Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Stanza 3

By Elizabeth Bishop

Stanza 3

Lines 75-89

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
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.

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