At the end of “The Bath,” while the woman is at the cemetery tending her husband’s grave, the story introduces a twist: the woman’s parents are also buried in this cemetery, but their grave is much grander than his. Their enormous grave reveals the “elaborate station of their life”—essentially, that they were rich—while the husband’s small grave reflects his humble social position. This revelation casts the woman’s actions in a new light. While her yearly ritual of cleaning her husband’s grave and adorning it with flowers initially seemed like a straightforward act of love, it’s noteworthy that she does not similarly place flowers on her parents’ grave, even though she thinks fondly of them and feels gratitude that they are so comfortably at rest. It seems, then, that cleaning and decorating her husband’s grave is, at least in part, a way to compensate for his cramped quarters, an apology that he’s been laid to rest without the luxury he deserves. In this way, the story bitterly suggests that human beings are not equal, even in death, and that this class inequality is an injustice that plagues the living.
When the story reveals the parents’ grand grave, it’s a shock, since the woman herself seems not to have very much money. The difficulty of the woman’s life reflects her humble status. She does not have any hired help around her house, which means that she has to do chores that are arduous for her, and she has to take the bus, since she presumably has no car. From these details, the reader can assume that she’s not wealthy. Furthermore, the woman’s husband was cremated and laid to rest in a tiny, unadorned plot with a simple gravestone. This suggests that he, too, was of a lower class, since all of these factors suggest that he needed to be buried without spending much money. Since the woman and her husband appear lower class, it’s surprising to learn that her parents were wealthy. Their grave is spacious, elaborate, and grander than those around it, which reflects their higher social status. The woman specifically reflects that they came by these luxuries because they had “money, time, and forethought”—all markers of an upper-class life.
The parents’ wealth casts the woman’s actions in a new light: suddenly, caring for her husband’s grave is not just about love, but about class. This becomes especially clear when the woman does not tend her parents’ grave like she does her husband’s; she seems to believe it’s sufficiently grand already and requires no extra labor to give her parents dignity. Importantly, her choice not to rake or put flowers on their grave is not neglectful or resentful; the woman makes it clear that she misses her parents and is grateful that they’ve been laid to rest so comfortably. It seems that she simply finds these gestures unnecessary, since they already have what they need. By contrast, the woman has made the effort to go to the cemetery every year for 17 years to rake, weed, clean, and put flowers on her husband’s humble grave. Certainly, this reflects her enduring love for her husband, but it also suggests that she feels she must compensate for his humble gravesite, giving it the extra beauty of fresh flowers and a tidy plot.
After the woman has tended her husband’s gravesite, she feels satisfaction in a job well done. She’s proud that she has put in the effort to give her husband the dignity he deserves. But significantly, when she sits by her parents’ gravesite, she has a different feeling: peace and contentment. Reflecting that her parents have “extra space should they need it” allows her to relax and enjoy the warm breeze and the feeling of the grass. This subtly shows how money brings comfort to people, while poverty is inherently more anxious. The woman’s proximity to her parents’ luxurious grave brings her the only happiness she experiences in the whole story, while her husband’s grave clearly troubles her, as she makes the effort to fix it up each year. In this way, the story bleakly shows how class inequality defines people’s lives, even in death.
Life, Death, and Social Class ThemeTracker
Life, Death, and Social Class Quotes in The Bath
There were no flowers on the grave, only the feathery sea-grass soft to the touch, lit with gold in the sun. There was no sound but the sound of the sea and the one row of fir trees on the brow of the hill. She felt the peace inside her; the nightmare of the evening before seemed far away, seemed not to have happened; the senseless terrifying struggle to get out of a bath!
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.