I Stand Here Ironing
Not so Good Country People – Flannery O’connor’s Good Country People
Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” exemplifies characters’ defects ironic to the title. Rather than highlighting goodness, O’Connor focuses on the bad traits the characters carry. An ideology of Christianity is that one must have a healthy mind, body, and soul, otherwise one may be lacking in faith. This is true of Manley Pointer and Joy-Hulga. Hulga’s encounter with Manley Pointer illustrates that deformities, both real and fabricated, are indicative of a destitute of religion. Joy-Hulga’s prosthetic leg is symbolic of her detestable personality. Her life revolves around her defect, prompting her to have a mean disposition toward everyone. Even her mom says so, though she excuses her poor attitude, “Because of the leg”. This affects her life even enough to cause her to change her name, from Joy, a beautiful name to fit he
r personality as a child, to Hulga, “The ugliest name in any language”. Joy-Hulga’s life is unfulfilled in the eyes of her mother, despite her getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, which did not make Mrs. Hopewell, her mother, proud. Due to the nature of the accident, Joy “had never danced a step or had any normal good times”. In spite of this, she worked hard to obtain a Ph.D. in hopes of making her life meaningful. As described by O’Connor in a consequent essay on her work, “By the time the Bible salesman comes along, the leg has accumulated so much meaning…He has taken away part of the girl’s personality”. The remotion of the prosthetic leg, while an abatement of Hulga’s personality, additionally made her vulnerable. Hulga is humiliated in order to recognize her state of sin, “thus open to grace and redemption” In other words, she is an atheist given the opportunity to become a believer of god. Initially, Hulga is a character who “Attempts to live autonomously, to define and values”. As the story progresses, her bad attitude is her most defining characteristic, specifically as a result of her leg, as previously noted. Manley Pointer makes Hulga feel comfortable enough by hiding his wickedness, so he can influence her later. The intent of the manipulation is to make her comfortable enough to remove her prosthetic, then take advantage of her. “Without the leg she felt entirely dependent on him.” All of his supplies were prepared in advance, hidden in his bibles.’ The cover was hollow and contained a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and a small blue box with printing on it”. In the story, characters are written as lacking spirituality, regardless of how tangible a proposed defect is.The concept of a character lacking spirituality as evident by a defect is an idea displaced throughout the story in various ways. One such example is with Hulga. She has a physical defect and lacks spirituality as well. She believes in science and physical rather than mystical or mythical.
Ultimately, despite her attitude, Hulga is not written as a bad person. As mentioned by O’Connor in her essays about her work, “Some of the protagonists in these stories look perfectly normal; others have a physical deformity which is symbolic of a spiritual one”. An example of such is the Bible salesperson. He mentions that he has a heart defect, but later reveals that he is lying about the heart defect. Moreover, he admits to not being religious as well as lying about his name. Specifically, he tell Hulga, “Pointer ain’t really my name you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” While the heart defect is false, he is still written as a bad person lacking spirituality. Flannery O’Connor’s work is typically full of characters with deficits and deformities. These deficits and deformities provide the basis of characterization for these characters. In some instances, these deformities aren’t physical, but the symbolism still applies.
Definition of Irony as a Stylistic Device
Definition of irony
Irony is a common literary term and rhetoric device. Whether in fiction, non-fiction, or in life, irony is around us day to day. There are three main types of irony. The type most commonly thought of in story telling is called dramatic irony, but there is also verbal and situational irony. The following presentation aims to explore and explain the deeper layers of meaning in life and literature through irony.
So what exactly is irony? The term irony has its roots in the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character Alazon.
Irony can be described as figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. It may also be used to describe a situation that ends up in quite a different way than what is generally anticipated. Irony is a literary technique and rhetoric device that has been used for many years in speech, art and even everyday life.
THREE TYPES OF IRONY
Types of irony
In the ordinary use of language, Pocket Fowler ‘s Modern English Usage describes irony as ‘an expression of meaning by use of words that have an opposite literal meaning or tendency’. When we look out of the window at the pouring rain and exclaim ‘What a lovely day!’, we are using a trivial form of irony. There are three types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic. There are additional subcategories, but these are the main three.
Verbal irony is the first type I will be explaining. It is the use of words to mean something different than what the person actually means, or says they mean. It is important to note that the speaker must be intending for this inconsistency for it to be classified as verbal irony. Situational irony is the next type. It is the difference between what is expected and the actuality of a situation. It occurs when the exact opposite of what is meant to happen, happens. Situational irony is the cause for much of the confusion surrounding the definition of irony. Dramatic irony is the final type I’ll be discussing. It occurs when the audience is more aware of what is happening than the characters, or when the audience is aware of something specific that the characters in the story are not yet aware of. It is the most common form of literary irony and writers frequently employ it in their works. Dramatic irony, unlike verbal and situational irony, exists purely in the written world.
