Vivian ushers the audience back in time to the moment of her cancer diagnosis, saying that the moment was unforgettable. At his desk in the hospital office, Dr. Harvey Kelekian, a fellow professor and her head oncologist (cancer doctor), is explaining that she has stage-four ovarian cancer. When he calls her cancer an “insidious adenocarcinoma,” Vivian—in dialogue with the doctor, no longer narrating to the audience—fixates on the word “insidious.” Kelekian explains that its medical usage means “undetectable,” but Vivian notes that the word generally means “treacherous.”
Immediately Vivian is established as someone who focuses on the details and nuances of language, often to the detriment of her own real-world experience. Kelekian is giving her life-altering information here, but she zeroes in on his word choice. Depending on how the character is directed or played onstage, this could either show Vivian’s naïveté and distance from reality, or her fearful response to Kelekian’s news and consequent desire to retreat to a realm that is comfortable and secure for her—the world of words.
Dr. Kelekian asks if he 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 him, remarking on his “curious word choice” and resolving to research cancer for herself (“Must get some books, articles. Assemble a bibliography”). Kelekian says that Vivian will be hospitalized for her treatments and thoroughly monitored, but that the treatment will “inevitably affect some healthy cells.”
Kelekian’s words seem objective and rational, but they are essentially euphemisms when compared to the reality of human experience—“affect some healthy cells” seems like a paltry explanation of the brutal experience Vivian is about to have. Tellingly, Vivian approaches her cancer treatment like it’s an academic assignment (“assemble a bibliography”). At this point she is still trying to stay in her comfort zone, and treats her own mortality like a piece of scholarship she can study and “solve.”
Though Vivian tries to focus on what Kelekian is saying, she continues drifting into ruminations on the specific words he uses. However, when he says that he is “relying on” her to cope with “some of the more pernicious side effects” of the treatment, she seems alarmed.
Again Vivian focuses on Kelekian’s language, as if he were reciting a poem she must analyze rather than giving her direct information about her own health. At the same time, Vivian’s mastery of language lets her see through some of the clinical euphemisms Kelekian uses.
When Dr. Kelekian is finished speaking, Vivian commends him on his thoroughness, which leads them to discussing their respective experiences as university professors. Vivian and Kelekian have a lot in common, despite their differing academic focuses. “‘Thoroughness’—I always tell my students, but they are constitutionally averse to painstaking work,” Vivian says. The two commiserate over the fact that their students don’t have the work ethic that they do.
Edson presents Vivian and Kelekian as similar figures when the play begins—both are consummate professionals, experts in their respective fields, and teachers who prioritize intellectual rigor and hard work in their students. It’s suggested that neither character has much sympathy for those who can’t keep up.
Dr. Kelekian suggests that Vivian not teach next semester due to the severity of her diagnosis and her treatment plan, but she says that this is “out of the question.” Kelekian emphasizes that she will be cycling between exhaustion and hospitalization, which doesn’t persuade her. He then explains that her treatment, which is part of a research study on the “strongest” treatment available, “will make a significant contribution to our knowledge.” Vivian acknowledges this and immediately signs the informed consent form the doctor gives her.
Vivian doesn’t give a second thought to signing the form once she learns that her treatment will aid with research and the general pursuit of knowledge. The problem is that she is still treating her illness like an academic issue, and can’t yet accept that this “strongest” treatment will be extremely brutal, both physically and mentally.
Dr. Kelekian asks Vivian if there is anyone that he should call—a friend or family member who might want to be involved in the process of her cancer treatment—and she says that it won’t be necessary. He then warns her that the study depends on her taking the full chemotherapy dose, even if the side effects make her wish for a lesser dose. He asks her if she can be “very tough,” and she tells him not to worry.
Throughout the rest of the play, Vivian never discusses any of her personal friends or family members (except for her deceased parents), suggesting that she doesn’t have any. She is in this alone—but she’s used to being alone, and that has never been a problem before. This experience will be different, however.
Vivian addresses the audience, again as the narrator. She lays out what she has understood from the doctor’s explanation, saying that she has “insidious cancer with pernicious side effects,” but correcting herself to note that the treatment, not the cancer, has such side effects. “I have to be very tough,” she says. “It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death.” Vivian claims to know “all about life and death” because she is a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, poems that “explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.” She also knows that she’s tough because she’s an “uncompromising” professor who is up for any challenge, which is why she chose to study Donne in the first place.
The notion of the treatment being just as harmful as the illness is a paradox that will come up later in the play, as well. Vivian’s statement here shows her hubris as the play’s action begins. She thinks she is an expert on death because she is an expert on Donne, who wrestled with death in his works. Further, she assumes that because she is “uncompromising” as a scholar and teacher, then she is also “tough” enough physically to handle this aggressive chemotherapy. All of these assumptions will eventually be proven wrong.
Vivian then ushers the audience into another flashback, in which she is a twenty-two-year-old graduate student approaching her mentor, Professor E. M. Ashford, who is fifty-two at the time. E. M. tells Vivian that she needs to redo a recent paper—that she has missed the point of Donne’s sonnet “Death be not proud” completely. “You must begin with a text, Miss Bearing, not a feeling,” E. M. says. She explains Vivian’s misunderstanding by noting that the version of the sonnet that Vivian used for the paper was, according to E. M., “inauthentically punctuated,” which is a matter that cannot be taken lightly in the study of poetry.
Periodic flashbacks throughout the play help flesh out Vivian’s character, and once again she plays the role of omniscient narrator as well as unwitting character. E. M. was clearly an influential figure for Vivian, as she seems to have instilled in her the very high academic standards Vivian now holds. In Donne, every mark of punctuation is crucial, and because of this E. M. makes Vivian rewrite her entire paper. Note also the phrase, “begin with a text…not a feeling”—Vivian is learning to study poetry in a solely rational and intellectual rather than emotional manner.
E. M. explains that the incorrect punctuation puts too much of a barrier between 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 forces, melodramatic in their conflict. “If you go for this sort of thing,” E. M. jokes, “I suggest you take up Shakespeare.” In the version E. M. approves of, life and death are divided only by a mere comma—“nothing but a breath.” Vivian claims that she understands now—“it’s wit!”—but E. M. says, “It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth.”
This is an important point, and the lines of poetry quoted here recur later in the play. Vivian sees this thin line, “nothing but a breath,” between life and death as a kind of intellectual game—“it’s wit!” The older and wiser E. M., however, reminds her student that the line is also talking about reality—“it is truth.” Vivian doesn’t learn this lesson until much later in life, however, when there really is only “a breath” between her life and death.
Before Vivian leaves, E. M. suggests to her that she should go out with her friends instead of going back to the library, saying, “The paper isn’t the point.” Vivian tries to take her advice, claiming that she “went outside…There were students on the lawn, talking about nothing, laughing,” but she is too tied up in her realizations about commas and exclamation marks to care, and she goes back to the library to redo the assignment.
E. M. tries to make her point clearer—she is teaching a lesson beyond the classroom, about living one’s “truth” rather than just analyzing it on the level of language alone. The older Vivian then admits, rather wistfully it seems, that she didn’t understand or take her mentor’s advice. This brief scene then suggests how much of the rest of Vivian’s academic career has progressed: she has always chosen the library over friends, and wit over truth.