In Wit, Vivian is concerned with mortality—both the mortality of her physical body and of her body of scholarly work. Even as her health is failing her, she thinks of how her work will survive her, since she will be remembered for her contributions to the field of seventeenth-century poetry. However, as her death looms nearer, she must confront the fact that she has failed to make meaningful personal connections in her life, and that no earthly achievement, no matter how grand or long-lasting, can replace a legacy of kindness. Ultimately, the play comes to the conclusion that, although Vivian will be remembered for her brains, her articles, and her scholarship, she will not be remembered as a loving friend or family member—and this is the great tragedy of her life.
Vivian first tries to make her illness meaningful in the same way she made her career meaningful, by emphasizing that her suffering is contributing to Jason and Dr. Kelekian’s research. She is undergoing a new type of aggressive cancer treatment that will inform a prestigious study, and she is therefore a “prized patient,” which makes her feel that, like her scholarly work, the research study will outlive her. “I am distinguishing myself in illness,” she jokes. “I have become something of a celebrity. Dr. 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.”
However, as she gets sicker and sicker and Jason and Kelekian’s bedside manner remains impersonal and detached, Vivian begins to understand an ugly part of her past self. As a healthy professor, Vivian believed that her unrelenting approach toward education (for example, obliquely accusing a student of fibbing about a grandparent’s death to get an extension on a paper) was in her students’ best interest. However, looking back on her life from her deathbed, she regrets that she wasn’t more compassionate toward her students when they struggled. She starts to realize that in the face of the realities of life (like the death of a student’s grandparent), sometimes simple kindness is more important than a rigorous pursuit of knowledge. “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay,” Vivian says, speaking on her own crisis in a moment of departure from her former self. “For unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis… Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness.”
When faced with death, Vivian recognizes for perhaps the first time that there is more to existence than scholarly articles and the continuation of knowledge and research. Speaking of Jason and Kelekian’s research on her treatment, she says, “The article will not be about me. It will be about my ovaries…What has become of me, is, in fact, just the specimen jar.” Notably, in her last days Vivian reaches out to Susie, her compassionate but non-academic nurse, far more than Jason or Kelekian, her brilliant but detached doctors. Susie provides Vivian with the things that she finally realizes are just as important as intellect and drive: kindness and comfort. Unfortunately, it is only when faced with her own immediate mortality that Vivian is able to recognize this crucial aspect of the human experience.
Kindness and Mortality ThemeTracker
Kindness and Mortality Quotes in Wit
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.
[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?
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.)