The narrator (Emily's mother) is ironing as she speaks to someone from her daughter Emily's school. Emily is a 19 year old girl, and the figure - whose exact position is unspecified - has contacted the narrator for guidance in "helping" Emily (1). Only the narrator speaks throughout the story.
After admitting that she herself does not quite understand Emily, the narrator reflects on the girl's past. Emily was a beautiful baby, full of life and happiness. When she was just eight months old, however, her father left them because he "could no longer endure sharing want with [them]" (2).
Because she was only nineteen at the time, Emily's mother left the infant with neighbors while she looked for work, and eventually had to leave her more long-term with the father's family so she could save money. While there, Emily contracted chicken pox, which replaced her beauty with pock-marks. Eventually, Emily's mother sent the girl to a nursery school, even though Emily vehemently begged not to go. However, the mother had no choice because she had to work.
The narrator admits that she never smiled enough at Emily, as she did her other children. With Emily, her first, she only ever expressed a worried face, which has turned the girl into a somber, closed-off person. Emily performs comedy now, and the narrator admits that the girl can reveal a fluid expressiveness while performing, though she insists that this expressiveness is a mask hiding an otherwise dour disposition.
Emily's mother tells how she eventually got remarried, thereby easing the family's financial burdens. However, Emily was often left alone during those times, and grew anxious. While the narrator was in the hospital delivering her second daughter, Susan, Emily contracted red measles and was therefore unable to see her mother or the new baby for two weeks.
Unfortunately, Emily did not recover easily from the measles, and suffered significant weight loss and terrible nightmares. The narrator was unable to comfort the girl because of her fatigue, and now realizes that Emily no longer even wants her mother's caresses and comfort.
Eventually, social workers persuaded Emily's mother to send her to a clinic where she could convalesce. Though the clinic had beautiful grounds, conditions there were unfortunately bad. The children received no nurturing, and were not even allowed to keep their letters from home. Further, because the food was terrible, Emily did not regain any weight. Finally, after eight months of Emily's negligible progress, a social worker allowed Emily to return home to her family.
Emily's appearance did not improve even after returning home, and she grew lonely and dissatisfied because of pressures at school to conform to the "Shirley Temple" ideal (7). She had a crush on one boy, who did not return her kindness. Her teachers categorized her as a slow learner, and she often pretended to be ill to stay home. Though the narrator did not always believe Emily's claims, she regularly allowed the girl to stay home nevertheless.
Emily has a poisonous relationship with her younger sister Susan, a beautiful, charming girl who embodies everything that Emily lacks. Emily's mother mourns that Emily had to grow up in a superficial and jealous world where physical appearance mattered too much.
In the present, the narrator's youngest child, Ronnie, calls to her. As she changes his diaper, he whispers the word "Shoogily," and she explains that Emily used that work to mean "comfort" when she was a child (9). It is one of the few ways that Emily has directly impacted the family.
Emily's mother reflects further on Emily's childhood years, how Emily had to act as second mother to the three younger children because the mother was always working. Because of this, Emily rarely had time to take care of herself. While the mother was busy - ironing, cooking, writing to her husband Bill (who was dispatched overseas during the war) - Emily would amuse her siblings by imitating people from school.
Noting Emily's talent for imitations, the narrator suggested that Emily perform for the school talent show. Emily took her advice, won first prize, and then became a local star, performing at other high schools, colleges, and state-wide affairs. Though adoring fans often told the narrator that she should nurture Emily's gift and help her pursue it professionally, the mother does not know how to do that.
In the present, Emily enters, joking about how her mother is always ironing. She refuses to to come meet the figure from her school, however. Emily insists that her mother not wake her the next morning for school, even though she has mid-terms, since the atomic bomb will destroy everyone soon anyway, making mid-terms irrelevant. Once Emily leaves, the narrator admits her concern that Emily actually has such a pessimistic outlook.
To close, the narrator insists that Emily will be okay, and that she will not come into school to talk further. She wants the school figure to "let her be" (12). The narrator claims she can never "total it all," all of Emily's pain from childhood, and she mourns that Emily has had to keep too much inside of herself. Finally, the narrator asks the figure from school only to make sure Emily understands that "she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron" (12).
More than anything, "I Stand Here Ironing" is a masterful use of first-person narration. So much is merely implied in the story, which is believable because a person telling her own story would see no need to provide exposition that she would take for granted. For instance, the exact identity of the interviewer is never provided, but we come to understand that it is a figure from Emily's school, a teacher or guidance counselor. Further, the exact time period is never specified, but can be assumed to be the 1950s based on what is provided. What this point of view requires is that the reader dig into the character's voice to understand the situation, while also reinforcing the idea that this mother does not - and cannot ever - full understand the depths of her daughter's pain and personality. She tells the girl's story to try and understand, but can only approach it. She can never "total it all."
