Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” was published in 2017. The opening short story from the collection, “The Husband Stitch,” unfolds in the first-person perspective. It follows the conventional path of a woman who meets a man, gets married, and becomes a mother. However, the tale takes an unexpected approach to critiquing existing patriarchal structures, interweaving elements of the gothic, by adding the alternate narrative of folk tales and urban myths.
“Her Body and Other Parties,” won the Shirley Jackson Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
The Husband Stitch | Summary
The short story “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from the first person perspective. The narrative begins at a party, where the narrator meets a charming man, whom she later marries. After an intimate sexual encounter on the night they meet, the man asks the narrator about the mysterious green ribbon she wears around her neck. He attempts to untie it but withdraws when she refuses.
The two enter into a relationship, and as their bond deepens both physically and emotionally, the woman sets a single boundary, that he must not touch her ribbon. Initially, he shows curiosity but respects her wish. They eventually get married, and have a son. At the time of her pregnancy, when the narrator goes into labor for twenty hours, the doctor tries to push her for a surgical delivery, which she opposes. After giving birth, she finds that the doctor and her husband laughing together at a joke. Lying in her bed after giving birth, she overhears her husband asking the doctor to give her the “husband stitch.” The narrator, in her half-conscious state, tries to call out to her husband and request him otherwise, but her voice only comes out in inaudible slurs and neither of the two men seem to hear her pleas.
Over time, she recovers from giving birth and is told that she cannot have another child. Consequently, her husband’s curiosity regarding her ribbon intensifies, and he becomes increasingly insistent on knowing more about it. Despite her efforts to please him, he pushes her boundaries. As their married years continue, so does his sense of entitlement.
When her son enters school, the narrator’s days become emptier in his absence. A teacher from his school suggests her art classes at a local college. That night, when in bed with her husband, he tries to undo her ribbon once more. She refuses and this grows into an argument that their son witnesses. The next day, her son attempts to pull at her ribbon but the narrator disallows him from this.
The narrator enrolls in the art classes and finds solace when she discovers another woman with a ribbon in an art class. She finds herself attracted to this woman, but her husband soon senses that she is hiding something and questions her. The narrator confesses her fantasies, but this only fuels her husband’s desire. The act of confession makes her feel guilty as if she had betrayed her new friend, and she distances herself from this newfound friendship.
The central narrative following the protagonist’s story is interspersed with tales, most of which are gothic and morbid in nature. The narrator’s son, growing older, wants to hear more stories from his mother, which she tells. One day he directly asks her about her ribbon, to which she replies that everyone is different and that he would understand when he is older. Her son never questions her again.
The narrator’s son grows older, is accepted at a university, and plans to marry his girlfriend, whom he introduces to his parents. In the last section of the story, the narrator and her husband seem to somewhat rekindle their sexual life. However, after the encounter, the husband once more attempts to undo her ribbon. She initially refuses, but when he does not stop, this time, the narrator allows him to. As he does, the narrator falls back onto the bed and she realizes the profound loneliness and isolation with which she has spent her entire life.
The Husband Stitch | Analysis
In Machado’s narrative, the protagonist grapples with the harsh reality of her existence, realizing that she is treated merely as a tool to uphold patriarchal systems of power, catering to the desires of her husband. The story begins with the woman, still a teenager, seeing her future husband at a party. Despite societal norms, she decides to take charge of her desires and pursues him actively. At this point, she exhibits agency and autonomy in her choices, acting for herself and not for others.
In “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator remains more or less static throughout the story, while the men around her undergo development and change. The only aspect that seems to evolve within her is her sexuality. This portrayal emphasizes the notion that the women in the story are depicted as fixed entities rather than dynamic beings. The perception of women as fixtures is further reinforced by the interchangeable casting of the voices of “All Other Women” with that of the narrator herself. This conveys a sense of uniformity and lack of individuality among the female characters, contributing to the overall theme of women being confined within societal roles and expectations.
However, as the story unfolds, the woman’s agency gradually diminishes. She finds herself succumbing to her husband’s sexual desires, sacrificing her own needs and wants to fulfill his expectations. The protagonist’s initial youthful assertiveness is replaced by her diminishing strength through her actions and thoughts in various moments as her character undergoes a stark transformation. She becomes increasingly submissive, complying with her husband’s demands and relinquishing control over her desires. This shift in characterization sends a powerful message about the erosion of her agency and autonomy in the relationship.
