"You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me."
In her meditation on Emily's present condition and the past that shaped it, Emily's mother at first denies responsibility for Emily's development. This quote asserts that mother and daughter are fundamentally distinct, each a separate individual. Although Emily is obviously tied to her mother, she is also her own person, shaped by outside circumstances that happened "beyond" the mother. By extension, the narrator is here asserting her own separateness as an individual. She refuses to be "a key" to unlock Emily, meaning she does not want to be defined solely by her role as a parent. This idea, which certainly helps understand "I Stand Here Ironing," is also one that manifests continually throughout the entire collection.
"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 for 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 that she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. Se has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear."
Here, Emily's mother expresses the impossibility of completely understanding an individual. She cannot "total" all of Emily's experiences, not only because she is not Emily, but also because a person is more than the sum of her experiences. The quote uses contradiction and irony - the mother claims to never "total it all," yet then attempts to total what she considers the prevalent points of Emily's existence. This contradiction asserts the impossibility of completely understanding an individual, while also asserting the complexity of female subjects in a time when women were not as valued as men. The subtext suggests that we are entirely the products of our times, and yet so much more.
"Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom - but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know - help make it so there is cause for her to know that she is more than this dress on the ironing-board, helpless before the iron."
Here, Emily's mother laments the tragic reality for many females, who are prohibited from exploring their talents, from giving themselves a voice, by social pressures that will 'iron,' or define, them into a "helpless" cloth. Despite its defeatist tone, the narrator's use of the iron metaphor does provide some cause for hope, however. Even if Emily cannot achieve her fullest potential (as a comedian), she can hopefully stay strong enough to resist forces that try to quash her individuality. Perhaps she will be able to be more than "this dress...helpless before the iron." That is what women must work for, some form of individuation and agency against the cultural forces around them.
"In his sleep he speaks often and loudly, sometimes moans, and toward morning begins the trembling. He wakes into an unshared silence he does not recognize, accustomed so to the various voices of the sea, the multi-pitch of those with whom sleep as well as work and food is shared; the throb of engines, churn of the propeller; or hazed through drink the noises of the street or the thin walls like ears - magnifying into lives as senseless as one's own."
As Whitey struggles to sleep at Lennie and Helen's house, we see a picture of a life disrupted and rootless. He cannot sleep without the chaotic noise of the ocean and the restless motion that accompanies it. In the final sentence of the quote, we see why he needs these distractions - he feels his life to be senseless and meaningless. Elsewhere in the chapter, he sings a cheeky song about how life is worthless without a wife or a child, reinforcing this interpretation. In this passage, we understand why he continues to visit Lennie and Helen - he needs the tie to humanity that they provide him. By painting Whitey as a man totally ostracized from normal society, Olsen gives us a glimpse of the true pain and loneliness that comes from full individuality posed against a society that begs us at every turn to conform.
"Of course he belongs here, he's a part of us. Jeannie, this is the only house in the world he can come into and be around people without having to pay."
Here, Helen rebukes Jeannie for suggesting they kick Whitey out. Although Helen has her own frustrations with Whitey, she understands his value to them, and theirs to him. In short, she is capable of empathy. She tries to explain that he is used to "having to pay" for companionship, which evokes the loneliness of Whitey's daily life. And yet the alcohol and promiscuity he finds in bars do not truly nourish him; instead, what he truly needs is companionship to give his life purpose. In many ways, what Helen preaches here is a manifesto for the entire collection; it summarizes Olsen's implicit argument, which is that we must learn to listen to and understand one another, even when it is difficult.
"Not everybody feels religion in the same way. Some it's in their mouth, but some it's like a hope in their blood, their bones. And they singing songs every word that's real to them, Carol, every word out of they own life. And the preaching finding lodgment in their hearts...And they're home, Carol, church is home. Maybe the only place they can feel how they feel and maybe let it come out. So they can go on. And it's all right."
After Carol nearly faints at the worship service, Alva tries to explain to her the overwhelming emotion of the service. For many members of their church, life is so oppressive and difficult that the only place they find freedom is at church. Religion offers an emotional freedom that they feel with all their bodies. Carol tries to tune out this reality and ignore the intense emotion, but this moment persists to profoundly change the way she views society. In a story that explores the way individual desires are quashed by social pressures, this depiction of a safe, cordoned off, community is meant to be a positive alternative to oppression, a place where the voiceless are given a voice.
"Thinking: caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched....Yet how will you sustain?
Why is it like it is?
Sheltering her daughter close, mourning the illusion of the embrace.
And why do I have to care?
While in her, her own need leapt and plunged for the place of strength that was not - where one could scream or sorrow while all knew and accepted, and gloved and loving hands waited to support and understand."
Suffering from fever and overwhelmed by the pains of empathy she feels for the African-American community she witnessed at Parry's church, Carol is a mess of confusion at the end of this story. This confusion is reflected in the non-conventional narrative style of the passage above. However, despite being an adult, Helen is equally confused. Ultimately, what Helen realizes in this passage is that she must encourage her daughter to confront painful riddles rather than ignoring them for the sake of blissful ignorance. Ultimately, the reader is also supposed to receive this message, to grapple with this affective emotional knowledge to realize that "caring asks doing." Even if the riddle cannot be solved, we must confront it.
"Being able at last to live within, and not move to the rhythms of others, as life had forced her to: denying; removing; isolating; taking the children one by one; then deafening, half-blinding - and at last, presenting her solitude."
This quote illustrates the central conflict between David and Eva in "Tell Me a Riddle." Eva, who has lived her whole life for her family, now craves time to herself. Trapped by poverty and social conventions, she has been unable to carve out an independent life for herself, and she cherishes the quiet solitude she discovers once her children are gone, as a reward. The passage's structure reflects these ideas of separation and solitude. By separating the clauses with semi-colons, Olson forces the reader to take them one at a time, much as Eva had to take her children. The passage also reflects the structure of Eva's life, moving from a chaotic construction to a calm ending that praises solitude.
"Singing. Unused the life in them. She in this poor room with her pictures Max You The children Everywhere unused the life And who has meaning? Century after century still all in us not to grow?"
As Eva and David rest in Mrs. May's tiny one-room apartment, Eva begins to sob and sing, before having a nervous breakdown as reflected in the above passage. She mourns Mrs. May's life here, noting how her old friend is separated from her children and husband into a life of abject poverty. This passage is relevant because she is finally able to express herself fully, to express everything she repressed when she was younger. Obviously, she is reflecting upon herself, and not just Mrs. May. This is an over-arching theme within Tillie Olsen's work, the idea of bringing a voice to the voiceless, bringing expression to unspoken experiences. Here, Eva tries to combat the "unused" in her life and find meaning in it. Even if she fails to find it, it is a triumph that she is attempting to do so.
"'Left us indeed, Mrs. Babbler,' he reproached, 'you who called others babbler and cunningly save your words. A lifetime you tended and loved, and now not a word of us, for us. Left us indeed? Left me.'"
As Eva lies on her deathbed, David complains that she now speaks so incessantly after a lifetime of so much silence. What the reader understands is that Eva has finally find a voice after having repressed that voice for so long. However, it is in this moment that David begins to realize not only that she has repressed herself, but also that her inner life has been divorced from the reality of him and the children. What she talks about on her deathbed has nothing to do with their life together. Instead, she chooses to discuss the life she always desired but never pursued. David feels alienated and sad, and ultimately grows more empathetic, even though it is almost too late.
Tell Me a Riddle Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tell Me a Riddle is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Tell Me a Riddle study guide contains a biography of Tillie Olsen, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of the collected short stories, including I Stand Here Ironing.