Wit deliberately does not come to an easy conclusion. Echoing John Donne, the play suggests that death, like life, love, and God, cannot be rationally understood—there is no “answer” to the big questions of life. Instead of trying to find an answer to death, Donne intentionally puzzled over it in his work, as if he were doing a Rubik’s cube with no intention of solving it. Vivian has achieved great acclaim in her field by studying Donne’s poetry, but before she is diagnosed with cancer, she seemingly approaches death as something that can be solved, with rigorous intelligence and wit. “I know all about life and death,” she says. “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.” This is ironic, considering that Donne’s “explorations” of death come to no satisfying conclusions, especially in the face of one’s own personal mortality. As Vivian’s cancer worsens, however, she comes to an understanding of Donne that she didn’t have before, despite her extensive research. She realizes that death cannot be experienced or understood in the abstract. In Donne’s poetry, death is something to be considered and reconsidered—it is something to be analyzed. But in life, death is painful, irrational, and difficult to face—yet it must be faced, because it is unavoidable.
As Vivian says about one of Donne’s poems about death: “The speaker of the sonnet has a brilliant mind and he plays the part convincingly, but in the end he finds God’s forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide.” In other words, Vivian here recognizes that Donne’s poem resists the notion that there is salvation in God’s forgiveness, and so instead of fighting to find a resolution to his qualms and questions, he avoids them. This moment in the poem goes still deeper, because it is also an example of Donne’s use of dramatic irony. A reader of Donne here might feel let down, perhaps even surprised, that the great poet cannot resolve his life’s biggest question. However, that effect is precisely what Donne is going for, because it lets him drive home his deeper point: that death answers to no one.
In another of Vivian’s flashbacks, she is lecturing her students about this very topic. “So we have another instance of John Donne’s agile wit at work; not so much resolving the issues of life and God as reveling in their complexity.” One of her students in this flashback hits the nail on the head, both in terms of analyzing Donne’s dramatic irony and unknowingly remarking on one of Vivian’s fatal flaws as a person. “I think it’s like he’s hiding. I think he’s confused, I don’t know, maybe he’s scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides behind his wit.” Vivian acknowledges that there’s something to this argument, but when the student later trails off in his explanation she avoids pursuing it. It’s only in her flashback that she seems to really consider the validity of the point.
Jason, too, seems to be preoccupied with complexity in his cancer research. Although he certainly hopes to find a cure to cancer, his passion largely comes from the fact that cancer is “awesome…You grow cancer cells, and they never stop. No contact inhibition whatsoever. They just pile up, just keep replicating forever…It’s an error in judgment, in a molecular way, but why?... Smartest guys in the world, with the best labs, best funding—they don’t know what to make of it.” Jason is awed by the complicated nature of cancer—which is somewhat horrifying, considering cancer’s devastating effects on real human beings—just as Vivian is awed by the complicated wit of metaphysical poetry. Each of them approaches their respective subject as a kind of puzzle that no one else can figure out, rather than acknowledging that cancer and metaphysical poetry both deal with subjects that are largely unknowable, and both entirely resist conclusion.
Vivian’s lifetime of studying Donne seemed to her at the time like she was confronting hard questions, confronting death. But by the end of the play, she turns away from a quest for resolution, for meaning, from “hiding behind wit,” and seeks instead to accept the unknowability of things and find comfort in simple human connection. The reader, too, is left to ponder the outcomes of Vivian’s life. She walks into a blinding light on stage—suggesting, but not explaining—death and afterlife. These final moments are peaceful and they hint at the idea that if death is unknowable, perhaps there is something just as unknowable beyond it.
Wit, Death, and Meaning ThemeTracker
Wit, Death, and Meaning 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.
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.)
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.)