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In the Waiting Room

Did you ever go to doctor's appointments with older family members when you were a child? Did you sit in the waiting room reading out-of-date magazines and thinking Dear god, when will this be over? Did you have an existential crisis whilst reading said magazines and pondering identity, mortality, and humanity? Such is the fate of the six-year-old protagonist in Elizabeth Bishop's (1911-1979) poem "In the Waiting Room" (1976). The speaker examines themes of individual identity vs. the Other and loss of innocence, while recalling a transformative experience from her youth. 

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In the Waiting Room

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Did you ever go to doctor's appointments with older family members when you were a child? Did you sit in the waiting room reading out-of-date magazines and thinking Dear god, when will this be over? Did you have an existential crisis whilst reading said magazines and pondering identity, mortality, and humanity? Such is the fate of the six-year-old protagonist in Elizabeth Bishop's (1911-1979) poem "In the Waiting Room" (1976). The speaker examines themes of individual identity vs. the Other and loss of innocence, while recalling a transformative experience from her youth.

"In the Waiting Room" at a Glance

Written By

Elizabeth Bishop

Publication Date

1976

Form

Free verse

Rhyme Scheme

None

Poetic Devices

Allusion

Foreshadowing

Imagery

Symbolism

Simile

Enjambment

End stop

Frequently noted imagery

Waiting room full of grown-up people

Inside of a volcano, black and full of ashes with rivulets of fire

A dead man slung on a poleBabies with pointed heads

Black, naked women with necks wound round with wire

Yellow margins

Cold, blue-black space

Shadowy gray knees, trousers and skirts and boots

Awful hanging breasts

Big black waves

Tone

Articulate, distressed

Key themes

Individual identity vs the Other

Loss of innocence and growing up

Meaning

Although people have individual identities, all of humanity is also tied together by various collective identities. War defines identity, and causes a loss of innocence, especially as children grow up and experience otherness.

"In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop

"In the Waiting Room" was published after both World Wars had already ended. It was written in the early 1970s, when the United States was involved in both the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Bishop was born in 1911, and lived through the Great Depression, World Wars I & II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The influence these conflicts had on Bishop's writing is directly evident in the loss of innocence presented in "In the Waiting Room."

"In the Waiting Room" does take much of its context from Bishop's own life. The setting is Worcester, Massachusetts, where Bishop lived with her paternal grandparents for several years. Interestingly, Bishop hated Worcester and developed severe asthma and eczema while she was living there. She later moved in with her mother's sister due to these health concerns, and was raised by her Aunt Jenny (not Consuelo) closer to Boston.

Bishop moved between homes a lot as a child and never had a solid identity, once saying that she felt like she was not a real American because her favorite memories were in Nova Scotia with her maternal grandparents. The struggle to find one's individual identity is apparent in the poem.

In the Waiting Room, Girl with blank face, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The speaker of "In the Waiting Room" struggles to define her personal identity.

"In the Waiting Room" Important Quotes

"In the Waiting Room" is a long poem with 99 lines. Below are some of the most important quotes in the poem. The first quote speaks to the theme of loss of innocence, the second focuses on the child's individual identity and the "Other," and the third examines society's collective identity.

(I could read) and carefullystudied the photographs:the inside of a volcano,black, and full of ashes;then it was spilling overin rivulets of fire.Osa and Martin Johnsondressed in riding breeches,laced boots, and pith helmets.A dead man slung on a pole--"Long Pig," the caption said.Babies with pointed headswound round and round with string;black, naked women with neckswound round and round with wirelike the necks of light bulbs.Their breasts were horrifying.I read it right straight through.I was too shy to stop." (15-32)

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?" (59-62)

Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities--

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the National Geographic

and those awful hanging breasts--

held us all together

or made us all just one?" (74-82)

"In the Waiting Room" Summary

The speaker remembers going to the dentist with her aunt as a child and sitting in the waiting room. Surrounded by adults and growing bored from waiting, she picks up a copy of National Geographic. The child is fascinated and horrified by the pictures in the magazine. She sees a couple dressed in riding clothes, volcanoes, babies with pointy heads, a dead man strung up to be cooked like a pig on a spit, and naked Black women with wire around their necks. The women's breasts horrify the child the most, but she can't look away.

She hears her aunt exclaim in pain, and the speaker becomes one with her aunt. Although she's only six, the speaker becomes aware of her individual identity surrounded by all of the grown-ups. She wonders about the authenticity of her personal identity and its purpose when everyone else appears as simply a "them." She realizes with horror that she will eventually grow up and be just like her aunt and all of the adults in the waiting room. She feels her control shake as she's hit by waves of blackness. Then she's back in the waiting room again; it is February in 1918 and World War I is still "on" (94).

"In the Waiting Room" Analysis

Foreshadowing

The poem begins with foreshadowing, which helps to create a feeling of unease from the very first stanza. The speaker says,

It was winter. It got darkearly. The waiting roomwas full of grown-up people" (6-8).

The statements are common, but the abruptness and darkness of the setting contribute to the uneasy mood. There is no hint of warmth in the waiting room, and the winter, darkness, and "grown-up people" all foreshadow the child's own loss of innocence and aging.

Foreshadowing: the implication that something will happen in the future

In the Waiting Room, Dark waiting room, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The dark waiting room in winter foreshadows the speaker's loss of innocence and youthful ignorance.

Foreshadowing is employed again when the child and her adult aunt become one figure, tied together by their pain and distress. The speaker says,

...What took mecompletely by surprisewas that it was me:my voice, in my mouth.Without thinking at allI was my foolish aunt,

I--we--were falling, falling," (43-49)

This foreshadows the conflict of the poem and a shift away from setting the scene and providing imagery towards philosophical explorations. As the child and the aunt become one, the speaker questions if she even has an identity of her own and what its purpose is. This is important because the conflict isn't between the girl and the magazine or the girl and the waiting room, it's between the six year old and the concept self-awareness.

Allusion

The poem uses several allusions in order to present the concept of "the Other," which the child has never experienced before. All of the adults in the waiting room are one figure, indistinguishable from one another. The speaker describes them as simply "arctics and overcoats" (9). But when the child is reading through the magazine, she comes face to face with the concept of the Other. She sees,

Osa and Martin Johnson

dressed in riding breeches,

laced boots, and pith helmets.

A dead man slung on a pole

--"Long Pig," the caption said." (21-24)

Osa and Martin Johnson were a married couple that were well-known for exploring the wilderness and documenting other cultures in the early and mid 1900s.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

"Long Pig" refers to human flesh eaten by some cannibalistic Pacific Islanders. The man on the pole is being cooked so he can be eaten.

Both of these allusions, as well as the Black women from Africa, present different cultures of people that the six year old would have never encountered in her sheltered life in Massachusetts. The allusions show how ignorant the child really is to the world and the Other, as she only describes what she sees in the most basic sense and is shocked by how diverse the world really is.

Poetry scholars found the exact copy of National Geographic from February 1918 that the speaker reads. None of the allusions in the poem were included in the real magazine. The only consistency is the images of the volcanoes, reinforcing the statement that this is not a strictly autobiographical poem.

Imagery and Simile

The first stanza of the poem is very heavy on imagery, as the child describes what she sees in the magazine. Although the imagery is detailed, the child is unable to comment on any of it aside from the breasts, once again showing that she is naïve to the Other. The speaker says she saw

the inside of a volcano,black, and full of ashes;then it was spilling overin rivulets of fire." (17-20)

Volcanoes are known for their destructive power, which helps to foreshadow how the child's innocence will soon be destroyed. The blackness of the volcano is also directly tied to the blackness of the African women's skin, linking these two unknowns together in the child's mind:

black, naked women with necks

wound round and round with wire

like the necks of light bulbs.

Their breasts were horrifying." (27-30)

The wire refers to the neck rings women wear in some African and Asian cultures. Elongated necks are considered the ideal beauty standard in these cultures, so women wear rings to stretch their necks.

Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

This is also the only instance of simile in the poem, and the speaker compares the appearance of this practice to that of a lightbulb. This compares the unknown to something the child would be familiar with, attempting to bridge the gap between herself and the Other. It also shows that, to the child, the women in the magazine are more object-like than they are human. She doesn't recognize the Black women as individuals. They are instead unknown and Other, things to ponder instead of people who simply have different experiences and lifestyles.

Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like, as, or than.

In the Waiting Room, Black woman with neck rings, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The child compares the cultural practice of wearing neck rings to the wire wrapped around a lightbulb to show that the tradition and the women are wholly other to the girl.

Symbolism

Blackness is also used as a symbol for otherness and the unknown. The speaker is distressed by the Black women and the inside of the volcano because she has likely never been introduced to these foreign images and cultures. The unknown is terrifying. She feels as though she is falling off the earth—or the things she knows as a child—and into a void of blackness:

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world

into cold, blue-black space." (55-58)

The otherness isn't necessarily evil, but it frightens the young girl to have been exposed to such differences outside her comfort zone all at once. The blackness becomes a paralyzing force as the young girl's understanding of the world unravels:

The waiting room was bright

and too hot. It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another." (89-92)

The naked breasts are another symbol, although this one is a little more ambiguous. The speaker refers to them as "those awful hanging breasts" (80) because their symbolic meaning distresses the speaker, even as an adult. The breasts might symbolize several things, from maturity and aging to sexuality and motherhood. No matter the interpretation, the breasts symbolize a definite loss of innocence, which frightens the speaker as she does not want to become like the adults around her.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea

Enjambment and End-Stop

The poem uses enjambment and end-stopped lines to control the pace of the poem and reflect the girl's evolving understanding and loss of innocence. Consider some of the first lines of the poem, which are all enjambed:

I went with Aunt Consuelo

to keep her dentist's appointment

and sat and waited for her

in the dentist's waiting room." (2-5)

Enjambment increases the speed of the poem as the reader has to rush from line to line to reach the end of the speaker's thought. The enjambment mimics the child's quick, easy pace as she lives a carefree life without being restricted by self awareness.

