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 on the narrator, Olsen indicates that these feelings, while powerful motivators, can ultimately degrade the human relationships they shape.
Though she does not say so directly, the narrator’s account indicates that she has sacrificed an enormous amount of her time and energy caring for Emily and her siblings. Although the grinding poverty of her life sets the narrator apart from her era’s ideals of family life, she still lives up to these ideals in her own way: she devotes herself to supporting her family, stops working outside the home as soon as she can, and successfully raises five children with little fanfare. These actions and the narrator’s casual reference to them demonstrates how deeply ingrained her sense of responsibility is. Even though the narrator claims not to remember much of Emily’s childhood, her story proves otherwise. The simple fact of her recounting it in such detail provides further evidence of her responsible, thorough approach to parenting, in which a simple call from Emily’s school triggers a rigorous examination of Emily’s childhood. Again, the feeling of responsibility to represent Emily accurately arises automatically in the narrator, even when she doesn’t believe she’s able to live up to it.
While the narrator’s account clearly displays her deep embrace of maternal responsibility, the narrator herself is far more overtly concerned with her maternal guilt. She remains preoccupied with her perceived failures, and as much as she tries to figure out the reasons for Emily’s trouble, she keeps coming back to herself as the true cause. This almost compulsive focus illustrates the poisonous side of embracing responsibility and the corrosive effect that it can have on an individual’s psyche. The story begins with a request for the narrator to talk about Emily, but the narrator fears that she will be overwhelmed if she does so, saying: “I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.” The narrator indicates that thinking about her daughter at all causes deep feelings of inadequacy, rather than pride in the various ways that she did succeed as a mother. Reflecting on Emily’s relationship with her sister Susan, the narrator says, “I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurts and needs I had to do between the two, and did so badly, in those earlier years.” In evaluating her work as a mother, the narrator focuses not on the amount or difficulty of the work she did, but on what she perceives she did badly. Olsen implies that responsibility itself makes the narrator focus on negative outcomes, keeping her stuck between her obligation to her daughters and her concern that she is failing them.
In addition to causing the narrator pain, the dual pressures of responsibility and guilt ultimately make it harder for her to continue the effort of parenting Emily. Of raising small children, the narrator comments that “the ear is not one’s own” but rather belongs to the calls of the child. Olsen seems to say that, paradoxically, this very state of devotion causes the listener’s sense of self to vanish, thus reducing her ability to fulfill the role of mother. The narrator often lacks confidence in her own version of events, admitting of one memory: “I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.” She wishes to do as directed and make meaning out of Emily’s story, but after her long years of combined responsibility and doubt, she is left unsure how to do so. Toward the end of the story, the narrator finds that her attempts to understand her past with Emily have left her less able to tolerate the remarks of the real, present-day Emily. She says: “Because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.” Again, Olsen demonstrates that delving into the burdens of motherhood does not necessarily improve one’s ability to act as a mother; in fact, such exploration may do the opposite.
Responsibility and Guilt ThemeTracker
Responsibility and Guilt Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing
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.
[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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.