English Literature
In the Waiting Room

In the Waiting Room

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A Reflection on Personal Identity in Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room"

We all have memories of accompanying our older family members to the doctor's office while growing up. Many of us can relate to sitting in the waiting room, feeling restless and uninterested, flipping through outdated magazines. In Elizabeth Bishop's poem "In the Waiting Room" (1976), the six-year-old protagonist experiences this familiar scenario, but it leads her to an existential moment of realization. Through this poem, Bishop explores themes of personal identity, loss of innocence, and the impact of societal expectations on one's sense of self.The setting of "In the Waiting Room" is Worcester, Massachusetts, where Bishop lived with her paternal grandparents for a period of time. However, she had a strong dislike for the city and even developed health issues while living there. Due to these concerns, she moved in with her aunt, who raised her closer to Boston. This constant moving and lack of stability in her childhood heavily influenced Bishop's writing. She once said that she never felt truly American because her happiest memories were in Nova Scotia with her maternal grandparents. This struggle to define one's individual identity is reflected in the poem.The historical events of Bishop's lifetime greatly influenced the poem. Written in the early 1970s, during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, after the conclusion of both World Wars, Bishop experienced significant conflicts such as the Great Depression, both World Wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. These events had a profound impact on Bishop's writing, evident in the loss of innocence portrayed in "In the Waiting Room."Although "In the Waiting Room" is a lengthy poem with 99 lines, there are a few key quotes that encapsulate its essence. The first quote addresses the theme of loss of innocence, the second delves into the child's individual identity and the idea of the "Other," while the third questions the role of society and its influence on one's identity.The poem opens with the child reading National Geographic while waiting for her aunt at the dentist. She comes across images that both disturb and fascinate her, such as a volcano spilling fire, a couple in safari gear, and naked women with wire around their necks. These images prompt the child to question her own identity and how she fits in with those around her.As the child witnesses her aunt's exclamation of pain during a dental procedure, she realizes that she is an individual, an "I," an "Elizabeth," but also a part of the group in the waiting room. She ponders why she should be considered any different from her aunt or anyone else, and contemplates the similarities and differences among them, whether it be in physical features, their voices, or their shared experience of reading National Geographic. This moment of realization leaves the child feeling unsettled, faced with the knowledge that she too will eventually grow up and become like the adults around her.The poem concludes with a flashback to the waiting room in February of 1918, during World War I. This serves as a powerful reminder of how historical events can shape and impact one's identity at a young age. Through the Speaker's experience in the waiting room, Bishop highlights the struggle of defining and understanding one's identity, the loss of innocence, and the weight of societal expectations.The use of foreshadowing in the opening stanza creates a sense of unease and sets the tone for the rest of the poem. Overall, "In the Waiting Room" is a thought-provoking and poignant reflection on the complexities of personal identity and the impact of society and historical events on shaping one's sense of self.

The Shift from Innocence to Awareness in Sylvia Plath's "The Other"

Sylvia Plath's poem "The Other" delves into the concept of loss of innocence and the unknown through the perspective of a young girl. In the first stanza, the child describes the waiting room as dark and filled with adults, foreshadowing her loss of innocence and inevitable aging. As the child and her adult aunt merge into one figure, it symbolizes the merging of her innocence with the concept of "the Other," leading to a shift towards philosophical exploration rather than providing imagery.

Encountering the Unknown and Otherness

The child's encounter with the unknown and otherness is highlighted through allusions in the poem. She has never encountered the concept of "the Other" before, and the adults in the waiting room are described as one figure, blending into each other. This highlights the child's lack of knowledge and understanding towards different cultures. The mention of Osa and Martin Johnson, a married couple known for documenting other cultures, and the African women with necks wound with wire, showcases the child's shock and ignorance towards these cultures and the concept of "the Other."

The use of allusions in the poem also serves as a reminder of the child's sheltered life in Massachusetts. These allusions are not included in the real National Geographic magazine from February 1918, which scholars have found to be the exact copy the speaker is reading from. This emphasizes the idea that the poem is not strictly autobiographical, but rather a commentary on society's perception of "the Other."

The Loss of Innocence and the Other

The poem also uses powerful imagery and simile to convey the theme of the loss of innocence and the concept of "the Other." The description of the inside of a volcano, black and full of ashes, symbolizes the destructive power of losing one's innocence and foreshadows the child's upcoming transformation. The comparison of the African women's neck rings to light bulbs highlights the child's attempt to bridge the gap between herself and "the Other." She does this by comparing it to something she is familiar with, showing her struggle to understand and make connections with the unfamiliar.

The Shift in Perspective and Understanding

In conclusion, "The Other" by Sylvia Plath effectively employs foreshadowing and allusion to convey the theme of the loss of innocence and the concept of "the Other." The use of these literary techniques adds depth and complexity to the poem, highlighting the conflict between the child and the concept of self-awareness. As the child's innocence is shattered, she is forced to confront the unfamiliar and unknown, ultimately leading to a shift in her perspective and understanding of the world around her.

The speaker in Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" describes National Geographic images as "awful hanging breasts" (80), symbolizing not just aging but also the awakening of knowledge and loss of childhood innocence. The young child is afraid of growing up and becoming like the adults around her as it may mean losing her own innocence.

The poem uses enjambment and end-stopped lines to portray the child's developing understanding and loss of innocence. The initial lines of the poem are enjambed, mimicking the carefree nature of the child. Towards the end, the lines become mostly end-stopped, reflecting the speaker's more self-aware and critical thoughts.

Themes of Self-Identity and Maturity

Through the experiences of the speaker in the waiting room, the poem explores two central themes: the individual's identity versus society's identity and the loss of innocence and growing up. The child struggles to comprehend her own identity and that of others, as she realizes that each person has their own unique experiences. This is evident when she questions her own existence, asking "why should you be one, too?" (61-62). The loss of innocence and growing up is also depicted as the child understands that she is a part of a collective rather than the center of her own universe.


Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" effectively captures the concept of individuality and the loss of innocence through the viewpoint of a young girl. Through the use of literary devices, the poem portrays the child's evolving understanding and the internal struggle to define her own identity. Overall, the poem conveys a powerful message about the difficulties of growing up and comprehending the world around us.

The Importance of Individual and Collective Identity in Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room"

Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" delves into the idea of personal identity compared to a collective identity. The poem follows the thoughts of a young girl who grapples with the concept of being her own person while also being part of a larger group or society. The speaker questions the meaning of a collective identity and how it relates to her own individual identity.

The poem also explores the themes of losing innocence and the process of growing up. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is a young and ignorant child among the adults in the waiting room and her aunt inside the dentist's office. However, as she reads National Geographic, she is exposed to the harsh realities of different cultures and violence. This marks the beginning of her loss of innocence as she starts to understand the complexities of the world.

The speaker describes this loss of innocence as a strange and overwhelming experience, represented by the hanging breasts in the magazine. As she becomes more aware of the world, she also begins to lose her childish understanding of it. The use of enjambment in the poem further highlights the weight of this realization on the speaker's mind. She is no longer sheltered by her naivety and is forced to face the truths of the world, which can be unsettling for a young child.

The meaning of "In the Waiting Room" can also be interpreted as a commentary on war and its impact on both personal and collective identity. The line "The War was on" in the final stanza reveals that the poem was written during a time when the world was embroiled in conflict. The speaker's version of National Geographic showcases different cultures and sources of violence, reflecting how war and conflict have always played a role in shaping collective and personal identity. This further emphasizes how war can lead to a loss of innocence, particularly for children.

While individuals have their own unique identities, all of humanity is connected by various collective identities. War, in particular, has a significant impact on identity and can lead to the loss of innocence as people are grouped and categorized solely based on their nationality. Bishop's poem sheds light on how children are forced to mature and confront the realities of the world, often losing their innocence in the process.

Key Themes in "In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop

  • The poem was written in the early 1970s, a time of ongoing wars and conflicts.
  • The speaker is a young girl named Elizabeth, but the details and characters in the poem are fictional.Uncovering Themes and Tones in "In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop
  • Elizabeth Bishop's poetic masterpiece, "In the Waiting Room," delves into the complexities of personal identity and the loss of innocence as one grows up. As the speaker's perspective of the world evolves, the tone of the poem transforms from articulate to distressed. Through the use of vivid imagery and symbolism, Bishop beautifully captures the essence of the speaker's experience.
  • What is the tone of "In the Waiting Room"?
    The tone of the poem begins as articulate, reflecting the innocence of the speaker as a child. However, as the speaker's understanding of the world shifts, the tone becomes distressed, highlighting the loss of innocence.
  • Who is the speaker of "In the Waiting Room"?
    The speaker is an adult Elizabeth, reflecting upon a childhood experience. This adds a deeper layer of perspective and reflection to the poem.
  • What is the theme of "In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop?
    Through the speaker's experience, the poem explores the themes of personal identity versus collective identity and the loss of innocence and growing up. These themes are universal and relatable to readers of all ages.
  • What type of poem is "In the Waiting Room"?
    "In the Waiting Room" is a poignant free verse poem that defies traditional poetic structure. Bishop's use of vivid imagery and literary devices make it a captivating read.
  • What do the quotations in "In the Waiting Room" represent?
    The quotations in the poem serve as symbolism for the things that the speaker did not understand as a child. They represent different cultures and the violence portrayed in National Geographic, showcasing the lack of understanding and innocence of the speaker.

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