Throughout most of the play and well into her cancer treatment, Vivian tries her best to be all business and never slip into sentimentality or weakness. This defense mechanism has clearly served her well all her life. Despite having no family or friends to speak of, she feels entirely fulfilled by her profession and her own self-sufficiency and intelligence. Further, the focus of her study—the sonnets of John Donne—centers around wit and intellectual puzzles more than the emotional aspect of poetry. And even as her treatment leaves her body in shambles and no friends or family come to visit her in the hospital, Vivian takes a rational, cut-and-dry approach to her diagnosis. “I know for a fact that I’m tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising. Never one to turn from a challenge.”
Vivian shares this attitude with Jason, the medical fellow who is assigned to her case, and who approaches Vivian as more of a research sample than a human being. At first, Vivian respects this about Jason (as well as about Dr. Kelekian, who oversees her treatment and Jason’s education in a no-nonsense manner). She is fine with—and perhaps even grateful for—the fact that her team of doctors lack a friendly bedside manner. She doesn’t want pity, hugs, and pats on the hand, and she doesn’t want to be patronized. Vivian sees her young self in Jason, especially when he claims that he wants to get his residency, “the part with the human beings,” out of the way so that he can move on to focusing on medical research. She, too, always cared more about her solo research than she did about her relationships, professional and otherwise.
Although at first Vivian admires Jason’s unrestrained pursuit of knowledge, as Vivian’s cancer worsens, Jason and Kelekian’s distance begins to make her feel lonely. As she puts it: “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.” This comment demonstrates that as her death approaches, Vivian, without losing any of her wit, has begun to set aside some of her blind rationality in order to make room in her heart for human connection—and a key aspect of this is simply recognizing the importance of emotion and human connection in life.
In what is perhaps her most vulnerable moment in the play, the dying Vivian calls for Susie, the head oncology nurse, in the middle of the night. Susie represents everything that Vivian, Jason, and Kelekian do not. Susie is kindhearted and interested in ensuring that her patients are comfortable and respected as humans more than anything else. She is portrayed as being smart but nonacademic, someone who can be sentimental and wants there to be some kind of meaning to life and death—very much the opposite of Vivian and Jason. That night, Susie brings Vivian a popsicle, which they share, and Vivian cries into her lap. This is a huge departure from Vivian’s actions in the beginning of the play, where she worked very hard to put on a strong face. Susie is the only person at the hospital who seems to truly value Vivian as a person, and at the end of her life, Vivian finds more comfort in this than she does in Jason and Kelekian’s facts and analysis.
Vivian’s evolution is further apparent when her former academic mentor, Dr. E. M. Ashford, visits her in the hospital. During the visit, E. M. asks Vivian if she might recite some Donne, and Vivian, in terrible pain, answers, “Noooo.” Instead, she has E. M. read from a children’s book, The Runaway Bunny, that E. M. had bought for her great-grandson. Vivian has had her fill of wit and rationality, and now longs for simplicity and kindness. In a touching moment, then, the two great scholars of Donne read a children’s book together until Vivian falls asleep. Rationality and intellect have their place, the play ultimately suggests, but in times of crisis kindness, emotion, and simple human connection are vital.
Rationality and Intellect vs. Emotion and Human Connection ThemeTracker
Rationality and Intellect vs. Emotion and Human Connection Quotes in Wit
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.
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.)