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Post discussion comments about the short stories by Olsen, Tan, and Walker in the forum.
Lecture III: Short Stories by Olsen, Tan, and Walker
Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing” (1961)
In “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen writes of a working-class mother during the
Depression and World War II era, showing the difficulties she encounters through no fault of
her own. The mother must work at the age of 19, at a time when there were few opportunities
for women in the workplace. Note the metaphor of ironing—in the title and throughout the
short story, the narrator is ironing. Keep in mind that ironing was a common household task in
the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s in America—all clothes then had to be ironed thoroughly, as they
wrinkled tremendously (unlike clothes of today). So, a mother who had worked all day would
come home to cook (from scratch), do dishes, wash clothes, and iron! The voice of the mother
tells us there is never enough time for Emily.
Contrast the upbringing of Emily with her younger brothers and sisters. Susan is “the
second child . . . golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured,
everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; . . . Susan, who for all the five years’
difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically” (354). The mother’s life,
during the war years and in midst of a second marriage, was not easier than when Emily was an
There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would
struggle over books, always eating (it was in 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.
Sometimes to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings
or types at school.
By the way, “V-mail” was “victory mail”—actual letters in envelopes sent to soldiers/sailors
during World War II. Imagine the difficulty of having a husband away at war—the worry, the
uncertainty, the loneliness of the years! Note the irony of Emily’s commenting on her mother’s
incessant ironing: “Aren’t you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his
mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board” (Olsen). What does
the ironing represent? What do all the tasks we do represent—those never-ending tasks like
cooking, vacuuming, grocery shopping, cleaning? How much is Emily a product of her
generation? Are we the results of the eras in which we are born? How much does the mother
blame herself for Emily’s problems/weaknesses? Should she blame herself?
[By the way, since I was using an online source, for which there are no numbered pages, MLA
says to cite the author’s last name after quotes.]
Amy Tan, “Two Kinds” (1989)
The story “Two Kinds” is taken from the novel The Joy Luck Club (which was made into a
movie by the same title). This story relates the relationship between a mother and daughter,
both of Chinese ancestry; however, difficulties arise in that the mother grew up in China, with
great difficulties and no opportunities, whereas the daughter is growing up in America, able to
be anything she wants to be. The mother plans for her daughter to avail herself of all those
opportunities—and there are various attempts to make her a prodigy. The daughter is asked to memorize Bible verses, state capitals, and to play the piano. It is the conflict over the piano that
brings the mother-daughter relationship into conflict.
The narrator describes her disastrous performance at the talent show:
I was so caught up in how lovely I looked that at first I didn’t worry how I would
sound. So it was a surprise to me when I hit the first wrong note and I realized
something didn’t sound quite right. And then I hit another and another followed
that. A chill started at the top of my head and began to trickle down. Yet I couldn’t
stop playing, as though my hands were bewitched. I kept thinking my fingers would
adjust themselves back, like a train switching to the right track. (Tan)
After the talent show, the daughter assumes she will not be required to practice the piano—the
piano that her mother worked so hard to buy by cleaning houses. The mother clarifies her
position: “Only two kinds of daughters . . . . Those who are obedient and those who follow their
own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!” (Tan).
At the story’s end, note the daughter’s ability at the piano, now that she is an adult: “I
opened up the Schumann book to the dark little piece I had played at the recital. It was on the
left-hand side of the page, ‘Pleading Child.’ It looked more difficult than I remembered. I played
a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me” (Tan). Note the title of the piece
on the right-hand side of the page, “Perfectly Contented” (Tan). What is the symbolism here?
Alice Walker, “Everyday Use” (1973)
In “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker asks us as readers to think about how the African-
American culture should be viewed from both within and without the culture. She asks us to
think about the value of heritage, our relation to self, and the importance of artistry in culture. In reading this short story, think about those family stories which all of us have heard. Also,
think about the importance of our pasts for our present and future lives. In looking at the
characters in this story, we see a hard-working mother who has struggled to send one child to
college. Dee is certainly ambitious. And like many young black college students in the 1970’s,
she has embraced the concepts of black pride, along with her Afro hairstyle and her new name,
But Alice Walker shows us that in the family, as in the culture at large, not all change is
met with enthusiasm. What does Maggie think of Dee/Wangero’s hair? What does the mother
think of the new name Dee is using? Why does Dee/Wangero say that her mother and sister
don’t understand their heritage? What would she like them to do?
Perhaps another issue we should think about is this—should we discard our
backgrounds when we get an education? Also, on what does Dee’s self-esteem depend? Does
Dee really understand her heritage? Is Dee’s political stance based on reality or on its being the
fashion of the times? Why does Dee want the quilts so badly? Does Dee patronize her mother
Also, contrast the two sisters. Maggie is reminiscent of Celie, in Walker’s novel The Color
Purple (also made into a movie by the same title). Maggie is shy and understands pain; her
future is limited (by her burns and by her plans to marry and live as her family always has).
What are Maggie’s reasons for wanting the quilts?
Note that “Everyday Use” refers to quilts as a form of artistic expression—hand-crafted
expressions of the spirit within and of the history of a people. Keep in mind that political
realities created barriers for artistic expression and opportunity (and certainly slavery and later segregation had many destructive ramifications). Additionally, gender roles added to the lack of
opportunity for black women. Virginia Woolf, the English writer, speaks of the difficulty of being
a woman and an artist in “A Room of One’s Own.” In speaking about the mother in “Everyday
Use,” Alice Walker refers to the limitations imposed due to poverty and inequality (race and
Compare the mothers in the stories by Tillie Olsen, Amy Tan, and Alice Walker. Which of the
four daughters is kindest or smartest or most troubled or most loveable? Explain why. What are
the difficulties in being a good mother?
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