In Margaret Edson’s play W;t, a variety of characters with complex, unique personalities are brought to life. Edson uses vivid imagery and poignant monologues in order to highlight and simultaneously criticize the social structure, doctor-patient relationship, and implicit stigmas associated with terminal cancer. Many themes, such as the ones aforementioned, are displayed within the elaborate rhetoric Edson uses to construct both the outer appearances and the inner thoughts of the characters, which often contradict with one another. Edson’s intricate blending of each character’s juxtaposed identities gives readers a deep connection to the personal struggles of each character’s past and present. The main protagonist in the book, Vivian Bearing, experiences an immense shift in mentality when she is diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Although Vivian understands the seriousness of her diagnosis, her thoughts remain consumed with maintaining her image as an accomplished and world-renowned literature professor. Through the reader’s journey with Vivian Bearing, we encounter several of her relationships that each serve to propagate Vivian’s spiritual awakening and acceptance of her diagnosis. Through her relationship with herself, Dr. Jason Posner, and Sally, we see that her “sick experience” is the product of ongoing social interactions and relationships encountered throughout the play, rather than a defined, concrete set of principles.
Before delving into Vivian’s relationships and their impact on her “sick experience,” her character must first be analyzed from the point of view of how Vivian views herself. Ever since a young age, Vivian was exposed to reading literature. Mr. Bearing, Vivian’s father, encouraged her to continue reading more books, to which she replied, “I think I’ll read…The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies” (Edson, 41.) While she read the book, her father would help her sound out the words that she had trouble reading. He said, “…now use it in a sentence. What has a soporific effect on you?” (Edson, 42.) This scenario of significance because it illustrates the deep learning that Vivian was exposed to from an early age and most likely provoked her interest in deciphering the meaning of words. Vivian goes on to become one of the top professors in her field and when she gets admitted to the hospital, she boasts about her accomplishments to the technicians. She says, “I have made an immeasurable contribution to the discipline..I am a force” (Edson, 17.) It appears that concentrating on her achievements took her mind off of the harsh reality of her diagnosis. It may be that constantly reiterating her accomplishments made her feel stronger, propelling her to further accept the fate of her diagnosis and subsequent treatment. The power of language is explored extensively in this play, giving readers a glimpse into how Vivian’s understanding of the sonnets of Donne helps her to make sense of her extremely gruesome and terminal diagnosis. Vivian uses her exposure to Donne’s sonnets as a means to transcend the boundaries and understand her diagnosis in a deep way. In fact, she relies very heavily on her knowledge and education when she is first diagnosed.
Vivian’s positive mentality toward herself and her accomplishments funneled into a unique relationship with her doctor, Jason Posner. Upon their first interaction, we learn that Jason was in her class as an undergraduate student. He says, “You can’t get into medical school unless you’re well-rounded…I made a bet with myself that I could get an A in the three hardest courses on campus” (Edson, 21.) When Jason reveals to Vivian that he got an A- in her course, it further clarifies the notion that Vivian was an extremely harsh and demanding professor. Vivian and Jason continue to have an interesting relationship throughout the play as we learn that Vivian is part of an extensive clinical trial that Jason is leading with his team. In essence, Vivian and Jason can be seen as each other’s opposites, at the same time as each other’s doubles. As discussed earlier, Vivian is an extremely ambitious professor who is strict and dismissive with her students. This is exemplified during a flashback scene, when Vivian refuses to grant a student’s extension request after their grandparent has passed away. She says, “Do what you will, but the paper is due when it is due” (Edson, 63.) We can see that Vivian believes in the rigidity of deadlines and in what she sees as the integrity of education.
