What Vivian Bearing might need to learn is how to experience life physically. Remember, Vivian is an exacting and esteemed John Donne scholar. Her remarkable knowledge of the English metaphysical poet has given her vivid insight into life and death since living and dying are key themes for Donne. Yet now Vivian must learn about life and death not from poetry but from her own body. She must learn how to deal with the physical phenomenon of pain, suffering, and death. As Vivian discovers, reading about pain and suffering in poems and confronting it in one’s own material body requires different skills.
Vivian must also learn that there are other types of knowledge. Vivian sometimes acts like she has a monopoly on knowledge. She’s the arbiter of who’s smart and who isn’t. When Vivian uses the word “soporific,” her nurse doesn’t know what it means. Vivian laughs at Susie, her nurse, for not understanding the term. Yet Susie knows other things, like how to care for a cancer patient. Though Vivian calls Susie “not very sharp,” without Susie’s expertise in nursing, Vivian would be in trouble.
In Vivian’s own words, she has to learn that there is a time for “simplicity” and “kindness.” She has to learn that as tough and demanding as she can be when it comes to scholarship and teaching, such an approach isn’t going to scare off cancer. In a sense, she has to learn that she’s not invincible.