Within ‘In the Waiting Room’ Bishop explores themes associated with coming of age, adulthood, perceptions, and fear. These are seen through the main character’s confrontation with her inevitable adulthood, her desire to escape it, and her fear of what it’s going to mean to become like the adults around her. ‘In the Waiting Room’ is a narrative poem, meaning it tells a specific story. This is the case with a great deal of Bishop’s most popular poetry and allows her to create a realistic and relatable environment for the events to play out in.
The mood she imbues this text with is one of apprehension, fear, and stress. A reader should feel something of the emotions of the young speaker as she looks through the National Geographic magazine. The images she is confronted with are likely familiar to those reading but through Bishop’s skillful use of detail, a reader should see and feel their shock value anew. Her tone is clear and articulate throughout even when her young speaker is experiencing several emotional upheavals. Bishop makes use of both end-line punctuation and enjambment, willfully controlling the speed at which a reader moves through the lines.
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Summary of In the Waiting Room
The poem takes the reader through a narrative series of events that describe a child, likely the poet herself. From her perspective, the child explains how she accompanied her aunt to the dentist’s office. While there, she found herself bored by the wait time and the waiting room.
She looked around, took note of the adults in the room, picked up a magazine, and began reading and looking at the pictures. It is revealed that this is a copy of National Geographic. It might seem innocent enough, but there are several images in the magazine, accompanied by words like “Long Pig” that greatly distress the girl.
She sees herself as brave and strong but the images test her. Those of the women with their breasts revealed are especially troubling to her. She finds herself truly confronted with the adult world for the first time. At this moment she becomes one with all the adults around her, as well as her aunt in the next room. She experiences an overwhelming sensation of being pulled underwater and consumed by dark waves. They represent her dread of the future as well as her inability to escape it.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of In the Waiting Room
‘In the Waiting Room’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a ninety-nine line poem that’s written in free verse. This means that Bishop did not give the poem a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem is decided into five uneven stanzas. The first contains thirty-five lines, the second: eighteen, the third: thirty-six, the fourth: four, and the fifth: six.
Poetic Techniques in In the Waiting Room
Bishop makes use of several poetic techniques in this piece. These include alliteration, enjambment, and simile. The latter, simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For instance, in lines twenty-eight through thirty of stanza one the speaker describes the women in National Geographic. The lines read: “naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire / like the necks of light bulbs.”
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, lines fourteen and fifteen of the second stanza with “foolish,” “falling,” and “falling”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this piece. Such as the transition between lines eleven and twelve of the first stanza and two and three of the fourth stanza.
Analysis of In the Waiting Room
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
In the first lines of ‘In the Waiting Room’ the speaker begins by setting the scene of a specific memory. She remembers how she went with her aunt to her dentist’s appointment. While the appointment was happening, the young speaker waited. As is common within Bishop’s poetry, longer lines are woven in with shorter choppier ones. She adds two details: it’s winter and it gets dark early. This adds a foreboding tone to this section of the poem and foreshadows the discomfort and surprise the young speaker is on the verge of dealing with.
In the waiting room along with the girl were “grown-up people,” lamps, and other mundane things. The only point of interest, and the one the speaker turns to, is the magazine collection.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
The speaker, as if trying to make an excuse for what she did, explains that her aunt was inside the office for a long time. The use of alliteration in line thirteen helps build-up to the speaker’s choice to look through the magazines. There is a charming moment in line fifteen where parenthesis are used to answer a question the reader might be thinking. Yes, the speaker says, she can read.
She chose to take her time looking through an issue of National Geographic. Within its pages, she saw an image of the inside of a volcano. In her characteristic detail, Bishop provides the reader with all they need to imagine the volcano as well. It was a violent picture. This wasn’t the only picture of violence in the magazine as lines twenty-four and twenty-five reveal.
A dead man slung on a pole
– ‘Long Pig,’ the caption said.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
The little girl also saw an image of a “dead man slung on a pole”. The reader becomes immediately aware, from the caption “Long Pig,” what the image was depicting and alluding to. This detail is mixed in with several others. By adding details about the pictures of naked women, babies, and their features that the girl saw, Bishop is able to create a well-rounded depiction of the event and the girl’s experiences.
The speaker uses the word “horrifying” to describe the women’s breasts. Despite her horror and surprise at the images she saw, she couldn’t help herself. She started reading and couldn’t stop. The last part of this stanza shows the girl closing the magazine, evidently finishing it, and seeing the date. But, that date isn’t revealed to the reader until the end of the second stanza.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
– Aunt Consuelo’s voice –
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
The child, who had never seen images like those in the magazine before, reacts poorly. She thinks she hears the sound of her aunt’s voice from inside the office. She made a noise of pain, one that was “not very loud or long”. The speaker revealed in the next lines that it was her that made that noise, not her aunt, but at the same time, it was her aunt as well. She was so surprised by her own reaction that she was unable to interpret her own actions correctly at first.
The use of consonance in the last lines of this stanza, with the repetition of the double “l” sound, is impactful. It mimics the speaker’s slurred understanding of what’s going on around her and emphasizes her “falling, falling”. She was at that moment becoming her aunt, so much so that she uses the plural pronoun “we” rather than “I”.
I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
While becoming faint, overwhelmed by the imagery in the National Geographic magazine and her own reaction to it, the girl tries to remind herself that she’s going to be “seven years old” in three days. This is meant to motivate her, remind her that she, in her mind, is not a child anymore. She was “saying it to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world”. This line lays out very well for the reader how life-altering the pages of this magazine were. The girl has come to a sudden, much broader understanding of what the world is like.
In these next lines, it is revealed that the speaker has been Elizabeth Bishop, as a child, the whole time. Her consciousness is changing as she is thrust into the understanding that one day she will be, and already is, “one of them”. She’s going to grow up and become a woman like those she saw in the magazine.
I gave a sidelong glance
– I couldn’t look any higher –
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
In these next lines of ‘In the Waiting Room’ she looks around her, stealthy and with much apprehension, at the other people. She sees their clothing items and the “pairs of hands”. It is as though at this moment, for the first time, she realized she’s going to change. She’ll eventually become someone different, physically, and mentally, than she is at this moment.
What similarities –
boots, hands, the family voice
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
She continues to contemplate the future in the last lines of this stanza. There is a new unity between herself and everyone else on earth, but not one she’s happy about. The details of the scene become very important and are narrowed down to the cry of pain she heard that “could have / got loud and worse but hadn’t”.
The waiting room was bright
another, and another.
The fourth stanza is surprisingly only four lines long. In its brevity, the girl’s emotions start to impact the way she physically feels. The room was at once “bright / and too hot” and she was sliding beneath black waves of understanding and fear. When confronted with the adult world, she realized she wasn’t ready for it, but that she was going to have to eventually become a part of it.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.
In the fifth stanza of ‘In the Waiting Room,’ Bishop brings the speaker back around the present. She surfaces from the dark waters and to the reality of her world. It was still February 1918, the year and month on the National Geographic, and “The War was on”. There is nothing she can do to influence these facts and perhaps there is some relief in that.