Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Themes

  • Identity

    The big questions that Elizabeth raises in this poem are really all about identity. Who am I? What is my relationship to other people? Can I be an individual and part of a greater humanity at the same time? How similar am I to my aunt? To the women in Africa who seem so foreign to me? Elizabeth never quite answers these questions, but her search for the answers – which are really all about her identity and her place in the world – is one of the most important things about "In the Waiting Room."

    Questions About Identity

    1. Does Elizabeth "find" herself in this poem? Or does she lose herself?
    2. Who makes up the "them" that Elizabeth talks about? Is the "them" the African women? Adults in general? All of humanity?
    3. What is the connection in the poem between identity and pain?
    4. This poem is told in the past tense by an older Elizabeth, who recounts an experience from her childhood. What does this say about identity? Are there really two Elizabeths in this poem?
    5. What is the relationship between the speaker and the poet Elizabeth Bishop? Are they definitely the same? Or definitely not?

    Chew on This

    Identity in the poem is defined by individual experiences.

    Identity in the poem is defined by one's relationships to others.

  • Youth

    Elizabeth is acutely aware of the age difference between herself and the "grown-ups" of the poem – Aunt Consuelo, the patients in the waiting room, and the naked women in the National Geographic. She always seems to have a sense of herself as different from adults. Yet at the same time, she is asking herself some pretty grown-up questions about her place in the world and her connections to other human beings. She may not even be seven yet, but we sense that this Elizabeth is going to grow up to be a pretty smart gal. We even have the feeling that the events of "In the Waiting Room" are what starts Elizabeth's journey into adulthood.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What are the relationships between Elizabeth and the various adults mentioned in the poem?
    2. Is it realistic for such a young girl to have such deep thoughts?
    3. Is Elizabeth afraid of growing up?
    4. What is the connection between the war and adulthood? Why does Elizabeth only mention the war in the final stanza?

    Chew on This

    Elizabeth sees the similarities between herself and the adults in the poem and is convinced that she will grow up to be like them.

    Adults are totally foreign to Elizabeth, and she thinks that she'll never understand them or their lives.

  • Women and Femininity

    Elizabeth has an intense reaction to the naked women in the magazine. We could even say that she overreacts to them. What's so horrifying about naked women? What exactly is so scary about their bare breasts? Maybe Elizabeth is simply scared by their otherness – by the differences between herself and these women. Maybe she's afraid of growing up and becoming sexually mature like they are. Or maybe she feels some kind of desire for or attraction to them, and is scared by that. One thing's for sure: Elizabeth's philosophical awakening in "In the Waiting Room" is tied to her experience of femininity in the magazine.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Why does Elizabeth find the breasts of the women "horrifying"?
    2. If she's so horrified, why doesn't Elizabeth look away from the photographs of these women?
    3. Elizabeth is at the dentist with her aunt, not her mother. Would this poem be different if she were with her mother instead?
    4. Is there some same-sex attraction going on in this poem? Or is Elizabeth too young to experience desire?

    Chew on This

    Elizabeth is horrified by the women's breasts because she is afraid of growing up and developing the signs of a physically mature women.

    Elizabeth is horrified by the women's breasts because she is attracted to them and doesn't know what to do with these feelings.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    Elizabeth is both horrified by and drawn to the African people in National Geographic. Their strangeness – the color of their skin, their lack of clothing, their elaborate neck coils – scares and fascinates her at the same time. The intensity of her reaction to the photographs seems to suggest that this is her first exposure to such a radically different group of people. She has incredibly mixed feelings about them, and these feelings send her into a crazy spiral of deep questions about the nature of life and humanity. The experience of other people and cultures – of what we call "otherness" in general – is a real shock for the young Elizabeth.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. Is Elizabeth horrified by the women in the magazine just because they're black?
    2. Is Elizabeth racist? Or does she just not understand racial difference because she's so young?
    3. Let's say that Elizabeth was fifteen years old, not six years old. Would her feelings about the women make more or less sense then?
    4. What is the relationship between the black women and all of the other black things (volcanoes, space, etc.) in the poem?

    Chew on This

    Elizabeth is clearly racist. She needs to undergo racial sensitivity training.

    Elizabeth isn't racist. This is her first experience of another culture, and it's natural for her to have mixed feelings about the women in the magazine.

  • Language and Communication

    The crux of "In the Waiting Room" is really the National Geographic magazine itself. Elizabeth seems quite proud of the fact that she can read this magazine for grown-ups at such a young age. It's her reading experience that opens her up to this whole new world of volcanoes, explorers, African people, etc. Let's just say that it's a good thing that the dentist's office had such interesting material. If Elizabeth were stuck reading Highlights or Soap Opera Digest, she probably wouldn't have had such an intense experience.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How would this poem be different if Elizabeth were reading a different magazine? What's so special about National Geographic?
    2. How would this poem be different if it took place today? Would Elizabeth be reading National Geographic on her iPad? Would that make a difference?
    3. What is the relationship between identity and reading in the poem? Does Elizabeth form her identity around what she reads?
    4. Which has a bigger impact on Elizabeth: the words in the magazine or the photographs? How are these types of communication different?

    Chew on This

    Photographs are more powerful than words. Elizabeth reacts to the photos she sees, not to the articles.

    Words are more powerful than photographs. Bishop wrote a poem about this experience – she didn't take a photo or make a painting of it.