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The facts of life: Janet Frame's 'The Bath'.

'The Bath' belongs to a group of short fiction by Janet Frame which might usefully be categorised as horror stories. (1) Some horrible fact about the nature of life is revealed to an ignorant, naive or complacent character, usually as an epiphanic climax. Usually, too, it comes after a prolonged attempt by the character to avoid recognising this fact of life--or at least 'fact' to the extent that Frame leaves the reader in no doubt. Frame's didactic purpose is that the reader should identify with the character and feel something of the character's shock of discovery. In the case of 'The Bath', an elderly woman has difficulties getting out of her bath and is finally forced to understand that her death will not result in an after-life. This is something she slowly intuits, but which the reader is also supposed to learn from observing the woman's mentality: watching the failure of her mistaken belief that 'With care, with thought' she will be able to defeat the trap of the bath and therefore, by implication, defeat death's finality.

Again typically of a Frame story, the woman in 'The Bath' thinks in terms of images and motifs that the reader should interpret as metaphors, such as the bath, the graveyard, sleep and thinking itself. These supply Frame with the means to fulfil a double purpose. They can show the flow of the woman's mind, as she realises that there is no heaven, and they can be interpreted by the reader as evidence that her unhappy conclusion is true. Frame manages this latter task convincingly because she restricts the images in the fictional world she describes to a closed set, which she then manipulates towards her desired revelation. This why the metaphors in her writing often seem so elaborate, almost conceits. Through metaphor, Frame aims to show in 'The Bath'--and thus prove--the non existence of an after-life. The first paragraph in the story sets up the woman's situation with skill and economy. It consists of three sentences. The first presents a conventional scene: a dutiful widow makes preparations to visit her dead husband's grave. The woman is referred to as 'she' and remains unnamed throughout the story. The only information which marks her out as an individual is the name of her dead husband, John Edward Harraway, and the date he died, 5 August 1965, as if he has more individuality than his wife does. Elsewhere the story is placed clearly in Dunedin. Time and place are thus established, but like the woman's identity, these circumstances are defined only in relation to the death of the woman's husband. The second sentence in the first paragraph introduces the motif of the woman's thinking and, indirectly, suggests that her thoughts are not all they should be: 'Her visit this year occupied her thoughts more than usual.' The third sentence deepens the progression from the conventional into the anxious. The woman's 'journey' to the grave is becoming more 'hazardous' each year. Why it is hazardous is not explained at first; instead the reader is given a list of the journey's stages. (It is one of several short lists Frame uses to particularise her story.) However, the paragraph concludes with the woman's complaint that she feels too tired at the graveyard to go home and, even more worryingly, that instead of going home she longs to lie down among the graves 'in the soft grass, and fall asleep.' Tired not just in body but also in spirit, her very existence, like her identity, is failing.

In the next paragraph, the woman's domestic routine helps her avoid her troubling feelings of the opening paragraph. She prepares a meal and drowses while the water heats up before bathing, because 'Visits to the cemetery, doctor, and to relatives, to stay, always demanded a bath.' No explanation is offered for why a cemetery-visit should require this. If the woman feels that taking a bath is difficult, why put herself at unnecessary risk? Possibly as a mark of respect for her dead husband. Possibly she likes to think of him as still sentient somewhere. But a third possibility is a subconscious desire to face the death which the bath represents, get it over with and proceed to heaven. Preparation for the bath itself involves three stages: getting a towel, setting a chair up by the bath for the woman to grasp when she gets out, and having her nightclothes warmed and waiting. Each of these is concerned not with taking a bath so much as what happens afterwards. Getting up, drying herself and sleeping in warm clothes will be her reward for persevering with the bath's travails. The reader is to interpret this aspect of the woman's mindset as corresponding metaphorically with the reward of heaven that she feels should follow suffering and death.

The woman allows herself a brief remembrance of past trouble, 'should difficulty arise as it had last time she bathed.' From this small clue it is clear that the woman has already had a scare. She approaches the bath with considerable fear. In the first paragraph she may have been attracted by a fantasy of death, to the idea of not going home and falling asleep among graves and soft grass, but the reality of an experience equivalent to dying frightens her. Frame does not go into detail about the woman's previous 'difficulty' in the bath because the story is told in free indirect style, from the woman's point of view. The convoluted process of the woman's thoughts, in often long and sparsely punctuated sentences, imitates the flow of her thought. Thus the view from the bath's rim 'seemed more like the edge of a cliff with a deep drop below into the sea.' The simile 'like' is muted by the ambiguous word 'more': even more like a cliff now than the memories the woman is repressing of the last time she looked down into the bath.

