Wit Summary

Margaret Edson


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Wit Summary

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Margaret Edson’s Wit is a one-act play dealing with the struggle of the main character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, as she progresses through the final stages of ovarian cancer. The story is presented from Bearing’s point of view: she is the only character that addresses the audience directly, and much of what occurs on stage is intended to represent what is going on in Bearing’s mind as her health declines.

The play begins with Bearing entering the stage emaciated and dressed in a hospital gown; clearly she is suffering from a serious medical illness. Speaking directly to the audience, Bearing announces that over the next two hours she will be presenting what she experiences as she passes from life into death. Bearing explains that she has ovarian cancer which has progressed to Stage IV, the final stage. Throughout the play, Bearing displays signs that she is in incredible pain. Bearing’s doctor, Harvey Kelekian, acknowledges that there is no hope for Bearing to recover, yet he nevertheless wants to continue to administer her with high doses of chemotherapy. The treatment will not save Bearing, but Kelekian believes that he will obtain valuable research data by observing how she reacts to the additional treatment to which Bearing has consented.

Bearing reflects back on her life as an accomplished English professor. From an early age she developed a passion for the English language. Some of her fondest memories are those of her father reading to her as a child. Bearing’s passion for language inspired her through her advanced studies, eventually earning her a doctorate in English and a position as a university professor, specializing in the work of the poet John Donne. Continuing her reflection, Bearing recalls various moments that illustrate the intensity she brought to her academic work including scenes from her lectures on John Donne, for which she had earned great admiration. But Bearing also reflects on all that she has sacrificed for the sake of her academic pursuits, neither starting a family nor forming any strong social connections as an adult.

The isolation Bearing experienced in her adult life is evidenced by the fact that she only receives one visitor during the play: her former mentor Dr. E.M. Ashford. Like Bearing, Ashford is an expert on John Donne, and Bearing recalls an episode where Ashford explained to Bearing the importance of small details, such as the decision whether to use a comma or a period, for the meaning of a poem. During her visit, Ashford suggests that Bearing might derive some comfort from reading some of Donne’s sonnets with her. Bearing, however, is hardly conscious and declines Ashford’s offer. The two instead read together from a children’s book that Ashford had purchased for her grandson, perhaps establishing an association with Bearing’s childhood memories of reading with her father. The two read together until Ashford disappears from the stage, without making an exit. Ashford’s disappearance makes the audience question whether she actually came to visit or whether the scene is merely a fantasy in Bearing’s mind. The possibility that the entire visit was imagined by Bearing further contributes to the idea that Bearing really is without any companion to comfort her through her ordeal.

The interactions between Bearing and Dr. Kelekian and his assistant Dr. Posner – who happens to have been one of Bearing’s former students – are cold and impersonal. They show concern for Bearing only as a kind of specimen to be observed, poked, and prodded. Only Bearing’s nurse, Susie Monahan, steps in to offer comfort to Bearing during her more intense episodes of pain. Nurse Monahan is also the only one to broach the topic of death with Bearing. After a conversation with Nurse Monahan, Bearing decides to sign an order not to resuscitate her in the event that she slips into a coma.

The order not to resuscitate becomes an issue after Bearing’s heart stops due to the stresses of the treatment performed by Kelekian. Desperate to keep her alive for the purposes of study, Dr. Posner sends for the resuscitation team to revive Bearing. The team is called off, however, when Nurse Monahan intervenes, reminding Dr. Posner that Bearing has made the decision not to be resuscitated. Bearing removes her gown, symbolizing her separation from her body, and walks towards the center of the stage towards a light, symbolizing the spiritual realm she into which she is about to transition.

Wit prompts the audience/reader to take a broad perspective on life and what things in life are most important. In a way, Bearing’s perspective throughout most of her professional life is the same as that of her doctors. Both seem to be hypnotized by scholarship and research for its own sake, and to have lost sight of the fact that these activities ultimately aim at enhancing human life. This message is reinforced by the fact that most significant moment in the course of the play is Nurse Monahan’s intervention to stop the resuscitation team from reviving Bearing, an act that expresses compassion for Bearing and the wish for her to achieve freedom from the unbearable pain that she suffers throughout the play.