Wit is partly a critique of the medical profession and academia, as both pursuits encourage a focus on a narrow specialty at the expense of big-picture concerns and individual relationships. Vivian’s studies focus entirely on language and the mind, while her doctors’ work focuses entirely on the body, and the play argues that in their pursuit of knowledge, both Vivian and her doctors neglect the personal and emotional needs of those around them, remaining detached from other people in an often harmful way.
Wit takes on this theme from the very first lines of the play, which are “How are you feeling today?” This is what the doctors say every time that they enter Vivian’s hospital room, and she tells the audience, “I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.” This is Vivian’s wry acknowledgement of the fact that this question, which the doctors repeat like a broken record, doesn’t come from a place of concern for her feelings at all. Rather, it is a rote embodiment of “bedside manner,” or “clinical” (i.e., clinical skills), which is the set of conversational and behavioral guidelines that medical professionals are trained to follow when they interact with their patients.
Jason—a resident who is overseeing Vivian’s treatment—isn’t unkind to Vivian, but his interactions with her are never personal. Once, even though she is at her very sickest (she’s trembling from fever and is in isolation because her immune system is so compromised), Jason enters her hospital room, and “going right to the graph on the wall,” he starts complaining about how he has to change into a sterile uniform in order to check on her. Suddenly remembering his obligation to bedside manner, he corrects himself. “Oh, Jeez. Clinical. Professor Bearing. How are you feeling today?”
To complain about putting on rubber gloves to a terminal cancer patient with a 104-degree fever is tone-deaf at best, and it’s symptomatic of Jason’s myopic focus on research throughout the play. Once, when Vivian’s empathetic nurse Susie suggests that Vivian take a lower and less traumatic dose of her cancer treatment, Jason rejects the suggestion and claims that Vivian can handle it, by which he means that if they lessened the dosages, his study would be wrecked. He even expresses that he wishes all terminal cancer patients would decide to try this miserable full-throttle treatment so that he and other doctors could accrue more data. Jason’s rationality makes him an excellent researcher, but it also means that his approach to medicine lacks compassion and empathy. His patients are just bodies for him to study.
That said, Jason’s reaction to Vivian’s death demonstrates a growing awareness that his attitude toward his profession has been misguided. Vivian eventually files a “do-not-resuscitate” order, which means that when her heart stops, the doctors are not supposed to try to revive her. However, when her heart stops in the last scene of the play, Jason ignores these orders and calls for a resuscitation team in order to continue his study. “She’s DNR!” Susie yells at him. “She’s research!” Jason replies.
The resuscitation team shocks Vivian’s body with a defibrillator—a traumatic and painful experience for the body—but when they realize that the call was an error, they stop trying and they’re furious at Jason for ignoring a patient’s wishes. In this moment, Jason seems to realize the monstrosity of his actions. He slumps over, saying “Oh, god…” and the implication is that he is revaluating his entire approach to medicine. He is confronted with the fact that he valued Vivian’s body for its research potential over her humanity, and he seems to understand that pure rationality and professional ambition aren’t always the right approach.
Jason’s arc from rigid professionalism to a turn towards empathy echoes Vivian’s own transformation from someone possessed by a relentless scholarly drive to a more empathetic and emotional person. Her illness helps her realize how blind she has been to the human element of scholarship—as illustrated in the flashbacks showing her treating her students coldly, and her regret that she lacked empathy during these interactions—and her situation ultimately helps her doctors see that their care lacks compassion toward their patients’ human dignity.
Empathy vs. Professional Detachment ThemeTracker
Empathy vs. Professional Detachment Quotes in Wit
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
(The bedside scene fades.)