A woman brings home cut flowers, since tomorrow is the seventeenth anniversary of her husband’s death. She visits his grave on that day each year to weed it and decorate it with flowers. This year, she’s worrying about the journey, because it’s becoming more hazardous as she ages. Walking, changing buses, and enduring the cold winds in the cemetery are so grueling that it makes her want to lie down among the tombstones and sleep.
The first lines of the story speak to the ritual of the woman’s trip to the cemetery: she has done it for seventeen years, and she knows exactly how to prepare. The tone changes ominously when it says that the journey has been occupying her thoughts more than usual, showing just how treacherous ordinary, habitual things have become in the woman’s old age. While the woman’s loneliness is a condition of her life—after all, her husband has been dead for a long time—her old age is presented as a new enemy that is beginning to disrupt her life.
That evening, as the woman cooks her dinner, stokes the fire, and heats water for her bath, she moves slowly; her back and shoulder hurt. Her hands are so weak that she can barely turn the taps on the bathtub. It’s a shame that she hasn’t been taking more baths lately, but it has become so hard on her body that it’s impossible to bathe more than once every couple of weeks. She places a chair near the tub that she can grab if she has trouble getting out, as she did the last time she bathed.
Taking a bath was something the woman enjoyed when it was easy for her to do, but now, she feels a lot of dread and anxiety about having to bathe, since her body has not been cooperating lately. Baths can be quite dangerous for older people, especially if they slip and break something or hit their heads, and especially if they have nobody to help them if they struggle, which the story implies the woman does not. Despite her apprehension, the woman is very determined to bathe. She resolutely carries out the actions required to prepare her bath, keeping up her ritual despite the pain and anxiety that underlie everything she does.
The woman cautiously lowers herself into the bath, already dreading when she’ll have to get out. She plans how she will surprise her body into movements she usually can’t do. To put off getting out, she washes herself a twice and fantasizes about closing her eyes and waking up already in bed. But as she realizes she can no longer put it off, she feels weak and alone.
The woman sets her mind against her body. Mentally, she is able to transport herself safely out of the bathtub. She imagines her body functioning perfectly, and dreams of waking up having glided through the transition out of the bath altogether. But, as the moment of getting out of the bath gets closer and closer, the woman’s fear, helplessness, and loneliness overcome her. The action of getting out of the bath is so physically demanding that even the woman’s mental determination becomes futile against it.
After draining the bathwater, the woman sits naked and shivering in the tub. She notices how slippery its surface has become and feels pain in her shoulders. When she grabs the rim, her hands slip. She begins to panic and then realizes that if she were to call for help, nobody would hear her. Outside, the world is completely silent, and she feels that she’s “under the earth.”
At this point, the bathtub starts to take on attributes of an antagonistic character. It is so slippery and cold that it makes the woman feel powerless and vulnerable. What is more, it actively seems to be trying to trap her, making her feel under the earth, as though she were buried alive. The bathtub is strikingly similar to a grave at this point, and one cannot help but have the impression that the woman fears the bathtub because it seems to be forcing her towards death.
The woman makes another serious effort to grab the chair and hoist herself out, but it fails. Out of breath, she shouts for help, but of course, nobody hears. She’s desperately lonely—if her husband were still alive, he would have helped her. After trying and failing again to get out, she starts beating the sides of the tub. Then she spends a half hour alternating between struggling to get out and resting her tired body.
The woman is no longer able to maintain the fantasy that she is self-sufficient. She accepts some of the facts of her situation: she has no one to take care of her and she cannot take care of herself. Her physical ability has hit a wall, and her mental determination has petered out as well. Physically and mentally helpless, she begins to panic, expending her energy on wild and hopeless behavior. She has lost control of her sense of normalcy. It seems possible that if she does not escape the bathtub, she might die of exposure, as she is wet and naked in a very cold bathroom.
Finally, the woman “escape[s]” the bathtub. But she knows that she’ll never take another bath alone; this is “the end or the beginning of it,” since she will have to hire a nurse to help her bathe now. Having the nurse will be the “first humiliation,” and many others will follow.
The woman’s struggle in the bathtub causes her to realize something she refused to accept before: she can no longer do some basic everyday things by herself. Her self-esteem takes a huge fall in this moment, which is evident from the despairing and confessional tone of her thoughts, contrasting with her determined and regimented thoughts before. While the woman seems quite alone in her life, she doesn’t seem to take any comfort in the idea of having a nurse help her bathe—in fact, she sees it as a “humiliation.” In this way, it’s clear that being alone is not what the woman despairs—it’s being helpless to prevent her body from reaching a point where she is no longer self-sufficient.
Exhausted and lonely, the woman lies in bed wishing she would die. The “slow progression of difficulties” is a “kind of torture”; she can no longer reach items at the top of her cupboard, hang laundry on the line, or mow the lawn.
The terrifying ordeal with the bathtub releases a stream of reflections and sorrows. Even though the woman didn’t die in the bathtub as she seemed to fear, getting out doesn’t end her terrible feelings, since the situation has just proved to her that she’s no longer self-sufficient, which is also something she’s been dreading. Comparing aging to torture further positions her body as an antagonist who is ruining her life, and given that feeling, it makes some sense that she would long for death—at least death will release her from the torture of aging, both the pain in her body and the humiliation of not being able to do even basic tasks for herself.
