Sickness Turns to Health in “I Stand Here Ironing”
Health is hard to appreciate without the contrast of illness. In the same way, emotional fulfillment or enlightenment means more when it rises from a place of discontent. In Tillie Olsen’s short story “I Stand Here Ironing,” the narrator describes her daughter, Emily’s, personal development. Emily begins her youth in a distasteful place, but works her way out, and eventually the reader finds what we assume is a stable, lovely, young woman. Throughout the story, in particular corresponding to Emily’s unhappiness and transition period, the theme of sickness appears. The nature of sickness in general is that it eventually leads to health. Applying the same principles to the story, one sees how Emily’s rough adolescence eventually leads to a confident adulthood. Olsen’s imagery of sickness shows that, just as one recovers from illness and is rewarded with health, Emily transitions past her unhappiness and angst to find happiness.
After Emily’s brief experience as a beautiful, happy baby, she quickly contracts an internal illness that consumed both her life, as a child, and her mother’s attentions, as a maternal figure. The narrator is still haunted by her daughter breaking into “a clogged weeping that could not be comforted” (1065) every time they saw each other. This sickness is described as confining and seemingly incurable, clogging the child’s emotions, not even allowing her to cry freely. The inability to receive comfort also compounds the degree of horror to which the illness is described in this passage. One can imagine how stifled and disabled the baby must feel, especially if she is too young to remember what health feels like. Young Emily could feel the same way emotionally as well. Too young to know what happiness and belonging is, Emily allows herself to be constrained by the metaphorical illness of her position in life. Even after besting her infantile disease, Emily is next described as “thin, dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks” (1066). This imagery evokes a very sickly, almost ghostly image, indicating that Emily feels invisible or out of place in the world. For a good part of the story, Emily stays “skeleton thin” (1067). Using inhuman terms to represent Emily’s illness regarding food stipulates that she not only doesn’t look like a person, but she doesn’t feel like one either. Sickness consumes Emily, internally and externally, leaving her in a very vulnerable place.
Imagery of Illness is also used to illustrate the divide between the narrator and her daughter, which also resolves, just as a physical sickness transitions to health. At the convalescent home, there is said to be an invisible wall between the parents and the children, for the purpose “Not to be contaminated by parental germs or physical affection” (167). This description of the divide between family members labels physical affection as a form of contamination. Here, there is a link between actual sickness and emotions. Physical affection is usually linked with emotional connections, so having such actions be labelled taboo so as not to contaminate others could exacerbate any feelings of isolation or self-loathing. We see an example of this when Emily has a pre-measles fever the night her mother birthed Susan, her sister. Though Emily was fully conscious throughout her illness, “she could not come near the new baby or [her mother]” (1066). Physical contact was literally prohibited because of fear of contamination. The possible effect of this segregation can be seen in the conflicts between Emily and Susan, mainly in the “corroding resentment” Emily holds against her sister. The word corroding indicates that Emily’s negativity was slowly damaging or eating away at her, almost like a sickness would. Emily, still infected with at least one kind of sickness continues to torment herself about her own character.
The presence of sickness diminishes at the end of the story, and of Emily’s path to adulthood. Emily is now described as having a “light graceful step” and being “happy” (1069) in contrast to existing as skeletal or ghostly. Somewhere along Emily’s success at the school’s amateur show, her performances at other schools, and her eventual progression to statewide affairs, she became healthy, physically and emotionally. Not only has the sickness given way into health, but the sadness and discontent gave way to a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging that only seems better in comparison feeling like a ghost. We see a demonstration of this when Emily kisses her mother before her exit from the story. No physical affection had been demonstrated previously, so the intentional kiss represents Emily discarding the contamination that had provided her with such a barrier. As health eventually prevails, Emily eventually found her way to happiness. Sickness isn’t permanent, and the dissipation of such imagery just highlights Emily’s transformation from illness to health, in more ways than one.