Vivian’s Relationships in W;t and How They Shape Her Illness Experience
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.
Wit: How Are You Feeling Today?
Margaret Edson’s play Wit, devalues the question ‘how are you feeling today?’ by the lack of emotion and the harsh clinical empathy that ruins the effect of the query in order to highlight the professional, physical, mental, and spiritual connotations behind the meaning of the question. Medical students across the world are taught “the importance of…providing compassionate care” (Meltzer). Due to the fact that the question is repeated multiple times throughout the day, it becomes routine instead of genuine compassion.
Vivian Bearing, a professor who is diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, opens up the play with an everyday question, “Hi. How are you feeling today?” (5). She assures the audience that this is not her usual formal opening, and in fact, is the beginning of a question lacking emotion. In fact, this is just the beginning of what will only amount to more of this formal perfunctory greeting. Due to her more professional mannerism, Vivian informs the audience she would say hello instead. Jason Posner is the oncology clinical fellow and a former student of Vivian. He is often the one who is asking Vivian how she is doing. To answer the question, Vivian just says “fine”, due to obligation as it is the accepted answer. When she answers fine, Jason “satisfies his desire to empathize with his patient and minimizes Vivian’s actual feelings…” (Amanatullah). Jason simply asks the question to maintain his professional aura. There is one part where Vivian becomes furious at Dr. Harry Kelekian, her primary doctor, for his inability to understand her physical pain. Thus, she sits up and rhetorically asks the audience “[Is she] in pain?” “to emphasize the irony of medical compassion” (Amanatullah). She is angry at Dr. Kelekian mainly because he is not giving her a second thought as he asks about how she is feeling.
The physical attribute behind ‘how are you feeling today?’ is the leading force behind deciding if Vivian is truly sick or not. While she may lie, saying she is fine, her vitals or visible symptoms say otherwise. In the beginning, Vivian honestly answers the question, stating that “it is not very often that [she does] feel fine” (5). There are several instances where Vivian may be asked this and she happens to be “while throwing up in a plastic washbasin” (5). She is even asked, possibly in excruciating pain and on anesthesia, after a “four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice” (5). When Vivian returns to the hospital in a “shaking, feverish, weakened state [Jason] begins, as usual, with ‘how are you feeling?’” (Amanatullah). The question has turned from a true inquiry to a greeting that is asking the person in an attempt to be polite. It has come to the truth that people do not want the real answer; it is easier to say fine rather than rattle off a list of aches and pains.
Clinical empathy plays on mental well-being and happiness in patients. Due to the obligation that patients feel to just say they are fine, doctors take it as is because it is “not something [they] want to do nor feel comfortable doing…” (Meltzer). Vivian shows a lack of empathy towards her students as seen in flashbacks, but when her “physicians have been unable or unwilling to offer her the emotional support…” and instead, she needs Susie “to support her emotionally, Vivian no longer needs to have uncompromisingly strong character” (Amanatullah). Vivian begins breaking down mentally as she comes to terms with her past actions such as giving Jason an A minus and declining a student’s wish to have an extension. Guilt begins eating at her, and Vivian starts craving for the compassion that she never really received, which can be seen when she latches onto Nurse Susie Monahan who is one of the only characters to truly attend to Vivian’s fears.
After her emotional breakdown at the lack of compassion on Dr. Kelekian’s end, Vivian slowly begins “her silent acceptance of both life and death” (Amanatullah). The question eventually shifts almost into a spiritual awakening for Vivian. Her last coherent words are “Hi. How are you feeling today?” (72). She then remembers what her professor told her about using a capital d and commas and exclamation points for Holy Sonnet 10: Death, be not proud by John Donne. She is accepting to succumb to death at that current moment by remembering that certain lesson. After Vivian’s studying of Donne’s works, she begins to realize that the truth is she does not know as much as she believed about life or death. Vivian only confronts at the most difficult point when she comes to “understand that intellect is only one aspect of being human” (Cohen). Her spiritual awakening behind the question only occurs when her cancer forces her “to look at her own life, does she truly understand Donne’s fears and spiritual struggle” (Cohen). As Vivian begins to accept the spirituality that comes with the cancer, she slowly begins to let go of life.