Additionally, as a mother, she feels compelled to prioritize her son’s well-being, further subduing her sense of self. The loss of agency is evident as she becomes entangled in the roles assigned to her by a patriarchal society, overshadowing her desires and aspirations. The proposal of marriage, as the husband iterates “And now, I will know all of them.” and the notion of ‘love’ and marriage itself is reduced and predicated on the wife’s surrender of anything personal to him. To him, a wife –
“should have no secrets from her husband.”
Another poignant example of the loss of her agency is when the protagonist attends an art class and engages in a conversation with one of the female models. As they talk about their lives and children, the narrator becomes captivated by the woman, imagining what it would be like to have a closer relationship with her. However, when she returns home, she hesitates to share this encounter with her husband, sensing an unfulfilled desire within herself.
The husband, perceptive of his wife’s emotions, questions her, and upon knowing about the incident, begins to fantasize about the other woman and includes his wife in his fantasies. This dynamic shifts the narrator’s relationship from being her own to becoming a reflection of her husband’s desires, even though he remains unaware of the woman’s existence.
Feeling conflicted and guilty, the narrator chooses not to return to the art class, as she perceives her emotions as a betrayal towards the other woman. This instance highlights how the woman’s agency and desires are intertwined with her husband’s, eroding her sense of autonomy and further emphasizing the imbalance of power in their relationship.
The pivotal moment where the narrator loses her agency occurs during the birth of her son. After the doctor performs a necessary cut to facilitate the delivery, the woman lies on the bed. In this vulnerable state, she overhears her husband asking the doctor about adding the extra husband stitch, to tighten her vagina after childbirth. The doctor’s response, filled with laughter, indicates that many men have made similar requests before.
As the narrator, unable to protest and drifts to sleep, she catches fragments of their conversation, leaving certain words and letters omitted. This deliberate omission symbolizes the woman’s fading consciousness, but it also serves as a poignant metaphor for the larger theme of “truth” and agency in the narrative.
This unsettling scene highlights how the woman’s desires and autonomy are disregarded, reducing her to an object of sexual pleasure for her husband. The discussion surrounding the husband stitch not only robs the woman of her physical agency but also emphasizes the story’s exploration of the elusive nature of truth and control over one’s narrative. The woman is reduced to a commodity that is to be mended after childbirth.
The ending of the story is the final submission of the narrator to her husband. On untying her ribbon, her “lopped head tips backward off [her] neck and rolls off the bed,” almost as if she had just died. Thus, the birth of the submissive woman becomes the death of her agency, autonomy, and any individuality.
In the story, Machado skillfully weaves an intertextual narrative, seamlessly blending different storytelling techniques. The unnamed narrator acknowledges herself as a storyteller from the outset, intertwining her first-person coming-of-age memories, which encompass sexual awakening, marriage, and motherhood, with third-person narration containing numerous urban myths and folktales. As the story progresses, the mythical storytelling gradually takes over, surpassing the first-person accounts. This shift occurs when the narrator undergoes traumatic experiences that lead her to dissociate from her own story and voice, eventually allowing the mythic elements to dominate her narrative.
These urban legends shared by the narrator serve as parables that dictate how women should behave within their society. For instance, after having a sexual encounter with her boyfriend, the narrator evokes the image of the hook-handed man, a popular urban myth associated with the gruesome murder of a young couple in a car. These tales take on a darker, misogynistic, and satirical nature, reflecting the foundations of the patriarchal society depicted in the story.
These urban legends function as indirect rules, akin to Juvenalian satire, which criticizes the decline in feminine virtue. Machado employs this satirical approach to criticize a society that promotes harmful fantasies of violence against women who defy societal norms.
Through these misogynistic rules embedded in the urban legends, Machado aims to critique the societal pressures and expectations placed on women, exposing the oppressive nature of a patriarchal system that seeks to control and punish those who challenge its conventions. The use of these tales as cautionary examples highlights the underlying misogyny and the need for change in a society that perpetuates harmful and oppressive narratives about women.
The Husband Stitch | Themes
The central theme of the narrative revolves around how a woman’s strength and independence are overshadowed by men’s failure to recognize her autonomy and agency. At the outset, the protagonist exudes confidence and self-assurance, fully aware of her own value, she says:
“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.”
Upon entering a relationship, she establishes clear boundaries concerning something significant to her, symbolized by her ribbon. Initially, her partner respects these boundaries, but as time passes after their marriage, he begins to disregard them despite her constant efforts to make him happy.