Irony as a literary device
So why do writers use it? Irony inverts our expectations. Many times it is the exact opposite of what it appears to be. It can create the unexpected twist at the end of a story that gets us laughing – or crying. All types of irony appear in literature, though it is worth noting that dramatic irony can only occur in literature and cannot be applied to real life, whereas verbal and situational irony can. Often irony is used to suggest the stark contrast of the literal meaning being put forth. Irony spices up a literary work by adding unexpected twists and revealing a deeper layer of significance. Not by the words themselves, but by the situation and the context in which they are placed. This allows the reader to become more involved with the characters and the plot of the work.
THE TYPES OF IRONY AS USED IN LITERATURE
Verbal irony in literature occurs when either the speaker means something totally different than what they are saying. Or the audience realizes, because of their knowledge of the particular situation to which the speaker is referring, that the opposite of what a character is saying is true. Verbal irony also occurs when a character says something in jest that, in actuality, is true.
An example of this is found in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Cask of Amontillado. While an unsuspecting Fortunato is being lead to his death by his former acquaintance Montresor, he is questioned about his wellbeing. Montresor notices Fortunato has a cough, which is growing more severe, the further down the catacombs they travel. Montresor then asks if Fortunato would like to turn back, Fortunato replies a cough won’t kill him. The audience discovers at the end that this was in fact a use of verbal irony because it is Montresor that kills Fortunato and not his cough.
A different example is in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet commands her nurse to find out who Romeo is and says if he were married, then her wedding bed would be her grave. This is a verbal irony because the audience knows that she is going to die on her wedding bed.
Situational irony occurs when the actual result of a situation is totally different from the expected result. It involves a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens (or what would seem appropriate). It is the type of irony that most people think of or mean when they describe something as ironic. There is however a difference between situational irony and coincidence or bad luck. For situational irony to occur there has to be something that leads a person to think that a particular event or situation is unlikely happen. This is a common type of irony found in comedic literature. Because it emerges from the events and circumstances of a story it is often subtler and effective than verbal or dramatic irony.
In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip and the audience both do not know who his benefactor is. In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip and the audience both do not know who his benefactor is. Throughout the novel the reader is lead to believe that the benefactor is indeed the rich Miss Havisham. Through her actions and the coincidences of Pip residing and being tutored by the Pockets, her cousins, the reader expects it to be her. However, the characters and audience later learn it is the convict Pip showed kindness to at a young age that set him up with his lavish lifestyle.
In The Gift of the Magi, a short story by O. Henry, a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair. Both have made sacrifices in order to buy gifts for one another, but in the end, the gifts are useless. The real gift turns out to be how much they are willing to give up to show their love for one another.
Dramatic irony is when an audience is taken into the writer ‘s confidence and is made aware of more than the participating characters know. Dramatic irony is similar to situational irony and therefore can be easily confused. In situational irony, both the characters and the audience are fully unaware of the implications of the real situation. In dramatic irony, the characters are oblivious of the situation but the audience is not.
Dramatic irony depends on the structure of a work rather than its use of words. In plays it is often created by the audience’s awareness of a fate in store for the characters that they themselves are unaware of. Because the reader knows something the character does not, they read to discover how the character will react when he or she learns the truth of the situation. Dramatic irony is huge in Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Othello.
In Othello, all of the characters betrayed and destroyed by Iago trust him absolutely. Roderigo believes Iago to be his friend, assisting him to advance his relationship with Othello. Othello himself labels his ensign ‘honest Iago ‘ and trusts him with advising him on his wife. Cassio allows Iago to talk him in to drinking and losing the respect and position he held with Othello. Finally, Emilia is betrayed into giving Desdemona ‘s handkerchief to Iago. In a rage, Othello storms to Desdemona ‘s room and murders her in her bed. Shortly afterward, it is revealed that Iago was the man responsible for orchestrating the entire facade. Othello experiences the recognition that comes with ironic tension and realizes that he has unjustly murdered Desdemona, who he promised to always love and trust in an act of tragic irony.
The ending of Anton Chekhov’s story Lady with the Dog, in which an accomplished Don Juan engages in a routine flirtation only to find himself seduced into a passionate lifelong commitment to a woman who is no different from all the others, is another an example of dramatic irony.
HOW TO USE IRONY AS A LITERARY DEVICE
Irony as a literary device
Like all other figures of speech, irony brings about some added meanings to a situation. Ironical statements and situations in literature develop readers’ interest. Irony makes a work of literature more intriguing and forces the readers to use their imagination and comprehend the underlying meanings of the texts. Moreover, real life is full of ironical expressions and situations. Therefore, the use of irony brings a work of literature closer to the life.
Irony vs. coincidence
Though irony can serve as a great literary device in a work when used properly, there is still much confusion surrounding the exact definition of the term. Situational irony is the type of irony that is most likely to be mislabeled. Situational irony is defined as: the inconsistency between what might be expected and what actually occurs. The big issue surrounding the concept of situational irony is that it is often confused with that of coincidence. Coincidence is defined as: a sequence of events that, although accidental, seems to have been planned or arranged. Pay close attention, because this is where things get confusing. To call a fact or event ironic is to make a statement about the relationship between the actuality of a fact or event and the expectations regarding that fact or event. To call a fact or event coincidental, on the other hand, is to make a statement about the relationship between that fact or event and another, independent fact or event. Events are often confused as ironic because situational irony does involve a certain degree of coincidence. The important difference being for something to be labelled as ironic, it must be both coincidental and contradictory in a humorous or poignant and extremely improbable way.
