The Bath by Raymond Carver

The Bath - Raymond CarverIn The Bath by Raymond Carver we have the theme of conflict, uncertainty, helplessness, fear and communication. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and is an early version of another Carver short story (A Small, Good Thing). One of the most striking things about the beginning of the story is that it becomes clear to the reader that Carver may be exploring the theme of communication (or the lack of it). Ann Weiss is in a baker’s shop ordering a cake for her son Scotty’s birthday. Though she tells the baker, who remains unnamed throughout the story, what she is looking for the baker says very little, assuring Ann that she has told him everything he needs to know. The baker’s reassurance is important because in some ways it is the only time in the story in which Ann (or her husband) are assured that everything is okay. At no other stage in the story is there a sense, particularly for Ann that things are or will be okay (when it comes to Scotty’s condition). If anything Ann remains uncertain throughout the story as to what will happen Scotty.

Carver continues to explore the theme of communication later on in the story. The following Monday, when Scotty is walking to school with his friend, Scotty tries to persuade his friend to tell him what he has bought him for his birthday however his friend doesn’t say anything. Also after Scotty has been hit by the car, his friend asks him what it was like to be hit by a car but Scotty doesn’t answer his friend. Again the idea of a lack of communication. There are further instances in the story in which there is a lack of communication. There is the instance in where Ann tells the technician ‘I don’t understand this,’ when the technician starts to take Scotty’s blood. Ann (as anyone would) expects some explanation from the technician but it is not forthcoming. He continues without discussion or explanation, to take Scotty’s blood.

Lack of communication is further explored when the baker makes his first phone call to the Weiss household and Scotty’s father answers the phone. He doesn’t know anything about a cake and ends up hanging up on the baker before he can find out what the call is about, though the reader is fully aware that it is the baker ringing to see why the cake has not been collected and also he wants to get his sixteen dollars. Another instance of the lack of communication within the story is when Scotty’s father is sitting beside Ann in the hospital, ‘he wanted to say something else. But there was no saying what it should be.’ Also when Ann sees Nelson’s parents, Nelson’s mother mistakes Ann for a doctor or nurse and says ‘Tell me now, lady.’ It is obvious to the reader, the fact that Ann is not a doctor or nurse, that there is nothing she can say.

There are also several instances in the story in whereby Carver explores the idea or theme of conflict (both external and internal). External conflicts would include the baker ringing the Weiss household. He wants his money. Though it may appear that he is acting selfishly, looking for the money, the reader must realise that the baker is unaware that Scotty has had an accident. Instances of internal conflict would include when Scotty’s father is sitting in the car, after driving home from the hospital. He is concerned about Scotty, so concerned that he is overcome with fear, ‘fear made him want a bath.’

Carver further explores the idea or theme of fear later in the story. When Ann is looking out the window in the hospital and makes believe she is the woman (who she sees in the car park) driving away from the hospital, the narrator tells the reader that Ann, ‘she was afraid.’ Fear is also explored again when Ann is leaving the hospital and is talking to Nelson’s parents. Though the reader is never told what is wrong with Nelson (again the idea of a lack of communication), it is obvious that Nelson’s parents are upset, worried and afraid. The idea of helplessness is also explored several times in the story. First there is the fact that Scotty’s father doesn’t know what to say to Ann in the hospital (as mentioned earlier). Also the reader learns that both of Scotty’s parents have been praying, such is their feeling of helplessness. Similarly with Nelson’s parents, there is not only a sense of worry but also a sense of helplessness, they still await news on Nelson’s condition.

The ending of the story is also interesting. The baker rings again and though Ann doesn’t realise it is the baker, the reader does. This is important (Ann not knowing who is calling) as it suggests that there is no resolution for either the baker (who is still looking to be paid) or Ann (who is looking to be told Scotty is better). If anything there is a sense that both the baker and Ann remain in conflict, though for the baker the conflict is external and for Ann it is internal (worried about Scotty). It is also ironic that a phone call (a form of communication) is used at the end of the story, ironic because neither person (baker or Ann) will hear what they need to hear.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Bath by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Thanks for this. Such an insight into the theme. I will definitely use this in my class.

  • The parents of Nelson seem more afraid. Nelson was not in the room with them. It seems like they were waiting for Nelson for something more serious (surgery). Again the lack of communication. I thought Mrs. Weiss was saying too much to them, belittling their situation. Nelson’s parent were in shock.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tom. There definitely is a sense that Nelson’s parents are very afraid. Possibly because (as you suggest) Nelson is in surgery. Mrs Weiss also seems to place the spotlight on herself when she is talking to Nelson’s parents. Though I think she does so in an attempt to make a connection with Nelson’s parents. To show them that she too is worried about Scotty and knows how they are feeling. If anything I think she may be trying to identify with Nelson’s parents. Something that is explored further in A Small Good Thing (the extended version of The Bath).

  • Lastly, did you find a connection between the boy walking with Scotty to Nelson? When Scotty gets hit by the car the other boy asks “what is it like to get hit by a car?” Then walks to school? Bizarre question…

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’ve never figured out if there was a connection between Scotty’s friend and Nelson. I would agree with you that the question Scotty’s friend asks is unusual. Though it is possible that the friend doesn’t realise the seriousness of what has happened Scotty. Who manages to walk home after the car hits him.

  • Which is the relation between the title “The bath” and the story? l can’ t figure it out.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Thomas. Symbolically Carver could be suggesting that by having a bath Scotty’s father is trying to wash away the pain or worry that he was feeling over Scotty’s condition. To refresh himself in order to be able to cope with what might happen Scotty. To let the water wash away any anxiety he may have. Similarly with Scotty’s mother. She may be bathing in order to relieve the pain she is feeling to again let the water sooth her.

      • I also see “The Bath” as resembling normalcy. A bath is a part of a normal routine and as Carver states, “It had been a good life until now. There had been work, fatherhood, family. The man had been lucky and happy. But fear made him want a bath.” So, the fear of the father losing his son makes him want to return to normalcy, the only way he could think of was taking a bath. The same goes for near the end when Ann thinks that if she goes home and relaxes and takes a bath, Scotty will wake up and everything will go back to normal again. And if you notice that the phone call interrupts the father’s bath and gets in the way of Ann ever taking a bath, it serves as a symbol that they will never fully go back to that normalcy after this tragic event.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment Nick. You could be right. The bath may represent a return to normality. I hadn’t thought of it like that.

  • Hello when you mention Nelson was Nelson a friend to Raymond’s son and where did you find this name because in the “The Bath” and a “Small Good Thing” didn’t descried Nelson in any of those two stories? Also did Raymond expected this himself? because I know most of his stories where written as he expired life and was Ann the character was his first wife that he talked about in the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Katiness. The name Nelson appears in the edition of The Bath I’m reading (What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Vintage 2009). As for A Small, Good Thing, the name is changed from Nelson to Franklin. I’m not sure of the biographical background of the story so I don’t know if Nelson was a friend to Raymond Carver’s son. In the story neither Scotty or Nelson know each other. I’m also not sure if Ann is based on Carver’s first wife.

  • Thanks for these comments on the story. As an Irish woman teaching French adults, these reflections on the themes of the story will help animate our class discussion.

  • I don’t believe we know who is calling at the end of the story. All we know is that it is “a man”. Of course the reader is led to assume it is the baker, but it could be someone from the hospital with news or perhaps her husband. She never got to take her bath after all…

  •  “The Bath” reading questions
    Part 1: Vocabulary
    Define the following words, each of which is used in the story. Try to use context clues to figure out the meaning of the word.
    • Word: anemones
    From the story: On Friday afternoon she bought cut flowers—daffodils, anemones, a few twigs of a red…
    • Word: mauve
    From the story: On Friday afternoon she bought cut flowers—daffodils, anemones, a few twigs of a red—leaved shrub, wrapped in mauve waxed paper…
    • Word: stoke
    From the story: That evening she filled the coal bucket, stoked the fire.
    • Word: arduous


    From the story: Her movements were slow and arduous, her back and shoulder gave her so much pain.

