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Wyatt Iwanaga
Ms. Thomas
AP English Language and Composition (4)
19 March 2013
Dealing with Death: Compassion and Intellect
Death is one of the most prominent, most often considered subjects in human thought. A
great, as yet unsolvable mystery, it is readily speculated about. Many authors of every form of
literature have done exactly this. Standing out is Margaret Edsons play, W;t. In this moving
work, Edson examines an inevitable death sentences effects on a highly intelligent individual.
This takes of the form of a diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian cancer for Dr. Vivian Bearing, a
professor of literature, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. The play follows
Bearing from her diagnosis through her death, dealing with several flashbacks to her life as well
as the treatment she receives and the relationships she develops during her chemotherapy in the
hospital. As Vivian nears death, realizing its inevitability, the dichotomy and conflict between
intellect and compassion in coping with death, symbolically reflected in the characters of Dr.
Jason Posner and Nurse Susie Monahan respectively, becomes apparent.
Dr. Vivian Bearings intellect, reflected in the character of Dr. Jason Posner,
copes poorly with death, dealing ineffectively with death when confronted by it. Dr. Bearing
initially attempts to use her intellect to deal with her inevitable death, but quickly realizes that
this is an exercise in futility. Having attempted to reason through her inner conflict in the face of
her inexorable demise, Vivian realizes this is useless. Speaking to the audience, she states,
(Searchingly) I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been
found out. Ooohhh./Im scared ( Edson 70). She tries to rely on her intellectual capabilities in
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the face of her passing, but comes to recognize that this is an unviable method and that she had
been wrong. She finds that relying on intellect does nothing to ease the pain or fear that comes
as a natural reaction to death. Rather, intellect serves only to try, ineffectually, to resist the
irresistible onset of death. When Jason Posner, the highly intelligent doctor responsible for Dr.
Bearing, discovers Vivian lying in her bed with no pulse, he ineffectually resists death, trying to
save her. Jason begins CPR, kneeling over VIVIAN, alternately pounding frantically and
giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (81). Jasons character fights desperately yet completely
ineffectually against death. In this scene, Edson uses this character to represent intellect itself.
Just as Dr. Bearings intellect was entirely useless in slowing the coming of death, the
intellectual Dr. Posner is incapable of preserving life, however hard he may try. As Edson
demonstrates, Vivians intellect, reflected in Dr. Posners character, is incapable of truly facing
death without fear, resulting in only an ineffectual, obstinate resistance to the fact of death.
The compassionate side of Vivians character, reflected in the character of her nurse,
Susie Monahan, does not attempt to resist death, calmly accepting it as inevitable. While she
initially responds to her imminent demise with intellect, she quickly realizes that compassion
provides much more effective comfort. Discussing death with Susie, Vivian becomes upset and
begins to cry despite her best efforts. Susie responds with compassion, saying gently, Vivian.
Its all right. I know. It hurts. I know. Its all right. Do you want a tissue? Its all right.
(Silence) Vivian, would you like a popsicle? To this, Vivian responds, (Like a child) Yes,
please (65). When presented with this compassion by Susie, Vivian responds well. She stops
crying, comforted far more by the small, simple display of compassion from someone she barely
knows than all the efforts of her admittedly powerful intellect. The comfort afforded her by even
this small display of compassion causes her to realize that in facing death, it is a time for
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simplicity. Now is a time for kindness (69). This realization marks a critical change in Dr.
Bearings character. While she does not forgo intellect completely in her efforts to face and
reason through her inevitable death at the hands of her ovarian cancer, she begins accept
compassion as a far greater source of comfort and serenity. However, this is still in conflict with
her intellects attempts to resist death, as reflected in Susies actions to prevent Vivians
resuscitation in the final scene of the play. As a code team attempts to resuscitate Vivian despite
her do not resuscitate order, Susie attempts to stop them, shouting Shes NO CODE! Order was
given-- (She dives for the chart and holds it up as she cries out) Look! Look at this! DO NOT
RESUSCITATE (84). Susie, the compassionate nurse, attempts to stop the code team called by
the intellectual Dr. Posner from continuing to resist death, urging them to accept it as
inevitability. This reflects the same conflict within Vivian between compassion, which allows
her to accept death, and intellect, which tries to cling to life. Thus, the compassion that Vivian
experiences, provided and represented by Susie Monahan, provides comfort and serenity in
facing death.
The ways in which Dr. Vivian Bearing responds to her inevitable death, using either
intellect, reflected in Dr. Jason Posners character, or compassion, reflected in Susie Monahans
character, vary greatly, even conflicting with each other. This conflict within Vivian is a
microcosm of humanitys relationship with death. For all the intellectual capability humanity
possesses, demonstrated by our exponentially increasing technological developments and our
ability to thrive and grow as a species, we are still plagued by a fear of death. As much as
humans may try to distance themselves from this fear, as Vivian does initially, intellect is
ultimately useless. The intellect that even the highly educated Dr. Bearing possesses cannot
defeat the ingrained fear of death that she experiences. Both the intellect of Dr. Bearing and the
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intellectual Dr. Posner are unable to truly accept death, fearing and fighting it until its
occurrence. Only by experiencing the compassion shown to her by Susie is she able to truly
escape the crushing fear of death that haunts her during her stay at the hospital. The compassion
Vivian experiences comfort her and allow her to accept her demise with some serenity, just as
Susie accepts her death and fights the code teams attempts to prevent it. Therefore, through the
examples of Vivian, Jason, and Susie, Edson demonstrates that the use of compassion is a far
more effective method of dealing with this inherent fear of death.

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