Irony is the difference between the appearance and the reality. Although irony has been used for such a long time, there still isn’t an exact definition of the word. Hundreds of definitions that have been suggested over the years, one of them from American Heritage Dictionary is that ‘irony is a figure of speech which is a contradiction or incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs’.
Most definitions of irony, however, seem to suggest that irony involves a contrast between appearance and actual reality. In other words, a discrepancy between what is anticipated to be true and what is actually true. The Oxford Companion to the English Language tells us that ‘irony is a language device, either in spoken or written form in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the literal meanings of the words (verbal irony) or in a situation in which there is an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs (situational and dramatic irony)’.
Closing thoughts on irony in literature
Irony can be a useful literary device when used correctly and effectively. Irony is a classic literary device that can be used to add to a story, and is useful in many types and genres of storytelling. Irony is one of many literary devices that a writer can employ in their writing for a variety of reasons; be it humor, foreshadowing, or comic relief. It is also useful literary device to be aware of and understand, though it is important to acknowledge that there I no finite definition of what exactly counts as irony.
Irony in Depiction of Holden and Oedipus
Irony has been a major component of major works of literature for centuries. By definition irony is “a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words” (“Irony”). There are various forms of irony that authors use such as situational, dramatic, verbal irony, etc. Irony also plays a tremendous role in theme, author purpose, and reader interpretation. Through various forms of irony J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, and Sophocles, the author of Oedipus the King, express ideas such as key themes and character traits that often change the opinions of the reader.
The novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is full of irony that is demonstrated by the protagonist Holden Caulfield. By many readers Holden is considered a hypocrite because in many instances he describes everyone as being phonies, when in reality he is the real phony. For example in the novel Salinger describes Holden’s date with an old friend named Sally who he claims he does not even like, but he acts like he does anyway, “I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie of course, but I meant it when I said it” (Salinger 139). He is a very confusing young man to understand because he always goes back and forth on himself. One minute he is in love with Sally and wants to run away with her, and the next he hates her guts and wants to have nothing more to do with her. Holden exhibits this fakeness throughout the entire novel, so the reader can never really believe Holden when he expresses his opinions. The question often arises if Holden is really expressing his true feelings or if he is just telling himself what he wants to hear.
This trait of hypocrisy that Holden possesses is a major factor on the whole theme, which is preserving innocence. Throughout the whole novel Holden is trying to slow the process of maturing while also protecting his younger sister from the troubles of the adult world. Holden claims that he does not want to be an adult, but he does many adult things like going to clubs, drinking, and smoking. Holden tries presenting himself in an adult matter even though the last thing he wants to do is grow up,
I ordered a Scotch and soda, and told him not to mix it–I said it fast as hell, because if you hem and haw, they think you ‘re under twenty-one and won ‘t sell you any intoxicating liquor. I had trouble with him anyway, though. “I ‘m sorry, sir,” he said, “but do you have some verification of your age…I gave him this very cold stare, like he ‘d insulted the hell out of me, and asked him, (Salinger 78)
Also Holden tries protecting his younger sister Phoebe from the adult world, but in reality Phoebe knows more about how the world functions than Holden does. “Because you don’t. You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t” (Salinger 187), Phoebe is berating Holden about how immature he is for getting kicked out of school and how he is just irresponsible and ridiculous all the time.
The entire story of Oedipus the King by Sophocles is based off of dramatic irony that is set in the beginning of the tale. Dramatic irony is best defined as when “the characters are oblivious of the situation but the audience is not” (“Irony”). The story begins with Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta getting a fortune from the Oracle of Delphi predicting how that their newborn son will eventually grow to kill his father and then marry his mother. They sentence their newborn son to death, but their servant could not leave an infant to die so he gave Oedipus away to a shepherd. Oedipus eventually grew up in another kingdom, came to Thebes, unknowingly killed his father, defeated the Sphinx, became King of Thebes, and then married his own mother. In How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas Foster it mentions how literary theorist Northrop Frye describes the “ironic mode”, “That is, we watch characters who possess a lower degree of autonomy, self-determination, or free will than ourselves” (Foster 236). This applies to the protagonist Oedipus because he does not have control of his fate, his future was already laid out before him by the Oracle at Delphi before he was even born.
The dramatic irony of the story kicks in when a plague has struck the city of Thebes, and the only way to stop it is by exiling the murderer of previous king Laius, who still lives amongst them. Oedipus offers all kinds of rewards and promises of no punishment to those who step forwards or can provide information, then Oedipus sets a curse on the murderer who ends up being himself,
Now my curse on the murderer. Whoever he is, a lone man unknown in his crime or one among many, let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step—I curse myself as well… if by any chance he proves to be an intimate of our house, here at my hearth, with my full knowledge, may the cruse I just called down on him strike me! (Sophocles 172)
Oedipus calls the curse down upon himself if the murderer is in a position of power, but little did he know that he already cursed himself since he is the murdered.