    • Word: venture
    Meaning: a risky or daring journey
    From the story: When she was sure that the water was hot enough (and her tea had been digested) she ventured from the kitchen through the cold passageway to the colder bathroom.
    • Word: feat

    Meaning: an achievement that requires courage

    From the story: She knew it would be more than a matter of instants yet 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 her powerless wrists into performing feats they might usually rebel against…

    • Word: fortnight
    Meaning: it was in the past few weeks ago
    From the story: Sitting upright, not daring to lean back or lie down, she soaped herself, washing away the dirt of the past fortnight, seeing with satisfaction how it drifted about on the water a sign that she was clean again.
    • Word: flotsam

    Meaning: something that is considered as useless

    From the story: The flannel too, and the soap, were frail flotsam to cling to in the hope of being borne to safety.

    • Word: stern
    Meaning: in a way that is difficult and puts extreme pressure on someone or something
    From the story: Then she told herself sternly that she must have no nonsense, that she had really not tried to get out of the bath.
    • Word: incredulous
    Meaning: unwilling or unable to believe something.
    From the story: 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.
    Part 2: Comprehension
    Include evidence from the story to support your response.
    • What narrative point of view and perspective is used to tell the story? What is the purpose and the effect of this choice?

    It is a 3rd person point of view used to tell the story . It affects the reader as someone not being part of the story.

    What is the setting of the first paragraph? Comment on the symbolic significance of the setting.
    A Saturday afternoon a mom driving to the bakery store.

    • How long has the woman been a widow? Provide a citation to support your answer. You may quote or paraphrase.

    • What sort of difficulties does the woman face when taking a bath? Provide quotations or paraphrases to support your answer.

    Her husband died taking a bath so now she is complexed by taking a bath

    • Why is the simile that compares the bathtub to “the edge of a cliff with a deep drop below into the sea” so effective?

    *If you need help with setting or symbolism, look back at the Basic Elements of a Short Story handout I’ve provided you. You’ll find it on ManageBac.

    • What is the effect of the personification of her body parts “performing feats they might usually rebel against”?

    *If you need help with setting or symbolism, look back at the Basic Elements of a Short Story handout I’ve provided you. You’ll find it on ManageBac.

    • Why is the metaphor that compares the flannel and the soap to “frail flotsam to cling to in the hope of being borne to safety” so effective?

    *If you need help with metaphor, look back at the Basic Elements of a Short Story handout I’ve provided you. You’ll find it on ManageBac.

    Part 3: Food for thought and essay questions
    Write a paragraph or two in response to each of the following.
    • Analyze how Janet Frame’s short story “The Bath” influenced you to think differently about an important idea or issue.

    • Comment on how the setting of Janet Frame’s short story “The Bath” develops the themes of alienation, loneliness and loss.

    • How does Janet Frame use symbolism, imagery and other figurative language devices to develop important ideas in the story “The Bath”?

    Can someone answer

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      1. anemones – type of flower
      2. mauve – shade of purple.
      3. stoke – add coal or other solid fuel to.
      4. arduous – involving or requiring strenuous effort.
      5. venture – a risky or daring journey or undertaking.
      6. stern – strict and severe.
      7. incredulous – unwilling or unable to believe something.
      8. Comprehension – the ability to understand something.

      I would need to read the story again to answer your other questions.

    • This is a discussion about the short story The Bath written by Raymond Carver, not Janet Frame. Two good stories, just not the same one 🙂

  • I didn’t understand your comment, “The ending of the story is also interesting. The baker rings again and though Ann doesn’t realise it is the baker, the reader does.”

    How do you know it’s the baker? It doesn’t say it’s the baker, it says “a man’s voice” and that the call has to do with Scotty. It could be anyone. It could be a teacher. It could be the hospital. It could be Scotty’s soccer coach. It could be the police. It could be some other parent. We don’t know it’s the baker. Nor can you. The story is left open.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.