The narrator stands working at her ironing board, responding mentally to a request someone (a teacher? a social worker?) makes of her regarding her daughter Emily, "I wish you could manage the time to come in and talk with me . . . She's a youngster who needs help." The woman's thoughts go back to Emily's birth during the Depression when she was only 19, and her thoughts range forward, haltingly, in piecemeal fashion, through her daughter's difficult childhood.

Due to the wages of loss, poverty and dislocation, a wall has grown up between mother and daughter--she has always wanted to love the sickly, awkward, stiff, and isolated girl, but has not been able to penetrate the wall. And then, she recalls, out of nowhere Emily won first prize in her school amateur show. The girl is a natural performer, a wonderful comedienne, who now is in demand throughout the city and state.

Suddenly, Emily appears on the scene. "Aren't you ever going to finish the ironing, mother?" She says that she wants to sleep in the morning, even though this will make her late for mid-term exams. Near the end of the story the narrator imagines telling her interlocutor, "Why were you so concerned? She will find her way." But then she implores, "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."


Tillie Olsen was a high school dropout, who raised four children and supported them with a series of low-paying jobs in the 1930s through 1950s. When she was in her mid-forties, she returned to writing regularly. Three of the four stories included in Tell Me a Riddle were published separately during the late 1950's, and Tell Me a Riddle [see annotation in this database] won the O'Henry Award for the best short story of 1961. In 1974 Ms. Olsen published Yonnondio, an unfinished short novel that she indicates "was begun in 1932 in Faribault, Minnesota, when the author was nineteen, and worked on intermittently into 1936 or perhaps 1937 . . . " Silences, a collection of essays appeared in 1978.

Though her body of work is small, Tillie Olsen's unique perceptiveness and style have made her an important American writer. In "I Stand Here Ironing," not much happens: the narrator irons some dresses and exchanges a few words with her daughter. The real action is internal, a form of biographical free association reflected in Olsen's fragmented style. There is no climax, no answer, no satisfactory conclusion--just the mother's tormented moving mentally "back and forth with the iron." Yet the story ends on a hopeful, or at least prayerful, note.

Primary Source

Tell Me a Riddle



Place Published

New York



Page Count