Similarly, Jason is completely engrossed with his clinical trial, and throughout their relationship in the play, we are exposed to an almost inhuman side of Jason. He says, “It [cancer] is awesome. How does it do it? The intercellular regulatory mechanisms…” (Edson, 56.) We can see that Jason is passionate about cancer research, however, the fact that he describes cancer as “awesome” to his patient, while she is slowly withering away from the illness, is inconsiderate. Many of Jason’s monologues and lines are full of mindless tone and lack of emotion. He asks Vivian blanket, routine questions in a manner that his mentor has taught him and he fails to see the humans that he is harming through his work. When Vivian is taking her final breath, Jason desperately tries to resuscitate His relationship with Vivian is purely clinical in the same way that Vivian’s relationship with her students had been comprised of distant, dismissive, and disparaging connections. The relationship between Vivian and Jason, along with the overlap between how they both view their work, is a critical component in the play because it gives Vivian a platform to reevaluate how she conducted herself as a scholar and a professor throughout her career.
Another important relationship in the play is the strong connection formed between Vivian and her nurse, Susie Monahan. As discussed earlier, Vivian’s primary view of herself and Jason’s view of Vivian is purely transactional: Vivian sees herself as a worthy individual solely based on her accomplishments in life and nothing deeper than that, and Jason views Vivian as a research specimen. This makes Vivian’s relationship with Sally an inherently special relationship, one in which the readers finally see Vivian being treated like a human. Sally says, “There’s something we need to talk about, you need to think about” (Edson, 66.) Susie then proceeds to tell Vivian that although her tumor got smaller, the tests indicated that cancer had been found in other parts of her body. With this full disclosure, which Vivian didn’t receive in the play until this point, Susie begins to discuss how she would like to proceed when her predicted death occurs (DNR vs. full code.) Susie says, “…they should have explained this…” (Edson, 67.) In the code scene, Susie defends Vivian’s choice of being DNR and fights with Jason when he tries to revive her despite her wishes. Her endless dedication to Vivian, despite the circumstances of the clinical trial, shows Sally’s genuineness towards Vivian and her dedication to preserving Vivian’s integrity. Susie’s directness, combined with her deep disapproval of Jason’s decisions, displays how Sally was one of the only people in the play who was straightforward with Vivian and respectful of her as a human being.
Sally’s relationship with Vivian had a profound impact on Vivian’s spiritual awakening at the end of the play. The juxtaposition of Sally’s character with Jason’s character directly affected Vivian’s illness experience. Vivian says, “At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as a simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact” (Edson, 58). After witnessing the kindness of Sally along with Jason’s impersonal behaviors, she was able to relate to both the senior scholar role and to the amateur student role. She realized how much a little bit of kindness could make the greatest difference in somebody’s life. She began to reflect on the type of professor she was to her students. Because she was such a dismissive professor and spent her entire life advancing her career, Vivian had no friends or family appear until the very end of her life. When Vivian has already signed the DNR and is in her final moments of life, her friend Professor E.M. Ashford comes into the hospital room and recites Vivian excerpts of a poem before she passes. As Vivian reflected, she began to understand that a life of scholarly pursuits can ruin a person’s social and personal life. Through her experience with Sally and Professor Ashford, Vivian realized that she should have been kinder to her students as she finally took the time to understand the value of kindness during her debilitating treatments.
Edson’s elaborate rhetoric and stream-of-consciousness writing in W;t serves as a powerful indicator that the illness experience is a byproduct of intrapersonal relationships within the play. The enchanting use of interior monologues gives readers an unparalleled view into the complexities surrounding a cancer patient’s journey from diagnosis through treatment and, in the case of Vivian, death. From Vivian’s very first monologue, we can see how interesting her relationship with herself is. On the outside, Vivian portrays an extreme sense of self-fulfillment and accomplishment, even after hearing her diagnosis. However, her internal monologues give us a unique insight into the damage that her intense pursuit of scholarly research has infringed on her. By including Dr. Jason Posner as a character who indirectly challenges the nurse, Sally, W;t provides a stark contrast between the human side of medicine and the robotic side of medicine. The contrast between Jason and Sally serves as a direct platform for Vivian to evaluate her past, present, and future as a cancer patient. Edson’s way of illustrating the complexities of the illness experience in Vivian’s life, while managing to shatter Vivian’s preconceived notions of self and society, is masterful its understanding of modern society and human nature.