The woman in “The Bath” has gotten to an age where even simple things are a struggle: she has trouble reaching items on a high shelf, filling the coal bucket, looking at the sky, hanging laundry on the line, changing buses, stoking the fire, and of course, getting in and out of the bath. While her body would once obey her easily, now it’s an “inner menace”; her back, shoulder, and wrists are bad, and she can no longer control them well. She thinks that it might be better to die, since the “slow progression of difficulties [is] a kind of torture” that she no longer wants to endure. While the struggle of daily life tortures the woman, she’s able to briefly find some pleasure in the cemetery, where she is suddenly able to make her body work: she’s able to care for her husband’s grave without trouble, raking it, cleaning the jam jars, and placing beautiful flowers in them. In this context, she can finally enjoy a moment of pleasure and peace, soaking in the warm breeze and the view of the sea. This contrast between the woman’s mood at the cemetery (where she feels capable) and her mood at home (where she feels vulnerable and inept) shows how the physical struggles of aging can be so difficult as to rob life of its most basic pleasures.
The woman’s aging, uncooperative body is both humiliating to her and dangerous, as it limits her ability to care for herself. The woman’s back and shoulder are in so much pain that she has difficulty with daily tasks like keeping the fire going, showing what a struggle it is to care for herself in basic ways. With the fundamental tasks of staying alive becoming a desperate struggle, the woman’s life has become overwhelming and scary. Even basic pleasures have become not only difficult but downright frightening, which is clear when she takes a bath. The woman loves the feeling of a warm bath, but she can’t take them very often because it’s such a struggle for her to get out. Furthermore, once she does get into the bath, she can hardly enjoy herself because she’s so consumed by anxiety about what will happen when she needs to get out. Because her body is so unreliable, the woman doesn’t seem to have very many pleasures left. Finally, the woman’s physical pain disrupts her most important rituals. For instance, the woman visits her late husband’s grave each year on the anniversary of his death, but she has come to dread this task simply because it’s so physically hard for her make the journey out to the cemetery. Visiting her husband’s grave seems central to the woman’s life and identity, so the notion that she might become physically unable to do it shows how her aging body threatens the loss of self.
Watching her body decline is so awful that the widow thinks it would be best for her to die. She first fantasizes about death after her harrowing struggle to get out of the bathtub. It was so frightening and exhausting for her to be trapped in the tub that, afterwards, she lays in bed feeling lonely and thinking that it “might be better for her to die at once.” In other words, fighting with her aging body has become so horrific—she describes it as a “kind of torture”—that she would prefer the nothingness of death. On top of this, her declining body humiliates her. Her shoes have to be specially sized for her disfigured feet, she has to ask a neighbor to fetch items from the highest shelves of her cupboards, and she knows she’ll soon have to hire a nurse to help her bathe. She frames aging as a progression of humiliations, thinking with dread that “there will be others, and others.” It is only when the woman lets her mind stray from thoughts of her failing body and her arduous tasks that she becomes peaceful enough to sleep. Lying in bed after the incident with the bath, she thinks of the frost-white snow outside and her long-dead husband, which lulls her to sleep. This shows that sleep—and death by analogy—is her only escape from suffering.
In contrast to her misery at home, the woman finds peace at the cemetery where she is suddenly able to perform physical tasks. At home, the woman struggles with tasks as basic as raking coals, so it’s striking that, at the cemetery, she suddenly seems more capable. For instance, she uses a pitchfork to rake the garden at her husband’s grave, seemingly without incident or exhaustion. Furthermore, after she cleans the jars that hold the flowers, she carries them back to the gravesite full of water, “balancing them carefully one in each hand” as she walks. This feat of balance is shocking for a woman who, at home, feels so at risk of tripping that she must constantly stare at the ground. And after placing the flowers on her husband’s grave, she feels not exhausted or humiliated—as she does after doing any kind of chore at home—but satisfied and at peace. She is proud and purposeful, having done her duty in tending her husband’s grave. This shows just how much the woman’s despair has to do with her declining body; when she feels capable, she is happy, and when she feels incapable, she is miserable and longs for death. Significantly, the woman’s capability at the cemetery leads her to her only moment of real pleasure in the whole story. After tending her husband’s grave, she sits down in the grass and enjoys the sun and the warm breeze, seemingly at home in her body for the first time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last long, as she soon has to make the arduous trek home where she feels incapable once again.
Struggle and Old Age ThemeTracker
Struggle and Old Age Quotes in The Bath
She had bought the flowers to force herself to make the journey that each year became more hazardous, from the walk to the bus stop, the change of buses at the Octagon, to the bitterness of the winds blowing from the open sea across almost unsheltered rows of tombstones; and the tiredness that overcame her when it was time to return home when she longed to find a place beside the graves, in the soft grass, and fall asleep.
[…] 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 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!’
Now she did not dare look up. There was enough to attend to down and around - the cracks and hollows in the footpath, the patches of frost and ice and the potholes in the roads; the approaching cars and motorcycles; and now, after all the outside menaces, the inner menace of her own body.
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.
Then she ran the sparkling ice-cold water into the jars and balancing them carefully one in each hand she walked back to the grave where she shook the daffodils, anemones, red leaves from their waxed paper and dividing them put half in one jar, half in the other.
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.