Through professional, physical, mental, and spiritual emphasis behind ‘How are you feeling today?’, Vivian is able to understand that there is more to life than knowledge; and Jason is unable to provide genuine compassion due to the need for knowledge is more important. Changing the routine question to one with feeling, it is possible that the different emphasis’ will change to accommodate patients and how they feel.
Amanatullah, Derek F. “The Importance of a Physician’s Wit: A Critical Analysis of Science in Medicine.” Commentary (2002): 139-43. Einstein Quarterly. The Einstein Quarterly Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2002. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Cohen, Carol. “Wit Guide.” Wit Guide. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 20 Aug. 2000. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Edson, Margaret. Wit: A Play. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.
Meltzer, Daniel L. “Ask Patients How They Feel, along with How They Are Feeling.”KevinMD.com. KevinMD, 11 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Riess, Helen. “The Impact of Clinical Empathy on Patients and Clinicians: Understanding Empathy’s Side Effects.” The Impact of Clinical Empathy on Patients and Clinicians: Understanding Empathy’s Side Effects 6.3 (2015): 51-53. AJOB Neuroscience. Taylor & Francis, 30 July 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
The Digression of Vivian’s Power within Wit
The play Wit by Margaret Edson addresses one of the most challenging topics that mankind is forced to grapple with: death. For Vivian Bearing though, death had always been more of a subject to study rather than one to face. Death in Vivian’s experience is a tool to teach with, an inevitable end of life not to be feared and as she will find out through her own experience, a force that will totally alter the way social status is perceived. Edson addresses Vivian’s passing through the use of intertextual references in order to align Vivian’s experience to her studies in poetry, and give her play an extra dimension for the audience to explore.
Vivian Bearing’s disease first begins to take major tolls when she signs the informed consent form, for at this moment she is forced to recognize that her fate is no longer her own. Similarly to Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 6”, Vivian has been forced to come to the understanding that her life is quickly fleeting as a result of being diagnosed with terminal cancer. This first stage of Vivian’s treatment represents a coming to terms with her future. Coming to terms with the fact that “This is [her] playes last scene, here heavens appoint / [Her] pilgrimages last mile, and [her] race / Idly, yet quickly runne…” (Donne, Holy Sonnet 6). Donne’s many references to time and repetition of the word ‘last’ within the sonnet help to build the idea that life is moving ever more quickly and will not move forward until its fate is accepted. Although Vivian understands that her death is approaching, she maintains her confidence and social status initially with the help of Dr. Kelekian, who addresses her as ‘Dr. Bearing,’ and creates a level playing field so to speak by referencing the commonalities between the two professors. Here, Edson builds a relationship of equality between them. Jennifer Givhan also notes this relationship, writing that “Like the medical researchers who have dissected her body, Vivian in turn has learned to dissect poetry with her own skillful employment of language” (79). As a result of Kelekian and Bearing’s mutual respect, the audience is able to feel comfort in the fact that although Vivian’s medical procedures are invasive, her new found and unique relationships are supportive.
Before Vivian’s arrival at the Ground Rounds, her position of power at the university was all consuming. Jason describes Donne as the “Hardest poetry in the English department,” and Vivian’s role in the class made her consumption by it mandatory (Edson, 31). As a result, she was unable to build supportive relationships to help her through the hardship that she did not know she would have to face. This power over language preoccupied Vivian during the initial treatments (as she questioned her relation as a study subject to a poem in her own study), but her vast knowledge of language also had a negative effect on her. In the opinion of Givhan, Vivian’s education pushed her “…to erect distancing walls between herself and other people…atop which she [was] dominant…” and as a result, she grew more and more alone (78). This very well may have contributed to the digression from Vivian’s initial confidence to suffering, and forces the audience to consider their own social standing and the relationships that fluctuate as a result of that standing.
