The play Wit by Margaret Edson is a complex story about one woman’s last few hours alive, struggling against stage four ovarian cancer. In those hours we get to know her through important flashbacks about her life and work. Her name is Vivian Bearing, PhD, doctor of 17th century English Literature, specifically the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Early on, we meet Vivian’s mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford. These two women have their love for John Donne in common. This is where their similarity stops. Vivian led the life of the mind, becoming a university professor with no family ties. E.M. Ashford, while being a respected university professor, was able to have a family. Ashford shows up in a memory that Vivian shows us, when she is encouraging Vivian to look at Donne’s poetry differently. Ashford also appears at the end of the play as Vivian is succumbing to her disease. She comforts Vivian, offering to read her a story. I’d like to connect each woman’s approach to Donne and how that affects her life. I’ll argue that Vivian’s approach was altogether detrimental to her full understanding of Donne’s work because she had no life experiences, whereas Ashford’s understanding was fuller because she was studious and adventurous. I’ll aim to prove this statement in my essay.
From the beginning of play, Vivian’s character is presented as intelligent, quick-witted and sarcastic. Her sarcasm is bittersweet as she bluntly talks about the awful nature of chemotherapy. She starts her flashbacks with the scene of her doctor telling that she has cancer. No doubt, it is a life changing experience but I think that this scene sheds some light on Vivian’s approach to Donne. Vivian does not cry, she isn’t upset and the only emotion she really emits is shock. Her coping mechanism is words. During Kelekian’s speech, there are two lines of dialogue, one of Dr. Kelekian explaining the disease and one of Vivian’s, talking to the audience. Dr. Kelekian says, “The antineopaltic will inevitably effect some healthy cells,” while Vivian says, “Antineoplastic: Anti: against, Neo: new, Plastic: to mold, shaping. Antineoplastic: Against new shaping.” (Edson 9) Vivian is refusing to connect to the severity of what Kelekian is saying, opting instead to focus on the medical vocabulary.
The fact that words and the acquisition of the definitions of those words are her only connection to the world is seen more clearly in another flashback. She takes us back to her fifth birthday. Young Vivian chooses The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. This story has complicated language even though it is a children’s book. While reading, young Vivian attempts to read the word soporific and stumbles over the pronunciation. Her father defines the word, “Soporific, causing sleep.” (Edson 42) Vivian, as she continues to read, discovers “the illustration bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it. At the time, it seemed like magic.” (Edson 43)
From age five, Vivian has decided on a scholarly life. Scholarly work by definition is solitary but she defines herself by her acquisition of difficult words and literature, finally deciding on what some scholars say is the most difficult literature, the poetry of John Donne.
Vivian approaches Donne’s poetry at face value. She evaluates the words and from their meaning decides what the poem is about. Dr. Ashford, on the other hand attempts to emphasize the importance of punctuation and structure of the poem. “Nothing but a breath, a comma, separates life from life everlasting.” (Edson 14) Ashford’s meaning is resonant in this flashback as it is in the play. Vivian responds to Ashford’s assessment of Donne’s poem, “Life death…I see. It’s a metaphysical conceit. It’s wit!” (Edson 15) Ashford rebukes her, exclaiming that her understanding is completely wrong. Ashford tries to get Vivian to understand that what Donne says is truth.
Celia Wren, author of Attitude examines Wit and explains, “Wit is full of suffering, but, to its credit, nearly devoid of sentimentality. Juggling ideas about knowledge and authority, the rift between the sciences and humanities, the power of words, and other weighty matters, it often resembles a poem by Donne.” Wren goes on to quote T.S. Eliot, “A thought to Donne was an experience,” who believes that after the metaphysical poets, a wedge was placed between thought and feeling in the study of literature. (12) I believe division between thought and feeling defines Vivian’s study of Donne. She just cannot believe it is that easy. After her meeting with Ashford she muses, “the insuperable barrier between one thing and another is just a comma? Simple human truth, uncompromising scholarly standards? They’re connected? I just couldn’t….I went back to the library.” (Edson 15)
Vivian’s study is not wrong. She is very intelligent and probably knows every Donne poem by heart but because her study was started by words, that is all her study is going to be about, the definition of words. Meaning and definition are completely different things. This is why she cannot grasp what Ashford says. The words “life” and “death” have completely different definitions but their meanings are intertwined.
E.M. Ashford, though an uncompromising scholar of Vivian’s standards, understands how important it is to enjoy your life. Martha Green Eads relates the two women saying, “This glimpse of E.M. Ashford offers us hints about what Vivian Bearing could be: a woman whose keen scholarship enables her to see in Donne’s complex poetry lessons about life and eternity, God and the human soul.” (37) Ashford IS a Vivian of sorts. If Vivian could connect to the great meaning of things, perhaps by finding a God, she might be able to understand Donne better. Donne’s poetry is religious. Trying to approach it without a religious slat does it disservice.
At the end of the play when Vivian is nearly unconscious, Ashford comes to visit her. She curls up on the bed and offers to recite some Donne poetry. Vivian does not want to hear poetry, even quipping earlier that, “At the moment, however, I am disinclined to poetry.” (Edson 6) Instead Ashford reads her The Runaway Bunny, which she bought for her grandson. Ashford relates to The Runaway Bunny saying, “Look at that, a little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it.” (Edson 80) Eads remarks, “The elderly academic has demonstrated remarkable compassion, a striking ability to draw literary connections, and spiritual insight in one brief appearance.” (37)
Obviously E.M. Ashford is associated to The Runaway Bunny because though on the surface it is the story of a bunny that cannot seem to get away, its larger meaning is religious. No matter what the baby bunny tries to turn into, the mother bunny will do something to guide him back home. This book combined with her proximity to death, helps Vivian to, “grasp what lay in Donne all along- the promise of irresistible grace.” (Eads 37). Ashford has finally gotten Vivian to understand what she knew all along.
In conclusion, Vivian Bearing is a woman dying when she finally begins to understand her life’s work. She is an uncompromising scholar but cannot truly grasp Donne. Donne is too in depth for her, rift with many meanings that she does not have the emotional level to understand. Though she led the scholarly life, she had no human connection, no empathy for others. She holds everyone to the same degree she holds herself which is unrealistic outside of the classroom. E.M. Ashford connects to Donne using religion and life experience. She understands the meanings behind his work because she understands others. Therefore, Ashford understands Donne and it is because of her life experiences, not because she studied more or knew another word. To understand Donne’s poems, you have to be able to understand emotions, meanings and definitions. Without all three, a study is incomplete.
Edson, Margaret. “Wit.” Faber and Faber Inc. New York City, NY. Copyright 1993
Eads, Martha Greene. “Unwitting Redemption in Margaret Edson’s Wit,” Christianity and Literature 51, no. 2 (winter 2002): 241-54. Contemporary Literary Criticism 199 (2005): 1-73
Hunter, Jeffery W, ed. “Wit by Margaret Edson.” Contemporary Literary Criticism 199 (2005): 1-73
Wren, Celia. “Attitude.” Commonweal 126, no.2 (29 January 1999): 23-4. Contemporary Literary Criticism 199 (2005): 1-73