Sophocles ran this tale off of this irony to create a climax of epic proportions. The end of the story can be compared to dominos falling, as one new piece of information was discovered another one was revealed until everything was out in the open. Oedipus brought this fortune upon himself as he heavily inquired about the murdered of Laius, he called for the slave Tiresias who really pushed Oedipus to his limits, “None of you knows—and I will never reveal my dreadful secrets, not to say your own” (Sophocles 175). Tiresias refuses to reveal what he know and that angers Oedipus to the point of threatening his life if he continues to refuse. Tiresias finally reveals his information and that plants a seed in Oedipus’s head about how he could be the possible murderer. This drives Oedipus nuts and sends him on a rampage trying to discover the full truth, which results in the suicide of his wife and mother Jocasta, as well as Oedipus gouging out his own eyes.
In conclusion various forms of irony affect the protagonists of these two different stories. Both of these stories are driven by the irony that molds them. Both Holden’s and Oedipus’s lives are affected by the presence of irony, Oedipus’s fate is nearly decided and Holden cannot deal with the fact that he is the true phony. The irony in both of these stories is significantly related to the theme, author purpose, and reader interpretation. The intricate system of irony in both of these stories is what separates them from many other works of literature and makes them prime examples of ironic works.
Irony Sophocles’s Story of Antigone
Irony plays a big part of Sophocles’s story of Antigone because they show character, suspense, human nature, and the world in general. There are three types of irony: verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. These three types of irony are used by Sophocles to foreshadow the true colors of his characters, such as Antigone’s braviary and Creon’s pride; both Creon and Antigone had a tragic ending. Creon lost his whole family due to his pride of being king and Antigone’s braviary cost her death because she went against king Creon’s word to bury her brother. Irony is the killer of the Creon and Antigone.
Situational irony is used a lot in the Story of Antigone because it shows human nature and the nature of the world. Antigone has buried her brother and Creon has sentenced her to death for treason. Antigone is depressed and miserable, she is emotionally destroyed because she knows she is going to die. Antigone shows her emotion to the audience when she says, “I feel the loneliness of Niobe”(Scene 4, lines:15-16). Antigone relates to the story of Niobe because Niobe lost all of her kids and turned to stone. Everyone at the time this play was written knew the story behind Niobe and knew what she had lost. This is situational irony because Antigone can relate to Niobe because they both suffered because of a death. Niobe suffered because the death of her children turned her to stone and Antigone is suffering because she buried her brother and is being put to death from King Creon. Sophocles added this quote to show human nature and what will occur when deep depression happens. This relates to situational irony of human nature because death causes humans to be miserable and deppressed. Sophocles included situational irony into this play to show human nature, nature of the gods, or the word in general.
Verbal irony, also known as sarcasm; played a big part in the story of Antigone. Verbal irony was used in this quote because Antigone needed to her sister Ismene to go help her with the burial of Polyneices. Rebellious and exasperated, Antigone emotionally manipulates her sister when Ismene refuses to join Antigone in disobeying Creon by burying their slain brother. Antigone defiantly orders her to, “Go away… Leave me my foolish plan”(Emphasis added; prologue, lines: 77). Antigone says this quote to convince Ismene that she can’t do it by herself using the word “Foolish” this is verbal irony because Antigone is being sarcastic. This makes Ismene feel horrible and Antigone wanted her to feel bad so she would help her bury Polyneices. Sophocles made this quote to show that manipulation was made to Ismene to convince her to join in on her mission to bury Polyneices. Verbal irony is used by Antigone to manipulate Ismene for herself and her brother Polyneices.
The dramatic irony that Sophocles showed in his plays was used to build his characters in his stories. Ismene was the type of character that was paranoid and scared when Antigone told her that she was going to bury Polyneices because Ismene knew that if she did she would be executed. Afraid and fearful, Ismene is scared that she is going to lose Antigone because she is going to bury Polyneices by herself. Ismene tells Antigone that she should be, “Cold with fear”(Prologue, lines: 79). Ismene says this quote to Antigone but she doesn’t know how “Fiery” Antigone is about her unburied brother Polyneices. This is dramatic irony because this quote shows a lot about the two completely different characters Ismene and Antigone. It shows that Ismene’s character is scared, cowering and hopeless. The quote shows how Antigone is brave, religious and hot-headed. Sophocles made this quote to emotionally show the two different characters argue about what they think should happen to their dead brother. Dramatic irony is showed through this next quote because it shows the power and arrogance of Creon’s poor character. Disrespectful and arrogance, Creon tells all of Thebes that Eteocles died as a man should die defending his country, but , “Polyneices, I say, is to have no burial: no man is to touch him or say the least prayer for him”(Scene 1, lines: 43-44). Creon in this quote is showing his “Pride” by taking advantage of his throne to dictate whether or not someone should be buried or not. This shows Dramatic Irony because Creon is letting a body go unburied left to rot. Sophocles made this quote to show the arrogance that is behind Creon’s character throughout the whole story until the very end when he realizes he truly messed up. Dramatic irony was used mainly used in the story of Antigone for identifying characters.
