The bathtub symbolizes the way in which elderly people become imprisoned in their own bodies. The first half of the story involves the elderly woman struggling to get out of the bathtub after her bath, as her body is no longer agile and cooperative enough for even minor physical feats. Trapped in the bathtub with nobody to help her, she is essentially alone with her aging body, finding her body not simply unreliable, but also her “enemy” and a “menace.” As she lays in the tub, unable to get out, the bathtub becomes akin to a grave; she has the sensation of being sucked into the earth when she drains the water, and afterwards she feels as though she is “under the earth” with wheels moving above her. It’s as though she’s been buried alive by her own body.
Importantly, though, the bathtub is not directly associated with death. The next day, when the woman visits the cemetery, she finds tremendous peace among the graves, showing that it wasn’t the tub’s association with graves that frightened her—instead, it was her helplessness. The woman associates peace and comfort with actual graves, whereas her life has a grave-like oppressiveness that she associates with the bathtub. Therefore, the bathtub represents the cruel prison that life becomes in one’s old age, particularly when one’s body won’t cooperate.
The Bathtub Quotes in The Bath
[…] she tried to think of it calmly, without dread, telling herself that when the time came she would be very careful, taking the process step by step, surprising her bad back and shoulder and powerless wrists into performing feats they might usually rebel against […]
Again she leaned forward; again her grip loosened as if iron hands had deliberately uncurled her stiffened blue fingers from their trembling hold. Her heart began to beat faster, her breath came more quickly, her mouth was dry.
Where were the people, the traffic? Then she had a strange feeling of being under the earth, of a throbbing in her head like wheels going over the earth above her.
Loneliness welled in her. If John were here, she thought, if we were sharing our old age, helping each other, this would never have happened.
She waited, trying to capture the image of peace. She saw only her husband’s grave, made narrower, the spring garden whittled to a thin strip; then it vanished and she was left with the image of the bathroom, of the narrow confining bath grass-yellow as old baths are, not frost-white, waiting, waiting, for one moment of inattention, weakness, pain, to claim her for ever.