The Significance of Referentiality and Intertextuality in The Husband Stitch (Carmen Maria Machado, 2017), Kaja Rakušček

Review by Kaja Rakušček. Proof-read by João N. S. Almeida. Link para o livro na loja Wook.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s The Husband Stitch, the unnamed narrator, a self-proclaimed “teller of stories,” wears a green ribbon around her neck. There is a secret behind this ribbon that she keeps from her husband even though he persistently claims that a wife “should have no secrets.” She firmly establishes that he and their son “can’t touch it” plenty of times to protect herself from the danger of losing her head (literally), but her fate is already established since “brides never fare well in stories.” This essay argues that intertextuality – the relationship between literary texts – and literary referentiality in general serve as structural elements that makes the readers draw parallels between the references found in the text and the narrator’s life events. Various urban legends, myths and retellings shape the story into a cautionary tale. The main narrative is often interrupted by intertextual elements and complex referentiality which foreshadow the narrator’s demise and contain morals that pertain to her life.

The first of those elements is the storyline’s resemblance to a classic coming-of-age novel. After meeting at a party, the 17-year-old narrator initiates the first contact by kissing her future husband and soon exclaims that she “know[s] that [they] are going to marry,” which reminds the reader of Romeo and Juliet’s young and reckless love, which did not end on a happy note. She acknowledges that “teaching her boy” and initiating contact as a woman “isn’t how things are done, but this is how [she is] going to do them.” By doing so, she subverts the gender roles acknowledged in the Bible: “wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (New International Version, Ephesians 5:24). This establishes a man as a leader and a woman as a submissive wife. Disruption of the established order causes her story to end tragically. The narrator is aware that her interest in sexuality and her embracing desire and attraction towards her future husband could be dangerous. She recalls a story in which a woman is punished because of her overt expression of sexuality. The narrator cannot help but wonder what this “magical thing” that caused that woman to be put in “a sanitarium” was. This “deviant pleasure” resembles the forbidden fruit from the biblical tale about the fall of humanity, which essentially transforms the narrator’s story into a cautionary tale about female desire.

The narrator is expected to love her husband despite all his mistakes because she is his wife, and to love their son just because she is his mother. She directly employs intertextuality in her retelling of a story about a “husband and wife killed by wolves”: their daughter was raised feral and was seen breastfeeding “two wolf cubs” that “bloodied her breasts.” She still loved them because they were supposedly her children. The narrator links this story to her childbirth experience; she feels her baby “clawing” inside her stomach, and after delivering their son, an “unmarked” baby without a ribbon, the doctor performs the “husband stitch”, an unnecessary extra suture that is done after a woman had given birth, sewing her up “nice and tight”, in order to increase the sexual pleasure of the husband. Despite her son “being a poor tenant,” resulting in her inability to “house another” child, the narrator still loves him despite all the pain that was inflicted on her, just like the feral woman loved her ‘children.’ Apart from that, the narrator assures her husband that she loves him “more than [he] can possibly know,” even after his perilous mistake of undoing her ribbon, which reveal the fantastical truth about it: that it was holding her body and head together. She knows that the fact that he is a good person “is the root of [her] hurt.” Condemning him would be easier if his positive values did not overpower his occasional brick-headedness. Her ability to endure suffering and forgive terrible mistakes transforms her into a martyr-like figure, willing to sacrifice everything for her family.In the end, the narrator becomes the cautionary tale about love herself by remaining ignorant of the morals of her own stories, and consequently literally losing her head because of love.

The narrator warns us about the reality of her stories; among many cautionary tales there are a few misleading ones, but “[s]tories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. They are each borne from the clouds separately, but once they […] come together, there is no way to tell them apart.” By underlining that some stories seemingly seep into each other, she acknowledges that it is not possible to pinpoint where the wrong morals are located. This is how she removes herself from the narrative and warns us that we must approach the text critically. Machado wants us to find out the morals for ourselves, shaping us into active readers that develop their interpretations and make connections by trying to understand the references that she makes. The main moral is that the narrator’s impending demise is foreshadowed by the strong web of references that can be found, and especially through intertextuality: we could say that intertextuality in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” runs like a ribbon through the story and keeps it together.


  1. The Bible. New International Version. Biblica, consulted on May 25, 2020, 8.
  2. Machado, Carmen Maria. Her Body and Other Parties. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017., 1-7, 9-22.