Academic Accomplishments as a Coping Mechanism in Wit

By: María Lucía Carrillo

“Academic Accomplishments as a Coping Mechanism in Wit”

Wit, by Margaret Edson, is a play with a particular capacity to touch its audience. The main character, Vivian Bearing, is diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer and has to undergo an exceptionally aggressive treatment. However, this is not the reason the play is so powerful. Although it might be unexpected for audiences at first, Vivian’s scholarship on Seventeenth Century poetry comes to be of great importance to the play and its impact. From the very first scene, right when the play starts, Vivian addresses the audience directly and proudly tells us how she has dedicated her life to literary scholarship. This is not only an introduction to the main character and an insight into her life, but it is a reoccurring, intentional element of the play. The psychological and obviously corporeal consequences Vivian faces as she goes through treatment, and as she becomes subject to medical study or “the clinical gaze,” lead her to turn to her scholarship to deal with the reality of her position. Vivian uses her accomplishments in academia as a defense mechanism for the physical and social vulnerability she suddenly has to experience. However, when Vivian becomes even more vulnerable as she is closer to death, she sees no option but to let go of the identity of the “outstanding scholar” she had been using as a shield.

In one of the first scenes of the play the audience is able to see how Vivian begins her journey as the patient of an eight-month treatment. Even from her very first exam, an x-ray, Vivian has already lost a great deal of agency over her own body as technicians position her, move things around her, and tell her what to do. Because of all this movement going on around her and none of it being generated by her, this scene provides a visual representation of her initial loss of control over her own body. Through the duration of the exam, Vivian lists her titles, her expertise in seventeenth century poet John Donne, and her contributions to literary scholarship. “As the cold, rushed, impersonal reality of hospital medicine becomes apparent” (Amanatullah 139), Vivian highlights her accomplishments as a way to validate her own existence. Vivian feels comfort in reminding herself, and the audience, about all she has done for academia because, as Yuan-Chin Chang explains, “without that constructed identity, she feels that she is nothing and that she has nothing to distinguish her from every other person in the world.” Without her constructed identity, her individuality is reduced to yet another body in the hospital. Vivian’s initial struggle with vulnerability is even more evident during her pelvic exam, which she describes as a “thoroughly degrading experience” (32). This is a particularly uncomfortable scene to read precisely because it shows the vulnerability of her body as well as the shift that comes from being the one teaching to being the one being studied, especially when this exam is conducted by one of her former students: Jason.

It is not only the shift in Vivian’s relationship with her health, but also her loss of power in a social and relational sense, that causes Vivian to cling fiercely to her scholarly identity. Vivian now has to face a different kind of vulnerability, one that she is not used to dealing with: vulnerability as it relates to knowledge. As a professor, Vivian had grown used to being at the very top of the hierarchical pyramid of authority. This is not only because Vivian held all the knowledge, but also because she held all the knowledge of a rather specific and complex subject matter. Moreover, the audience knows from details in the play, like Jason’s remarks or the flashbacks narrated by Vivian herself, that her class was particularly hard and she was a tough teacher–which she acknowledges with pride. During her time in the hospital, with others instructing her what to do all the time and drawing information from her body, Vivian starts to yearn for her own authority. As she starts to imagine what it would be like if she could still teach, Vivian says, “I could be so powerful” (48). The professor acknowledges, then, that she is no longer in the position to tell others what to do–she stopped being on top of the pyramid when she was no longer the smart one in the room. Immediately after saying this, Vivian engages in a fictional lecture where she thoroughly analyzes John Donne, shows off her scholarship in all its glory, and gets very upset when Susie, her nurse, tells her she has to head to a test; Vivian’s moment to fantasize about the power she used to have is interrupted. Vivian shows once again that when she has to face her lack of power, she resorts to her intellect to protect herself. 

In one of the flashbacks where Vivian shows her tenacity as a professor, we see a student challenge her by saying that perhaps John Donne talks about issues of life in a complicated way because he is actually scared of them–he is “hiding behind his wit” (60). What seems like an innocent remark made by one of the many students Vivian never took too seriously, turns out to be a very telling description of what our main character had been doing throughout the whole play.