Vivian’s second stage at the hospital begins with her inspections by the fellows, but is solidified upon her entrance to the isolation unit. This second stage marks a change in the relationships between Vivian and the staff at hospital and is illustrated by the way Jason treats her. One clear example is Jason explaining her ailments to the other fellows and Dr. Kelekian: “He takes a sheet and carefully covers her legs and groin, then pulls up her gown to reveal her entire abdomen. He is barely audible, but his gestures are clear” (Edson, 36). Jason’s abrupt and degrading actions show a clear change in Vivian’s social status from the way that she is treated by Kelekian, beginning her entrance to a far less confident period of time. In the perception of Jennifer Givhan,
“Jason uses Vivian’s body – indicated by the stage directions that he ‘puts his finger on the spot on her abdomen’ and ‘moves his hand over her entire body’ (36) – as a demonstration of his own superior intellect, while he enumerates her symptoms, seemingly unconcerned with her presence as a thinking, subjective person in the room with him.” (78).
Regardless of how the reader perceives the specifics of Jason’s actions towards Vivian, he undeniably finds himself to be the dominant one in the relationship, illustrating the swiftly changing power dynamics referenced previously and showing the audience the effect perceived social status has on the way people are treated.
After being socially degraded, Vivian’s physical suffering arises. Continuously growing from the moment that she takes the popsicle like a child, explaining that “The epithelial cells in [her] GI tract have been killed by the chemo [and] The cold popsicle feels good…” Vivian’s disease grows steadily more painful. This stage is characterized by the next Holy Sonnet in the sequence, “if poysonous minerals.” Donne writes, “To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee? / But who am I, that dare dispute with thee? / O God, oh! …” (Donne, Holy Sonnet 9). Throughout this sonnet, the speaker approaching death is asking God why they must suffer while animals and objects that have sinned may pass peacefully. Vivian too finds herself in this situation. “There is cancer eating away at my goddamn bones, and I did not know there could be such pain on this earth. (She flops back on the bed and cries audibly to them.) Oh, God” ( Edson, 71). Vivian will not move beyond this pain until she passes, and until then her language choices grow more and more similar to those demonstrated in “Holy Sonnet 9.” Vivian’s previous social status and references to poetry are replaced with basic moans and questions directed to higher powers, illustrating once again to the reader that even after a respected career studying death, often the only conclusion is to face it, and in Vivian’s case all the pain that came along with it.
On page 84 through the end of Wit, Edson creates a situation characterized by a final power struggle and contrasted by the peace of Vivian’s death in order to further connect her text to the poems of John Donne and form the last stage of Vivian’s time at the hospital shown through the diction choices and chaotic characterization throughout this final passage. As Vivian begins to fall into cardiac arrest and Jason calls the code, the hierarchy of the medical world becomes instantly apparent. The code team, yelling “Get out of the way!” and “Move it!” is in control. Susie’s frail attempts to stop them are an obvious failure, putting the code team in the position of power and Vivian in the lowest position of all. In connection to “Holy Sonnet 10,” Susie is attempting to allow Vivian to die, and plays the role of death. Here though, Vivian’s choice is to be made at the mercy of the code team. Their role is fate, illustrated by the inevitability of their actions. In essence, Edson is connecting the final roles of the characters in Wit to the final “Holy Sonnet 10” through the line “[death,] Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings and desperate men.” Secondly, Edson characterizes the code team as robotic and inevitable through diction choices to further illustrate that as in “Holy Sonnet 10,” death is powerless under Fate. The most prevalent method of diction that Edson utilizes to create this persona for the code team is the uniformity of their speech. For example,
-Pulse? Pulse?” (Edson, 84).
