As well as the main themes, there are a series of motifs that run through the book.
A ritual is a religious ceremony that follows a specific order. Joy’s bathing ritual to beautify herself for David is very precise:
The bathwater must be hot: warm isn’t good enough.
It takes on a symbolic significance - demostrating the extent to which Joy needs to control something in her life when she is otherwise spiralling out of control.
Water has significance throughout the novel. Bathing can represent safety and separation for Joy. She is safe from the outside world. It can also be linked to her longing for the safety and separation of the womb.
Perhaps because they are the essential life sustaining elements, imagery of water and light are central to Joy’s experience.
The title The Trick is to Keep Breathing is taken from the end of the novel. Joy symbolically decides she will learn to
Swimming is a metaphor for managing and coping with life. This idea can be linked to Michael’s death through drowning. The idea that Joy will learn to
keep breathing is a positive notion, suggesting Joy’s future recovery. This is illustrated by auditory imagery at the end of the novel when Joy listens for
the rise and fall, the surf beating in my lungs.
Light imagery is similarly important throughout. At the beginning of the novel, Joy
sit[s] in the dark for a number of reasons. However, the final sentence of the novel
Reach for the bottle. Watch the lights suggests Joy is moving forwards in the healing process. Light can be taken as is a symbol for life.
The seriousness of Joy’s condition can perhaps be measured by the fact that even the most natural processes of life, eating and drinking, have become twisted and unnatural. It becomes clear that she is suffering from an eating disorder. She is also an alcoholic.
The eating disorder, like bathing, can be a symptom of Joy wishing to take control of some aspect of her life. At their worst, the innocent activities of eating and drinking threaten to overpower her; food and drink become almost sinister characters themselves.
Joy feels separate from her own body throughout. At the beginning of the novel Joy watches herself
from the corner of the room. In the bath, staring into the mirror, she
looks through a window at someone else When she smiles into the mirror, she sees
a jumble of separate parts. This idea is closely linked to the idea of her lost identity. She is alien and separate from her own appearance just as she is detached from her own emotions.