“The Husband Stitch” Write Up by Niara Pelton


“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?
–  No.
–  I  want  to  touch  it,  he  says.
–  No.

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.

Writing Exercise

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.

Discussion Questions

  • 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?


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