The way in which the team completes each other’s thoughts, anticipates each other’s actions and follows through on each task as a single unit molds the character of the code team into the mechanical (inevitable after being called in by Jason) and unstoppable force that Donne claims is more powerful than death. Then, as Vivian begins her final passing, Edson draws one final connection to “Holy Sonnet 10”: “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.” (Donne, Holy Sonnet 10). As in the poetry of John Donne, Vivian had struggled with death since she was a student. Her studies taught her not to fear death, yet as it approached, she began to question her beliefs. Her final battle with death though relieved her fears, for as “Vivian walks out of bed…away from the scene, toward a little light,” her short sleep is past. And finally, as “She loosens the ties and… She lets the second gown fall… reaching toward the light,” death has passed too, and Vivian gains a final understanding of death that all her years of studying could not provide. (Edson, 85). In accordance with John Sykes’ “Wit, Pride and the Resurrection,” “Professor Bearing herself undergoes an inner religious drama remarkably like one portrayed in the sonnets in which she is expert. Her suffering…[and passing] is, as Donne suggests, a means to correction, and ultimately salvation” (60). By drawing the connection between Wit and John Donne’s poetry, Edson is able to show that even after a lifetime of studying death, its power to alter relationships, status perception and provide relief to suffering cannot truly be understood until a passing is experienced.
By making continual reference to Donne’s Holy Sonnets and aligning Vivian’s fight against cancer with the themes present in them, Edson alters the original relationships and social standings found in her play to match the degradation that occurs within Vivian’s body and mind. This choice makes her play even more intriguing for those who have studied the works of Donne as Vivian had, and pays homage to her for the suffering that she is forced to endure as a result of her ordeal. Finally, Edson illustrates to the reader that only as her social status declined was Vivian’s understanding of death able to improve, providing a catharsis to the audience in knowing that her passing would allow Vivian to rest peacefully having finally completed her studies.
Edson, Margaret. Wit: A Play. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.
Givhan, Jennifer. “Crossing the Language Barrier: Coalescing the Mind/Body Split and Embracing Krisevas’s Semiotic in Margaret Edson’s Wit.” Women and Language 32.1: 77-81. Print.
Sykes, John. Wit, Pride and the Resurrection: Margaret Edson’s Play and John Donne’s Poetry. EBSCO, 2003. 163-174. Print.
Redemption in Wit
In Margaret Edson’s Wit, Jason, Susie, and Professor Ashwood guide Vivian Bearing toward redemption, changing her into a person who can be both intellectual and compassionate. Jason’s cold intellectualism helps Vivian realize her own neglect of humanity; Susie’s compassion shows her how people should act; and Professor Ashwood, by embodying both intellect and compassion, brings Vivian full circle in her redemption so that she might die in peace. Jason begins Vivian’s road to redemption by showing her the error of her ways. At the start of the play, Vivian strongly identifies with Jason because he represents research and “uncompromising scholarly standards” (15). Being a scholar herself, Vivian feels at home with the anatomization and dehumanization of research. Just as Jason anatomizes her as research, she picks apart John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets.” She focuses on Donne’s use of punctuation, pronunciation, and scansion like Jason focuses on her anatomy, both completely missing the “psychological depression” (39) of their subjects. After one morning’s “Grand Rounds” (36), Vivian begins to equate her situation with her scholarly studies, noting “they read me like a book. Once I did the teaching, now I am taught” (37). This realization devastates and humbles Vivian because she has now been reduced to mere subject matter. Jason, much like Vivian, completely ignores the necessity of humanity in his job. He feels that dealing with people in a humane and caring manner is a “colossal waste of time for researchers” (55). Through Jason’s coldness towards her, Vivian realizes that she has “ruthlessly denied her simpering students the touch of human kindness she now seeks” (59). By becoming the recipient of Jason’s intellectual coldness, she can now see her own mistake in treating her students cruelly and inhumanely, not even acknowledging the death of a grandmother. Once Vivian grasps the importance of humanity through Jason’s lack of it, she turns to Susie as an example of compassion, which leads her closer to her own redemption. Susie reinforces Vivian’s newfound belief in the value of compassion and humanity towards those that are suffering. Before Vivian’s realization, she feels extremely uncomfortable with Susie’s kindness towards her. Yet as her suffering increases and becomes unbearable, she cannot refuse the soothing effects of Susie’s simple compassion. Susie invests herself deeply in seeing that Vivian is as comfortable as possible. Susie provides childlike comforts by calling her “sweetheart” (64), holding her when she cries, and giving her a Popsicle. Susie shows Vivian the “simple human truth” (15) that she could not grasp the meaning of before when studying Donne’s sonnets. Vivian sees now that death and life are no longer abstract but are very personal. Her and Susie’s discussion about resuscitation mirrors the correct punctuation of Donne’s Holy Sonnet Six. Vivian finally decides that she will end her life with a comma, peacefully passing from life to death without a struggle. Susie provides Vivian with proof that there is something more fulfilling outside of her intellectual world. Although Vivian comes to appreciate Susie’s compassionate personality, she cannot fully connect with her because Susie lacks the intellect necessary for Vivian to truly identify with her. Vivian still feels the need to be intellectual as well as compassionate; therefore, she cannot complete the unification of her soul without the help of Professor Ashwood. Professor Ashwood allows Vivian to see that intellect and humanity can coexist, thereby allowing her to be redeemed and die in peace. Throughout Vivian’s life, Professor Ashwood tries to ground her in the world of intellectualism as well as humanity. Even when Vivian is a young graduate, Professor Ashwood attempts to show her the delicate balance between intellect and humanity. Professor Ashwood uses Vivian’s paper on Donne as an example, telling her that Donne’s poetry “is not wit. . .It is truth.” (15). Although Professor Ashwood reveals from the beginning the secret of Donne’s poetry, Vivian continues for twenty years to search for its meaning, still completely missing its “simple human truth” (15). Because Vivian spends twenty years invested in her research instead of in humanity, she finds herself without friends or colleagues to come see her in her time of need. Unfortunately, Vivian cannot even grasp the importance of human companionship until she is about to die. Although Professor Ashwood has always been there as her friend and intellectual equal, she can only recognize that after she encounters both cold intellect and simple human compassion in their raw forms through Jason and Susie. After her experiences with the two extremes, she can fully be redeemed when Professor Ashwood comes to visit her at the end. Professor Ashwood compassionately crosses the lines of intellectual formality, comforting Vivian with a “little allegory about the soul” (80). Although she could quote Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” Professor Ashwood allows Vivian to see the simplicity in God’s love through the bunny story. Once Vivian sees that humanity and intellect can coexist in a person that she admires, she can finally unify the two halves of her soul and die in peace. In Wit, Vivian discovers her past mistakes through Jason’s cold intellectualism, her need for compassion through Susie, and the possibility of intellect and humanity coexisting through Professor Ashwood. It is only after her encounters with Jason, Susie, and Professor Ashwood that Vivian can finally reconcile her soul to be both intellectual and humane.
Wit and Wisdom
In literature (novels, folk tales, plays, movies, etc.) one finds presented two forms of so called “coming-of-age” stories. The traditional method is preparation for adulthood. A youth (generally between 10 years old and 20) passes, by some calamity or other intense situation, from the world of innocence to the world of experience to join the rest of the adults who made the passage before him. The youth is stripped of utopian illusions about life and acquainted with the hard facts of reality in a fashion that is painful, but never lethal. Classic examples of this type of tale include the folk tale “Hansel and Gretel” and Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield.Another coming of age or rite of passage presented by literature is the preparation for death. In this version, the character is stripped of the illusions of adulthood and made ready to die peacefully. The plot of these stories (like any in literature) involves some conflict or dilemma which opens the eyes of the character to the certainty of death. Once this is done and the character accepts mortality, he is then able to put his affairs in order (usually with loved ones) and possibly able to pass on learning to his loved ones. An example of this form of literature is the play Wit by Margaret Edson (also wittily titled W;t).So what is the purpose of this less often used rite of passage? Generally it is to teach readers/viewers about death in order to allow them a fuller life. Furthermore, if they are presented with someone else’s mistakes that cause the conflict of the story, they can perhaps see a reflection of themselves in the literature and be able to side-step the unpleasant dilemmas that cause anxiety about death which can prevent living a fulfilling life.One of these dilemmas presented in this rite of passage is grappling with the illusion of control. If a person cannot accept that control is an illusion, then he will face much anxiety and unhappiness. Religion has often sought to deal with this crisis, offering the simple mantra “let go and let God” as well as the more meaningful serenity prayer (used by Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization dedicated to helping people to regain some measure of control in their lives). The serenity prayer attempts to meet people halfway: “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” A key word used in this prayer is the driving goal behind much of literature and religion – the attainment of wisdom. Part of this wisdom is understanding that total control in life is an illusion. The thwarting of control leads to anxiety and pain because people feel that something is being taken from them. Literature often seeks to show that it was never there to be taken (truthful literature, at least). While it is possible and desirable for one to be the “captain” of his or her own soul, that is the extent of the control one can achieve in life, and some, the mentally ill for example, do not even have that control. It is this wisdom that is the focus of the play Wit.Wit’s main character is Vivian Bearing, a scholar of 17th century poetry, particularly John Donne. Her life, which has been under control for half a century, is undergoing drastic changes. She has been diagnosed with terminal stage four metastatic ovarian cancer, the cancer having slipped by undetected when it would have been treatable in stages one through three. Up until this point in her life, she had exercised great control over her environment. In terms of her scholarly career, she at one point refers to herself as “a force” in the study of literature (Edson 17). She is the queen of the department, and her colleagues, it appears, cannot wait for her to move on so that they may take her place, even those that are former students of hers (32). In the classroom, Vivian exercised tremendous control and poise, never needing notes and never slipping in her lectures (74). She had tremendous control of the subject matter, saying, “I could work my students into a frenzy. Every ambiguity, every shifting awareness. I could draw so much from the poems. I could be so powerful” (48). Apparently, she expected others to control their situations to the same extent, not showing mercy to students who may have needed a little extra time or a little extra help. If a student could not control his situation, this was no reason for her to show kindness – ironically, this comes back to bite her in the end with her doctors not showing her the kindness that she aches for when she starts to feel as if she has lost control of her life.This perceived loss of control is evidenced in the latter half of the play; however, she could not lose what she never had. In her life, she felt the illusion of control, but she never really had it. If she had control over her life, a few things would have been different. First off, she would not have ever gotten cancer. She did not tell her cells to behave in such a manner, nor did she have the power to stop them. Furthermore, she is not able to control what happens to her body as a result of the treatment. While she has actively chosen to undergo the particular therapy, she cannot control the hair loss or nausea that she experiences. Moreover, she has given herself over to the care of the doctors who treat her not as a person but as research. These doctors may claim to be trying to help her, but they are actually more concerned with seeing the effects of their experimental medicine. Further evidence of this lack of control is that she must submit to the rules of the hospital: she must wear a gown, she must be ready when the doctors are ready, and most importantly, she must undergo tests when they want her to, no matter how inconvenient or demeaning the test may be. For instance, at one point she has to (at least, she feels she has to) undergo a “degrading” pelvic exam by a doctor who is a former student of hers (30-32). This subservience to the doctors is well characterized by her comments in regard to the “grand rounds” of the doctors. This is when the head researcher, Dr. Kelekian, brings all of his students through the hospital to examine the patients in order to review diseases, treatments, symptoms, side effects, etc. She saysFull of subservience, hierarchy, gratuitous displays, sublimated rivalries – I feel right at home. It is just like a graduate seminar. With one important difference: in Grand Rounds, they read me like a book. Once I did the teaching, now I am taught. This is much easier. I just hold still and look cancerous. It requires less acting every time. (37)This gives us further evidence that Vivian is not in control, rather she must bend to the doctors’ wishes. The most salient example to prove this subservience to the doctors comes a little later in the play when she is demonstrating for the audience what it was like when she taught a class. In the middle of this enactment, however, the nurse Susie comes in and tells Vivian that the doctors need her for a test. When she complains that she is busy teaching her class, Susie is insistent and finally persuades her to go down to the lab for the test. As it turns out, though, the test which has to be done immediately (as per the doctor’s order) must be postponed because the technician is on break at the moment, thus revealing that she actually could have reveled in her teaching fantasy for a while longer after all (50-52).Regardless of who is in control, Vivian finally comes to terms with lack of control (and her need for human kindness) at the end when confronted with the certainty of death. She has undergone every phase of the treatment and realizes that she is not getting any better. Moreover, she fully realizes by this point that Dr. Kelekian never really expected her to get better, but was rather using her to further his research (67). She confesses her lack of control and the fear this generates to the nurse Susie. In an atypical emotional display, she breaks down and declares: “I do not feel sure of myself anymore” (65). With the help of Susie, Vivian exercises one final bit of control, perhaps the only control one can have in life. She decides, in one of her final scenes, that if her body should stop functioning, she will not be resuscitated; she will be allowed to die peacefully (68-69).Despite the fabulous control that Vivian felt she had in her life, her circumstances brought her face to face with her fear of losing control. This fear, along with the fear of death, troubled her greatly throughout the play until she was able to gain the serenity to accept the things she could not change. Before she could do that, before she could grow, she had to lose everything in her life, she had to leave behind the lifestyle that she had. There is a fantastic quote from the movie Fight Club that goes something like “it’s only when you’ve lost everything that you are free to do anything.” Because she lost everything, Vivian was able to be prepared for death and to lose her fear of death, thus bringing about the final scene of the play in which she was able to walk gracefully from her earthly life.Works CitedEdson, Margaret. Wit. New York: Faber and Faber Inc.,1993.
Comparative Essay of Donne and W;t
Existential quandaries remain ingrained within the human condition, where superficial evasions by intellectualizing such concerns are eventually addressed by universal values of humility and compassion within contextual constructs. When confronted by death, the notion of wit postures as a mechanism to disguise insecurities, with mortal suffering allowing the edification to renounce pride and form genuine emotional bonds. Although composed in vastly differing contexts, John Donne’s 17th century metaphysical poems and Margaret Edson’s late 20th century postmodern play W;t, retain significance through examining mortal fears to approach the spiritual processes necessary to gain acceptance of death.
In an attempt to mask the omnipresent fear of mortality, intellectualism allows individuals to gain a sense of control over immutable existential anxieties. Revered during the Age of Discovery, Donne’s employment of wit within his 17th century poetry serves to condone God’s arbitrary judgement, arguing the finality of death to offer solace of the afterlife. Within Death be not Proud, Donne circumvents the capabilities of death through the condescending apostrophe in the metaphysical conceit of sleep, ‘Die not, poor death nor yet canst thou kill me,’ depicting death as a transition into the spiritual afterlife, subverting longstanding apprehension towards human transience within Protestant scripture. Donne furthers the disempowerment of death in If Poisonous Minerals, engendering a prideful veneer through the argumentative structure in the biblical allusion, ‘if serpents envious cannot be damned,’ coupled with the rhetorical question, ‘why should I be?’ denoting Donne’s fear of damnation, implying inherent human qualities should not impede personal redemption. Similarly, despite composition in a secular context, Edson’s W;t explores how Vivian utilizes her academic prowess to conceal her impending demise during her taxing chemotherapy treatment. Paralleling Donne’s façade of intellect, Vivian’s ironic hyperbole describing how she knew, ‘all about life and death. I am…a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnet,’ establishes how the theoretical comprehension of death within her research-oriented milieu has hindered the ability to grasp the complexities of mortality as a tangible human emotion. Emphasizing the use of intellectualism to obscure mortal vulnerabilities, Vivian’s repetition when getting tested, ‘I have a Ph.D.’ conveys the use of academia to perpetuate a sense of hubris compensating for the fear regarding a terminal illness. Hence, the attempt to rationalize the abstract of death as a panacea for mortal suffering provides a temporary patronizing sense of certainty.
Moreover, potent confrontations with mortality force personal self-effacement, where an initial defense of arrogance is eroded by introspection, inciting subsequent redemption. The contextual Christian notions of suffering as penance is exemplified as Donne argues for God’s absolution in Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness, through the allusion to Jesus, ‘by these his thorn, give me his other crown,’ metaphorically representing the need to reconcile one’s sins through physical hardships. Donne renounces any skepticism of death in This is my Playes Last Scene, through the apostrophe to God, ‘impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,’ inferring the disavowal towards a supercilious stand towards God’s judgement, capturing contextual value for repentance to mitigate trauma within the Jacobean afterlife. Contrastingly, in W;t, Edson portrays Vivian’s suffering as a conduit for reflection to denounce her previous hubris. Provoking a renunciation of academic arrogance, the dramatization of Vivian’s physical pain through the stage direction, ‘writhing … screaming … cries,’ coupled with Vivian’s reflective tone after talking to Jason, ‘I wish I had given him an A,’ evokes a sense of regret, alluding to Donne’s recognition of physical suffering to resolve personal flaws, conveying the need to rectify sins to gain closure before the insuperability of death even within a secular context. Additionally, capturing the inability of theoretical concepts to console individuals facing death, the use of intertextuality when EM reads, ‘The Runaway Bunny,’ where the simplicities of the books symbolize how ephemeral suffering helps Vivian to reject her pride, realizing the necessity for genuine connection to attune to the inevitability of death. Thus, both texts highlight how the process of personal reappraisal when facing mortality catalyses in a spiritual metamorphosis, promoting religious or moral salvation contingent on a theological or humanistic context.
Furthermore, embracing death engenders the re-examination of prior relationships to understand inherent need for connection to aid in personal fulfillment. Realizing the capacity for spiritual connection in A Valediction: forbidding mourning, Donne’s conceit describing love as, ‘stiff twin compasses are two,’ explores the metaphysical synchronization of love, accentuating how intrinsic bonds transcend temporal displacement. Donne reinforces how these human connections reduce apprehension towards death in the humbling metaphor, ‘let us melt, and make no noise,’ suggesting a burgeoning acceptance of death facilitated by the fulfillment of a compassionate symbiotic relationship. However, Edson conveys how the innate desire for interpersonal relationships exacerbates Vivian’s existential anxiety due to the scholarly austerity that initially isolated her. Despite highly valued within the information era, Edson conveys how academic rigor is not analogous to self-worth in Vivian’s anaphora when contemplating her life, ‘now is a time for simplicity. Now it is time for … kindness,’ alluding to the emotional gratification embedded within the human condition. Similar to Donne’s representation of relationships to calm tensions regarding mortality, the stage direction, ‘[Vivian unwraps [the popsicle] and breaks it in half],’ metaphorically represents the enlightening comprehension towards the necessity of simple personal bonds, that triumphs over the restrictive medical ethics in Vivian’s depersonalised context, to harmonise with the otherwise unpalatable reality of death. Therefore, both texts underscore the universal need for connection during peak individual insecurities when approaching death to provide a sense of salvation.
Ultimately, the rationalisation of mortality consistently proves futile in contextual variances, with suffering and genuine human connections catalyzing an enlightened embrace of death. Donne and W;t recognize the necessity to dismantle intellectual wit, undergoing a didactic process to surrender one’s pride, resulting in a humbling acceptance of death.