“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado follows a woman with a mysterious ribbon around her neck growing up. The story starts off at a party. The narrator is young and meets a handsome young man that she begins a relationship with. She matures sexually, opening herself up to him physically and growing closer to him romantically. Her only rule is that he can’t touch her ribbon. At first, he’s merely curious but brushes it off. They get married and begin a life together; however, as the story and the relationship progress, he becomes more curious in spite of her acquiescence to him.
She continues to try to make him happy and they continue to grow in prosperity. They have a son, which relieves the narrator who was afraid of having a girl with a ribbon. Initially the son respects her boundaries with her ribbon. As they gain more, her husband begins to feel more entitled, demanding access to her ribbon, accusing her of having secrets; he continues to push her boundaries to the point of pulling at the ribbon; however, he doesn’t undo it.
At one point the narrator attends an art class and meets another woman with a ribbon. She’s so excited to meet someone else like her, but after her husband pressures her to talk about it and twists it for his own pleasure she feels too guilty to return to the class and her new friend.
Her son adopts his father’s attitude of pushing boundaries with her ribbon. He gets upset with her, but eventually he forgives her and moves past it more readily than his father.
In the end, her husband presses too far. She allows him to untie the ribbon. He is reverent as he does, but then her head falls to the ground, as she realizes that even though he is a good man, she’s still lonely and alone.
Tensions: The chronic tension is the narrator’s ribbon. The chronic tension is her husband’s fascination, obsession, and eventual removal of it.
The author did an amazing job of harnessing time, conveying multiple decades of development masterfully using narrative structure. The structure of the piece-with the loose narrative form-allowed the writer to fit years, possibly even decades into the story. Readers got to see the character grow. The author made use of the narrative structure, jumping easily throughout time, to show the vivid transitions and development in the characters. We can see the narrator’s evolution from childhood to young womanhood.
As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world only observed by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account of the story, and laughed when he scooped me from the chair to kiss me and send me on my way.
She also conveys the evolution of their relationship through time, compressing years of events easily with the narrative voice and reveals, once again, how the character is evolving. She focuses on the important details in short bursts and allows the reader to fill in the years in between which provides a really engaging reader experience.
When he comes home each day, my husband has a list in his mind of things he desires from me, and I am willing to provide them and more. – I am the luckiest man alive, he says, running his hands across my stomach. In the mornings, he kisses me and fondles me and sometimes takes me before his coffee and toast. He goes to work with a spring in his step. He comes home with one promotion, and then another. More money for my family, he says. More money for our happiness.
My son is a good baby. He grows and grows. We never have another child, though not for lack of trying. I suspect that Little One did so much ruinous damage inside of me that my body couldn’t house another.
The author’s characterization of the narrator’s role and opinions as a female work really well to create a strong theme. In the beginning the author effectively shows her assertiveness in the way she thinks and approaches situations boldly, feeling completely in control of her own life, even when defying tradition. She actively decides and orchestrates her first romantic moment, her first kiss, her sexuality, and her marriage. She is proactive and assertive in each of those events, effectively showing her strength and zeal and independence.
In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them.
I have always wanted to choose my moment, and this is the moment I choose.
– Tell me about your ribbon, he says.
– There is nothing to tell. It’s my ribbon.
– May I touch it?
– I want to touch it, he says.
The author shows that strength leaking away, characterizing each of those moments through her changed actions and thoughts. The contrast in characterization gives a stark message. She does whatever her husband asks of her, no longer taking charge of her own desires, but taking on his. She also is gradually less assertive about the ribbon, which leads to the sad ending.
When he comes home each day, my husband has a list in his mind of things he desires from me, and I am willing to provide them and more.
The next day, our son touches my throat and asks about my ribbon. He tries to pull at it. And though it pains me, I have to make it forbidden to him. When he reaches for it, I shake a can full of pennies. It crashes discordantly, and he withdraws and weeps. Something is lost between us, and I never find it again.
Resolve runs out of me. I touch the ribbon. I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there.
The husband’s lack of characterization, other than his growing sense of entitlement also progresses the theme. We don’t see his point of view; we just see how he thinks he is entitled to every part of his wife.
The author uses characterization so well that she never has to name the characters. She describes their traits so well that it is unnecessary and she doesn’t bother with unnecessary traits. She doesn’t mince actions; every action of each character conveys something that is essential to the character development as pertains to theme and it’s effective in a short story, because she writes characters that are engaging, without leaving anything out. The evolution of the characters and how their attitudes are shown by their actions makes them engaging because their openness makes them easy to follow.
The way that the author uses point of view gives an in depth perspective that vividly portrays the character’s emotions in a natural way and endears her to readers. She is straightforward and honest and vulnerable and relatable. She is openly conveying the tumultuous time of growing up and falling in love. Her vulnerability compels readers to see how everything will turn out for her. And as we watch it play out we can see all her fears and thoughts in between that couldn’t be portrayed in other narrative forms.
She took a simple, short, tall tale, and made it her own, imbuing the story with her purpose and bringing the characters to life against a more modern backdrop. She did great with how she colored in her own details while remaining true to the outline and bringing it up recurrently throughout the story. Being able to write within the framework of another story can be engaging because of the familiarity; however, she also made it exciting because of the vivid characters that pulled readers along.
A writing exercise inspired by this story would be to take the details of an old folk tale or myth or legend. Fill in the details and set it to a modern background. Also, I loved how the narrator told part of the story by vividly weaving in other stories, so another exercise would be to intersperse another story into the story you’re writing to convey the story you want to tell.
- What do you think the stories conveyed and why do you think the narrator used them?
- How do you think the story would have been enhanced by adding in the husband’s perspective?
- How do you think the character could have been written more assertively?
- How do you think the son’s behavior-his adoption of his father’s coldness and his forgiveness-adds a layer to the story?
- How did each of the characters contribute to the theme?
- How did the narrator’s passiveness affect the theme?
- Do you think the ending could have been stronger by ending it somewhere else?