Fault and Innocence in Tillie Olsen Term Paper

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Fault and innocence in Tillie Olsen's "I Stand here Ironing"

In "I Stand Here Ironing," Tillie Olsen tells the story of a working class mother whose oldest daughter has grown odd and pained and alienated from the world. She painstakingly describes the process by which a beautiful, and good baby becomes increasingly disenfranchised from the world. The story is framed by a request at the beginning that she come talk to someone (assumably a teacher) regarding her daughter's welfare, and at the end by her decision to refrain from going because she does not know what to say of the difficulties of the girl's life other than to pray the girl learns to overcome her circumstances rather than yielding to them. This final conclusion suggests an idea of free will -- positing that the individual can transcend the "press" of reality, as it were, to fashion their own destiny. At the same time, the conclusion does not deny that the iron of reality does deeply affect the individual. With this idea in mind, it is self-evident that any fault regarding the trouble which has overshadowed Emily's life is shared by all those involved. This fault which has scarred Emily, such as it is, is both cultural, familial, and personal.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Term Paper on Fault and Innocence in Tillie Olsen's I Assignment

The cultural/social flaws are relatively prominent in the story, and the temptation presents itself to blame the narrator's failures in parenting entirely on then difficult situation in which she found herself. The narrator herself leans towards this solution at times. It is not fair to blame the entirety of these troubles on the surrounding historical setting, but it is fair to acknowledge certain flaws in the surrounding culture without which the same problems would not have arisen. These flaws are evident from the very beginning of the story, when the narrator describes the way she left her baby crying and alone. "I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling...I waited till the clock decreed." (Olsen, 203-204) Many psychologists believe, and this story implies, that leaving a baby to cry leads to a more solitary and wary child. That this mother did so was not because she was personally unfeeling, but because she had a bad cultural imperative to follow. However, the fault of society becomes more evident farther in, when Emily is sent to a series of bad situations because her mother cannot avoid them. For example, at the nursery school she attends, "the teacher was evil..." And the other students cruel to her. However, the narrator explains: "I did not know... The fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life...except that there would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was." (Olsen, 204) it was the strains of society that required the narrator work, even when she would rather stay with her daughter. It was also the fault of the cultural/historical setting that the nursery school was not a good and nurturing place. Latter, Emily is consigned to a convalescent home. This convalescent home seems to truly break her spirit, so that when she comes back she is unwilling to share any physical affection with her mother. The fact that a convalescent home has rules that say the children are "Not to Be Contaminated by Parental Germs of Physical Affection" (Olsen, 206) and that they are so abusive that a child has cause to say, "They don't like you to love anybody here." (Olsen, 206)

The repressive, cold nature of the era obviously affects her, as does the depression which drives her mother to work outside the home. The paranoia of the war years also affects her, as she says, "In a couple years...we'll all be atom-dead." (Olsen, 208) Obviously, the difficult times in which she lives makes it hard for her to foresee that the future will be any better than the past, or that there is anything in reality which can be trusted. Yet the society alone is not at fault, for if that were the case surely all Emily's siblings would have the same difficulties.

Emily's problems stem also from her unique position in her family. Her father left when she was very young, and she spent her early years in an unstable and broken family, shuffled between homes. "It came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.... when she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous...thin...all the baby lovelieness gone." (Olsen, 204) it is evident even in this little transition how difficult it is for the girl to be constantly moving between caretakers. This problem is made worse when she has to go to her relatives once again, and comes back very stricken seeming. "There was none of [comedy/lightness] in her when she came back to me that second time... she had a new daddy now to learn to love..." (Olsen, 205) Emily's distance from the world, her diffidence, and her shyness may all be partly a result of the trauma she suffered when her father abandoned her and then she underwent many more abandonment experiences as her mother sent her to various relatives. Moreover, even when she gets a new father, her stepfather is barely mentioned in the story, and one wonders what happens between him and his daughter!

What is certain is that he steals Emily's mother away from her in many ways, such as when he takes her out at night and leaves Emily (then less than five years old) home alone crying and delirious. The way in which the new children at first seem to replace Emily (she is not allowed near the new baby, and is actually sent away when it comes) was no doubt very damaging to her sense of trust in the world. Additionally, as she gets older Emily is forced to take responsibility of caring for the younger children, who interfere with her ability to do her schoolwork and take care of herself. One can easily picture Emily as the victim of a sad fairy tale, in which a wicked stepfather and stepsisters come in and relegate the first, true daughter to a position of inferiority and servitude in the family.

Of course, the most obvious villain in this story, if there can be such a thing, is the mother. She is languishing in her own guilt, and for the reader this is an open invitation to blame her for the many problems in her life and in Emily's. Of course, the mother herself is the victim of circumstances -- she was abandoned by her husband and oppressed by a system that values one's ability to perform paid work over one's ability to care for children. Yet the mother is an adult, albeit a very young adult at the beginning of the story. She has the ability to stand up to the pressures of society and to protect her child, and yet she does not. She is, as she wishes her child to be, "more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." (Olsen, 209) So there is a very large degree to which she is guilty of all the things which she allows to come before her child's welfare. There are certainly excuses, and the mother makes them profusely. "She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor...I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother....My wisdom came to late." (Olsen, 209) the mother's crimes against her child are what take up the greater part of the story, and as such deserve special attention.

In the early years, the mother's failures are relatively innocent. She fails to provide a sense of safety for the infant mainly because she has read in books that it is best to make a feeding schedule. She sends her baby away to a baby-sitter or to her relatives not for lack of love and compassion, but for lack of the financial ability to both provide full-time care and financial support. No one can honestly blame her for her failures in these areas, despite the fact that they no doubt have long-term negative effects on Emily. However, her failures become more severe as her child ages. For example, she pays attention to Emily's welfare when she is with a baby-sitter, but ignores the signs that the nursery school is a very bad place. If she had attempted to do so, she may have been able to find a better school, or a baby-sitter that was better than the school. However, she neglects her own instincts (which she admits to having at the time) regarding the school just to make life easier on herself.

The mother's selfishness becomes more pronounced after she gets married. The story has this odd gap in it regarding her courtship -- it appears to have happened while Emily was away with her father's relatives. The narrator seems all too willing to gloss over the fact that she… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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