We often entertain this romantic and sentimental assumption that old age is a time of peace and happiness after a whole life devoted to work and the family; it's a time to enjoy the full benefits of one's hard work and efforts. In “The Bath”, however, New Zealand writer Janet Frame (1924 - 2004) reverses this interpretation and uncompromisingly explores the “terror” and “torture” of old age.
It's 17 years since this old woman is managing on her own after her husband's death. Each year she makes it a point to go to the graveyard to place flowers on the tombstone. But the journey is a real problem. In a few concrete details, Frame charts her mental state - the walk to the bus-stop, the change of buses, the bitter wind, the tiredness. Each works against her, exerting demands she finds increasingly awesome. So much so that there's a death-wish on her part: she longs to find a place beside the graves.
Physically and emotionally drained, living has become an excruciating experience for her.
With growing pain in her back and loss of strength in her hands, fear builds up inside her - a feeling that will harass her at every moment. Taking a bath turns out to be irksome. It's a task she is afraid to perform. She fears falling and injuring herself, and with no one to help.
We find her clinging tightly to the edge of the rim that seems like “the edge of a cliff with a deep drop below into the sea.” A striking imagery to bring out the profundity of her distress and panic.
Her slow, painful movements portray her perturbed state; she doesn't lie down or lean back to bathe, she sits upright. Her fear is not being able to climb out.
Indeed, climbing out of the bath is a major obstacle - the fear of making a mistake is very much there on her mind. She wants to get over it by inventing all sorts of excuses to stay in the bath for some more time. It's a fear encrusted far into her mind.
She makes several unsuccessful attempts to get out. What we notice is her utter helplessness and her agony of something happening to her unexpectedly. She feels imprisoned. The author uses body language to brilliant effect. In fact, a simple gesture like striking the sides of the bath vividly brings home her anguish, confusion and her desperation to survive.
It's a relief when finally she climbs out. “I will never take another bath in this house or anywhere,” she says to herself. This is just to tell us how old age can be a burden sometimes.
Nearly everything is a potential danger to her life: her faintness, dizziness, household chores, potholes, cars, motorcycles. Threat from outside as well as from within summarizes her existence. She has relatives. They do drop occasionally but ironically not when she needs them the most.
Old age can be a pathetic moment. Each little task becomes burdensome and one is condemned to live in fear, especially when there's nobody around, for one never knows when a second of inattention can claim your life. In “The Bath” we come face to face with this sad, cruel reality.
The story is prescribed in “Stories of Ourselves” published by the University of Cambridge International Examinations.