In the Waiting Room Analysis

Analysis of In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop

Written in 1976 by Elizabeth Bishop, In the Waiting Room is a poem that takes us back to the time of World War I, as it illustriously twists and turns around the theme of adulthood that gets accompanied by the themes of loss of individuality and loss of connectedness from the world of reality. In the Waiting Room, sets to break away from the fear of the inevitable adulthood that echoes a defined and constituted order of identities more than an identity of individuality. The title of the poem resonates with the significance of the setting of the poem, wherein these themes are focused on and highlighted in the process of waiting.

In the Waiting Room | Summary and Analysis

In the Waiting Room is a free-verse poem that brilliantly uses simple yet elegant language to express the poet’s thoughts. Written in a narrative form style, and although devoid of any specific rhythmical meters, the poem succeeds in rhythmically and straightforwardly telling the story of the abundant perplexing emotions undergone by the speaker while she waits at the dentist’s appointment. The poem consists of five stanzas with 99 lines.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 1-5 

Stanza 1


In Worcester, Massachusetts,

I went with Aunt Consuelo

to keep her dentist’s appointment

and sat and waited for her

in the dentist’s waiting room.

The speaker begins by pinpointing the setting of the poem, Worcester, Massachusetts. This also happens to be the birthplace of the author. Nevertheless, we can’t assume that this poem is delivering any description of a personal incident that occurred in the author’s life. Moving on, the speaker offers us more detail on the backdrop of the poem in this stanza.

As is clear from the above lines, the speaker has come for a dentist’s appointment with her Aunt Consuelo. In these lines, “to keep her dentist’s appointment”, “waited for her”, and “in the dentist’s waiting room”, the italicized words seem more like an amplification, an exaggerated emphasis on the place and on the object the subject is waiting for her. Such an amplified manner of speech somehow evokes the prolonged process of waiting.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 6-10

It was winter. It got dark

early. The waiting room

was full of grown-up people,

arctics and overcoats,

lamps and magazines.

 The speaker moves on to offer us more details about the day, guiding the readers to construct the image of the background of the poem, more vividly. The season is winter and which means, the darkness will envelop Worcester more quickly and early. To heighten the atmosphere of the winter season and the darkness that creeps in during the day, the speaker carefully places certain words associated with them. For instance, “arctics” and “overcoats” suggests winter, whereas “lamps” denotes darkness. We notice, the word “magazines” being left alone here as an odd thing in between the former words. But the magazine turns out to be very crucial to the poem and we realize that the poet has cautiously and purposefully placed it in these lines.

The use of enjambment, wherein the line continues even after the line break, at the words “dark” and “early”, emphasizes both the words to evoke the sensation of waiting in the form of breaking up the lines more than offering us a smooth flow of speech. In addition to this, the technique of enjambment on both these words can be seen to be used as a device of foreshadowing that connotes the darkness that will soon embrace the speaker.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 11-20

My aunt was inside

what seemed like a long time

and while I waited I read

the National Geographic

(I could read) and carefully

studied the photographs:

the inside of a volcano,

black, and full of ashes;

then it was spilling over

in rivulets of fire.          

In these lines of the poem, the poet brilliantly starts setting the background for the theme of the fear of coming of age. As the speaker waits for her Aunt in a room full of grown-up people, she starts flipping through a magazine to escape her boredom. Specifically, the famous American monthly magazine called “the National Geographic”. The use of enjambment in this line manifests once again, the importance given to this magazine upon which the whole subject of the poem lies.

Moving on, the speaker carefully studies the photographs present in the magazine, in between which she tells us an answer to a question raised by the readers, that she can read. This is placed in parentheses in line 14, as a way of showing us proudly that she is not just a naive little child who can’t read but more than a child, an adult. Once again here, the poet skillfully succeeds in employing the literary device of foreshadowing because later in the poem we witness the speaker dreading the stage of adulthood.

The magazine contains photographs of several images that horrifies the innocent child, the speaker of the poem. Beginning with volcanoes that are “black, and full of ashes”, the narrative poem distinctly lists all the terrifying images. It is in the visual description of these images that the poet wins the heart of the readers and keeps the poem interesting and engaging as well.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 21-33

Osa and Martin Johnson

dressed in riding breeches,

laced boots, and pith helmets.

A dead man slung on a pole

–“Long Pig,” the caption said.

Babies with pointed heads

wound round and round with string;

black, naked women with necks

wound round and round with wire

like the necks of light bulbs.

Their breasts were horrifying.

I read it right straight through.

I was too shy to stop.

 These lines depict the goriest descriptions of the images present in the magazine, whose element of liveliness, emphasized through the use of similes, triggers both the speaker and readers. An accurate description of the famous American Photographers, Osa Johnson, and Martin Johnson, in their “riding breeches”, “laced boots” and “pith helmets” are given in these lines. They were explorers who were said to have bestowed the Americans with images of unknown lands. The following lines visually construct the images from these distant lands.

From a different viewpoint, the association of these “gruesome” pictures in the poem with the unknown worlds might suggest a racist perspective from the author. As a matter of fact, the readers witness the speaker being terrified of the “black, naked women”, especially of their breasts. Several lines in the poem associated the color black with darkness and something horrifying, as well.

Coming back, since the poem significantly deals with the theme of adulthood, the lines “Their breasts were terrifying”, wherein the breasts are acting as a metonymy towards the stage of maturation, can evoke the fear of coming of age in the innocent child. Even though the speaker is confronted with violent images, she is “too shy to stop”, evoking the naive shy little girl. But from here on, the poem is elevated by the emotion of fear and agitation of the inevitable adulthood. Such emotional foreboding is heightened by the use of poetic devices like alliteration and consonants upon the repeated lines of, “wound round and round”, to produce a certain rhyme between these words. Therefore, even within a free-verse poem, the poet brilliantly attempts to capture the essence of the poem by embodying a rhythmic tone.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 34-53

And then I looked at the cover:

the yellow margins, the date.