Irony causes foreshadowing which also causes suspense. Foreshadowing and suspense is what Sophocles went for using the three ironies: verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. The three ironies Sophocles used, caused foreshadowing of character, like Antigone’s stubbornness and Creon’s arrogance; both Creon and Antigone had a tragic ending. Creon lost his whole family due to his arrogance of being king and Antigone’s braviary cost her death because she went against king’s word to bury her brother. Irony is the killer of the Creon and Antigone.
- Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless voices, Timeless themes: Platinum. Eds. Kate Kinsella et al. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 772-808.
- Sophocles. Antigone. “I feel the loneliness of Niobe” (Scene 4: Lines:15-16). Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless voices, Timeless themes: Platinum. Eds. Kate Kinsella et al. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 772-808.
- Sophocles. Antigone. “Go away… Leave me my foolish plan”(Emphasis added; prologue, lines: 77). Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless voices, Timeless themes: Platinum. Eds. Kate Kinsella et al. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 772-808.
- Sophocles. Antigone. “Cold with fear”(Prologue, lines: 79). Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless voices, Timeless themes: Platinum. Eds. Kate Kinsella et al. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 772-808.
- Sophocles. Antigone. “Polyneices, I say, is to have no burial: no man is to touch him or say the least prayer for him”(Scene 1, lines: 43-44). Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless voices, Timeless themes: Platinum. Eds. Kate Kinsella et al. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 772-808.
Parental and Child Relationships in I Stand Here Ironing and Everything that Rises Must Converge
Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” relay the theme of parental and child relationships within the family, using strongly developed characters to convey flawed relationships and the resulting impact upon each family member. Written during the time of the Great Depression, each story reflects, to a degree, the theme of loss and the causes that have lead to that state.
Flannery O’Connor’s widely anthologized short stories often employ humor, irony, and paradox within a system of Christian belief in evil and redemption to express religious themes and southern life. As a social satirist, as well as a religious writer, Flannery O’Connor often highlights American cultural challenges such as random violence, race relations, and class discrimination. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, her father passed away due to complications of systemic lupus erythematosus when she was a teenager. After high school, Flannery O’Connor continued on to study writing at the University of Iowa and published her first short story, “The Geranium,” at 21 years of age. Flannery O’Connor spent several months at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat, upon graduation from college. Best known for her collections of short stories, Flannery O’Connor received honors including an O. Henry Award and the National Book Award. Flannery O’Connor battled lupus, an autoimmune disease, for over 10 years, eventually dying of it in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Tillie Lerner Goldfarb Olsen, an American writer and social activist known for authoring powerful fiction focusing on the inner lives of the working poor, women, and minorities, brought attention to the long-neglected women authors and inspired the development of academic programs in women’s studies at the university level in the United States. Olsen gained popularity, especially with scholars, throughout her lifetime, cited by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for creating a “freshly poetic form of fiction.” She held nine honorary doctorates, winning grants and residencies at artists’ colonies despite her complicated relationship with her past including having never completed high school. The second child of her parents, members of a largely Jewish and socialist self-defense league seeking to end injustice and the brutal programs of tsarist Russia, they lived in Minsk before her father was arrested after being identified as one having a part in the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. Facing death or exile in Siberia, Samuel Lerner escaped to England, adapting to the language before immigrating to New York City in 1906. Hashka Goldberg, given the title of Ida by immigration officials, followed his lead in 1907 when they moved to Omaha, Nebraska, the residence of Samuel Lerner’s maternal relatives. Samuel Lerner and Ida Goldberg never married, but raised six children while remaining reformists in the Workmen’s Circle. Tillie enrolled at Omaha’s Central High School in January of 1925 and began a humor column in the school’s paper within a year. An experimental child, she had an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 16, resulting in her withdrawal from school for an “illness” before having an abortion and later returning to school. She did not graduate from Central due to either withdrawal or expulsion, although the cause is unknown. The socialist values of her parents strongly influenced Tillie Lerner, but she began living independently and joined the Young Communist League. Abraham Jevons Goldfarb, a practicing Communist, took Tillie with him to Stockton, California, the place of his parents’ residence, upon Tillie’s 18th birthday. The remainder of 1930 was spent crusading for the Communist Party of the United States in the Midwest, marrying Abraham Goldfarb on February 14, 1931. Abraham and Tillie returned to the Midwest in the autumn of that year after Tillie was arrested for her involvement in fomenting worker protests. Her contraction of tuberculosis during incarceration bought her release, moving to Omaha and then Minnesota upon release of her picture to the local paper in Omaha. During her stay with Abraham Goldfarb’s sister, Tillie began to recover and write (Reid).