Once, when her niece came to help her and remarked on the beauty of the clouds, the woman replied that she never looks at clouds and the niece acted “incredulous” and “despising.” But the truth is that she can no longer look at the sky without feeling dizzy. Besides, she has to look at the ground to protect herself from tripping. She must always guard her body from its own “treachery,” as if it were an enemy. Soon, she will need someone else to “help her to guard and control her own body,” which scares her.
The woman has the sense that the world is narrowing. She is so mentally and physically limited by her aging body that she cannot enjoy the beauty of the world; instead, she has to pay very narrow attention to her own body and safety at all times. The unpleasant interaction with the niece perhaps gives a hint as to why the woman doesn’t seem to want anyone else’s company. After all, it doesn’t seem like other people understand what she’s going through, since the niece seems not to realize that the woman isn’t choosing not to look at the clouds—she physically can’t. Because of these cruelties, perhaps the woman simply prefers to be alone with her own thoughts, which explains why the notion of aging so much that she has to hire a nurse troubles her so much.
The next day, the weather is surprisingly warm. Normally, when the woman visits the cemetery, the wind whips across the ocean, making her shiver through her coat. But today it’s peaceful and nice. The woman weeds the garden at her husband’s grave then cleans out the jars for holding the cut flowers she brought. Standing back, she looks with satisfaction at her work, noting proudly that she has always cared for her husband’s grave.
This passage begins the story’s second half, which is remarkably different from the first. The first half detailed the harrowing ordeal with the bathtub and the woman’s despair at not being able to do ordinary tasks anymore, but now the weather has warmed and the woman is suddenly able to do what she couldn’t do at home: she can do the labor of maintaining a grave, seemingly without pain or difficulty. Since the weather is comfortable and she’s able to do the work of tending the grave, the woman’s mood is also transformed: she seems pleased and happy, rather than anxious and despairing.
As she leaves the cemetery, the woman walks by her parents’ grave. It’s a roomier grave than her husband’s, as they had money for extra space and an elaborate tombstone. Their grave has no flowers, only soft grass glowing in the sun. The woman feels peaceful; she’s so far from the terror she felt last night getting out of the bath. Sitting at her parents’ grave, she doesn’t want to go home, as she’s enjoying the wind and the sea.
The woman has not mentioned her parents before this moment, so the fact that they’re buried right near her husband comes as a shock. Another surprising thing is that apparently they were wealthy, which stands in contrast to the woman herself, who seems working class (she has no help at home, she takes the bus instead of driving, etc.). It’s also notable that, while the woman makes the effort to come each year to beautify her husband’s grave, she does not do the same for her parents—but this does not appear to be out of resentment or neglect, as she feels so happy and peaceful visiting her parents’ grave. Perhaps she finds it so beautiful already—likely because they were wealthy enough to have a large, elaborate grave—that she doesn't think it’s necessary to fix it up. The fact that the woman, while sitting in a graveyard, does not think of the bathtub that she felt was entombing her (putting her “under the earth”) is also important; she doesn’t associate the bathtub with the graveyard, but rather with the grave-like confinement of her life at home. This implies that she perhaps finds the idea of death preferable to the threat of continuing to age and becoming less capable.
The woman is thankful that her parents were able to have such a comfortable grave, unlike her husband, who was cremated. His grave has only room for a tombstone. The woman’s parents’ grave is like having a lot of land, back before there were too many people in the world. It confuses her that the world has gotten “wider and wider” and yet there’s “no space left”—although it might have gotten narrower.
Her parents’ wealth adds a troubling element to the story; it suggests that the dead are only truly at peace if they can afford to be. The woman likely visits her husband’s grave because she is anxious about making sure his remains are comfortable and dignified, just as she is anxious about her own discomfort and dignity in life. It seems that when the woman contemplates the difference in wealth between her parents and her husband, she is led back to thoughts of narrowness. The world is narrower not only because the woman is getting weaker but also because there are more people and less wealth. This subtly opens the possibility that the woman may not even get the relief she seeks in death.
The woman doesn’t want to undertake her arduous journey home, returning to the struggles of her daily life. She’d rather stay in one place. Nonetheless, she returns to the bus stop, and she thinks of making her dinner and the upcoming weeks when family plans to visit. The noise around her seems to get louder, and she closes her eyes to remember the peace of the cemetery: the bright flowers on her husband’s grave, and her parents’ grave with so much room they could roll over if they wanted. But all she can see is her husband’s grave getting narrower and narrower until it vanishes entirely and then becomes the “narrow confining” bathtub, waiting for a moment of vulnerability to trap her forever.
The woman’s loneliness and helplessness are absent while she’s in the cemetery. At the beginning of the story, the cemetery seemed like a sad, harsh place that the woman must go to great lengths to get to. By the end, however, the cemetery has the warmth of a home to the widow. She feels capable, content, and able to experience pleasure there. Her peace and pleasure in the cemetery show, by contrast, the misery of the woman’s life at home. As she travels back, the pleasant image of the grave is replaced by the terrifying image of the bathtub. In this way, it seems that the woman doesn’t dread death itself, which may bring her peace. What she actually dreads is not being able to live her life self-sufficiently, and she dreads a potentially harrowing process of dying while trying to do a daily task like bathing.