Wit

by

Margaret Edson

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Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. Character Analysis

Vivian is a fifty-year-old professor of English who specializes in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. She has stage-four ovarian cancer, and she is the play’s narrator and protagonist. As a professor, she is infamously tough, and as a scholar, she is unrelenting in her pursuit of knowledge. However, she has prioritized her academic career over everything else and doesn’t have any friends or family to speak of. At the time of her diagnosis, Vivian seems to believe she can solve her cancer like an academic problem, resolving to research and build bibliographies while only vaguely paying attention to the dire words of her oncologist, Dr. Kelekian. She agrees to participate in an experimental drug trial because her doctor reminds her that, despite the awful side effects, her participation will contribute to cancer research. Over the course of the play, though, as Vivian suffers tremendously from her loneliness and from the brutal side effects of her treatment, she begins to question her prioritization of knowledge and research. The doctors—who share her emphasis on research over human connection—don’t see her as a human being, which magnifies her suffering and loneliness, and she realizes that she hasn’t made meaningful connections with people, nor done much good for others. Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan, is the only person who treats her with dignity and kindness. Before she dies, Vivian realizes that she should have valued kindness more throughout her life instead of focusing so single-mindedly on her work.

Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. Quotes in Wit

The Wit quotes below are all either spoken by Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. or refer to Vivian Bearing, Ph.D.. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Poetry and the Limitations of Language Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of Wit published in 1999.
Scene 2 Quotes

VIVIAN: (Hesitantly) I should have asked more questions, because I know there’s going to be a test.

I have cancer, insidious cancer, with pernicious side effects—no, the treatment has pernicious side effects.

I have stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five. Oh, and I have to be very tough. It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death.

I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.

And I know for a fact that I am tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising. Never one to turn from a challenge. That is why I chose, while a student of the great E. M. Ashford, to study Donne.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker), Harvey Kelekian, M.D.
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

[E. M.]: Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points… Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.

VIVIAN: Life, death…I see. (Standing) It’s a metaphysical conceit. It’s wit! I’ll go back to the library and rewrite the paper—

E. M.: (Standing emphatically) It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. (Walking around the desk to her) The paper’s not the point.

VIVIAN: It isn’t?

E. M.: (Tenderly) Vivian. You’re a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker), E. M. Ashford, D. Phil. (speaker)
Page Number: 14-15
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 3 Quotes

To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political, and mythological allusions, Donne’s wit is…a way to see how good you really are.

After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker), Technicians
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 4 Quotes

You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon.

God, I’m going to barf my brains out.

(She begins to relax.) If I actually did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline. Of course, not a few of my colleagues would be relieved. To say nothing of my students.

It’s not that I’m controversial. Just uncompromising. Ooh— (She lunges for the basin. Nothing) Oh. (Silence) False alarm. If the word went round that Vivian Bearing had barfed her brains out…

Well, first my colleagues, most of whom are my former students, would scramble madly for my position. Then their consciences would flare up, so to honor my memory they would put together a collection of their essays about John Donne.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 6 Quotes

VIVIAN: It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific.

The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!

(She stands up, and MR. BEARING exits.)

The illustration bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it. At the time, it seemed like magic.

So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me: ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, tergiversation.

Medical terms are less evocative. Still, I want to know what the doctors mean when they…anatomize me. And I will grant that in this particular field of endeavor they possess a more potent arsenal of terminology than I. My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker), Mr. Bearing
Page Number: 43-44
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 7 Quotes

I am not in isolation because I have cancer, because I have a tumor the size of a grapefruit. No. I am in isolation because I am being treated for cancer. My treatment imperils my health.

Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it, because paradox is too difficult to understand. Think of it as a puzzle, I would tell them, an intellectual game.

(She is trapped.) Or, I would have told them. Were it a game. Which it is not.

(Escaping) If they were here, if I were lecturing: How I would perplex them! 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.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker)
Page Number: 47-48
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 9 Quotes

In everything I have done, I have been steadfast, resolute—some would say in the extreme. Now, as you can see, I am distinguishing myself in illness.

I have survived eight treatments of Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity. Kelekian and Jason are simply delighted. I think they foresee celebrity status for themselves upon the appearance of the journal article they will no doubt write about me.

But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries. It will be about my periotoneal cavity, which, despite their best intentions, is now crawling with cancer.

What we have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks.

Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 10 Quotes

VIVIAN: (Getting out of bed, without her IV) So. The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. 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.

Now I suppose we shall see, through a series of flashbacks, how the senior scholar ruthlessly denied her simpering students the touch of human kindness she now seeks.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker), Jason Posner, M.D., Students
Page Number: 58-59
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 12 Quotes

Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.

And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.

(Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.

(Searchingly) I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out. Ooohh.

I’m scared. Oh, God. I want…I want…No. I want to hide. I just want to curl up in a little ball. (She dives under the covers.)

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker), Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N.
Related Symbols: The Popsicle
Page Number: 69-70
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 13 Quotes

(VIVIAN concentrates with all her might, and she attempts a grand summation, as if trying to conjure her own ending.)

And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semicolon.