The woman's reaction to getting into the bath is to think again of her reward: 'I'll put on my nightie the instant I get out.' But no sooner has she thought this than she repudiates the idea as unrealistic by redefining the word 'instant'. Getting out of the bath will be slow, she tells herself, longer than an instant--although this is not what she originally meant. Next, to calm herself down, she decides to defy the physical difficulties of getting out of the bath with her mental powers: "With care, with thought ...' She decides on being methodical in her actions and then surprising her body with sudden effort--she does not consider that these actions are contradictory. Furthermore, the ellipsis offers an ironic undermining of her faith in mind over matter. Another unconsidered difficulty with her tactic is that surprise only results from the cessation of thinking: to succeed, the woman has to cease being a prey to unexpressed doubts. Her faith in care and thought, perhaps by no coincidence the features of most organised religions, seems doomed from the start.

In the next paragraph, the woman focuses solely and unselfconsciously on the physical. She enjoys the pleasures of washing herself clean. Unfortunately, this makes bathing serve as an image of life in a manner opposite from that which the woman had originally, and subconsciously, hoped for. Instead of her suffering-and-then-reward image (death/bath, then heaven/sleep), the woman experiences pleasure (bathing/life) which must then be paid for (getting out/death). Soon, too, like someone contemplating the human condition, even her bathing pleasures are muted by her need to delay getting out. She fists parts of the body which need re-cleaning--none of which require a bath in order to be cleaned. Then, reminding herself of her luxury and warmth, she manages to drowse.

Like the bath itself, sleep is another key motif in the story. As when the woman drowsed after having tea in her warm dining-room, her reaction to comfort is sleep. Sleep is often compared to death, an acceptable version which implies a pleasant state followed by a reawakening--analogous to waking into an after-fife. In 'The Bath' this is emphasised by using the word 'drowse': the sort of shallow sleep where one is likely to awaken at any moment. The comparison is comforting, hence the woman's fantasy of death expressed in the first paragraph as a desire 'to find a place beside the graves, in the soft grass, and fall asleep.' The woman mimics her preferred form of death by drowsing. In the bath she puts this succinctly by wishing, 'If only she could fall asleep then wake to find herself in her nightdress in bed for the night. Significantly, it is a wish for the impossible.

A series of short paragraphs next focus on the woman's isolation. She pulls the plug and feels the sinking water 'trying to draw her down, down into the earth', which confirms the bath-metaphor for death as an image of entrapment and annihilation. Trying to get out results in a series of failures for both her methodical and surprise approaches. Her sense of panic rises until, at last, she regresses to childish behaviour and she cries and strikes the bath with her fist. Having drawn out the woman's panic, Frame condenses her successful exit from the bath into one brief paragraph. Even the escape itself is presented merely as a prompt for further anxiety--after managing two unpleasant bath experiences, the woman wants no more. At this ambiguous point the story has reached its halfway mark, with the now established images to be worked through to the story's conclusion.

In bed, the woman feels 'exhausted and lonely thinking that perhaps it might be better for her to die at once.' A list follows of the physical circumscriptions of old age, and a second list catalogues the woes found among the 'cracks and hollows' in the ground: 'outside menaces' now complemented by 'the inner menace of her own body.' The woman has now chosen, in effect, to abandon her body. However, by means of her dualistic separation of body and mind, she can retreat into the relative comfort of the mind and associate it with the soul. If the woman's body can no longer be controlled by mind over matter, then the mind/soul itself can still be managed with care and thought. Frame's destruction of this illusion will occupy the second half of the story, so that the final horror will be complete. Thus in a third list the woman uses her thoughts to conjure for herself a hostile environment of frost, the bath and putting flowers on her husband's grave, but her mind then rearranges these more acceptably so that she is able to fall asleep. And miraculously, while she sleeps, a warm wind arises until by morning a narcissus blooms in the front garden. By briefly suggesting a transcendent power in nature, Frame is relaxing both her character and the reader before her climax.

Appropriately, the narrative breaks. Frame jumps through time and space to begin developing the image she touched on at the start of the story, when the woman thought of not going home from the graveyard but 'longed to find a place beside the graves, in the soft grass, and fall asleep'--that is, the image of the graveyard as a fantasy of death, associated with sleep and heaven. The weather at the cemetery is pleasant and 'scarcely to be believed'. The woman imagines the sea soothing her anxieties with childish talk, and this version of the pathetic fallacy metamorphoses in her mind into the noise of 'distant forests of peace'--a hackneyed phrase, but one which she has created to calm herself. The paragraph has moved into what is now entirely a mental construction, with the woman's mind working to maintain and develop this rearrangement of the formerly unpleasant as pleasant, just as she did when going to sleep the previous night.