Additionally, the protagonist’s assertiveness regarding the ribbon wanes over time, symbolizing the fading grip on her identity and autonomy. This decline in her self-assertion eventually contributes to the somber and tragic ending of the story. The author skillfully demonstrates the profound impact of societal expectations and patriarchal norms on the protagonist, leading to the loss of her strength and individuality.
The story delves into the complexities of gender roles and how women are conditioned to fulfill certain societal norms, even if it means sacrificing their own desires and identity. The narrator’s evasive behavior and her reluctance to fully describe herself are indicative of the internal conflict she faces between societal expectations and her own self-expression.
The theme of trauma is also prevalent in the story. The narrator’s experiences with the husband stitch, and the subsequent events, leave her stripped of her mind, sexuality, and ultimately, her life. This trauma is depicted not only through physical harm but also through the emotional and psychological toll of living in a society that denies women their agency and bodily autonomy.
The Husband Stitch | Title of the Story
The title “The Husband Stitch” alludes to a medical practice where some women receive an additional stitch after childbirth. This extra stitch is performed in the perineal area (between the vagina and anus) in order to tighten the vagina, supposedly enhancing the husband’s sexual pleasure during intercourse.
The narrator, after the delivery of her baby, overhears her husband asking the doctor to give her the “extra stitch.” In her semi-conscious state, she is unable to argue or fight for her own rights. This mutilation of her body is done without her permission. It would be safe to believe that she would also have been unaware of this had she not overheard the conversation, as there is no mention of the husband stitch by her partner himself throughout the narrative. This symbolizes the forceful taking away of a woman’s agency by patriarchal structures in the story, essentially dehumanizing, objectifying, and commodifying the female body. Repression and control over the female body become the zenith and symbol of male power.
The Husband Stitch | Character Sketch
The unnamed protagonist of the story is a woman who shares her life experiences from adolescence to adulthood. She grapples with societal expectations, loss of agency, and the impact of patriarchal norms on her identity and relationships.
The narrator’s husband is depicted as charming and eager to please. However, from the very onset of the story and following through its course, he becomes obsessed with the green ribbon that the narrator wears around her neck. He attempts to untie it multiple times, even though she refuses.
The Husband Stitch | Literary Devices
“The Husband Stitch” employs a postmodern meta-narrative approach through its diverse cast of voices, breaking the fourth wall and challenging the narrator’s reliability. Her descriptions of other characters are tainted by her subjective viewpoint, further complicated by her evasive behavior, hinting at hidden secrets. Throughout the story, she skims over sensitive topics that might disrupt the facade of her seemingly “good” life, including a disturbing conspiracy involving her husband and obstetrician regarding the husband stitch. This evasiveness is evident in her self-description, where she presents herself as unremarkable and her sexuality as grotesque. However, as the narrative unfolds, it reveals a character burdened by trauma, deprived of her agency, sexuality, body, and ultimately, her life.
The concept of the “husband stitch” serves as a symbolic representation of societal expectations placed upon women. The husband’s fixation on it represents the desire for control and possession over the female body, while the wife’s reluctance to openly discuss it reflects the loss of autonomy and agency that women often experience in patriarchal societies.
Lastly, the green ribbon is a symbol of the narrator’s identity and autonomy as a woman. It becomes a metaphor for her desire to maintain control over her own life and experiences. The narrator refuses to reveal the reason for wearing the ribbon, and her husband never learns the truth symbolizing her evasiveness and reluctance to discuss certain aspects of her life.
The ribbon also reflects societal expectations and gender roles. The narrator’s refusal to remove the ribbon, even at her husband’s request, can be interpreted as a comment on how women are often expected to conform to societal norms and fulfill specific roles without questioning or asserting their own desires.
Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” presents a haunting narrative critiquing patriarchal structures and the loss of a woman’s agency. The unnamed protagonist’s transformation from assertive youth to a submissive wife and mother reflects the complexities of gender roles and societal expectations. The green ribbon symbolizes her desire for control and identity, becoming a metaphor for women’s struggles in a patriarchal society. Interweaving gothic tales and urban myths, Machado reveals the misogynistic foundations of societal norms. The story delves into trauma and the unsettling practice of the husband stitch, robbing women of their autonomy and commodifying their bodies. Through powerful storytelling, Machado emphasizes the importance of recognizing and respecting women’s agency, prompting readers to challenge oppressive structures and embrace the complexities of female identity.