Symbolism in Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing"

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For those of us with children, I think we all have had moments where we reflect and wonder if we have done the best that we could with the resources available to us. Have I given my children the life that they deserve? Unfortunately, we do not always have the luxury of knowing how our efforts and sacrifices will affect the ones’ it is meant to benefit. In Tillie Olsen’s short story “I Stand Here Ironing”, we will briefly examine the symbolism of food and nutrition, the convalescent home, and the iron as they relate to the strained relationship between Emily and her mother. We can assume that the story covers a fairly long time span, beginning in the era of The Great Depression “1929-1932” (Fischer) and moves through the 1950’s and as one may ascertain, basic life necessities, like food and nutrition, were not easy to come by for a working class family supported by a single mother constantly looking for reliable work. When Emily was born she was nursed, like most infants, from her mother’s breasts and her mother describes her as a beautiful child, “the first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth” (Olsen 232). Food for Emily was plentiful and she was happy in her mother’s care. Eight months pass and we see the first signs of a change in Emily as her father abandons them and her mother is forced to find work leaving “her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all” (Olsen 233). No longer is she the joyous, playful baby her mother had raised. Now, Emily cries at the sight of her, “a clogged weeping that could not be comforted” (Olsen 233). Emily’s mother eventually has to send her to live with her ex-husband’s family for about a year, so that she may focus on work. Several years after Emily returned her mother had another baby, Susan. Sick with a fever, Emily could not see her mother or new sister for a week.

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