Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Foreignness and 'The Other'

By Elizabeth Bishop

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.

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