Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

By drawing parallels between the world of academe and the world of medicine, Margaret Edson demonstrates that there are many ways for professionals to isolate inadvertently those they purport to serve. Clearly, hospital patients, no matter what their status in society, are lost amid the corridors of machinery, operating suites, and examination rooms. Further, patients are unable to comprehend some of the most basic information about their condition; the language that is clear to physicians evokes terror in those unable to break the code. What is important to note, however, is that Edson intends her viewers to see that all who are caught up in matters of self-interest are cutting themselves off from others, weaving a cocoon of isolation that will eventually choke off their own humanity.

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It may be easy to see Wit as an indictment of the medical profession. The doctors who treat Vivian consider her more an object for scientific study than a human being facing the inevitability of her own death. Repeatedly, Kelekian and Posner stress the importance of their treatments as a means of gathering data for their research. Both treat Vivian with condescension and occasional disdain. Neither seems to have time to comfort her or allay her fears.

A careful review reveals, however, that it is not simply the medical profession that Edson criticizes. Vivian and her mentor, E. M. Ashford, are as arrogant with their students as the doctors are with their patients. Undergraduates seem to be impediments to the intellectual happiness of the faculty, and only when one of the students displays some promise does he or she merit grudging attention. At one point in the play, Kelekian has slight praise for his protégé, Jason. Similarly, in an early scene, Ashford acknowledges that Vivian has the potential to ascend to the professoriat but only if she applies herself to study at the expense of all other activities.

Edson stresses that knowledge without human relationships is sterile and ultimately deadly. Good relationships involve the recognition of personal dignity, the willingness to understand others, and the ability to extend forgiveness. At the beginning of the play, Vivian possesses great personal dignity but little understanding of others and virtually no ability to forgive others’ mistakes. From the first scene, however, she is presented in a degraded state, wandering the hospital corridors in flimsy robes, a baseball cap covering her bald head. Although she is apprehensive even in the first scene, she is unable to engage in serious conversation with anyone because she insists on playing on the meaning of words, seeing double entendres and allusions even in the most sobering analyses of her condition. She discovers, much to her dismay, that she is unable to communicate directly with the hospital staff because their precise vocabulary is as arcane as that of her favorite Metaphysical poet.

Because Wit is the story of a strong-willed, powerful woman having to face her own death, the play also rivets one’s attention on the value of life itself. Although Vivian is quite capable of achieving success on her own terms and without help in the academic world, she is unable to control events at the hospital. The movement from the vexation to the helplessness that she feels as death approaches suggests that there are forces over which even the most powerful men and women can exercise no control.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

In the first moments of the play, Vivian Bearing proclaims to the audience, "I think I die at the end." The fact that she gives away this information so early and so willingly makes it apparent that while death is a major theme, it is not the major focus of the play. Death, however, permeates the...

(The entire section contains 1381 words.)

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  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
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