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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

Professor E. M. Ashford
E. M. Ashford is a professor of English literature and a graduate school mentor to Vivian Bearing. Ashford is responsible for having guided Bearing through her studies of John Donne's poetry. It is also through Ashford that the audience first hears lines from Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud," a pronounced theme of this play. It is with Ashford that Bearing shares one of the most poignant scenes. Ashford, sitting on the hospital bed shortly before Bearing dies, holds Bearing in her arms and reads a children's story to ease Bearing's pain.

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Vivian Bearing, Ph.D.
Vivian Bearing is a professor of English literature and the main character of the play. She is fifty years old and has recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The treatment of her cancer and the effects of that treatment on her body, her thoughts, and her emotions are the focus of this drama.

Bearing has devoted her life to researching, understanding, and teaching the works of John Donne and other seventeenth-century poets. Because of her devotion to Donne's work, as well as the degree of seriousness that she demands not only from herself but also from her students, Bearing's college course is reputed to be one of the three hardest classes to take on campus. Bearing prides herself on her reputation. She is tough in all aspects of her life. She also demands that people around her follow her example. If they do not, she has little time or empathy for them.

When Bearing is diagnosed with cancer, she, at first, faces this ordeal as she has faced all challenges in her life—on an intellectual basis.

Bearing slowly realizes that her intellectual authority of John Donne is of no help in her current situation. Neither is her intimidating self-discipline a solace, as the cancer eats away her body, and the medical intrusions and hospital humiliations eat away her former illusions that she controlled her life. It appears, as Bearing faces her death, that she may have missed the point of life.

It takes Bearing a long time to understand that wit and discipline will not help her through her ordeal. She continually recites poetry in attempts to rid herself of the humiliation of having her body probed by researchers who ignore her as a person and focus only on her body. Even midway through the eight cycles of chemotherapy, she relates her body's experience to her academic studies. "One thing can be said for an eight-month course of cancer treatment: it is highly educational. I am learning to suffer." But at the same time, it is in this statement that the audience is beginning to see the breakdown of Bearing's outer crust. "God, I'm going to barf my brains out," she exclaims, then turns to the audience, and in an attempt to apologize says, "You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon." The deterioration of Bearing's outer walls continues. She is proud not only of her strength and stature but also of her vocabulary. In using commonplace phrases like "puking my brains out," Bearing sees that her mask of academia is slipping away. Her pain and suffering are causing a change in her, and that change is not only physical The one thing that Bearing has leaned on all her life is language, and as her disease progresses, Bearing is beginning to find that her vocabulary is failing her.

Toward the end of her treatment, Bearing starts hungering for something more than words. At first she calls it "personal contact." Later she calls it "human kindness." Then, in a flashback scene to one of her classrooms, she listens to a student describe Donne as "hiding … behind this wit ." Bearing then senses that she, like Donne, has been hiding behind her wit. She admits that she is scared. The closer she comes to her death, the more she loses her ability to express herself in words. She slips out of her masks of...

(The entire section contains 1383 words.)

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