In the Waiting Room Summary
"In the Waiting Room" begins with the speaker, Elizabeth, sitting in the waiting room at the dentist's office on a dark winter afternoon in Massachusetts. While she waits for her aunt, who is seeing the dentist, Elizabeth looks around and sees that the room is filled with adults. To keep herself occupied, she reads a copy of National Geographic magazine. She looks at pictures of volcanoes, famous explorers, and people very different from herself (including naked black women), and is scared by what she reads and sees.
Suddenly, she hears a cry of pain from her aunt in the dentist's office, and says that she realizes that "it was me" – that the cry was coming from her aunt, but also from herself. She imagines that she and her aunt are the same person, and that they are falling.
In an attempt to calm down, Elizabeth says to herself that she is just about to turn seven years old. She compares herself to the adults in the waiting room, and wonders if she is one of "them." She seems to realize that she is, and looking around, says that "nothing / stranger could ever happen."
Elizabeth then questions her basic humanity, and asks about the similarities between herself and others. What are the similarities between herself and her aunt? Between herself and the naked women in the magazine? How did she get where she is? What kind of connections does she have with the rest of the world?
Elizabeth is overwhelmed. The waiting room is bright and hot, and she feels like she's sliding beneath a black wave.
Finally, she snaps out of it. She remembers that World War I is still going on, that she's still in Massachusetts, and that it's still a cold and slushy night in February, 1918.
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
- Okay, we admit it: this is not the most exciting start to a poem. The speaker starts simple, setting the scene and telling us where she is. She's at the dentist's office with her aunt, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a small city west of Boston.
- Does this sound fun to you? Probably not. Who likes going to the dentist? Who likes hanging around in waiting rooms? Yeah, not us, either.
- Plus, the waiting room itself is an ominous space. Nothing happens there. You just have to wait there for something to happen. It's a liminal – or, in between-y – space.
- The poem starts with a wide lens. The speaker talks about where she is in the country. Then she zooms in to her location in the dentist's waiting room. Bishop is famous for this kind of detail.
- We don't know much about the speaker yet, but we know she's talking in the past tense about an event that has already happened. She seems a bit on the young side because of the way she talks about "Aunt Consuelo." How many grown-ups do you know who talk about accompanying their "Aunt Consuelos" to the dentist? Not too many, we'd guess.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
- The poem is starting to sound a little more menacing now. It's winter, and it's getting dark early – cue the creepy music.
- The speaker talks about the "grown-up people" who are with her in the waiting room, so it's clear now that she's young. Grown-ups don't usually call other adults "grown-ups."
- Everyone is dressed in their heavy New England winter gear, and the office is filled with regular dentist's office stuff – lamps, magazines.
- Basically, the speaker continues to set the scene here, zooming in more and more until we're focused on the magazines. We started off with a wide scope, and now we're up close and personal with the speaker.
My aunt was inside
what seems like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
- We find out that the speaker is a little bored and a little restless. Whatever is happening with her aunt is taking a long time.
- Our speaker seems pretty proud of the fact that she can read: she announces this in her parenthetical remark. This makes us think that she's actually very young.
- Still, it seems like she's more interested in the photographs in the magazine than the articles. She doesn't say, for example, that she "looks" at the photos. She says instead that she "studies" them. She sure is giving them a lot of attention.
- Just what kind of magazine is National Geographic? Well, it's a pretty important magazine that's been around since 1888. It's known for reporting on geography, nature, history, anthropology, and culture, and it's also famous for its photography. (For more on National Geographic, check out what we have to say about it on our Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay page.)
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
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.
- Our speaker catalogues the photographs that she "studies" in the National Geographic.
- The first photograph is of a volcano that's filled with ashes. Her description of the volcano "spilling over," which is in the present tense, makes it sound like it's happening in her real life, and not just in the magazine. It's like the photo has come alive. Cue that creepy music again.
- The next photograph is of Osa and Martin Johnson, a famous husband and wife explorer team who traveled all over the world in the early 20th century. They were known for documenting the people and wildlife of the Eastern hemisphere, and sharing what they learned with the Western world through magazines, photographs, and documentary films.
