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.
Time Theme Icon

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 and hopeful suggests that, in this story, growth and pain are inextricably linked. The narrator spends the entire story trying to separate the good and the bad of Emily’s development, but perhaps this isn’t possible. Just as the passage of time connects negative changes to positive ones, human potential—whether the narrator’s or Emily’s—can only be reached through painful experiences.

The narrator frequently states that she made certain parenting choices because of time pressures. When the story opens, for example, the person on the phone asks that the narrator “manage the time” to talk about Emily. This simple request seems impossible to the narrator, who feels that there will never be enough time “to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total.” This reaction immediately makes clear that, for the narrator, time is overwhelming and impossible to manage. Throughout the story, the narrator seems beholden to time: she recounts that she always nursed Emily “till the clock decreed,” even when doing so was painful. Similarly, she sends Emily to nursery school because “they said” she was old enough — that it was time for Emily to go. The narrator repeatedly ignores her own instincts in order to do as the clock tells her. This opposition between the narrator’s natural impulses and the clock’s external force indicates that the forward motion of time is not just inconvenient; it is actually a painful restriction on the narrator’s sense of self. In an extension of the clock’s tyrannical force in the narrator’s life, it soon becomes a genuinely terrifying presence for Emily. When her parents leave her home alone, she is afraid to feel the time passing and tells them that “the clock talked loud” and scared her. Olsen suggests that the terror Emily feels is tied to the fact that time passing means permanent change, since Emily is especially afraid on the night that her sister Susan is born. That Emily reacts to such change with fear rather than excitement illustrates the reality that, in this story, growth is portrayed as being necessarily painful.

While time passing is actively frightening when it pushes people to action, time is perhaps more powerful in the story when it fails to produce change at all, as in the narrator’s life of repeated actions and chores. This stasis, however, can have unexpectedly positive effects. The narrator says of her years with several young children: “I do not remember them well.” Instead of recalling specific memories, she mentions a series of repetitive chores and activities that absorbed her and Emily. For example, the narrator mentions the constant process of “trying to get lunches packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found” She calls these patterns part of “Emily’s seal,” indicating that such repetition may eventually have come to dominate Emily’s life. Meanwhile, Emily jokes that if she were to paint a picture of her mother, she would show her “standing over an ironing board.” While this domestic labor has been crucial to helping Emily (and presumably her siblings) progress through childhood, it has simultaneously trapped the narrator in one place. This tension between imprisonment and forward motion underscores the broader point in the story that growth cannot be achieved without a related sense of restriction. The story’s title and structure reinforce the idea that the narrator’s life is marked by stasis. All of the story’s action takes place in recollection, with the repetitive movement of the iron serving as the narrator’s only real motion throughout. The title, too, states the narrator’s action in plain present tense, seeming to suggest that, for the narrator, the present will always mean ironing. However, the narrator conveys complex and meaningful information to the reader while stuck in this pose, even though she says initially that she won’t be able to. Only by surrendering to time’s strictures, it seems, can the narrator make progress toward the goals she fears are impossible. Indeed, even Emily herself seems to be reborn from the repetitive days of her childhood into the older, freer Emily who appears at the end of the story.

Despite the tensions and pain that the passage of time brings to the narrator and Emily, it is also responsible for the glimmers of hope that appear toward the end of the story. Emily’s offhand comment about dying from an atomic bombing indicates that for her, the idea of the future will always contain fear and danger. Still, she makes the comment cheerfully, while giving her mother a kiss. This tonal contrast demonstrates that Emily, unlike the narrator, has moved beyond being paralyzed by her fear of the clock’s voice. The fear remains, but Emily has grown into a young woman who can acknowledge the pressure of the future without letting it immobilize her. The narrator expresses tentative hope that Emily’s future will be better than the narrator’s past. Although the narrator seems unsure of whether this wish will come true, it already has in one important way. Emily is 19, the same age that the narrator was when Emily was born, but instead of caring for an infant and working for pay, Emily is taking exams and performing as a comedian. Already, Emily has begun to reinvent herself in a way that was impossible for her mother. This transformation illustrates that although many challenges remain, the passage of time has caused a generational shift that provides new opportunities for Emily.

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Time ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Time appears in each chapter of I Stand Here Ironing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Time Quotes in I Stand Here Ironing

Below you will find the important quotes in I Stand Here Ironing related to the theme of Time.
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:

“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:

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:

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: