‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olsen

Olsen, Tillie 1961

I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen, 1961

The magic trick:

Delivering a harsh lesson in the value of point of view

Point of view is everything. If you don’t believe me, read “I Stand Here Ironing.” Olsen pulls off a nasty little trick. She puts the reader into the story through the eyes of the mother. It’s all sympathy, excuses, explanations, very defensive. The daughter doesn’t coming off looking so great. She’s a mess. She’s a failure. Maybe even crazy.

But wait, what is this? Emily appears in the mother’s story in the present tense. No more backstory. The reader is for the first time able to assess the situation without the mother’s bias. She doesn’t seem like a mess. Certainly not a failure. She seems happy. Maybe even on the brink of tremendous success.

Everything is flipped. The words of concern at the beginning were probably words of hope. It’s a brilliant twist, even if the reader’s sense of what’s what is left spinning. And that’s quite a trick on Olsen’s part.

The selection:

I used to try to hold and lover her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.

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