In “The Bath,” an elderly woman struggles to get herself out of the bathtub. As she fails to pull herself out and then panics that she’ll remain trapped there, she reflects on how alone she is: her husband is dead, and when she screams for help, nobody can hear her. She can only rely on herself, even though her body is failing. The woman does have some people in her life, but they seem not to bring comfort. Her niece, for example, comes to help sometimes, but she makes insensitive comments and seems not to understand the woman’s struggles. And while the woman knows that she’ll soon have to hire someone to help her bathe, this thought brings no relief, only “humiliation.” By contrast, after the woman finally clambers out of the bath, she travels to the cemetery to place flowers on her husband’s grave and longs to stay there with him and with her parents who are buried nearby. Her only comfort seems to be sitting among the dead. In this way, the story gives the impression that life can be lonelier than death, especially at the stage of life when one’s loved ones are gone.
Early on, the story establishes that the woman is completely alone, a condition that pains her. As she struggles to get out of the bath, she calls for help, but there’s nobody to hear her: her husband is dead, and the street outside her window is completely silent. “Where were the people, the traffic?” she wonders, despairing that “No one in the world will hear me. No one will know I’m in the bath and can’t get out.” Importantly, the woman’s loneliest moments occur when she’s most vulnerable—in times when she’s unable to take care of herself. This is most significant when she’s trying to get out of the bath and fears that she’s trapped there. Several times during the tub scene, the story calls attention to her loneliness: “Loneliness well[s] in her” as she struggles, and even once she’s gotten herself out, she is “exhausted and lonely thinking that perhaps it might be better for her to die at once.” This loneliness is specifically associated with her age. After all, when she was younger, her husband was alive and could help her if she was in trouble, and when she was younger, she could also help herself, because her body was more agile. So it seems that, as the woman has gotten older and less capable of caring for herself, she has felt herself to be more and more alone.
Despite the woman’s loneliness, she does not seem to find solace in the company of others. This is clearest when she recalls her niece coming to help her with the laundry. It’s an unpleasant memory: when the woman wasn’t able to look at the beautiful clouds in the sky (because looking up would make her dizzy), her niece responded with an “incredulous almost despising look.” The niece’s inability to understand the woman’s limitations perhaps made her feel even lonelier than she was before, and it causes the woman to remember this day “with a sense of the world narrowing and growing darker, like a tunnel.” The woman also seems to feel embarrassed by the notion of asking others for help, which limits the pleasure she can find in their company. For instance, when she realizes that she will now have to hire a nurse to help her bathe, it brings her no comfort—instead, she feels that it’s a “humiliation.” Likewise, she seems humiliated by having to ask a neighbor to fetch items from the top shelf. And when she calls for help getting out of the bath, she does it only in desperation, once the humiliation of asking someone for help becomes preferable to the misery and terror of being trapped in the tub. In this way, the story suggests that the company of others is humiliating, not enjoyable, when it comes from necessity.
By contrast, the woman feels peace and contentment towards the end of the story—but only when sitting among the dead in the cemetery. Throughout the story, the woman’s prevailing emotions have been loneliness, fear, dread, and humiliation, but her trip to the cemetery finally makes her happy. After visiting the graves of her husband and her parents, she sits in the grass and feels a “peace inside her; the nightmare of the evening before seemed far away.” She doesn’t say so directly, but she seems to take comfort in the presence of the dead, reminding her of a happier and less lonely period of her life. In fact, the woman seems to feel at home in the cemetery in a way she does not in her actual house. Sitting in the grass, she thinks that she doesn’t want to return home—she wants to stay at the cemetery forever. Part of this is her desire to stop struggling with the obstacles and humiliations of her daily life, but part of it seems to be her desire to remain with those she loves. It seems that the woman has reached an age where her loved ones are dead, the people in her life humiliate and misunderstand her, and she’s lonely when she’s alone and when she’s with others. Because of this consuming loneliness, it makes sense that she might prefer death.
Loneliness and Death ThemeTracker
Loneliness and Death Quotes in The Bath
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 remembered with a sense of the world narrowing and growing darker, like a tunnel, the incredulous almost despising look on the face of her niece when in answer to the comment ‘How beautiful the clouds are in Dunedin! These big billowing white and grey clouds - don't you think, Auntie?’
She had said, her disappointment at the misery of things putting a sharpness in her voice, ‘I never look at the clouds!’
In all her years of visiting the cemetery she had never known the wind so mild. On an arm of the peninsula exposed to the winds from two stretches of sea, the cemetery had always been a place to crouch shivering in overcoat and scarf while the flowers were set on the grave and the narrow garden cleared of weeds. Today, everything was different.
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.