Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Quotes

  • Identity

    What took me
    completely by surprise
    was that it was me:
    my voice in my mouth. (44-47)

    Elizabeth hears her aunt cry out from the dentist's office, and imagines that the cry is her own. It's like they're magically fused together and sharing the same painful experience.

    Without thinking at all
    I was my foolish aunt,
    I—we—were falling, falling (48-50)

    Her connection to her aunt doesn't involve thinking; it's more of an emotional experience. As she talks about them falling through space, she even imagines that they share a body.

    But I felt: you are an I
    you are an Elizabeth
    you are one of them. (60-62)

    There are some contradictions going on here. Earlier, Elizabeth imagines that she is her aunt. Now she asserts her independence: she's an "I" – an individual. Then she gives her name, and says she's "an Elizabeth." That "an" acknowledges that she's just one Elizabeth among many in the world. But then she switches her sentiment again. She says she's "one of them" – she's just like everybody else.

    Why should I be my aunt,
    or me, or anyone? (75-76)

    She questions all these ideas. She's basically asking, what is identity made up of?

    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? (77-83)

    She asks more questions. What connects all the people in the world? What holds humanity together? What makes us individuals? She doesn't have answers, but she's sure got some interesting questions.

  • Youth

    The waiting room was full
    of grown-up people. (7-8)

    Here Elizabeth makes a distinction between herself and the other people in the waiting room. They're "grown-ups"; she's definitely not one of them.

    and while I waited I read
    the National Geographic
    (I could read) (13-15)

    Elizabeth sounds like a smarty-pants here. She's not even seven years old and she can already read a magazine for adults. She seems pretty proud of this.

    I said to myself: three days
    and you'll be seven years old. (54-55)

    She reminds herself of her age here as if to calm her crazy thoughts. It's like she's saying, I'm too young for such big ideas!

    I gave a sidelong glance
    —I couldn't look any higher—
    at shadowy gray knees,
    trousers and skirts and boots
    and different pairs of hands
    lying under lamps. (66-71)

    From this comment, it sounds like Elizabeth is sitting on the floor, and looking up at the adults in the waiting room. It makes a pretty clear distinction between herself and them. She can't see their whole bodies – she's stuck looking at their knees and their clothing just above her eye level.

    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? (77-83)

    Elizabeth tries to figure out the connection between herself and the adults in the poem. What does she have in common with Aunt Consuelo, with the women in the magazine, and with the adult patients in the waiting room? What keeps them apart?

  • Women and Femininity

    black naked women with necks
    wound round and round with wire
    like the necks of light bulbs.
    Their breasts were horrifying. (28-31)

    Elizabeth is overwhelmed by the experience of seeing these women in the magazine. She tries to understand them by comparing their neck coils to light bulbs – to something she's familiar with. But this doesn't work out so well. She's still horrified by their breasts – by the markers of feminine maturity that she sees in these women.

    Without thinking at all
    I was my foolish aunt. (48-49)

    After she hears her aunt cry out, Elizabeth finds a kind of connection with this other woman. She imagines that she's experiencing the same pain as her aunt is. It's a kind of collective – or group – traumatic experience.

    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? (77-83)

    Elizabeth asks: what connections hold humanity together? What tears us apart? Interestingly, in these lines, Elizabeth's vision of humanity is pretty female. We've got her aunt, the women in the magazine, herself. Maybe she's asking more specifically: what binds the women of the world together?

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    Osa and Martin Johnson
    dressed in riding breeches,
    laced boots, and pith helmets. (21-23)

    Elizabeth sees a photo of the famous explorers in the magazine. It's possible that, as she continues to look through it, she identifies with them just a little bit. She's going on her own adventure in her imagination.

    A dead man slung on a pole
    —"Long Pig," the caption said.
    Babies with pointed heads
    wound round and round with string;
    black naked women with necks
    wound round and round with wire
    like the necks of light bulbs.
    Their breasts were horrifying.
    I read it straight through. (28-32)

    Elizabeth doesn't know how to react to all of the unfamiliar people in the magazine – a dead man, babies with pointy heads, and naked women. She's scared, but she's also intrigued by their foreignness, or "otherness." She can't bring herself to stop reading, even in spite of her fear. She's both attracted and repelled by these "others."

    But I felt: you are an I
    you are an Elizabeth
    you are one of them. (60-62)

    Is Elizabeth an individual, or is she part of greater humanity? Is she part of "them"? Can she be both an individual and part of the human race at the same time? How can she be so different from but also so much like the naked black women in the magazine? This is what she wants to know.

    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? (77-83)

    Again, Elizabeth brings up her fear of the women in the magazine, but this time it's in the context of the other adults in the poem – Aunt Consuelo, the dentist's patients. She's part of the collective humanity that Elizabeth joins together here. But she focuses not on the women, but on their breasts. Perhaps Elizabeth is more disturbed by their nudity than by their skin color? We can't know for sure, but it does seem interesting that Elizabeth refers specifically to these body parts, which are often symbols of both sexuality and motherhood.

  • Language and Communication

    and while I waited I read
    the National Geographic
    (I could read) and carefully
    studied the photographs (13-16)

    The National Geographic has a hand in sparking Elizabeth's penetrating questions that come later in the poem. Elizabeth seems just as interested in the photos as in the articles, if not more so: the poem says that she "studied" the photographs.

    And then I looked at the cover:
    the yellow margins, the date. (34-35)

    National Geographic is famous for its yellow margins. After being overwhelmed by the photos, Elizabeth looks at the cover, as if to remind herself that everything she's seen is contained in the magazine. It's not part of her real life if it stays within the magazine's covers, right?

    I—we—were falling, falling,
    our eyes glued to the cover
    of the National Geographic,
    February, 1918. (50-53)

    Elizabeth just can't stop thinking about the magazine. Even as she imagines herself falling, she still can't even look away from it.

    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? (77-83)

    The magazine makes a huge impression on Elizabeth. When she asks herself the big questions about humanity, she doesn't just include people from her real life, like her Aunt. She also includes the people from the magazine. She's never met them and she doesn't know much about them, but the magazine gives her access to another whole part of humanity. The people in the magazine are human, too.