Wit demonstrates that words, despite their ability to define, describe, teach, inform, and comfort, often fall short. Vivian Bearing has devoted her life to the study of the written word. She is a scholar of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry, which is famous for its complicated vocabulary and mind-boggling examinations of life’s “big questions” (e.g., God, love, death). She has lived her whole life under the impression that her rigorous study of Donne’s language has the power to fulfill her (her scholarly work gives her success and a sense of purpose) and that it gives her a unique understanding of the world. Then she is diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Facing down her cancer, Vivian must confront her tendency to escape her life through language.
Before her cancer diagnosis, Vivian derived nearly all of her self-confidence from her ability to tease out meaning from Donne’s poems, which she claims “requires a capacity for scrupulously detailed examination.” She takes an enormous amount of pride in her work, to the extent that her self-worth is entirely based on her academic superiority. “Donne’s wit is…a way to see how good you are,” she says. “After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.” However, Vivian’s time spent climbing the ranks in academia comes at great cost; she has never prioritized having a personal life, which has left her alone in her time of crisis, without friends or family. She recalls that even as a young graduate student, and even despite her mentor Dr. E. M. Ashford advising her to spend time with her friends, she preferred to study at the library.
Once Vivian is diagnosed with cancer, she doesn’t immediately recognize that her love of language can be both a source of joy and a way to hide from reality. In the beginning of the play, Vivian clings to her fascination with words in order to cope with her cancer diagnosis and bring the measured coolness of her scholarly work into her personal life. For example, when Dr. Kelekian describes her cancer using the medical term “insidious,” Vivian zones out, focusing on the multiple meanings of the word “insidious” instead of taking in the harsh reality of the information Kelekian is providing.
On one hand, this coping mechanism helps Vivian to keep up her strength as she endures a horribly difficult experience. For instance, in a moment when the side effects of her treatment are making her extremely sick, she thinks of the situation as parallel to Donne. “My treatment imperils my health,” she says. “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.” In this scene, Vivian goes from thinking aloud in her hospital room to delivering a full-blown lecture, and the stage directions read “escaping” as she moves into the lecture flashback. She is escaping—back into her mind and the world of poetry, where things are safe and certain, which is comforting but also dangerous for Vivian. Escaping allows her to stay at arm’s length from her fate, and in doing so, it prevents her from addressing it head-on.
Vivian’s attempt to frame death as a solvable intellectual puzzle is ironic, given her own analysis of Donne’s poetry. Donne certainly wrestles with death and salvation, but he never comes to any conclusions—he gets lost in his own puzzle, and never finds a satisfying solution to his big questions. Thus Vivian’s story in some ways echoes the work she has spent her life studying—she must accept that wit and language alone can never “solve” the problem of death, but are simply another way to either face death or distract oneself from it.
As she approaches death and her body and mind begin to fail her, Vivian finds that she can rely less and less on her intellect—on her facility with language and poetry—for survival. Confronted with the gruesome, physical realities of the deathbed (rather than Donne’s abstract puzzles about death), she loses her ability to rationalize and must—perhaps for the first time—lead with her heart instead of her head. “I thought being extremely smart would take care of it,” she says. “But I see that I have been found out.” Language has been the great joy of Vivian’s life, but she must also recognize its limitations in the face of the reality of death.
Poetry and the Limitations of Language ThemeTracker
Poetry and the Limitations of Language 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.
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.)
(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.)