During the lives of the authors Flannery O’Connor and Tillie Olsen, significant events occurred, changing and shaping the both the United States and the world. The first diesel engine automobile trip was completed, ranging from Indianapolis, Indiana to New York City, New York. Hostess Twinkies were invented by Jimmy Dewar, and the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States signed the London Naval Treaty regulating submarine warfare and limiting shipbuilding. The last recorded lynching of African Americans in the Northern United States occurred with the hanging of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. President Herbert Hoover asked Congress for (United States) $150 million for the public works program in order to assist in the generation of jobs and better stimulate the economy. The United States, during time, occupied Haiti, fought the prohibition of alcohol, faced the Dust Bowl, and endured the Great Depression. These events and circumstances greatly impacted the lives of Tillie Olsen and Flannery O’Connor, in turn influencing their literary works.
Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” both focus on the toxic relationship of a mother and child. Although Tillie Olsen’s mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” is a mother figure to multiple children, the storyline focuses on her eldest daughter, Emily. Emily’s mother, in comparison to Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” raises her daughter as a product of “anxious, not proud, love.” Julian’s mother, conversely, uses every opportunity that arises to brag of her son’s achievements, despite the lack of pride he has in himself.
Julian and Emily each are raised without a paternal figure throughout some of, if not the majority of, their lives. The lack of a father figure is substituted and compensated for in different manners; Olsen’s mother chose to send Emily to a convalescent home in the country where she would be provided the kind of food and care that the mother is unable to manage for her, and then expected to provide the care for her younger siblings and accept Bill (her mother’s new husband) as her new father figure. Julian’s mother was “a widow who had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and put [Julian] through school and who was supporting him still.” Mother and child relationships are not always positive, despite the effort contributed by one of the involved parties. Emily made effort to connect with her mother in a variety of ways. Julian, however, rejected his mother due to annoyance caused by her. Julian is ashamed of his mother and the prejudice she, and like-minded individuals, maintain against those of color.
“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen is a mother’s monologue in reply to a school counselor’s request to discuss her eldest daughter, Emily. In her monologue, the mother remembers the obstacles presented by the Great Depression and the consequences they had on Emily. As the daughter of a single mother, Emily was sent to be in the attention of inadequate and indifferent caretakers, “nurseries that are only parking places for children” (Olsen 447). Her mother spends a considerable amount of time worrying about Emily’s well-being rather than actually caring for her, and instead of allowing her to be a child and act her age, she encourages her to take care of her four younger siblings acting as a second caretaker. Even when the circumstances improved in her mother’s second marriage, Emily was once again separated from the family after contraction of the measles, sent to a convalescent home where Emily learned isolation as a result of minimal parental contact and discouragement of close attachments (Werlock).
“I Stand Here Ironing” is a story following in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, drawing parallels between two generations represented by the unnamed 38-year-old mother and her 19-year-old daughter, Emily. Tillie Olsen’s story highlights the difficulties encountered by a single working parent and the effects these challenges have on the children. The circumstances exemplify the hard times faced by Americans during the Great Depression, demonstrating the poor quality of life as stated by the mother in her reflections, “We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth” (Olsen 451). The title of the short story itself is an echo of the erasing and reforming of the mother’s emotions, in the physical act of eliminating wrinkles with an iron (Snodgrass).
Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is set during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement when the South was still segregated. Many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories involve the Christian concepts of sin and repentance and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” specifically deals with the sin of pride, which Catholics consider to be an attempt to place human power and ability above God’s. Set in the South, Flannery O’Connor’s story focuses on two white characters: an elderly woman who considers herself above others around her due to her racial heritage and college-educated son, and her son, Julian, who considers himself better than his mother based on his open-mindedness and freedom from stereotypical racist views. The plot of the story revolves around a bus ride to town for the mother’s trip to the YMCA for her reducing class, and the hat she so cautiously chose and paid for being worn by another woman, a colored woman, on the bus. The analysis of Abby Werlock concludes that:
“Self-discovery in spite of self-deception becomes the major thematic emphasis of this tale. Ironically, however, both Julian and his mother progress from inaccurate self-images to the stark realization that the character traits they so prize are in fact petty and worthless” (Werlock).
Julian’s forced interaction with colored people on the bus ride proves to himself that he is tolerant and lacks racial bias, evidence of the superiority of his mind in comparison to that of his mother’s. His mother, knowing the act was one of spite, feels superior to Julian, as his actions were insensitive and inconsiderate, placing value on the heart rather than on the head.
Flannery O’Connor’s use of repetitive imagery in the purple hat, the one so carefully and thoughtfully chosen by Julian’s mother, being worn by a colored woman who boards the bus carrying a small boy helps to emphasize the similarities between these women, which Julian gloatingly points out to his mother. Julian fails to see the similarities between himself and the colored child, being that they both cling to a mother figure in some ways though, in Julian’s case, are in denial to the extent to which they are dependent on the mother. As the mothers and sons exit the bus, Julian’s mother maintains a condescending attitude of superiority to the colored family, offering the son a shiny penny. Julian feels his mother deserves the blow given by the child’s mother and only, when realizing the damage it has caused, makes the conclusion that sin must be met with mercy, and that his own self-righteous attitude has been his downfall.