- The third photograph is even creepier than the first. There's a dead man on a pole, and the caption refers to him as a "pig." Is there some hint of cannibalism here? Is the dead man about to be roasted over a fire? Is that why he's "slung on a pole"? We don't know for sure, but it sounds like there's something unpleasant in store for this dead guy.
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.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
- Our speaker keeps cataloguing what she sees, and she's overwhelmed by the photos of people who seem strange to her: the babies with pointed heads, the naked women with wires around their necks. The women of certain African and Asian cultures wear neck coils in order to elongate their necks; that's probably who the women in the pictures are.
- The speaker repeats the rhyming phrase "wound round and round," as if to express her shock at what she sees.
- In an attempt to understand these women, our speaker uses a simile, and compares the wire rings to something that she finds familiar: the light bulb.
- But she's still overwhelmed. She is horrified by the photos of the naked women. Earlier in the poem, she seemed to place some distance between herself and the "grown-up people." Here, she's frightened by the signs of physical maturity in women – of the women's breasts. It's almost like she's afraid to grow up into an adult, because that will bring changes that she's not ready for.
- Or is there something else going on? Does she maybe have some desire for these women? Is she scared by her own interest in them? Maybe, maybe not. (For more on this, see what we have to say about the women in our Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay section.)
- Even though she's afraid, the speaker can't put the magazine down. For her, it's like looking at a train wreck: it's horrible, but she can't stop looking.
- Finally, she stops looking at the photographs, and checks out the cover of the magazine. She notices the date and the magazine's yellow margins. It seems like she's trying to convince herself that everything she's seen exists only in the magazine, and that it's not real. It's like she's trying to contain her confused feelings within the magazine's covers.
Suddenly, from inside
came an oh! of pain
—Aunt Consuelo's voice—
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
- Just in case we forgot where we were for a moment, the speaker reminds us that we're not actually in Africa with the women with wires around their necks – we're still in the dentist's office.
- The speaker hears her Aunt Consuelo shout "oh!" from pain. Maybe she's in the middle of a root canal, or having a cavity filled? Whatever's happening in that dentist's office doesn't sound fun.
- The speaker isn't surprised by the cry. Apparently, she doesn't have a very high opinion of Aunt Consuelo. She's not "embarrassed" by her, though. It sounds like the speaker is trying to draw a distinction between herself and her aunt. Our speaker would never cry out from the dentist's chair, and she insists that her aunt's behavior doesn't reflect on herself. She refuses to be embarrassed by her.
What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all,
I was my foolish aunt,
I—we—were falling, falling
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
- In the earlier lines, the speaker seemed to assert her independence from her aunt. Now she does just the opposite. She hears her aunt's cry come out of her own mouth, and she says that she "was" her foolish aunt.
- What does she mean? Has she gone through some crazy metamorphosis? Have she and her aunt turned into some kind of sci-fi hybrid monster? Probably not. The speaker is most likely imagining that she and her aunt are the same person.
- The experience of pain – the cry from the dentist's chair – is what causes the speaker to make this identification with her aunt. It's not a happy experience that brings them together. And it happens, the speaker tells us, "without thinking" – this is a kind of emotional bond that the speaker experiences.
- Then she imagines that she and her aunt are falling. She repeats the word, which suggests that it's a pretty intense experience. And what are they looking at? The National Geographic magazine from February, 1918. Their eyes are "glued" to it. This is a powerful word. They can't look away, even if they want to. It seems like the speaker might be connecting her horrifying experience of reading the magazine with her aunt's pain from the dentist's chair.
- The date of the magazine is important too, because now we know that the poem is taking place during World War I.
- Check this out: some poetry scholars have done some serious research into this poem, and guess what? While it does include photos of volcanoes, the real life National Geographic from February 1918 doesn't actually include any of the other things that the speaker mentions. There are no babies with pointed heads, there's no dead man on a pole, and there are no naked women.
- What's going on here? Is Bishop lying to us? Did she make a mistake and confuse her magazines? Did she blur truth and fiction on purpose? Poetry critics have been arguing about this for decades, but one thing's for sure: we can't assume that this poem is an autobiography of Elizabeth Bishop.
