Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room” is concerned with understanding both the narrator, a young girl, and her aunt Consuelo. It is clear that their identities are quite complex. Looking more specifically at Aunt Consuelo and the etymology of certain words used to describe her, one can make the argument that these two characters are mirrors of one another, which speaks to the narrator’s own complex and fractured identity.
It is first important to look at the relationship between the speaker and Consuelo, who is her aunt. Besides referring obviously to the sister of one’s parent, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “aunt” can be used as a term of endearment and refers to a woman who is an important and trusted companion (“aunt” def. 1b, 2). Yet another definition shows that “aunt” can also mean “an old woman” or spinster which, unlike the previous definition, has a negative connotation. Thus at the same time, “aunt” connotes both a positive and negative. Already, just by looking at the very word “aunt,” one can see that the speaker’s relationship to Consuelo is complex.
Further, the name “Consuelo” is also layered, and one could argue that Bishop makes a deliberate choice to use this Latin American name in this very WASPy environment of Worcester, MA. Immediately, Aunt Consuelo seems exotic. She is Othered, which makes her both a figure of fascination and repulsion, just as the speaker is both attracted to and wary of the naked women in the magazine. Consuelo is clearly different and her very name highlights this difference.
Again this proves to be more complex than it seems. Using the website “Behind the Name,” which divulges the etymology of names, one can see that “Consuelo” means “consolation” in Spanish (“Consuelo” def. 1). This word connotes a feeling of relief and trust. Thus, Aunt Consuelo is both a figure that the speaker can trust and also a figure that the speaker distrusts because of her Otherness.
Towards the end of the poem when the speaker has the realization that she was her aunt, it is clear that the speaker feels just as conflicted about her own identity as she does Consuelo’s. The speaker is both normalized as she tries to simply read a magazine as she waits for her aunt and yet Othered as she finds herself attracted to the women in the magazine. Aunt Consuelo’s complexity simply mirrors the speaker’s confusion about her own identity.
“Aunt.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2013. Oxford University Press. 5 March 2013.
“Consuelo.” Behind the Name. 2013. Behind the Name. Com. 5 March 2013.