The Comparison between the Characters of Prof Vivian and Dr. Jason Posner
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit is actually an autobiographical narrative. The main character is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a specialist in John Donne and Meta physical poetry who has contracted Ovarian Cancer and is slowly inching towards death. Being a Kindergarten teacher, it was natural for Margaret Edson to raise with spontaneity the question about the language structure of the world and its humanitarian aspects. All throughout the treatment under taken by the doctors, Prof Vivian Bearing is constantly confronted by repetitive like question- “How do you Feel Today?” (Amanatullah, pg – 2) instead of any other compassionate language. Ironically in the drama Prof. Vivian falls into the same trap of slogan while she answers ‘Fine’ (The Importance of a Physician’s Wit: A Critical Analysis of Science in Medicine). All throughout the discourses that takes place between Dr. Vivian and others reaffirms the criticism of Prof Saussare that language is becoming a slogan and people use it without delving into its essence. The play seems to bypass the traditional development of plot and conventional portrayal of characters. The drama in the true sense is a lamentable account of the present intellectual society in a very sublime and poignant manner. It highlights and portrays the deplorable decay and tragedy of over civilized people.
“Unconscious is structured like language” (J.E. Lacan), “it is the play of language, its gaps, puns, repetition, metamorphic slippages homonyms – the space where desire lurks – that reveals the discourse of Other” (Lacan and literature By Ben Stoltzfus). In this play we find the same inter play of discourse which has been reflected time and again through Dr. Vivian’s dialogue “It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death. I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explores mortality…..” (Amanatullah, pg – 1). The dialogues of Prof. Vivian clearly reveals that inspite being an intellect she has a very superficial idea about life and death and it is only when she comes across the question of mortality she understands that she has only dealt with only one facet of human existence, and she time and again gets entangled in a mirage of fantasy where compassion is underplayed and has no real meaning.
In the drama Wit the author perhaps unconsciously referred to the theory of Semiotics as popularized by Prof. Umbereto Eco through dialogues of Prof. Vivian, Dr. Jason Posner, Dr. Harvey Kelekian and other medical staff. The dialogues of the character encounters to create an overwhelming impression on readers find reverberation in an overriding sense of discrepancy between what life is and what it could have actually been. The characters of the drama create a kind of diaphragm which evolves around each relationship in respect to the outside world which materializes as either irrational or mystical. It also portrays a sad and silent decadence of the so called civilized society.
The drama is a hard sell view of death which unfolds in the form of tragedy through language and humour while extending a crutch to deal with the hard reality. The dialogues and use of language in this drama evokes emotional comfort and connection.
Dr. Vivian has always leaded a scholarly life which made her oblivious of the word compassion. Being a trained scholar and teacher, to her the most valuable things in life was intellect and ideas. Thus when being informed about her advanced Ovarian Cancer and the consequent difficult she took refuge by saying “……….I know all about life and death…” (Amanatullah, pg – 1) the very dialogue itself reveals that inspite of being scholar supposedly of high intellectual abilities; her awareness is minimal about mortality. Perhaps at that very point of time she realizes that intellect is only one facet of human existence. When the inevitable truth of death when dawns on her, she finds herself confronted with the fact that her supreme intellect and wisdom which were valuable in her profession is sadly inadequate to cope with mortal disease like Ovarian Cancer – the other name of Death. Her final understanding of Donne’s sonnet – “Death be not proud. And Death shall be not more; Death thou shalt die! And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” (Amanatullah, pg – 1) looses its importance in the later stages which is ultimately replaced by a simple children’s bunny story read out by Prof. Ashford. She finds more truth and compassion in that story than in John Donne’s poetry. More over the word soporific had a soothing effect on her ailing body and stressed mind. It is as if the story and the word itself added the much needed tenderness and compassion which the dying Prof. Vivian was actually looking for. It seems that she ultimately found the complete answer in her intellectual quest of human existence.
In the play initially we witness Prof. Vivian’s denial to accept death as if she knows all about death theoretically but when death actually comes knocking at her door her intellectual capability is not strong or adequate to cope with it. And that is the reason she tells the doctors to give highest doses under the impression that she will be cured. It is as if her non-acceptance of death forces her to take refuge in the intellectual theories and she justifies it as if she finds similitude that her teaching on Donne’s sonnet and treatment dose is all the same. The disease gradually pushes her to depression and isolation and this depression and isolation makes Prof. Vivian realize that importance of compassion and humanity in the development of deeper interpersonal relationship.
The Dr. Jason Posner is an aspiring doctor who executes his job with accurate proficiency where time and again humanity and compassion is ignored. Dr. Jason in once again reveals the inhuman side of the so called civilized society through his dialogue which is spontaneous after examining the Prof. Vivian. It is as if wants to relate his knowledge about disease and diagnosis not caring about the impact it will have on the patient. The dialogues of Dr. Jason – “Lower the dose? No way. She’s tough. She can take it.” (Amanatullah, pg – 3) pathetically exposed the unemotional character of the intellectual world irrespective of time and place. Dr. Jason’s reverting back to the dialogue that he has attended Dr. Vivian’s on Donne’s poetry seems to be a ticket to get a place in the world of so called true intellect where his knowledge encompasses more than medicine. Thus we see as if Dr. Vivian is being involuntarily paid back in her own coins. She was known to be harsh and dry towards her students where the word compassion could never replace Donne’s sonnets. We find the same similarity in Dr. Posner’s dialogue.
It appears that Dr. Posner pathetically followed the same footsteps of the senior scholar Dr. Vivian preferring research to humanity reality to compassion. On the other hand the Dr. Vivian, due to her gradual transformation wished Dr. Posner to include personal touch in his quiver. It transpires that both Dr. Posner and Prof Vivian Bearing committed the same sin by denying compassion towards others for the sake of knowledge. Therefore the author confirms that it is a much greater sin to neglect humanity while dealing in life and death as it is done by Dr. Posner. Hence if one intends to understand or realize the meaning of life and death only through poetry or sonnet and interprets it as the ultimate realization, as Dr. Vivian initially believed, of the so called mortality, he will be pitifully falsified.
Dr. Posner asks the same mechanical question “How are you feeling today” again and again which only emphasizes the irony of medical compassion. It is as if words of the uncompassionate Dr. Vivian being uttered through Dr. Posner’s dialogues. Towards the end of the drama we see a change of heart and revelation in Dr. Vivian. She was gradually metamorphosed from an uncompromising Prof of 17th century literature to a compassionate teacher of words, language and thought. She never hesitated to laugh with Susie instead of snarling at Susie’s dearth of vocabulary. Dr. Posner underwent a psychological transformation of uncomprising character of Dr. Vivian but not the metamorphosed of the senior scholar. The truth realized by Dr. Vivian with the ultimate acceptance of death which in fact eluded Dr. Posner. It is only in this later half we see the difference between Dr. Posner and Dr. Vivian where Dr. Posner decides to go on with his uncompromising intellect devoid of compassion in the over civilized society.
List of References
Amanatullah, Derek F., The Importance of a Physician’s Wit: A Critical Analysis of Science in Medicine, Einstein Quart. J. Biol. Med. (2002) 19:139-143. pg – 139