Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Identity

By Elizabeth Bishop


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.

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