Water imagery pervades the novel, and is used to present the idea that Wilhelm is a drowning man. This is suggested on the very first page. Wilhelm takes the elevator down from the fourteenth floor of the hotel, and it "sank and sank." As the door opens, it is as if Wilhelm encounters a wave of the sea: "the great dark red uneven carpet that covered the lobby billowed toward Wilhelm's feet." The suggestion of water is continued in the description of the curtains: "French drapes like sails kept out the sun."
Wilhelm is aware that he is like a drowning man. He is particularly struck by a line of poetry (from Milton's poem, "Lycidas") he recalls from his college days: "'Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor'." He recalls the line again at the beginning of Chapter IV. At the end of that chapter, he picks up on something that Tamkin says about the waters of the earth and thinks to himself, "The waters of the earth are going to roll over me."
The image is applied with ironic effect in Chapter III, when Dr. Adler tells his son of the beneficial effects of hydrotherapy: "Simple water has a calming effect and would do you more good than all the barbiturates and alcohol in the world." His son of course declines; he does not like the odor of the chlorinated water. The fact that his father mentions water in this way suggests symbolically that he is ignorant of and unsympathetic to his son's plight. Only a few lines later Wilhelm complains that the day before his head was "about to burst" and he "had to have a little air," once more suggesting the sensations felt by a drowning man. Later, during the same disagreeable confrontation with his father, Wilhelm "felt as though he were unable to recover something. Like a ball in the surf, washed beyond reach, his self-control was going out." He cries out, like a drowning man, "I expect help!"
When Wilhelm realizes at the brokerage office that he has lost all his money, "his unshed tears rose and rose and he looked like a man about to drown." The images of water and suffocation increase toward the end of the novel. In his last confrontation with his father, he says, "Dad, I just can't breathe. My chest is all up-I feel choked. I just simply can't catch my breath." This leads up to the final watery images in the chapel, at the funeral (see relevant section of plotsummary/analysis section.)