Character Analysis: Dr. Vivian Bearing in 'Wit'

Goehring as Vivian Bearing in North Carolina Theater Production of Margaret Edson's "Wit"
Yawpuniverse - Photographer Production Shot (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Perhaps you have had a professor like Dr. Bearing Vivian in the play " Wit": brilliant, uncompromising, and cold-hearted.

English teachers come with many personalities. Some are easy-going, creative and engaging. And some were those "tough-love" teachers who are as disciplined as a drill sergeant because they want you to become better writers and 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.

How Poetic Wit Influenced Dr. Bearing

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 Hard 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.

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 poem's 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 would never 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 10 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

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

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Bradford, Wade. "Character Analysis: Dr. Vivian Bearing in 'Wit'." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, February 16). Character Analysis: Dr. Vivian Bearing in 'Wit'. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Character Analysis: Dr. Vivian Bearing in 'Wit'." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).