What stands out in the narrator's depiction of Emily is how she emphasizes the differences between them. She refuses to be considered a "key" to unlocking the girl - Emily is too separate from her, owing both to their different personalities and their years spent apart during Emily's childhood years. Therefore, it is possible to understand the narrator's quest here as one to not only understand Emily, but also to define herself. In telling her story, the narrator is trying to transcend her identity as a parent, to declare herself as a more complete and complex individual who has also suffered the types of disappointments that now haunt her daughter.
In particular, the narrator seems to understand her story as one of a female. It is telling that the only male mentioned in the story is a helpless infant; men have been of little use to the narrator in her life, outside of the second husband's financial support. Emily's childhood struggles can easily be understood in terms of gender, particularly in terms of the "Shirley Temple" ideal that she does not easily represent. Because a woman is expected to be beautiful, Emily entered society handicapped. That her pain can be explained by social forces means little; all that matters to society is whether she is beautiful. Seen this way, the mother is celebrating Emily's ability to transcend these expectations through comic performance, to find an identity that refuses oppression.
This idea, of the repressed female, provides a unifying thread throughout "I Stand Here Ironing," and much of Tillie Olsen's other work. In giving the overburdened stay-at-home mother a voice, Tillie Olsen performs a great feat, by raising awareness of an entire facet of the population. The narrative does not shy away from this purpose. For instance, Emily jokes that a painted portrait of her mother would include an ironing board. This simple joke reminds us how trapped the mother has been by both social forces and expectations, which have required any of her talents to be subsumed into a woman's duties. It is telling that the mother is never given a name, as though to suggest her identify has been quashed by the forces outside of her.
Though she has her performance to distinguish her, Emily too reflects these pressures. The narrator insists that the girl's seeming joyousness actually masks an underlying solemnity. Try as she might, Emily understands the forces that oppress her. Having had to be a mother from an unusually young age, she knows how hard a woman must work to be recognized, and this realization had skewed her perspective much as it has her mother's.
It is useful to understand these themes in terms of the story's social and historical context. As Emily's mother notes, Emily is a product of the Great Depression and World War II (as is the narrator herself). These forces exacerbated the family's crippling poverty. World War II, in particular, created an interesting situation for women. On the one hand, it liberated women somewhat, as women were called to replace men in the workforce while men fought (this situation reversed once men returned). On the other hand, World War II also widowed many mothers, creating a slew of new pressures. Emily references one of the war's biggest legacies towards the story's end - the atom bomb. Here, the atom bomb functions as a metaphor for the crushing power of cultural forces. What does it matter if Emily and her mother are individuals, when at any moment, they can be crushed and destroyed, either by oppressive outside forces or nuclear war? The narrator is saddened to admit that Emily has not been fully able to transcend the expectations that had already quashed the narrator herself.
All of these themes are explored through the metaphor of ironing. Ironing, one of the most important and repetitive tasks in the narrator's life, provides a way of understanding the story. On the one hand, the iron can be seen as a manifestation of how Emily's mother examines the past. Much as an iron moves repeatedly over the fabric, the narrator constantly revisits the past, hoping to finally smooth out its rough edges and gain understanding. The narrative style reflects this approach, as the narrator shifts between time periods with little explicit transition between them.
However, more importantly, ironing serves as a metaphor for the position of the individual under the cultural forces of society. While Emily's mother cannot resist the iron and the cultural forces it represents, she hopes Emily will be able to see herself beyond that, to become an individual who refuses to yield to and be defined by it.
The narrator cannot ultimately smooth out her past, which is why she quits trying at the story's end. However, she likewise refuses to be dampened by her failure. It is important to realize that while Olsen explores all these themes of cultural oppression, she likewise presents her protagonist as a hero. The woman will not be seen as a victim - instead, she tells this figure to leave them alone, to acknowledge that Emily will be fine. That she hopes Emily will do better than she herself has done is not an admission of failure - it is merely hope that her children will confront a better world than she has.
Finally, this distinction between mother and child can be read as a metaphor for the relationship between an author and her work. An author can conceive of a work and deliver it into the world, but once it leaves the author's body, it is shaped by forces outside of the author's control. This lack of control could be particularly true for a female author in Olsen's time, since a woman's work could be seriously limited and marred by oppressive cultural forces. The motherhood metaphor within "I Stand Here Ironing" also illustrates how many profound (female) experiences had been neglected by literature. Marginalized to the home, interesting and complex experiences like motherhood or femininity offer rich narratives, which had not yet been fully explored. Seen this way, this story serves as a declaration of individuality not only for the narrator, but for Tillie Olsen herself.