Both stories’ titles relay the theme of erasing sin and wrongdoings, and the resulting equal ground on which everyone and everything will be. Tillie Olsen and Flannery O’Connor were affected by the recent events of the Great Depression and have allowed the circumstances to influence their stories “I Stand Here Ironing” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
- Biography.com. Flannery O’Connor Biography. 2 April 2014. A&E Television Networks. 3 May 2019.
- Dawahare, Anthony. ‘That Joyous Ceretainty’: History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen’s Depression-era Literature. 1998. 1 May 2019.
- Hackett, Robin. ‘Reading Sites: Social Difference and Reader Response.’ NWSA Journal (2007): 227. 1 May 2019.
- May, John R. (Mary) Flannery O’Connor. 1978. 1 May 2019.
- O’Connor, Flannery. ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge.’ DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 197-207.
- Olsen, Tillie. ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’ DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 446-451.
- Reid, Panthea. Tillie Olsen: American Author. n.d. Web site. 3 May 2019.
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. I Stand Here Ironing. 2013. Bloom’s Literature. 4 May 2019.
- Werlock, Abby H. P. I Stand Here Ironing. 2013. Bloom’s Literature. 4 May 2019.
Setting Analysis for I Stand Here Ironing
The Olsen’s story takes place in a normal setting where our narrator is a mother, ironing, at home, and doing chores. She is laboring in a way all mothers do. As the story progresses, it is revealed that we are in a working-class home. Olsen passes on yearning and love through expressive techniques, for example, utilization of time, continuous flow, and imagery and word usage. The family is affected by an economic poverty after World War II. A mother ironing seems a-bit separated from events such as class struggle, financial improvement, and political. The Great Depression and World War II shows how the world is a violent place. The world can be so cold. It’s a world where folks can’t be trusted with power at hand. In this story, Olsen shows the way of power and representing a normal person living within the struggle.
Food is addressed often in the story. The narrator struggles to provide the basic needs for her daughter. The symbolic value is food and sustenance. Food and nourishment shows the changes within Emily’s life mentally and emotionally. When Emily is born, she is nourished by her mother’s breast milk. She was described as a beautiful child, but when their situation worsen, so does Emily.
The story, I Stand Here Ironing, is symbolic. I sense the narrator doesn’t have much time to stop and think. To pay attention. She’s too busy doing housework and caring for her kids. It begins at the beginning of the story, where the narrator couldn’t provide the ‘key’ to her daughter’s life. ‘There is all that life outside of me, beyond me’ (Olsen). It seems a little unordinary for any mother to say their child has a life ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ of what she has knowledge of. But learning during Emily’s life, her mother was struggling to make things happen all while not paying attention to her own daughter. The iron symbols the mother attempt to straighten out her feelings about her daughter Emily and herself as a mother. The iron represents the day-to-day task which have took so much of the mother’s time where she couldn’t nurture Emily as she should have. The iron is a symbol of the narator’s thoughts and vulnerability. The story concludes as she rests the iron, she realizes Emily is her own person despite on how she was raised.
Olsen’s ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ leans towards the years of the Great Depression and feminist movement in the 1950s. Without employment help with the financial income the narrator was faced to a struggle all while needing to stay employed to raise her daughter alone. Those years has left an unavoidable impact on her family and her soul. Just like the narrator, Olsen has raised a child alone and been through financial struggles that lead to emotional stress. Several single women, during the depression, struggled with financial stability. Olsen’s story resembles a glimpse into the life of a woman’s experience during the economic poverty. “I Stand Here Ironing” is the somewhat downfall of motherhood, the fear or regret of where mothers have doubts and thoughts on “maybe I should’ve done this or that.” This story is giving the voice on self-doubt and what some mothers felt while stumbling over these challenges.
I Stand Here Ironing: Lessons Conveyed and Critical Analysis
“I Stand Here Ironing” is a short story by Tillie Olsen that narrates a mother’s thoughts about her daughter, but ultimately reveals more about the mother. The mother’s thoughts about how her once beautiful baby daughter turned out poorly are prompted by an earlier phone call by a third person. The 19 year old daughter was raised during the Great depression and World War 2 era which prompts the daughter’s beliefs about life being inevitably over in a couple of years when everyone will be “atom-dead”. The times the daughter grew up in along with the absence of a Father allows the Mother to juxtapose her assumption of blame and her justification, or deflection of blame, for the current state of her daughter as “more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron” (lines 86-87).
As the mother shifts her tone from past to present, the iron simultaneously moves back and forth on the ironing board (line 1). The author uses anaphor to attract attention to the early descriptions of the daughter in lines 35-39 when she thinks, “She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur.” The in depth descriptions of how beautiful the daughter was as a baby causes the mother to continually question herself and why the daughter did not turn out the way she thought she would.
