.

The Narrator Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing

The I Stand Here Ironing quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or refer to The Narrator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the University of Nebraska edition of I Stand Here Ironing published in 2013.
I Stand Here Ironing Quotes

And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Related Symbols: Clocks
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

[B1]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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness—the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands—and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Related Symbols: The Iron
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

“It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked.”

Related Characters: Emily (speaker), The Narrator
Related Symbols: Clocks
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. Months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking—but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in manner and appearance that Emily was not.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily, Susan
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Afterwards: You ought to do something about her with a gift like that—but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondeness and curly hair and dimples, she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not let me touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Emily
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire I Stand Here Ironing LitChart as a printable PDF.
I Stand Here Ironing PDF

The Narrator Character Timeline in I Stand Here Ironing

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator appears in I Stand Here Ironing. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
I Stand Here Ironing
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
As the narrator irons, she addresses an unidentified person who has asked her to discuss her nineteen-year-old daughter... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
Emily, the oldest of the narrator’s five children, “was a beautiful baby,” even though she spent much of her childhood fearing... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
Emily was a “miracle” to the narrator, but at eight months old, she had to start spending days with the downstairs neighbor... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
While living with her father’s family, Emily got chicken pox and she returned to the narrator seeming thin and nervous, with “all that baby loveliness gone.” Emily then began nursery school... (full context)
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
The narrator did know that Emily hated school, because she often made excuses not to go. While... (full context)
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
While the narrator applied the neighbor’s advice about smiling to parenting her other children, it was “too late... (full context)
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
The clock “talked loud again” the night the narrator gave birth to Emily’s sister Susan. Emily became sick with measles then and prone to... (full context)
Female Identity Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
At one point, Emily’s doctors convinced the narrator to send Emily to live at “a convalescent home in the country” to recover from... (full context)
Female Identity Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
...his favorite candy and couldn’t understand why he still loved someone else instead, although the narrator doesn’t believe that this kind of question has an answer. (full context)
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
...was not “glib or quick,” which made people think she was a “slow learner.” The narrator often allowed Emily to stay home, even when she knew that Emily was faking sickness.... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Female Identity Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
Ronnie, the narrator’s youngest child, cries out to be changed, interrupting the narrator’s recollections. While cuddling with his... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
The narrator remarks that Emily’s newfound gift made her “Somebody,” but it left her “as imprisoned in... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
Emily runs happily up the stairs and enters the room where the narrator is ironing. Cheerful and talkative, she jokes about the fact that her mother is always... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
The narrator can no longer endure “dredging up the past,” and she can never “total it all”:... (full context)