Vivian Bearing Bears no Tragedy in Margaret Edson's Wit
by Amber Winters
After reading Margaret Edson's ingenious drama, Wit, the average reader might conclude that it is noticeably a tragedy. Contrarily, Aristotle, if still alive, would be the first to insist that her play does not follow his strict requirements. Aristotle declared that a tragedy is a drama in which the leading character is a person of high caliber who has a tragic flaw that is incontrovertibly the source of his or her downfall. Following Aristotle's definition, the author's play, Wit, cannot be defined as a tragedy.
According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must be a distinguished character of ``noble stature.'' Critics argue that Vivian Bearing's work as a professor raises her to eminent distinction. Interestingly enough, a teacher is considered honorable because the work is selfless and passionate towards helping other people. The leading character may be an educator, however, she does not do it for the reasons that make it dignified. Instead, she is a scholar who is only passionate about knowledge. She admits this when she states, ``The young doctor like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity'' (2206). Edson depicts a scene in which a student innocently requests an extension on a paper for extenuating circumstances. Vivian mercilessly replies to the student's problem by declaring, ``The paper is due when it is due'' (2208). Her lack of compassion towards her students makes her less qualified of a character to be a tragic hero of any sort.
Some readers may maintain that the quality that makes her less noble is acceptable in a tragedy because it is her tragic flaw, which is the source of her downfall: death. Furthermore, they argue that the cancer could have been prevented if the character had not been distracted by her academic research and had gone for a doctor checkup. However, according to The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, ovarian cancer is hard to detect early, especially in the early stages'' (``Detection''). Even if Vivian had gone to the doctor and the cancer had been detected, the chances of her surviving the cancer are minimal. Not only did her mother die of cancer, but ``all women are at risk,'' thus it becomes apparent that there is no way that her negligence led to her developing ovarian cancer (``Detection''). Instead, the protagonist's fate was only a result of poor luck and not a product of her tragic flaw.
Aristotle states that the protagonist's punishment is not deserved in a tragedy. Accordingly, critics argue that Vivian did not deserve a lonely, painful death. Truthfully, no person deserves to endure the death that the narrator experienced. Nonetheless, the leading character had full control over dying in solitude. The author illustrated irony in the scene when Vivian received her single visitor. The one individual who told her to take a ``breath'' and enjoy the ``commas'' in life is the only person that visited her while she was lying on her death bed in her final scene. Vivian failed to take her mentor's advice, and thus deserved every moment of loneliness.
In spite of Vivian's lonely karma, her character still is not whole heartedly admired. Thus, Aristotle would maintain that Wit cannot be a tragedy. The professor's students may respect her intelligence, however, they do not look up to her. The speaker admits that she is a ``demanding'' and ``uncompromising'' professor. In one scene, the leading character recalls an event in a classroom when she asked a student to analyze a sonnet. Not only was the undergraduate young and intimidated by her superiority, the teacher barely gave the student the freedom to express him or herself (2206). Furthermore, Jason, who is one of her former disciples, reiterates this belief by stating that even though she gave flawless lectures, ``a lot of students hated her'' for her ruthless traits (2213). Sadly, her students perceive her as imperious rather than someone to look up to. In addition to her students, the other university faculty do not regard her as a righteous individual. The narrator expresses that if she ``barfed her brains out,'' then her colleagues would ``scramble madly for (her) position'' (2194). Rather than mourning her death, her colleagues would fight over who got her job.
Furthermore, all the medical staff, with the one exception of Susie, lack full empathy for her as a human being. Her profession, intelligence, and respect in the academic world are worthless in the hospital where she spends her dying days. She is treated not as a person, but as a patient wearing a wristband with her number stamped on it. Over and over she is asked for her name. Accompanying the mind numbing, repetitious questions about her medical history, she is frequently asked, ``How are you feeling today?'' Hypothetically, Vivian could find out that her grandmother dies while she herself is dying, and if the doctor's asked, ``How are you feeling today?'' they would barely hesitate to notice her sorrow. There is a connection between the relationship of Vivian with her students and Vivian with the doctors that is tied together with the theme of karma.
Aristotle further explains that in a tragedy, the tragic hero, when experiencing a downfall, must overcome their tragic flaw, and in doing so, ``produce a catharsis'' to other individuals. It is apparent that Vivian realizes what she missed in life, however, her self-knowledge fails to affect any other character in the play. ``Eight cycles of Hex and Vin at the full dose. Elekian didn't think it was possible. I wish they could all get through it at full throttle .Then we could really have some data,'' Jason explains (2213). He does not care about the patients as human beings, rather he only cares about the results of his research. Jason highlights every flaw in Vivian. His obsession with research and knowledge blinds him from all the ``commas'' in life as well. Both Vivian and Jason fail to notice the ``simple'' things in life. If Wit was a true tragegy, the protagonist's revelation would ``produce a catharsis'' and Jason would learn something besides test results from his patient.
Aristotle might enjoy reading Margaret Edson's drama, Wit, however, he would forthrightly argue that it is not a tragedy. Vivian Bearing fails to meet the characteristics that he defines as ``noble'' and ``great.'' Her lack of humanity cannot represent a tragic flaw because it does not lead to her death. The character is not popular among any group in society, and overall, the play fails to reach its audience in teaching the lessons of life that Vivian failed at.