I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I
you are an Elizabeth
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
- We finally know the name of our speaker – Elizabeth – and how old she is at the time of the poem – almost seven. Since this poem is about a six-year-old, it's no wonder she's proud that she can read National Geographic. We have to remember, though, that the poem is told in the past tense. An older Elizabeth is narrating a past experience that happened when she was almost seven years old.
- This is a pretty serious little girl. She feels like she's going to fall off the world, and that everything is spinning out of control. It's like she's on a roller coaster ride in outer space and she can't get off.
- Then she tells herself that she is an "I." She reminds herself that she's an individual human being who is a complete person with agency, which means that she has the ability to control her life and her choices.
- But she also realizes that she's an Elizabeth – and that little word "an" is really important. She's not the only Elizabeth – she's not, for example, "the Elizabeth." By using the word "an," she acknowledges that there are other people, and other Elizabeths, out there in the world beside herself. She's "one of them."
- She asks herself, why should she be "one"? What separates herself from other human beings out there in the world?
- Our little Elizabeth is having some pretty deep thoughts for a six-year-old. Just sayin'.
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
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 the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
- Elizabeth looks around nervously to see if she can get more of an idea of who she is. Now that she's had the realization that she's part of other people – that she's a member of humanity in general – she wants to get a better idea of what humanity is like.
- It sounds like Elizabeth is sitting on the floor, because as she looks up, all she sees is the clothing of the people around her. She wants to understand humanity, but she can only see parts of people. She sees their pants, their boots, their hands. She seems unable to mentally grasp an entire person.
- This is the strangest thing that's ever happened to Elizabeth, but what has actually happened? Not much, really. Everything that's happened has only happened in her mind. Her imagination seems like a pretty crazy place to be.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
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?
How—I didn't know any
word for it—how "unlikely"…
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?
- At this point, Elizabeth is having a full-blown existential crisis. What's the meaning of it all? What draws human beings together? Why does she identify with her aunt's cry? Why is she scared of the African women in the magazine? What holds people together and tears them apart? How did she become the person she is?
- Obviously, there are no easy answers to any of these questions. If there were, we at Shmoop would probably be out of business. But there's definitely a link here between pain and understanding humanity: just think of Aunt Consuelo's "oh!" from inside the dentist's office, which sets all these thoughts in motion. Elizabeth says that the cry of pain could have been worse. What's the connection between humanity and pain? Does it have to do with understanding and sympathizing with someone else's pain? With empathizing, and really feeling another's pain as if it were your own? This one's for you to decide.
- There's something interesting going on here with the speaker. It seems like the older Elizabeth, who is telling the story of her six-year-old self, inserts her own voice a little more here. She says that she didn't know the word "unlikely" as a child. She didn't have access to the word to describe the experience at that time. Now that she's older, she's got the right vocabulary. This makes us think that the speaker is actually an adult.
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
- Poor Elizabeth. She snaps back to reality, and is overwhelmed by the bright lights and heat of the waiting room.
- Once again, she uses her imagination. She feels as if the entire room and everything in it is being carried out to sea by a series of dark waves.
- This is not a happy girl, and these waves could be a metaphor for a lot of scary and dark things, maybe even death itself.
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.
- Elizabeth snaps out of her dark imagination once again. She remembers the details of her location, the weather, and the date. Perhaps most interestingly, she remembers that "the War was on."
- This is the first and only reference to the "War," which, we know from the date, was World War I. Helpful hint: at the time, people referred to it as "the Great War," not "World War I." Why? Well, there hadn't been a "World War II" yet.
- What does the war have to do with this poem? Let's run through the facts: this is a poem about a confused little girl who is scared of the world out there. She wonders about her place in humanity, and can't stop thinking about what her connections are with other people. She's interested in what the grown-ups are like, but she seems afraid of them at the same time. She is both one of them and not one of them. She's both a kid, and a future adult. We might see the war as a reminder of the differences between children and grown-ups. We could see it as a comment on the future that lies ahead of Elizabeth, or even as a symbol of how terrible our world has become – we kill each other over our differences.
- The poem ends on this dark note of war. What the war means is open to interpretation, but it definitely makes us reflect back on the rest of the poem. Is this a poem about identity, growing up, humanity, war, or the scariness of the dentist? The answer, of course, is that it's about all these things. And is there hope? Hmm. We're really not sure.