Ray Bradbury’s “Embroidery” is a short story about the end of the world. It touches on a frequent theme of Bradbury’s work: technology’s unintended consequences, typical grist for sci-fi. As he was writing in the ‘50s, some of his fictional predictions seem quaint by now (think of Fahrenheit 451). In the case of “Embroidery,” Bradbury offers us a provocative vignette about a nuclear holocaust. Yet it illustrates something else about Bradbury’s society which he may not have necessarily intended to convey.
The apocalypse will be eventuated through a nuclear test – due at 5pm. Meanwhile the three women, presumably elderly, continue knitting their embroidery, not quite sure what the correct course of action is. The plunge towards 5pm comes ever closer–within mere minutes. The women’s age is not indicated; however, one might assume the women are elderly, perhaps because one associates sewing with a later stage of life. Additionally, the women’s resigned attitudes towards life’s trials and tribulations strike one as indicated a stage somewhat past middle age.
Ultimately, they decide to keep at their embroidery until the very end. Their references to other domestic work, the busy work, maternal work, is a reflection on their lifetimes. One does not necessarily sense that they found their lifetimes wanting:
“They recounted to themselves the slides they had lifted, the doors they had opened and shut, the flowers they had picked, the dinners they had made, all with slow or quick fingers, as was their manner or custom. Looking back, you saw a flurry of hands, like a magician’s dream, doors popping wide, taps turned, brooms wielded, children spanked. The flutter of pink hands was the only sound; the rest was a dream without voices.”
Their lives have been in the service of others, their families, making dinner, and correcting children. When the end is near, they are not remorseful, but rather resigned and placid. They suspect the world is about to end, but they still keep up with their daily chores, as evidenced by the smell of “cut grass.” Why mow the lawn if the world will end? Why, because these hardy folk like order in their suburban lives of virtuous regimentation.
As the end of the world comes, they only more vigorously busy themselves in sewing their patterns, patterns of pleasant domestic scenes, such as “lilacs and grass and trees and houses and rivers in the embroidered cloth.” Another woman embroiders equally sweet depictions, such as “a rose, a leaf, a daisy on a green field” (160). They must attend to the shelling of the peas, as dinner might happen after five o’clock after all, and wouldn’t they feel silly then? They seem to embrace the thought for just a moment that all the panic might be for nothing.
When the blast of fire does arrive, it subsumes their embroidered cloth houses and worlds, which represents the nuclear blast subsuming the real world:
"She watched a fire, in slow motion almost, catch upon the embroidered house and unshingle it, and pull each threaded leaf from the small green tree in the hoop, and she saw the sun itself pulled apart in the design.” (162)
Bradbury’s short story is a sci-fi perspective on the end of the world, an apocalypse by our own design and reckless scientific experimentation. During the cold-war, it was a frequent preoccupation of the United States. This fear was much more pronounced in the ’50s than it is now, though we arguably have more to worry about now than ever.
But “Embroidery” is more than that. It is also an ode to the unflagging spirit of these kind old ladies, who take pride in the aesthetic beauty of their work, and in their lifetime of service to their family in the form of the not unpleasant drudgery of everyday household tasks. The short story itself, published in 1951, though Bradbury could not know it, is an encapsulation of 1950s contentment.
A textbook which I taught from (Holt McDougal, 2010) framed this story wrongheadedly. The multiple choice questions implied this theme for “Embroidery”: “Ignoring trouble does not stop it.” That misses the mark wildly. The women in the short story have no mechanism whatsoever to stop the “trouble”; therefore, they can hardly be blamed for “ignoring” it. No, the forces of the world and politics are not their concern. Rather, their concern, though the world may pass, is simply embroidery in that moment. That in itself is a brave stance which demonstrates their feminine fortitude.
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