I Stand Here Ironing

by

Tillie Olsen

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The Iron Symbol Analysis

The Iron Symbol Icon

The iron that the narrator holds throughout the story symbolizes both the power and the limitations of domestic life. Emily jokes at one point in the story that a portrait of the narrator would show her ironing, indicating that the act of standing still and maintaining a household is a defining, even imprisoning state for the narrator. The iron, serving as it does to smooth away wrinkles, also indicates that domestic work is a way for the narrator to control the messy world around her and improve its appearance. However, its weight and its repetitive motion also signify the monotonous, crushing nature of the narrator’s responsibilities to her home and children — she not only can iron away the wrinkles, she must do so as part of her duties as a wife and mother. The narrator irons throughout the story and refers to having done so for much of Emily’s childhood, but she concludes with the hope that Emily may someday “know that she is more than this dress on the ironing board,” demonstrating the narrator’s hope, and perhaps belief, that Emily’s future may be comparatively free of the burden of domesticity that has shaped the narrator’s life.

The Iron Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing

The I Stand Here Ironing quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Iron. 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

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:
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I Stand Here Ironing PDF

The Iron Symbol Timeline in I Stand Here Ironing

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Iron 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 Emily,... (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 ironing. Even... (full context)
Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Theme Icon
Responsibility and Guilt Theme Icon
...simply hopes that Emily will “know that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” (full context)