Enjambment: the continuation of a sentence after the line breaks

End-stopped: a pause at the end of a line of poetry, using punctuation (typically "." "," ":" or ";")

By the end of the poem, though, the child is weighed down by her new understanding of her own identity and that of the Other. She repeats a similar sentiment to the first stanza, but the final stanza uses almost entirely end-stopped lines instead of enjambment:

Then I was back in it.

The War was on. Outside,

in Worcester, Massachusetts,

were night and slush and cold,

and it was still the fifth

of February, 1918." (93-98)

The switch from enjambment to the more serious end stop shows that the speaker is now more self-aware and has to think more critically about herself and others.

Read the poem aloud. Does Bishop do anything else with language and poetic devices (alliteration, consonance, assonance, etc.)? What effect do you think that has on the poem?

"In the Waiting Room" Themes

Two major themes in "In the Waiting Room" are individual identity vs the Other and loss of innocence and growing up.

Individual identity vs the Other

The child struggles to define and understand the concept of identity for herself and the people around her. She says,

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?" (59-62)

Reading the magazine, the girl realizes that everyone surrounding her has individual experiences of their own and are their own independent people. Children are naturally egocentric and do not understand that people exist outside of their relationship to them. So to the speaker, all of the adults in the waiting room can be described simply by their clothing and shoes instead of their identities as individuals at first.

As she's reading the magazine and learning about all of these cultures and people she had no understanding of, the girl realizes that she is one of "them." She is part of the collective whole—of Elizabeths, of Americans, of mankind. The child then has to grapple with how she can be "one," a singular individual, if she also has a collective identity. She wonders what makes the collective one and the individuals Other:

What similarities--

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the National Geographic

and those awful hanging breasts--

held us all together

or made us all just one?" (76-82)

In the end, the girl doesn't really have an answer. But she does realize that she has a collective identity and is in some way tied to all of the people on earth, even those which she (and her American society) have labelled as Other.

In the Waiting Room, People surrounding the Earth, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The speaker struggles to understand her personal identity in the midst of society's collective identity.

Loss of innocence and growing up

The poem also examines loss of innocence and growing up. At first the speaker stands out from the adults in the waiting room and her aunt inside the office because she is young and still naïve to the world. As the poem progresses, however, she quickly loses that innocence when she is exposed to the reality of different cultures and violence in National Geographic. After reading all of the pages in the magazine, she becomes her aunt, a grown woman who understands the harsh reality of the world.

The speaker describes her loss of innocence as strange:

I knew that nothing strangerhad ever happened, that nothingstranger could ever happen." (71-73)

Her childhood understanding of the world is replaced by an entirely new, adult one. As shown in the enjambment section above, the speaker becomes weighed down by her new awareness of the world. Ignorance is bliss, but it is a bliss she can no longer enjoy as she is now aware of reality.

"In the Waiting Room" Meaning

"In the Waiting Room" examines loss of innocence, aging, humanity, and identity. In the final stanza, the speaker reveals that "The War was on" (94), shifting the meaning of the poem slightly. From Bishop's birth in 1911 until her death in 1979, her country—and really the world—was entrenched in warfare. Although her version of National Geographic focused on other cultures and sources of violence, war and conflict was a central part of everyday life throughout the 20th century. Collective and personal identity was defined by which country people were from and which "side" they supported in the war.

The speaker is fearful of growing up and becoming an adult. The fact that the girl doesn't reflect on the war at all and merely throws it in casually shows how shielded she is from those realities as well. War causes a loss of innocence for everyone who experiences it, by positioning people from different countries as Others and enemies who need to be defeated.

Although people have individual identities, all of humanity is also tied together by various collective identities. War defines identity, and causes a loss of innocence, especially as children grow up and experience otherness.

In the Waiting Room - Key takeaways

  • "In the Waiting Room" was written by Elizabeth Bishop.
  • It was published in Geography III in 1976. It was written in the early 1970s, after World War I & II, but while the Cold War and the Vietnam War were ongoing.
  • The speaker's name is Elizabeth, but the aunt's name and the details of the National Geographic magazine are fictionalized, so it is safe to assume that this is not an autobiographical poem.
  • The speaker is reflecting on an experience she had when she was a child, waiting on her aunt in the waiting room of a dentist's office.
  • The main themes are individual identity vs the Other and loss of innocence and growing up.

Frequently Asked Questions about In the Waiting Room

The tone is articulate, giving way to distressed as the poem progresses. 

The speaker is the adult Elizabeth, reflecting on an experience she had when she was six. 

The themes are individual identity vs the Other and loss of innocence and growing up.

It is a free verse poem. 

The quotations use in "In the Waiting Room" allude to things the speaker did not understand as a child. For instance, "Long Pig" refers to human flesh eaten by some cannibalistic Pacific Islanders. And the word "unlikely" is in quotations because the child didn't know the word yet to describe her experience. 

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