Friday, August 5, 2011

Conflict and Self-Conflict in Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing"

In her short story "I Stand Here Ironing," Tillie Olsen explores a woman's conflict with her oldest child, Emily, and with herself as a mother. As narrator, the unnamed mother offers an unwilling recollection of events that contribute to Emily's developmental difficulties throughout her childhood and adolescence. The mother's interpretation of those events is hindered by her belief that the past controls the present. Even on those rare occasions when she seems to be on the verge of insight, she mentally retreats to another memory, unconsciously avoiding any sense of responsibility for Emily's problems.

Emily's greatest problem is her abject fear of abandonment, understandable in light of her many separations from her mother. She lives with her paternal grandparents on at least one occasion and endures a lengthy stay at a rigidly administered convalescent home. Her fear seems vindicated by other losses in her life. Her father leaves before she is old enough to know him. At the convalescent home, she makes a friend only to have her sent somewhere else. When she develops a childhood crush and tempts the boy with his favourite candy, he likes another girl better. Life teaches Emily that to love is to lose.

Her passion for her keepsakes is indicative of her need to have something constant in her life. People are too far beyond her reach. Pebbles and postcards, beads and bottle tops: they could never abandon her. Each item is equally precious to her. They are her world, and she is mistress of all she surveys. Her younger sister, Susan, through her careless handling of Emily's possessions, is a threat to the kingdom.

Moreover, Susan is Emily's rival for their mother's attention and seemingly better equipped to win. Physically and emotionally, the two sisters are polar opposites. Susan is the golden child, cuter and quicker than Emily, and the early recipient of all the benefits of her mother's hard-earned wisdom.

Emily is the experimental model, never intended to fly.

Against all expectations, she finds her wings, buried under a lifetime of uncertainty. Emily begins to realize her latent potential when she wins her high school's amateur show with her comedy routine. That is her greatest success and her mother's greatest failure. Emily needs support and encouragement to develop her talent and find something special within herself, yet her mother pleads ignorance of the workings of the entertainment industry and is unwilling to learn. The responsibility for making something of her talent is placed on Emily's shoulders. Trapped in solitude for most of her young life, she is expected to find her way in a strange land. Without any guidance, she becomes lost.

In truth, some of the formative events of Emily's life are beyond the mother's control. Abandoned by Emily's father at age 19, she struggles to make a living and has little time to be a mother. Emily is a child of the Great Depression; her mother, like so many people, cannot afford the luxury of placing individual feelings before the more mundane matters of day-to-day survival. When economic conditions improve, Emily's mother has other children who need her care. The second child, Susan, arrives at a time when Emily is ill and unable to be near either the newborn or their mother.

The mother's methods of dealing with the events in her own life contribute to Emily's problems over the years. Emily is sent to live with her father's family for at least a year, sometime between eight months and two years of age, during which time her tenuous bond with her mother is easily severed; mother and daughter become strangers to each other. When Emily returns, her mother perceives her as being very much like her errant father in appearance, "all the baby loveliness gone." Perhaps that changed perception--that ever-present, living reminder of the man who left her to fend for herself and their baby--influences the mother's attitude toward and treatment of Emily in the ensuing years.

The mother resists any open acknowledgement of the effect she has on Emily's emotional development. Even as she reviews all the relevant events of Emily's life, she fails to see the pattern forming in her mind. Emily is her child, dependent upon her for support and guidance, which she is incapable of providing as a young, single mother. She makes her parenting mistakes with Emily and applies the lessons learned to her younger children. Tragically, she fails to correct the effects of her errors on Emily.

Even when she seems to acknowledge the damage that her choices inflict on Emily, the mother claims ignorance of alternative courses of action. That sad trait is most pronounced in her failure to try to find a way to promote Emily's comic talent. "So all that is in her will not bloom--but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by." With those words, the mother consigns Emily to a wholly ordinary life, devoid of dreams and purpose, barely enough to enable Emily, or anyone else, to get by.

The mother allows her early failures and shortcomings to dictate the means by which she deals with Emily in later years. In a vicious cycle of neglect, however unintentional, the mother allows Emily to pull away from her, little by little. Gradually, she convinces herself that Emily neither wants nor needs any special care. Furthermore, she erroneously believes that there is no redemption for her past mistakes and no hope of reversing patterns of behaviour, either in herself or in Emily. In the mother's view, the past is beyond the influence of the present and the present is forever controlled by the past.

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