Themes and Meanings

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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.

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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Death 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...

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is a major theme, it is not the major focus of the play. Death, however, permeates the play and is both the element toward which the play moves, as well as the component that makes the other themes stand out. Death is the force that compels Bearing to reflect on her life. Death is also the so-called enemy against which the medical researchers fight so diligently.

Paramount in the discussion of death is John Donne's poetry. In his poetry, death is one of Donne's more prominent themes; in the play, Bearing quotes several of his lines of poetry concerning death. In an exchange between Bearing and her mentor, E. M. Ashford, the line "And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die," is discussed in detail. The conclusion of that discussion has Professor Ashford stating, "death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause." Bearing carries this statement with her, remembering it at the moment when she is told that she has cancer and when asked to undergo a strenuous chemical treatment for her cancer. Donne's poetry helps Bearing move with courage toward her death. In another light, Ashford's comments also set up the atmosphere surrounding Bearing's imminent death on stage. It will be a quiet death without melodramatic flourishes.

Wit Edson's having used the word wit for the title of the play makes it rather easy to conclude that wit is a prominent theme. Edson even offers some of her definitions of wit within the play itself. Bearing at one point states, "Brevity is the soul of wit." This definition of wit describes most of the witty lines that Bearing delivers, most of which are extremely short. One example is Bearing's statement, "Publish and perish." This makes reference to a common phrase that is often used among college professors—publish or perish—referring to the fact that most professors must publish if they want to attain tenure, or permanent status. Bearing is, of course, referring to the fact that she has published, but because of her disease she will perish anyway—a witty proclamation.

Later, Bearing offers the following information about wit: "Ingenuity, virtuosity, and a vigorous intellect that jousts with the most exalted concepts: these are the tools of wit." In other words, cleverness, creativity, and intelligence are required (according to Bearing/Edson) in order to be witty. And the greatest of all wits, Bearing says, was John Donne. These qualities of wit are the very ones behind which Bearing hides. These qualities also are the ones that Susie, the nurse, seems to lack. And yet it is Susie that the play eventually concludes is the hero. "Poor Susie's [brain] was never very sharp to begin with," says Bearing, making fun of the nurse who is the only one in the play with a sense of humanity. And it is that sense of humanity, not wit, that Bearing, in her last days, needs the most.

Search for Knowledge The search for knowledge is another underlying theme, portrayed both through Bearing, in her search for literary knowledge, and through Posner, in his search for medical knowledge. They understand one another on many levels. By the end of the play, it appears that Bearing has concluded that there is something greater than that search, but it is uncertain whether Posner has reached the same conclusion. The play does not seem to make the statement that the search for knowledge is negative and that love or a sense of humanity, on the other hand, is positive, but rather that it is not healthy to pursue that search for knowledge at the expense of human emotions.

Human Rights Humanity and humiliation are set in opposition to one another throughout Bearing's stay at the hospital. The issue that underlies these concepts is patients' (and thus human) rights. What rights do patients have? Do they have the right to privacy? Do they have the nght to know the chances of their survival? Do they have the right to dignity? Do they have the right to determine the manner of their deaths?

Edson has stated that her play is about redemption. But it is recovery (or redemption) of human rights, in the sense of humanity, that Bearing wins at the end of the play. Her awakening to the fact, through her own humiliation, that human rights are more important than human knowledge is her awakening. She is denied those rights when her doctors treat her body without considering her mind and her emotions. She is denied those rights, even to the point of her death, when Posner ignores her written request not to be resuscitated.