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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.

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."...

(This entire section contains 1383 words.)

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Then, in a flashback scene to one of her classrooms, she listens to a student describe Donne as "hiding … behind thiswit." 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 academic titles, esoteric studies, and unemotional definitions and starts to crave the human touch. In the last ten seconds of the play, states Edson, Vivian Bearing finds redemption.

Dr. Harvey Kelekian Dr. Harvey Kelekian is the lead investigator in a research trial of a new drug protocol to treat ovarian cancer. Kelekian is the doctor who first tells Bearing that she has cancer. It is through Bearing's dialogue with Kelekian that the play establishes one of its themes, the lack of humanity between doctors and their patients.

Susie Monahan, R.N. Susie Monahan is Bearing's primary care nurse. She is also the most caring of the medical staff. Edson has stated that Susie is the hero of the drama. Susie sees beyond Bearing's disease. She sees Bearing as a person. Susie is well educated in the effects and symptoms as well as the suffering and pain of ovarian cancer. She is also well informed on the side effects of the drugs that the doctors are using on Bearing, and she measures the need for research against Bearing's capacity for pain. It is also Susie who confirms Bearing's fear that she will not recover from her disease. And when the time comes, it is Susie who tells Bearing of her imminent death. Susie is in stark contrast to Dr. Posner, who has to study bedside manner in order to know what to say to patients and then be constantly reminded to use what he has learned.

Actually, Susie contrasts with Posner in many ways. She is very humble and unafraid of exposing or admitting her lack of knowledge. But it is in the final scene of the play that the differences between these two characters are most apparent. Susie fights for Bearing's dignity and right to die, while Posner is caught up in saving Bearing's body for his research.

Dr. Jason Posner Dr. Jason Posner is a clinical fellow at the hospital. Posner is also a former student of Vivian Bearing's. He and Bearing are correlated characters—they are both proud of their intellects; they both hide their emotions under the load of their respective research projects, and they are both rigidly self-disciplined. It is through Posner and Bearing's relationship that much of the irony of this play is created.

One of the ironies comes through in Posner's statement: "Cancer is the only thing I've ever wanted." He is referring to his passion in medical research, but this statement vividly demonstrates the quirk of fate that has transposed the positions of authority between Posner and Bearing. Cancer, of course, is the last thing that Bearing wanted.

Posner took Bearing's literature course when he was an undergraduate student. He admits that he took her class because she had the reputation for being one of the toughest professors at the university. He tells her this while he is probing her body for the cancerous growth that is killing her. Bearing does not remember having Posner as a student. She was not the type of professor who paid attention to her students as individuals. And now Posner, throughout his examination and later medical care, treats Bearing in a similar, detached way. He no longer sees her as a person. He and Bearing share a common trait, an ineptitude in human relations.

Posner is a character with a very focused and narrow view. His patients represent only a disease that he wants to study. He studies these diseased bodies like Bearing studies poems. The emotions and spiritual issues connected to these diseased bodies, Posner sees as something of an annoyance. The only time that he attempts a conversation with Bearing is after he has embarrassingly reacted to the terrible size and extent of Bearing's cancerous growth. In order to cover up this error in protocol, he stumbles through a few sentences about literature, then he abruptly leaves the examination room. There is only one other time in the play when Posner exposes his emotions. It is during the final crisis m the play. Posner has an inkling that he may have been wrong in failing to see the humanity in his patient. When he realizes this, he shouts out, "I made a mistake." Shortly after this utterance, the last words spoken in the play are his. He says, "Oh, God."




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