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Mackensie Jackson Professor Sheridan Studies in Poetry 21 April 2016
The Personal Struggles of Finding One’s Identity within the poem “In the Waiting Room” by
Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room” discusses finding one’s identity during
World War I as can be seen through the speaker who is sitting in a waiting room reading the
 National Geographic
 
while the speaker’s
 aunt is seeing a dentist. The speaker of the poem is a six-year-old girl named Elizabeth who has to stay in a waiting room while her aunt gets her teeth looked at in th
e dentist’s office. While Elizabeth’s waiting, she
 picks up a 1918 copy of the
 National Geographic
 and as she reads it and looks at the images within the magazine, Elizabeth  begins to look at her own identity and what she must face while growing up in the time of the first World War. In my paper, I will include the analyzations of Jeredith Merrin who examines what the raw lines within the poem mean in her article
An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition
”; Betsy Erkkila who will discuss the child’s
resistance to become a female adult in the world
in her article “
Differences that Kill: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore
; Elizabeth Dodd who discusses how Bishop fights gender equality
in her poem which is shown in Dodd’s article “
The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Eliza
 beth Bishop, and Louise Glück.”; and
Renée R Curry who discusses how the author of this poem wants to connect the young girl with womanhood and the hardships that come when becomi
ng a woman which is shown in Curry’s
 
article “
White Women Writing
 
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White: H. D., Elizabeth Bish
op, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness.”
I will include my own opinions  based off the poem itself and the analyses presented here. Most importantly, this essay will look
at the fact that Bishop’s poem has a lot to do with people finding their own identities in life over
time. First, it is important to look at the false beliefs presented in the poem to understand what this poem might be about. Elizabeth Dodd
notes that some critics have suggested that Bishop’s  poem is just another one of her poems about lesbianism (Dodd). In reality, Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room” is not as simple as assumptions presume. Bishop’s poem does not talk about
cannibalism, lesbianism, or killing of babies (Dodd). What the poem is actually trying to  perceive is the crisis everyone goes through. A crisis of trying to find who one is and who one is
meant to become. In the poem, Bishop uses the speaker, Elizabeth, and the speaker’s depiction of breasts in the magazine she is reading as being “horrifying” and opens the door of the six
-year-old speaker so that she may see for herself what she wants to be and what she wants to look like in the future (Bishop L.31). Presumably, a six-year-old will not know breasts are necessary for breast feeding children, but the fact that Elizabeth is, for the first time, forming her own opinion about who she wants to be and what she wants to look like gives the reader a chance to see how one person began their journey of self-discovery. Some people believed that this poem related to lesbianism because it depicted a small female child looking at naked women from a magazine called the
 National Geographic
 and  because it was talking abou
t the naked women’s breast. However,
 the poem is actually meant to show a young girl figuring out her own journey into womanhood:  black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire
 
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like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. I read it right straight through. I was too shy to stop (Bishop Ll.28-33). This part of the poem describes what the child saw in the magazine and what she thought of it. Obviously, this child is not interested in becoming a woman when she uses the words
“horrifying” to describe what she thinks of the black women’s breasts
 (Bishop L.31). Dodd  portrays these lines as being about a female child who does not want to accept her role in society as a woman and does not want her body to change (Dodd). Presumably, the young child is used to her own body and she probably sees the breasts on the women as something more of a nuisance than a necessity. In other words, Bishop is getting into the mind of a young girl named Elizabeth who believes that she will change who she is by changing her outer appearance. Many  people who are adults in society are trying to find out what kind of person they are on the inside and are trying to figure out what they want to look like on the outside to others. Bishop was trying to get across in her poem that adults can learn from this young girl who, instead of wanting to change who she is on the outside, wants her body to remain the way it is. Whether
that’s becaus
e she likes her own body or because she does not like change is up to interpretation.
Unfortunately, the idea of finding one’s identity is not an easy task and Bishop shows the child’s struggles
 with discovering and accepting her identity while waiting for her Aunt in the
Dentist’s waiting room. In Betsy Erkkila’s opinion
, Bishop shows in her poem
, “the girlchild’s
terror and resistance as she experiences her identification with other women as a fall into the oppression and constraints of gender
 – 
 signified by her "foolish aunt" and "those awful hanging  breasts" she sees in the National Geographic as she reads an
d waits in the dentist’s office”
(Erkkila). In essence, Erkkila believes that the speaker is bothered by the restraints women face
 
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in society because of their gender (Erkkila). Yes, Erkkila has a point when stating that the child
 judged the aunt as being “foolish” because of the aunt’s boundaries as a woman in society, but Erkkila goes too far when stating that Bishop’s mission
 and main focus is t
o talk about women’s oppression. Instead, Bishop’s main focus is on the child’s struggle identifying who
 she is and who she will become when she is a grown-up. Fortunately, Dodd recognizes the complications of gender presented in
the poem, but she mainly notices that, “
Elizabeth is not really discovering her sexuality so much as she is discovering her own participation in the human race -including her gender identity
” (Dodd). In the poem, Elizabeth is beginning to find herself an
d what role she plays in society.
Even though Bishop’s main focus is not gender equality, it still plays a
 substantial role in
the poem. As Dodd mentioned, “
the poem shows gender awareness
,” and how it is
 important to talk about gender inequality in so
ciety (Dodd). After Bishop talks about the “horrifying breasts” in her poem, the speaker continues with, “I was too shy to stop,”
 meaning she could not turn away from the magazine, implying that even if people are afraid of discussing gender inequality, they should (Bishop L.33
). Just as Elizabeth is too engrossed in the magazine’s depictions of
women to turn away, people in society should not turn away from the injustices of women  presented in society or else those injustices will never be resolved. Jennifer Merrin says that
Elizabeth has an, “anxiety about growing up a woman,” that could have to do with a fear of
growing up in a society filled with people who judge others based on their gender (Merrin). Also, Erkkila suggests that the speaker does not
want her identity to be, “
lost and absorbed
,” in
the fact that she is a female (Erkkila). In my opinion, the speaker is struggling with the fact that
she’s a girl
 because
she’s afraid to deal with the changes her body will have in the future.
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