Death—capital D—thou shalt die—ex-cla-mation point!

(She looks down at herself, looks out at the audience, and sees that the line doesn’t work. She shakes her head and exhales with resignation.)

I’m sorry.

Related Characters: Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (speaker)
Page Number: 72-73
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 16 Quotes

SUSIE: (Pushing them away from the bed) Patient is no code. Get away from her!

(SUSIE lifts the blanket. VIVIAN steps out of the bed.

CODE TEAM HEAD: (Reading) Do Not Resuscitate. Kelekian. Shit.

She walks away from the scene, toward a little light.

(The CODE TEAM stops working.)

She is now attentive and eager, moving slowly toward the light.

JASON: (Whispering) Oh, God.

She takes off her cap and lets it drop.

CODE TEAM HEAD: Order was put in yesterday.

She slips off her bracelet.

CODE TEAM: —It’s a doctor fuck-up.

—What is he, a resident?

—Got us up here on a DNR.

—Called a code on a no-code.

She loosens the ties and the top gown slides to the floor. She lets the second gown fall.

The instant she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light—

JASON: Oh, God.

Lights out.)

(The bedside scene fades.)

Page Number: 84-85
Explanation and Analysis:
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Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. Character Timeline in Wit

The timeline below shows where the character Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. appears in Wit. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Scene 1
Poetry and the Limitations of Language Theme Icon
Vivian Bearing begins the play onstage in a hospital gown, pushing an IV pole. She is... (full context)
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Vivian undertakes a brief grammatical analysis of possible responses to the question, adding that she is... (full context)
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Vivian addresses the fact that she is narrating a play, saying that irony is a literary... (full context)
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Vivian says, “It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I... (full context)
Scene 2
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Vivian ushers the audience back in time to the moment of her cancer diagnosis, saying that... (full context)
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...should continue, and he uses complicated medical language to describe the experimental chemotherapy treatment that Vivian will receive. While the doctor gives a monologue about treatment, Vivian—narrating her inner thoughts—talks over... (full context)
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Though Vivian tries to focus on what Kelekian is saying, she continues drifting into ruminations on the... (full context)
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When Dr. Kelekian is finished speaking, Vivian commends him on his thoroughness, which leads them to discussing their respective experiences as university... (full context)
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Dr. Kelekian suggests that Vivian not teach next semester due to the severity of her diagnosis and her treatment plan,... (full context)
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Dr. Kelekian asks Vivian if there is anyone that he should call—a friend or family member who might want... (full context)
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Vivian addresses the audience, again as the narrator. She lays out what she has understood from... (full context)
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Vivian then ushers the audience into another flashback, in which she is a twenty-two-year-old graduate student... (full context)
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...Donne’s analysis of “life” and his analysis of “death.” In the version of the text Vivian used, a semicolon, capital letters, and exclamation points signify that life and death are opposing... (full context)
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Before Vivian leaves, E. M. suggests to her that she should go out with her friends instead... (full context)
Scene 3
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Vivian is fifty again, and back at the hospital, this time getting a chest x-ray. A... (full context)
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...technicians ask her to raise and lower various parts of her body, turn sideways, etc., Vivian introduces herself in a self-aggrandizing manner: “I have made an immeasurable contribution to the discipline... (full context)
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Vivian continues to speak about herself and her accomplishments even as the various technicians enter and... (full context)
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Vivian’s train of thought is interrupted by a technician who is looking for her wheelchair—a shift... (full context)
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Vivian then introduces the concept of “wit,” which she says is a pillar of Donne’s poetic... (full context)
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Susie has now helped Vivian sit on the exam table, and Jason Posner, a young medical fellow under Dr. Kelekian,... (full context)
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Jason, who seems nervous, starts to ask Vivian some questions about her medical history. Vivian notes that Dr. Kelekian already did this, but... (full context)
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Jason then asks Vivian about how her “present complaint” started, and Vivian describes a gradually growing pain in her... (full context)
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Jason, growing more nervous and flustered, prepares Vivian for her physical exam. He puts her legs in stirrups and places a paper sheet... (full context)
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Susie seems upset that Jason left Vivian alone in the stirrups, but Jason interrupts her and begins the pelvic exam. As he... (full context)
Scene 4
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Several weeks or months have passed, and Vivian describes her treatment to the audience. She says she is “learning to suffer” and has... (full context)
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Vivian comments on her own devolving vocabulary, and says she feels like she’s going to “barf... (full context)
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Susie enters and measures the basin, and then asks Vivian if she’s okay “all by [her]self here.” Susie comments on how Vivian hasn’t gotten many... (full context)
Scene 5
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Vivian addresses the audience, saying that “in this dramatic structure you will see the most interesting... (full context)
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Vivian then introduces the scene—a Friday morning, “Grand Rounds”—and says “Action.” Dr. Kelekian, Jason, and four... (full context)
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As Jason finishes his description, Vivian remarks to herself, “excellent command of details.” Dr. Kelekian then gives Jason this same compliment,... (full context)
