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Character Analysis: Dr. Vivian Bearing in "Wit"

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Perhaps you have had a professor like Dr. Bearing Vivian:

  • Brilliant
  • Uncompromising
  • Cold-hearted

I've had my share of English teachers. Some were easy-going, creative and engaging. And some were those "tough-love" teachers who are as disciplined as a drill sergeant; they work you like a grunt at some literature boot camp, all because they want you to become better writers, better thinkers.

Vivian Bearing, the main character from Margaret Edson's play Wit, is not like those teachers. She's tough, yes, but she does not care about her students and their many struggles. Her only passion (at least at the beginning of the play) is for 17th Century poetry, particularly the complex sonnets of John Donne.

Early on in the play (also known as W;t with a semicolon), the audience learns that Dr. Bearing dedicated her life to these Holy Sonnets, spending decades exploring the mystery and poetic wit of each line. Her academic pursuits and her knack for explicating poetry have shaped her personality. She has become a woman who can analyze but not emphasize.

Dr. Bearing's Character:

Her callousness is most evident during the play's flashbacks. While she narrates directly to the audience, Dr. Bearing recalls several encounters with her former students. As the pupils struggle with the material, often embarrassed by their intellectual inadequacy, Dr. Bearing responds by saying:

VIVIAN: You can come to this class prepared, or you can excuse yourself from this class, this department, and this university. Do not think for a moment that I will tolerate anything in between.

In a subsequent scene, a student tries to obtain an extension on the essay, due to the death of her grandmother. Dr. Bearing replies:

VIVIAN: Do what you will, but the paper is due when it is due.

Yet, as Dr. Bearing revisits her past, she realizes she should have offered more "human kindness" to her students. Kindness is something Dr. Bearing will come to desperately crave as the play continues. Why? She is dying of advanced ovarian cancer.

Fighting Cancer:

Despite her insensitivity, there is a sort of heroism at the heart of the protagonist. This is evident in the first five minutes of the play. Dr. Harvey Kelekian, an oncologist and leading research scientist, informs Dr. Bearing that she has a terminal case of ovarian cancer. Dr. Kelekian's bedside manner, by the way, matches the same clinical nature of Dr. Bearing. With his recommendation, she decides to pursue an experimental treatment, one that won't save her life, but one that will further scientific knowledge. Propelled by her innate love of knowledge, she is determined to accept a painfully large dosage of chemotherapy.

While Vivian battles cancer both physically and mentally, the poems of John Donne now take on new meaning. The poems references to life, death and God are seen by the professor in a stark yet enlightening perspective.

Accepting Kindness:

During the latter half of the play, Dr. Bearing begins to shift away from her cold, calculating ways. Having reviewed key events (not to mention mundane moments) in her life, she becomes less like the matter-of-fact scientists who study her and more like the compassionate Nurse Susie who befriends her.

In the final stages of her cancer, Vivian Bearing "bears" incredible amounts of pain and nausea. She and the nurse share a popsicle and discuss palliative care issues. The nurse also calls her sweetheart, something Dr. Bearing never would have allowed in the past. After nurse Susie leaves, Vivian Bearing speaks to the audience:

VIVIAN: Popsicles? "Sweetheart?" I can't believe my life has become so. . . corny. But it can't be helped.

Later on in her monologue, she explains:

VIVIAN: Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication. Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness.

There are limitations to academic pursuits. There is a place - a highly important place - for warmth and kindness. This is exemplified in the last ten minutes of the play when, before Dr. Bearing passes away, she is visited by her former professor and mentor, E. M. Ashford. The 80 year old woman sits beside the Dr. Bearing. She holds her; she asks Dr. Bearing if she'd like to hear some poetry by John Donne. Although only semi-conscious, Dr. Bearing moans "Noooo." She does not want to listen to a Holy Sonnet.

So instead, in the play's most simplistic and touching scene, Prof. Ashford reads a children's book, the sweet and poignant The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. As she reads, Ashford realizes that the picture book is:

ASHFORD: A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides. God will find it.

Philosophical or Sentimental?

Now that I think of it, I did have a tough-as-nails college professor, way back in the late 1990s when Margaret Edson's Wit was making its west coast premiere.

This English professor, whose specialty was bibliographic studies, often intimidated his students with his cold, calculating brilliance. When he saw Wit in Los Angeles, he gave it a fairly negative review. He argued that the first half was captivating but that the second half was disappointing. He was not impressed by Dr. Bearing's change of heart. He believed that the message of kindness over intellectualism was all too common in modern-day stories, so much so that its impact is minimal at best.

On the one hand, my old professor is right. The theme of Wit is common. The vitality and importance of love is found in countless plays, poems, and greeting cards. But for some of us, it's a theme that never gets old for us romantics. As much fun as I might have with intellectual debates, I'd rather have a hug.

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