In Margaret Edson’s Wit, Vivian struggles with several major questions. As advanced metastatic ovarian cancer and the chemotherapy she endures to combat it eat away at her body and her strength, Vivian ponders the decisions she has made in her life. She replays events such as when she would berate an unprepared student, or when she would spend evenings in the library rewriting papers about John Donne and his Holy Sonnets instead of spending time with friends. At the end of her life, Vivian wonders if she worked too hard and failed to take joy in life’s more personal aspects. This becomes more apparent when the pain from her treatment and cancer becomes so overwhelming that she finds herself almost begging the Susie, Dr. Posner, Dr. Kelekian, and the rest of the medical staff for the attention and affection that she has denied most of the people in her life, particularly her students. We get to see a vivid contrast when her mentor, Professor E.M Ashford, comes to visit her. Like Vivian, Ashford was a great literary scholar. However she also managed to find time to have a family and enjoy herself. In one of the flashbacks, Ashford encourages Vivian to spend time with friends instead of rewriting a paper. When we see the healthy, happy, eighty year old Ashford tending to the dying fifty year old Vivian, Edson symbolically gives us her answer on who she thought chose a better approach to life.
Being that this dilemma is, in my opinion, the central conflict in the play, I think the Donne poetry included should be mainly focused on uncertainty facing death. The sonnets directly referenced in the play, numbers V, VI, and X achieve this with a great degree of success. The fifth sonnet focuses on self-analysis, with some parts seeming to describe Vivian’s character perfectly, such as when Donne says, “I am a little world made cunningly”, which I interpreted to describe how she had worked so hard to achieve the levels of intelligence and distinction that she had and to be the kind of person she had become, in terms of letting go of emotion. Donne goes on to describe a change in this “world”, saying, “Pour new seas into mine eyes… or wash it if it must be drowned no more But oh it must be burnt!”. To me, this fits into Vivian’s character development, in that she realizes she has failed to live her life to the fullest, and wants to change, but that this revelation has come too late. In the sixth sonnet, Donne basically describes the acceptance of death. This sonnet fits in well, as Vivian is forced to come to grips with the fact that her life could be ending soon, which really manifests itself when she asks Dr. Kelekian for a do not resuscitate order. Sonnet number ten is also appropriate to a certain extent, given the fact that it addresses the idea that there are worse things than death such as being “slave to fate, chance, and kings”. In the last days of her life, Vivian is for all intents and purposes, a slave to the painful treatments she is receiving, and she certainly accepts the view that death is preferable to insurmountable suffering when she requests the do not resuscitate order from Dr. Kelekian.
All of these sonnets work very well in the context of the play, which would suffer if any of them were removed. However, I believe that sonnet IX would make a positive contribution as an addition as opposed to a substitution. In it, Donne basically describes temptation and its effects, something that Vivian has probably dealt with in her life. When Donne says, “If poisonous minerals and if that tree Whose fruit threw death on immortal us”, the temptation he references is likely something regarding lust or gluttony, which differs from what Vivian gave into , which was overwork and a resistance to emotional intimacy. However the temptation still exists as a major concern she had to grapple with. The sonnet goes on to question whether or not giving into temptation was such a terrible sin, saying, “If lecherous goats, if serpents envious Cannot be damned, alas why should I be?”. This also applies to Wit, because it is very arguable whether or not Vivian really made a significant mistake by developing tunnel vision with regard to her work. I think that is a very relevant question, especially considering the fact that her particular vice failed to harm anyone, save perhaps the occasional embarrassed student. While I would not consider this sonnet to be equal to the three that are directly referenced in the play with regard to relevance and connectivity, I think it would provide a helpful insight to some of the thought process that Vivian was undergoing.