And so, her mind half inside her own fantasy, the woman enjoys her graveyard visit. She follows a routine, similar to her routine of cooking and eating at the start of the story, which accomplishes a similar avoidance of troubling feelings. The writing focuses on the particularities of the woman's actions--although, interestingly, it begins with her thinking (about the location of the fork) and ends somewhere beyond thought with her dreamy, felt impressions (the blue anemones are like the sea). Another break allows Frame to jump past the woman's graveside communion to the action at the close of the story. The woman thinks, 'I look after my husband's grave after seventeen years', satisfied by the grave's resistance to decay. There is more than a hint of self-definition in her repetition of this phrase. Then she walks among the graves and comes upon the mirror of her own complacent thoughts: her wealthy parents' elaborate tomb. She notes the roominess of their grave approvingly, and around it the 'sea-grass soft to the touch'. This reference to grass echoes one of the three features of her death-fantasy at the start of the story, namely: not going home, finding a place among the graves 'in the soft grass', and falling asleep. Finding this real-life objectification of her fantasy, the woman feels a sense of inner peace.

The woman sits on the edge of her parents' grave, feeling another of the three features of her fantasy: 'She did not want to go home.' She can concentrate only on two things: the roominess of her parents' tomb and her husband's very narrow grave. Her mind falters for a moment over the unfairness in this, and she has to consider next the possibility that if there is an after-life for the soul, perhaps such inequality and even unhappiness exist there too. But she can bring herself to doubt how an after-life might be only through two vague questions that query her own physical world: 'Why when the world was wider and wider was there no space left?', and then the darker question which takes up its own paragraph: 'Or was the world narrower?'

The woman shrugs all this off at the start of the next paragraph. Yet another list follows of the physical trials the woman wishes she could leave behind, although this is an evasion. It is a mental trial which now torments her, undermining the fantasy of death she is still constructing. The list's final item, 'getting in and out of the bath', allows her to think once more of something close to the third aspect of her fantasy: sleeping among the graves: 'Only to get in somewhere and stay in; to get out and stay out; to stay now, always, in one place.' Nevertheless, the foundations of this reverie for the soul have been destroyed. First, the woman returns physically to her everyday life, feeling the clamour of the world and, again acting as a pathetic fallacy, the sea becomes harsh. The woman closes her eyes, trying to 'recapture' the desirable images of her death-fantasy by alloying them to an image of sleep and comparing them with two people sleeping 'together in a big soft grass double-bed'.

But this is too much. The woman's mind fails and manages only a disappointing series of images. They are the reverse of the comforting rearrangement of unpleasant images which helped her to sleep the previous night. Now the woman thinks of her husband's grave, then the grave becoming 'narrower' until it turns into a bathroom, and then a bath which is old and yellow and not 'frost-white'. Instead of constructing a comforting mental image of the grave as bed/heaven, she is able only to imagine the grave as like the bath, 'waiting for one moment of inattention, weakness, pain, to claim her for ever.' This is not just a projection of the woman's fear of possible death the next time she bathes; rather, it is her fear of the nature of death itself, which she now sees as embodied in the bath--something inescapable, a trap and an annihilation. This is her epiphany. At the close of the story both the main character and the reader are supposed to have reached the same understanding. Furthermore, because the woman can no longer construct comforting mental images of the graveyard as 'a big soft grass double-bed', the 'moment of inattention' has, in effect, already happened. The woman's body is trapped by the physical reality of her bath-difficulties and her mind by what she now knows the bath represents. This is a death-inlife.

The main character's intuitive understanding of the nature of death is necessarily vague, a building up and shuffling of concrete images which gradually become psychologically significant. But in some ways the reader's interpretive understanding is even vaguer, perhaps dangerously so, since the reader must learn by observation just what the story's metaphors, such as the bath, may mean. There is little intrinsically trap-like about a bath. Thus Frame has to move somewhat delicately between the two processes of guiding her obtuse main character to a specific epiphanic climax and educating her reader about the deeper meaning of this painful case. Despite the elaborate descriptions of flowers, trees and the sea in the story, Frame's imagery is essentially anti romantic. She assumes there is no transcendent power in nature and she locates such romantic imagery in the mind of her self-deluding main character. In fact, Frame herself is the only transcendent power the story has and she remains in the background, like the sort of God she denies, while the story operates to tear away illusions. When her main character mimics Frame's modus operandi by building up imagery to form her own view of death, it is perhaps significant that the character is at her most self-deluding. Yet at the last, Frame's story succeeds to the extent that she manages to leave her main character and the reader in no doubt about the 'fact' she wishes to convey: life is horror.


(1) 'The Bath', Landfall 75, Vol.19 No.3 (Sept. 1965), 225-230. Reprinted in Janet Frame You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1983), Ibid pp.180-7.
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Author:Richards, Ian
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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