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Themes

The big questions that Elizabeth raises in this poem are really all about identity. Who am I? What is my relationship to other people? Can I be an individual and part of a greater humanity at the same time? How similar am I to my aunt? To the women in Africa who seem so foreign to me? Elizabeth never quite answers these questions, but her search for the answers – which are really all about her identity and her place in the world – is one of the most important things about "In the Waiting Room."

Questions About Identity

  1. Does Elizabeth "find" herself in this poem? Or does she lose herself?
  2. Who makes up the "them" that Elizabeth talks about? Is the "them" the African women? Adults in general? All of humanity?
  3. What is the connection in the poem between identity and pain?
  4. This poem is told in the past tense by an older Elizabeth, who recounts an experience from her childhood. What does this say about identity? Are there really two Elizabeths in this poem?
  5. What is the relationship between the speaker and the poet Elizabeth Bishop? Are they definitely the same? Or definitely not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Identity in the poem is defined by individual experiences.

Identity in the poem is defined by one's relationships to others.

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