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...over, the fellows leave, but Kelekian stops Jason and reminds him, “Clinical.” Jason then thanks Vivian, and then he and Kelekian leave her “with her stomach uncovered.” Vivian gets up and... (full context)
Scene 6
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“It was my fifth birthday,” Vivian says, as she enters a flashback. Mr. Bearing, her father, is reading a newspaper while... (full context)
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The flashback ends (and Mr. Bearing exits), and Vivian discusses what felt so magical about this moment—“the illustration bore out the meaning of the... (full context)
Scene 7
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At the hospital, Susie supports a clearly suffering Vivian. Vivian says she was at home reading and then suddenly felt terrible, so she decided... (full context)
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Susie gives Jason the stats on Vivian’s vitals, and suggests that Kelekian should lower the dose for the next cycle of chemo.... (full context)
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...a while Kelekian and Jason enter, both of them with surgical masks. Kelekian talks to Vivian, and says she’s “doing swell.” She is going to be isolated for a couple of... (full context)
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Jason comes in to Vivian’s room, complaining to himself about how much prep he has to do just to come... (full context)
Scene 8
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Vivian stands and removes her IV, “as if conjuring a scene.” She starts to deliver a... (full context)
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A screen lowers behind her, and on it is projected Donne’s sonnet “If poysonous mineralls.” Vivian reads the sonnet aloud, and then discusses it. In her analysis, the speaker of the... (full context)
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Susie comes in, interrupting Vivian to say that the doctors want her to have another ultrasound. Vivian resists, saying “not... (full context)
Scene 9
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Vivian sits in her wheelchair and recites a Donne poem about death. She then tells the... (full context)
Scene 10
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Vivian goes to her bed and says her line about being relieved to get back to... (full context)
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Jason turns to go, but Vivian stops him, “trying to ask something important.” She hesitates, and Jason worries that she is... (full context)
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Vivian asks if Jason has any theories about curing cancer, and he says he’s mostly waiting... (full context)
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Vivian gets out of bed and addresses the audience, commenting on how “the young doctor, like... (full context)
Scene 11
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Students enter, and Vivian addresses them as a class. She singles out one student and asks him a question... (full context)
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Vivian addresses the class again, commenting on how Donne doesn’t try to resolve the issues of... (full context)
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Next Vivian says she remembers overhearing two students making fun of her after a lecture. She had... (full context)
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Next a student interrupts Vivian and asks for an extension on an assignment. Vivian guesses that the student’s grandmother died,... (full context)
Scene 12
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Vivian is in bed at the hospital late at night and tells the audience that she... (full context)
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Vivian tells Susie that she can’t figure things out this time—she’s in a “quandary”—and she feels... (full context)
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Susie returns with a two-stick orange popsicle, and Vivian breaks it in half and offers Susie the other part. Susie sits by the bed... (full context)
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Susie then says they need to talk about something—Vivian’s cancer isn’t going away. The treatment has made the tumor get smaller, but the cancer... (full context)
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Susie says Vivian now has to think about her “code status”—what to do if her heart stops. If... (full context)
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Susie leaves and Vivian addresses the audience, remarking on how “corny” her life has become, with things like popsicles... (full context)
Scene 13
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Vivian wakes up in pain and addresses the audience. She says she wants to explain how... (full context)
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...enters, and says she’s paged Kelekian. Kelekian enters, and Susie says they need to give Vivian “Patient-Controlled Analgesic”—a pump so that Vivian can control how much pain medicine she receives in... (full context)
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Kelekian orders a morphine drip, going against Susie’s suggestion of Patient-Controlled medication. He tells Vivian they’re going to help her through this, and then leaves. Vivian addresses the audience, her... (full context)
Scene 14
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Vivian lies down as Susie injects morphine into her IV. Vivian says, “I trust this will... (full context)
Scene 15
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Jason and Susie discuss Vivian as they enter, and Jason comments on how Vivian was a great lecturer. He says... (full context)
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Jason comments on how Vivian has undergone a treatment so aggressive he didn’t think it was possible. Susie says she... (full context)
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...the time or you’d go nuts.” Susie is unsure and thoughtful, and she lingers with Vivian after Jason leaves. (full context)
Scene 16
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Professor E. M. Ashford, who is now 80 years old, enters Vivian’s hospital room. Vivian wakes up, confused, and speaks in a slurred way. E. M. says... (full context)
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E. M. offers to recite some Donne, but Vivian moans “nooooooo.” E. M. then takes a children’s book out of her bag: The Runaway... (full context)
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Jason enters, asking Vivian “How are you feeling today?” without looking at her. He checks her vitals and realizes... (full context)
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Susie enters and yells at Jason for calling a code, reminding him that Vivian is “Do Not Resuscitate.” Jason protests, saying, “She’s Research!” Susie grabs Jason and throws him... (full context)
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...code team sweeps in, knocks Susie out of the way, and starts trying to resuscitate Vivian. Susie tries to stop them and cancel the code, but they ignore her. A loudspeaker... (full context)
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The code team head asks Susie “Who the hell are you?” and demands to see Vivian’s chart, and they realize that Kelekian indeed put in an order that she was no... (full context)