The story has relatively little action. The narrator is a working woman in her forties who spends all the time of the story at the ironing board. The whole action is confined to one room, but in her thoughts the narrator spans the period of several decades, rushing back to the time when her daughter was born. She is talking to herself, as if answering in her mind to someone’s queries concerning her elder daughter. The story is written in the stream-of-consciousness vein. I believe that the main idea of the story is the woman’s sense of guilt for the failures in her daughter’s education.
Now she feels that something is wrong with her daughter, and wishes to be able to correct the daughter’s and to establish a different relationship with her.
Mother, called Susan, recalls the difficult times she experienced after her daughter was born. Those were the times of the Great Depression, and the woman was only nineteen. The girl was born into a “pre-war, pre-WPA world of depression” (Olsen 1989:2). The mother had to fight the plight of so many working mothers who were not able to bring up their children on their own as they had to work. ”Her father left me before she was a year old,” she recalls (Olsen 1989:2). The man was unable to share poverty with his family any longer, an existence conditioned by the Great Depression. Mother was forced to devote much time to her work, and thus was not able to build a successful relationship with her child. Even as the girl was several months old, the mother had to leave her to the nurse who was a strange person to the girl and did not treat her as a little wonder that she was to her mother.
Emily (the daughter) had always been a sickly child, fighting with asthma. Probably this defect also contributed to the wall that arose between mother and child.
Mother was probably underestimating the daughter. The mother was surprised when Emily all of a sudden won the first prize in her school amateur show. In this show she first discovered her gift for performing that was to win her fame and recognition later. Now she is recognized as a performer and a sparkling comedian, and her performances are popular in the city and state.
As the mother continues with her ironing, the daughter bursts into the room, interrupting her mother’s even flow of thought. She says irritably, “Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, mother?” (Olsen 1989:10). Emily wants to sleep longer in the morning even though she may be late for her midterm exams.
The story ends on a more optimistic compared to the initial subdued feeling. Mother realizes that her worries about Emily’s future might have been futile. She says, once again speaking to some imaginable person in her mind: “Why were you so concerned? She will find her way.” And then she begs, “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” (Olsen 1989:12).
The story, as I mentioned before, offers little action and is mainly focused on the internal action that is going on in the mother’s soul. The story does not provide any solutions to the raised questions, although the end is indeed hopeful. Throughout the story, the mother continues with her ironing. The author emphasizes the monotonous character of her work: she was moving “back and forth with the iron,” (Olsen 1989:4). and her thought seems to proceed in a similar fashion. The central idea of mother’s guilt before her child that arises due to alienation and lack of understanding between the two is supported throughout the story. Now she regrets her behavior in the past, but unfortunately she has to admit: “My wisdom came too late” (Olsen 1989:7). The mother probably tried to craft a relationship with her eldest daughter, but she was not successful due to her business at work and her daughter’s awkwardness. In the end the mother feels guilty for the daughter’s characters linking them to the things she failed to accomplish as educator. She recalls her neighbor telling her that she needs to “smile at Emily more when you look at her” (Olsen 1989:4).
Part of the reason why mother was not able to get through to her daughter was that she gave preference to her other daughter who seemed to have more social success as she was better endowed with qualities that people considered popular. Susan was “quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not” (Olsen 1989:7). Emily was beautiful as a girl and was a miracle to her mother, but was considered to be plain later on. In addition to the physical limitation, Emily’s asthma, the striking difference between the two girls contributed to the mother’s unwillingness to pay more attention to Emily.
The story reflects Tillie Olsen’s belief that capitalism adversely impacts human development and her awareness of the women’s condition in America (Coiner). The story alludes to Olsen’s troubles as a young mother. Tillie Olsen herself worked in the time of the depression as a “tie presser, a meat trimmer, a domestic worker and a waitress” (Classic Notes)