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Tillie Olsen’s short story “I Stand Here Ironing”, appears to be a byproduct of an oppressed, single, working-class mother. With many elements also containing feminist influences, it would make sense to take a Feminist or Post-Feminist approach to critically analyzing our story. However, because of Tillie Olsen’s intriguing background, a New Historicist approach to Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” would take a considerably deeper look into her life. With that approach, we can identify key connections between the author and text. Which can help us to further understand the author. To do this, there are a few things to look at regarding our author.
Starting with her early life, race, gender, and status. From there, we can look at the author’s time period and demographic. This will provide us insight to her political, economic, and intellectual upbringing. Then, we see how people reasoned during the author’s lifetime, and the patterns and limits involved in making sense. With all of this information, we can decrypt the autobiographical components of the story to make sense of it all.
One of the first things a New Historicist would look at is the author’s biography. Tillie Olsen is a white, mother, in America. She had been married twice and was a single mother for quite some time. Her first husband left her shortly after her first child was born, thus making life extremely difficult to balance work and raising a child. This is very relatable and almost identical to the Mother in our story; who is a single, teenage mother that faces the challenge of raising her child on her own. This is the first autobiographical element, since our author’s background matches that of our main character’s, it is safe to say that these experiences that the Mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” has are relatable to not just our author’s but also other women in America in the 20th century.
Continuing onward from our author’s life, we can take a look at information regarding our author’s political, economic, and intellectual backgrounds to determine any connections to our story and the author. Olsen is a member of the working class, which could be a result of her lack of education, her affiliation with the communist party, or because she is a descendent of Russian immigrants. Her parents came to America seeking political refuge, took up low-wage, blue-collar jobs because that is all they were qualified for. Olsen had to drop out of high school to help support her family through the Great Depression. Thus limiting her to low-income work and stereotypical house wife duties. While she was uneducated and busy being a mother, Olsen still was very political and strived to change the world.
The Mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” is quite similar to our author in this sense as well. She too is a working class, uneducated, single mother, who struggles to balance work and raising children on her own. She looks back on the decisions she made in her life and wonders what she could’ve done differently to have avoided them. Both the Mother in our story and Olsen were left by their husbands when their child was very young. A working class life is hard enough, but as a single mother it is next to impossible. The main character looks back onto an emotional moment that really shows how difficult times were:
“They persuaded me at the clinic to send her [first-born daughter] away to a convalescent home in the country where, ‘she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the new baby.”
In this quote you can almost feel a tear come out as you read. Olsen uses this real emotion she felt when in that same situation to help to tell the story. By making these connections to the autobiographical elements in our story, we can see that the two share the same issues, and it seems more and more true that Olsen is alluding to her own life, which is like so many other women of the time.
The last step for historical criticism is to research how people reasoned during our author’s lifetime; as well as what patterns and limits are involved in making sense. Olsen is from a critical period in America’s timeline. Much of her life took place during war, depression, and the equality movements of the 20th century. This was an influential time for America as many changes were taking place in society’s daily lives. Two World Wars forced the U.S. to change in order to win. The Great Depression followed nearly a decade after World War I. When unemployment soared, much of the American people were in poverty. However, the end of the recession would lead to World War II; and more women were taking up jobs to help the war effort. Because the men were off at war, women still had to raise their children all while holding full time jobs. The Mother in “I Stand Here Ironing”, thinks about how life was during the War Years:
“There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over books, always eating (it was in the those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-Mail to Bill, or tending the baby…”
Tillie Olsen was one of those women, as she worked in a factory in the 40’s. This was around the time that her life was filled with work and raising children, forcing her to put her writing on hold. She had picked up a job as a secretary in 50’s until her youngest daughter joined school. Finally, at that point she was able to begin writing again. This was an influential time for Olsen, as these experiences changed who she was and what she stood for, effectively changing how and what she wrote about.
Her days, much like many other American women; as a working class mother showed her the inequality that women struggled with every day. That inspired her to join the feminist movement that was sweeping the nation. This feminist influence is apparent in her work; as she accurately describes the challenges women faced during this period. Fighting against American Patriarchy that is still seen today, Olsen uses her story, “I Stand Here Ironing” as motivation for those who feel they too have felt the same challenges that our main character deals with.
Olsen hints at many symptoms of inequality that our main character faces on a day-to-day basis. Considering the entirety of the story takes place inside the working class home where our main character is constantly ironing, Olsen takes the reader into the real mind of a fictional mother, suffering from the difficulty of a patriarchal America. By doing this, she was able to publicize the reality of what America was doing to its women. Which is why she was identified as, “Champion of the re-emerging feminist movement.” This movement would later lead to changes focused on the distinctive needs of women. Equality was important to Olsen, who firmly believed that women deserved the same opportunities men had the privilege of.
These autobiographical elements that have been uncovered will help us to further understand the text as well as the author. New Historicists believe it matters when and where and something was written, and by whom. These important considerations include facts about Olsen’s life and status. The larger history around the author and the work at the time it was written. As well as the intellectual paradigms available to the author and readers.
The first autobiographical element is that Olsen’s background matches that of her main characters. This is because her demographic fits her intended audience’s. By matching her demographic to her character’s, she appeals to other members of that same demographic. Thus, making the story more relatable to the oppressed women of 20th century America. Next Olsen uses real emotion that she felt amongst the hard times in America to share how she felt trying to raise her child with a newborn on the way. By connecting the story to her real life, Olsen is able to accurately convey what it is like being that single mother, working low-income jobs.
Arguably the most important autobiographical decryption in this story; by looking at the history of The Great Depression, World War II, and the 2nd wave of feminism in America, we are able to determine how our author reasoned during one of the United States’ most influential time periods. The Great Depression brought even greater poverty and unemployment to almost everyone; including our author. World War II sent Olsen’s husband to war, which made many wives into single-working mothers for the time being. This is referenced later by the main character. By deciphering this information around our author, we are able to understand the why our main character was forced to make the decisions she made involving her life.
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