But Vivian’s condition continues to critically worsen, and once Vivian realizes she is “ultimately sick” (53), she realizes that trying to be the tough one is no longer worth the effort. During Vivian’s most vulnerable moment so far, she goes out of her way to call Susie because she desperately wants company and human warmth. In this scene, the audience can see how Vivian lets go of all the walls she had been putting up around her. Vivian not only breaks down in front of Susie while saying out loud how powerless she feels, but she also surrenders to her nurse’s effort to comfort her. Vivian lets Susie call her “sweetheart” and allows herself to be treated like a child, even eating a popsicle with the nurse (4). This scene offers the ultimate contrast with her previous egocentric persona, showing how Vivian has changed in the face of death.  After Susie leaves, Vivian reflects about what her life has come to and has one of those moments of clarity that are said to come with the approach of a person’s death. Vivian says “[n]ow is not the time for verbal swordsplay, …for metaphysical conceit, for wit” (69). “I thought being extremely smart would take care of it,” says Vivian, “But I see that I have been found out” (70). Vivian finally embracing her state of vulnerability and, therefore, steering away from her “accomplished academic” identity, marks a new, different section of the play where the audience is able to see a shift in her attitude and cynical personality. Vivian now simply desires kindness.

The tension between human connection and scholarly ambition is one of the most important themes of the whole play. Both Vivian and Jason, her doctor and former student, experience this tension. Much like his professor who completely devoted her life to studying literature, Jason studies “science and ignore[s] the fact that life itself is just as important” (Amanatullah 141). Vivian, however, becomes aware of her decision and the audience witnesses her learn an important lesson about life. As Christine Gottlieb states, this lesson is “to recognize and accept ‘simple human truth’ which the play aligns with kindness, compassion, and grace. While cancer is the catalyst of Vivian’s reflection upon this lesson, the play’s flashbacks show that the lesson was there all along” (327). The flashbacks Gottlieb refers to occur early in the play, when Vivian reminisces about the time when Professor Ashford tried to make her younger self understand that not everything is about “relentless intellectual suspicion” (Gottlieb 329).  Professor Ashford tells Vivian that although academic curiosity and suspicion are important and are an indispensable part of what they do, they should not become a barrier between her and the simple truths of life: kindness and, ultimately, happiness. As argued here, the lesson flies over Vivian’s head then, and she actually does the exact opposite. Vivian puts a barrier between herself and the reality of life and death by dedicating her whole life, not only to academia, but also to rigorousness and strictness. Vivian, however, starts seeing Professor Ashford’s point with more clarity as the barrier between her own life and her own death becomes thinner and thinner. When this barrier is practically non-existent, Vivian finally declares “[n]ow is a time for simplicity” (69).

In a symbolic visual representation of her renunciation of all the identities she has been defending to cope with her terminal illness, Vivian stands on the stage after her death and lets go of all the layers that have covered her–her bracelet, her first and second medical gown (85). As Vivian stands completely naked in that last scene, she is no longer a professor, a doctor, or a researcher; she is just a human. Vivian has learned the lesson and the lights go out.

Vivian’s accomplishments might not be as impressive as her persistence to remind the audience about them. This evident effort is the result of Vivian hanging on to her life, as opposed to accepting her death, and focusing on what she built during it. During the play, readers are able to see how Vivian has to deal with the newly acquired vulnerability of her body and her mind. She had, throughout her life, worked to be in a position of authority and power–and she is no longer in it. The transition from being an outstanding scholar in the very specific realm of Seventeenth Century poetry to being just another body from which to withdraw medical data calls for a coping mechanism, which is why she resorts to the only thing she really has: her academic trajectory. In the end, however, the audience sees how she lets go of her cynical point of view and her identity to come to terms with the “simplicity” of death. 

Works Cited

Amanatullah, Derek F. “The Importance of a Physician’s Wit: A Critical Analysis of Science in Medicine.” Medical Scientists Training Program, no. 19, 2002, pp. 139-141. https://www.einstein.yu.edu/uploadedFiles/EJBM/19Amanatullah139.pdf

Chang, Yuan-Chin. “Constructed Identities, the Medical Gaze and Social Power Spaces in Margaret Edson’s Wit.” Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, vol. 9, no. 2, Aug. 2008. n.pg. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2010025332&site=ehost-live.

Edson, Margaret. Wit. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1999.

Gottlieb, Christine M. “Pedagogy and the Art of Death: Reparative Readings of Death and Dying in Margaret Edson’s Wit.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 39, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 327–329. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10912-015-9365.

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