Study Guide

In the Waiting Room Foreignness and 'The Other'

By Elizabeth Bishop

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.

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