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 be just as dangerous as silently complying. The narrator’s weighing of the relative costs and benefits of fulfilling versus resisting social norms animates the entire story, but she never comes to a final conclusion about which attitude is better. That the narrator remains caught between obedience and self-expression illustrates Olsen’s broader point that all actions come with both costs and benefits, and that deciding which choices are “correct” is impossible.
Both the narrator and Emily largely conform to the demands placed on them by others. However, the narrator worries that in both of their cases, complying with rules may have been more costly than she realized at the time. For example, the narrator makes parenting choices that she doesn’t necessarily agree with when authority figures direct her to do so. Perhaps the most notable example of this is when she sends Emily to the convalescent home on the advice of a clinic and keeps her there for eight months, even though she knows that Emily hates being there. She worries that this experience, despite seeming like the correct choice at the time, has harmed Emily in the long term. Emily herself is also compliant throughout childhood, never throwing tantrums even when she hates going to school. Comparing Emily’s silent cooperation to more rebellious natures of her other children, the narrator wonders: “What was the cost to her…of such goodness?” Later, when Emily goes to elementary school, her quiet presence and inability to be “glib or quick” causes her teachers to mistake her for a “slow learner,” demonstrating that behavior considered “good” in one situation can easily be construed as “bad” in another. Later on, Emily’s silent compliance allows her sister Susan to steal Emily’s ideas for jokes and riddles and tell them “to company for applause.” Not only does Emily’s polite avoidance of confrontation cause her to lose credit for her own creative work, but it likely also increases tension in her strained relationship with Susan. Throughout the story, quiet obedience comes with a painful cost.
Just as unquestioning cooperation turns out to be costly, though, so too does self-expression come with unexpected burdens. When Emily first succeeds in a comedy performance, for instance, the narrator reflects: “Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in her anonymity.” She goes on to note that along with the joy of Emily’s new skill comes the pressure to “do something about her with a gift like that.” However, the narrator knows that without resources to support Emily, “the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.” That image of stagnation suggests that becoming acquainted with the self is perhaps as risky as ignoring it, since awakening a gift of expression means accepting the possibility that it might go to waste. This potential outcome clearly frightens the narrator and seems to sway her back toward the idea of obedience that she previously rejected. Toward the end of the story, the narrator comments that Emily, in a talkative mood, “tells [her] everything and nothing.” Though the narrator has often wished for a closer relationship with Emily, she seems to write off Emily’s outpouring of words as unimportant. This suggests that the narrator distrusts the meaning conveyed by straightforward speech, which perhaps betrays her lingering bias toward the repeated physical actions and habits that have characterized her life with Emily. Even as she wishes for the benefits of self-expression, the comforts of obedience call to her, leaving her stranded between these opposing values.
The narrator’s inability to decide whether conformity or self-expression is better echoes Olsen’s more general attitude that some things are impossible to know. When Emily asks her mother why the boy she likes prefers another girl, for instance, the narrator stays silent, calling Emily’s inquiry “the kind of question for which there is no answer.” This suggests that the narrator—even as her thoughts are obsessively directed towards answering the central question of how to help Emily—might know that finding a single answer is impossible. Indeed, in the end, the narrator knows even less than she started with; at that point she doesn’t even know whether Emily needs help at all. She asks, “Why were you concerned [about Emily]?” but at the same time she suspects that “probably little will come” of Emily’s potential. Perhaps, then, no behavior or choice can be considered “correct”—all come with costs and benefits, and one can never know if another outcome might have been better.
Obedience vs. Self-Expression ThemeTracker
Obedience vs. Self-Expression Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing
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.
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?
“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.”
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.
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.
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.