The author also uses the mother’s questioning of herself to show how she sub-consciously feels guilty while she is justifying how the daughter turned out. This is evident in lines 33-34 when the mother asks herself, “Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matter, or if it explains anything.” The question is in reference to her speech about how she nursed her daughter and tried her hardest to take care of her.
Furthermore, the mother adds additional emphasis to her quandary by juxtaposing her feelings of guilt about how her daughter turned out with her deflection of blame and use of excuses. The mother ends a paragraph by stating that she didn’t look after her daughter enough, and begins the following paragraph by excusing herself from this feeling of guilt by telling herself how hard tried to raise the daughter. The mother ends the paragraph with, “But the seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine” (Olsen 25-26). Another example of the juxtaposition of assumption of blame and deflection of blame when the mother shifts back to past tense after a short conversation with her daughter about why she believes she does not need to study for her midterms. “Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives there were years she had care she hates. She was dark and thin and foreign looking in a world where the prestige went to blondness and curly hair and dimples; she was slow where glibness was prized” (Olsen 65-72). The mother begins doing her best to deflect blame from herself including blaming a father that walked out on both of them and her work. The mother even goes so far as to blame the daughter because she didn’t look as pretty as she was supposed to. This truly reveals the mother’s shallow feelings towards her daughter. The mother juxtaposes this deflection of blame with a confession, or admittance. “I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother” (Olsen 75). Although the mother has a brief confession, she quickly goes back to pointing fingers at others as to why her daughter is not the way that she wants her to be. “There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much to herself” (Olsen 76-80). The mother once again refers to outside sources as to why the daughter did not turn out as expected.
Olsen utilizes feelings of determinism throughout the short story. The daughter was raised during a time of government corruption and lack of belief in authority. The mother echoes her beliefs that the daughter was bound, or determined, to end up the way she did due to the circumstances she grew up in. The mother states, “She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear” (Olsen 82-82). Although large-scale world events have great impacts upon children growing up, they do not completely determine whom that child is or can become. The mother believes that will and choice are taken over by a sense of fate or determinism.
The short story “I Stand Here Ironing” is a narrative by Tillie Olsen that reveals important characteristics about both the mother and the daugher. The mother begins pondering over her daughter’s current state because she received a phone call asking about her daughter earlier. The mother juxtaposes her deflection of blame and assumption of blame citing excuses such as the absence of a Father or father figure for the daughter as well as the government corrupted times as to why the daughter did not turn out the way she wanted her to.
I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen: the Theme of Sickness in a Short Story
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.
A Rose for Emily and I Stand Here Ironing: Comparing Protagonists
The general population often leaves a group or individual in the opposite corner of the ring when it comes to life. In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and in Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing”, both of the protagonists were scorned women, scorned by their peers and scorned by their loved ones in their external conflict of man versus society. Their hardships and the criticisms they were subjected to from their communities caused them both to make detrimental decisions and hurt some of their loved ones in the process. They diverge from each other as the mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” chose to abide by society’s standards for how to be a mother while Emily Grierson rebelled against society’s expectations for adapting to modern times. As a result, these two characters had fairly different outcomes to their stories.
A mother always wants what is best for their child and the mother from Faulkner’s short story “I stand here Ironing” is no exception. She committed herself to following how society directed a child to be raised as she was nurturing her first born, Emily. Even though her better judgment realized the flaws of some of these techniques and decisions of child raising, the mother continued to parent by the book. When she was nursing Emily she would keep Emily latched on “until the clock decreed” signifying that the time was up for however long her parenting book told her to breast feed for (Faulkner). Even though Emily cried from over-satisfaction and the mother’s “breast ached with swollenness” she continued to nurse because that was what the book instructed her to do (Faulkner). Like most first time mothers she was unexperienced, but she wasn’t able to detect the signs that she should stop because of the dependence she had developed on society. Emily is sent to a convalescent home after “they persuaded” her mother (Faulkner). Once again the mother is following what someone else instructs her to do, who she believes knows better. These choices strained their relationship, but they did help the mother develop as a parent. She eventually learned to raise her kids how she felt was best, along with the help of Emily. In the end it is revealed that a set and generalized standard does not work for everyone and that one should follow their instincts more when they’re in doubt, because society is not always right.
When one has been raised certain way and is thrusted into a barrage of changes, it is challenging if not impossible to adapt. When the town leaves Emily Grierson in the past in Tillie Olsen’s prose “A Rose for Emily”, she refuses to change her old and traditional ways. When a delegated group of men visit Emily’s home to request that she pay her taxes she only repeats to them “I have no taxes in Jefferson” (Olsen). She has grown stubborn in her old ways and refuses to pay taxes because she never had to before. Even with new rules and officials she continues to do things her way. She symbolized tradition and what the town was once before, and even though she was well known through-out the town, the community was waiting for her to pass on as she was the only factor holding the town back from the future. This proves that traditions can only last for so long and that time will move with or without you.
If society is persistent in pushing one into a corner, there are only two options: to stand one’s ground or let them control you. In a conflict between man and society, the end results will be different, but there is always a choice. Emily and the mother are two very different women but both had to face a man versus society conflict.