Suddenly, from inside,

came an oh! of pain

–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–

not very loud or long.

I wasn’t at all surprised;

even then I knew she was

a foolish, timid woman.

I might have been embarrassed,

but wasn’t. What took me

completely by surprise

was that it was me:

my voice, in my mouth.

Without thinking at all

I was my foolish aunt,

I–we–were falling, falling,

our eyes glued to the cover

of the National Geographic,

February, 1918.

As suggested at the beginning of these lines, “And then I looked at the cover/ the yellow margins, the date”, the speaker is transported back to the reality from the world of images in the magazine via an emphasis on the date. Following this, the speaker hears a cry of pain from the dentist’s room. Herein, we see the poet cunningly placing a dash right in front of the speaker’s aunt’s name and right after the name, perhaps a way of indicating the time taken by the speaker to recognize the person behind the voice of pain. Aunt Consuelo’s voice is described as “not very loud or long” and as the speaker points out that she wasn’t “at all surprised” by the embarrassing voice because she knew her aunt to be “a foolish, timid women”.

However, the childish embarrassment is not displayed because to her surprise, the voice came from here. Once again, the readers witness the speaker being transported back to the future, a time that evokes her becoming an adult. Suddenly she becomes her “foolish aunt”, a connotation that alludes to the idea that both of them have become one entity. This idea is more grounded in the lines that say, “I–we–were falling, falling”, wherein the self ‘I’ has been transformed to the plural noun, ‘we’. The use of dashes in between these nouns once again suggests a hesitation and a baffling moment. The theme of loss of identity in the poem gets fully embodied in these lines.

In the repetition of the word “falling”, a working of hypnosis can be said to be employed here, to pull the readers into the swirl of the poem. Similar, to the eyes of the speaker that are “glued to the cover”. Following these lines, the speaker for the first time finally informs us of the date: “February, 1918”, the time of World War I, a technique of employing the combination of both figurative and literal language, as well.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 54-62

Stanza 2

I said to myself: three days

and you’ll be seven years old.

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world.

into cold, blue-black space.

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.


The beginning of the lines in this stanza at most signifies the loss of connectedness. Although she assures herself that she is only a 7-year-old girl, these same lines may also suggest her coming of age. The discomfort of this knowledge pulls back the speaker to “The sensation of falling off”, to “the round, turning world” and to the “cold, blue-black space”. Such a world devoid of connectedness might echo the lines written by W.B Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”, suggesting the atmosphere during World War I. Even though an assurance of her identity in these lines, “you are an I”, and “you are an Elizabeth” (revelation of the name of the speaker, as well as the poet), indicates a self, her individuality quickly dissolves in the lines, “you are one of them”.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 63-74

Why should you be one, too?

I scarcely dared to look

to see what it was I was.

I gave a sidelong glance

–I couldn’t look any higher–

at shadowy gray knees,

trousers and skirts and boots

and different pairs of hands

lying under the lamps.

I knew that nothing stranger

had ever happened, that nothing

stranger could ever happen.

In these lines, the readers witness the theme of attempting to terminate and displace a constituted identity, as the line evokes, “Why should you be one, too?”. The speaker no longer knows who the ‘I’ is and is even scared to glance at it. A constant struggle to move away from the association of herself to the image of the grown-ups in the waiting room is evoked in the denial to look at the “trousers, “skirts” and “boots”, all words used to describe these old people. All she knew was something eerie and strange was happening to her.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 75-89

Stanza 3

Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities–

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the 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?


Once again in this stanza, the poet takes the reader on a more puzzling ride. The speaker attempts to assert her identity in the first few lines, but the terror behind the truth of the possibility that one day she has to be an adult, is evident. The speaker puts together the similarities that might connect her to the other people, like the “boots”, “hands” and “the family voice”. As we saw earlier, the element of “family voice” had already grouped her with her Aunt.

The poem continues to give insight into the alienation expressed by the 6-year-old speaker as she realizes that even “those awful hanging breasts” can become a factor of similarity in groping her in the category of adulthood. The lines, “or made us all just once”, clearly echo such a realization. Unlike in the beginning, wherein the speaker was relieved that she was not embarrassed by the painful voice of her Aunt, at this point she regrets overhearing the cries of pain “that could have/ got loud and worse but hadn’t?”.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 90-93

Stanza 4

The waiting room was bright

and too hot. It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another.

These lines in stanza 4 profoundly connote the contradiction or much more the fluidity between the times of the present and future. On one hand, the poem expresses the present setting of the waiting room to be “bright”. Yet, on the other hand, the speaker conveys about “sliding” into the “big black wave” that continuously builds “another, and another” space in the time of future. Herein, the repetition used in these lines, once again brilliantly hypnotizes the reader into that dark space of adulthood along with the speaker.

In the Waiting Room Analysis, Lines 94-99

Stanza 5

Then I was back in it.

The War was on. Outside,

in Worcester, Massachusetts,

were night and slush and cold,

and it was still the fifth

of February, 1918.

Eventually, in the final stanza, the speaker comes back to the “then”. The setting transforms back to the ongoing war in Worcester, Massachusetts on the night of the fifth of February 1918, a much more in-depth detail of the date, year, and place of the author herself, completing the blend of fiction and truth or simply, a masterful  mix of literal and figurative speech.






Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also


Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker