Life and Death: Vivian Bearing as Tragic Hero in Wit
by Chandy West
In Edson’s play Wit, Vivian Bearing bares the soul of a decisive, strong willed intellect that is being treated for cancer. She is a noble scholar of seventeenth century poetry, John Donne to be exact, and very well known to the public. Aristotle claims that a tragic hero is “greater than ourselves” and “the actions they perform are of noble actions.” Along with these characteristics they also have a “downfall”: Bearing contains all of these qualities. She is powerful, strong, and at times overbearing. It is the treatment with cancer that makes her realize the things she has missed out on in her secluded life. Through one final noble act, in the end the character’s death -although tragic- will influence the treatments of future cancer patients. One can see that she contains all the qualities of a tragic hero. The character is used to being in control and interpreting what something means. Instead of breaking out in an emotional outrage, when Vivian finds out she has cancer, she maintains her composure and begins analyzing what the doctor is saying. “Must read something about cancer. Must get some books, articles. Assemble a bibliography, ” She explains (Edson 1781). Bearing is consumed with perception and research, which makes her a workaholic. The character’s excessive need for knowledge, which can be perceived as her tragic flaw, causes her to be oblivious to the reality of her diagnosis: she is going to die. At the end of Vivian and Dr. Kelekian’s conversation Vivian decides that she will take the “full dose” of chemotherapy for the following eight months. “I know for a fact that I am tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising. Never one to turn from a challenge, ” She argues (Edson 1783). Vivian thrives from knowledge, so the fact that they are going to use her body as research would be rewarding for her.
During a visit from Jason, whom one may perceive as her foil, Vivian questions him as to why he chose “cancer”. After finding out that the researcher prefers working in a laboratory rather than being in contact with patients the character realizes what she has been missing in her life. She points out, “The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as a simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact”(Edson 1804). Bearing has discovered that she has never shown any human compassion or sentiment towards another human being. In return for her unwitting actions she is now faced with this reality: she is alone and dying alone. How ironic it is that a woman of high intelligence, who believes that she fully understands ‘wit’, is blind to something so simple and comprehensible. The character’s indomitable and determined tendencies have caused her to shut out any emotional relationships that were possible in her life.
In a flash back from college her professor, E.M. Ashford, states, “Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends”(Edson 1785). Professor Ashford is able to tell that Vivian takes her work too seriously, but instead of going out, she goes back to the library. Now lying in her hospital bed she wants attention, not from her power of intellect, but her power of an emotional human being who is dying of cancer.
At the end of the play when Vivian is lying in her deathbed, alone, shivering, scared, and in pain, E.M. comes to her side. Before Vivian’s final moments of life, she received the attention and affection that she never had. She died with a sense of peacefulness. At the end of the play, the stage directions describe that Vivian “loosens the ties and the top gown slides on to the floor. She lets the second gown fall. The instant she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light”(Edson 1816). Vivian has accepted her own fear of dying and is allowing her soul to enter into eternal life; she has become one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Earlier in the play, E.M. quotes Donne’s sonnet stating, “And death shall be no more, comma, death thou shalt die”(Edson 1784). When Professor Ahsfod explains this she claims that a comma is “nothing but a breath-a comma-separates life from everlasting”(Edson 1784). Vivian’s last breath was nothing but a “comma” and she has now moved on where she will live not by her knowledge, but by her heart. Though her body has died, her soul is awakened. Although she may be perceived as uncaring, Vivian Bearing does not deserve to endure the pain and suffering she received from the cancer. She is not liked very much by others, due to her unkindness. Previously, when a student asked for an extension on his paper, Professor Bearing rejected his request with a heartless comment. “Don’t tell me, your grandmother died”(Edson 1806). Then she goes on to say, “Do what you will, but the paper is due when it is due”(Edson 1806). Instead of showing some sentiment for the student, she is inconsiderate and cold-hearted towards him; but it partly is not her fault. The audience can see that it is possible she never received the affection and attention she needed as a child; that it caused her to be distant as well. When Bearing recalls the time with her father, the scene shows him being busy with his own reading, not showing any human contact with her. The stage directions state that Mr. Bearing is “disinterested but tolerant”(Edson 1796). It also states that it is Vivian’s fifth birthday. Instead of recalling a party, a cake, or opening presents, she recollects reading a book while her father is examining a newspaper. We know that her mother died at the age of forty, but other than that, nothing else is either mentioned or displayed regarding her. One can only assume that because of this the character’s own remote personality reflects that of her father’s. It is very likely that she never received the gentle touch of affection from her dad, the way she probably would have from her mother, if the mother had been in the picture.
Bearing is a very driven and hardworking individual who is dedicated to insight and knowledge. But, because she is consumed by the complexity of seventeenth century poetry, she lived a desolate life. Her downfall is that she is incapable of showing any emotions to another person because she is obsessed with Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Although she died, her noble stature will remain in the minds and hearts of those who knew her, ultimately her death was not pure loss. The play did not leave the audience with a sense of sadness or remorse, but with hope and respect for Vivian Bearing. She lived the final eight months of her life in extreme pain so doctors could gain more knowledge for future cancer patients. In the process, she learned that life is about humanity not research, and that when her body dies her soul will live on. This is what brings the audience to believe that this individual is a tragic hero and leaves one not with a sense of pity but one of empathy for her suffering that was not wholly dese