I Stand Here Ironing


Tillie Olsen

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Stand Here Ironing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Poverty, Labor, and Domestic Life

In the 1950s, when “I Stand Here Ironing” was published, family life and domestic labor were often depicted as idyllic: housewives wore clean dresses, cooked perfect meals, and cared for well-behaved children while their husbands worked. Tillie Olsen’s depiction of domestic life as gritty, banal, and difficult contrasts with these romanticized representations, reminding readers that American domestic life was not always glamorous, particularly for poor families. The narrator’s poverty traps her in grueling and…

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Female Identity

For the narrator and her two daughters, being a woman is both a source of power and a burden. Since the men in their lives are unreliable, the story’s women have learned to be self-sufficient and resilient, which helps them through difficult times. However, even without individual men supporting them, the influence of male-dominated culture still affects them, causing them to see themselves through impossible beauty standards and creating conflict between them. Women, Olsen suggests…

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In this story, the passage of time is both damaging and generative. Time tyrannizes the narrator by rushing her into choices she wouldn’t ordinary make and by trapping her in routines that she feels unable to break. However, the passage of time also hints at the potential for progress and growth beyond old limitations, as when the narrator suggests that Emily might have a better future than the narrator’s own. That time is simultaneously damaging…

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Obedience vs. Self-Expression

Throughout the story, the narrator and her daughter Emily attempt to meet society’s expectations of them: Emily tries to be a good student and daughter while the narrator tries to be a good mother and homemaker, each defining her success based on social norms and judgments. Starting in Emily’s early childhood, the narrator discovers that obedience to these societal standards does not always lead to positive outcomes, but she also feels that speaking up can…

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Responsibility and Guilt

As she guides the reader through her detailed account of Emily’s upbringing, the narrator is motivated in equal parts by her sense of responsibility and by her sense of guilt for having failed Emily. Both motivations stem from her love for Emily, but when combined, they seem to create a toxic emotional atmosphere that makes the narrator doubt even her own experiences and memories. Through her examination of the effects of guilt and responsibility…

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