Pre-existing Relationships in Wit
April 10, 2017 at 1:00 am #1003Michael PowersParticipant
The story of Dr. Vivian Bearing’s (Emma Thompson) struggle with cancer in Mike Nichols’ Wit (2001) mirrors her career as a rigid English professor. Through the use of flashbacks of her life prior to her final stages of cancer and introduction to the character of Dr. Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward) this is made apparent.
The only two characters in the film who had a relationship with Vivian prior to her diagnosis were Dr. Evelyn “E.M.” Ashford (Eileen Atkins), her mentor and seemingly the only person who maintained a positive view of Vivian and Dr. Posner, her former student who took her class in order to attempt to get an “A” in each of the four hardest classes at his university. The juxtaposition of the two preexisting relationships Vivian has along with her changing view of her life adds an extra element of sadness that may not have been present with different circumstances, which isn’t to say that Vivian’s battle with cancer as it is. In one of the first flashbacks, Dr. Ashford attempts to explain to Vivian, while she was in college, that she should focus more on having fun and enjoying being young, rather than spend all her time studying John Donne. Vivian, of course, does not listen and instead focuses more on the empirical task of devoting her life to studying John Donne.
Vivian’s relationship to Dr. Posner is very different, with him always seeing Vivian as a task to measure his skills against; whether as a student in her class or as her doctor, more worried about studying her reaction to the treatment and his skills as a doctor than creating a personal relationship with her. This relationship serves as good way to display Vivian’s life, choosing work over people and while it may appear that as her doctor, Dr. Posner’s act of attempting to preserve Vivian’s body once she flat-lined, had been essentially incapacitated and signed the do-not-resuscitate form was an attempt to save his work and not Vivian. In the sense that Dr. Posner trying to save his work, in this case Vivian’s “life” –which he acknowledges is impossible and likened to creating an unsolvable puzzle when analyzing the works of Donne– he is acting no differently than Vivian as his efforts are all for naught.
With Vivian’s final line being the refusal to read Donne with Dr. Ashford as Evelyn attempts to comfort Vivian with something they both devoted their lives to, the viewer can see that in her final moments Vivian regrets the life she chose and would have, presumably, liked to live a life more similar to that of Evelyn with a better balance of her intellectual life and a real life. This final sequence of Vivian’s life coupled with the futile attempt of revival is where the catharsis in this drama lies due to Vivian’s relationships with Dr. Posner and Evelyn Ashford.April 10, 2017 at 11:02 am #1004Lizzie MessanaParticipant
Michael, I appreciate your analysis of Vivian’s journey in the film. Although very begrudgingly, I liked your analysis of Dr. Posner’s role in the film. To me, he was such an unlikeable character because of the flippancy with which he treated Vivian as a human being, and his speech about the “awesomeness” of cancer was almost unbearable to watch. However, your post serves as a great reminder of Dr. Posner’s function in the film, rather than just dismissing him as a tactless, heartless, bumbling idiot. While the cancer acts as the predominant debilitating physical and mental challenge that Vivian has to face, Dr. Posner presents another hurdle that Vivian has to overcome – a recognition of herself in Dr. Posner. As is her job, Vivian analyzes poetry, but she seems to take it to the extreme. She dissects everything and everyone around her, and partly due to her teaching, Dr. Posner has inherited this trait. He distances himself from a personal relationship with his “work” to get to the deeper, “truer” meaning, just like Vivian seems to do with Donne’s poetry. Somewhere along the line, Vivian seems to have lost the simple love and passion for learning that she had as a child, and instead, she replaced that passion with obsession and pride in being the best in her field, which made her competitive and detached – which perfectly matches how Dr. Posner is in the film. This realization crashes down on her, which is made apparent in Vivian’s refusal to hear Donne’s poem at the end of her life, especially not from the teacher she wished she could’ve been and should’ve listened to when she was a student.
Just like we mentioned last class, Vivian is a great example of someone who can go on a hero’s journey, realizing various aspects of their identity and coming to know who they really are, even though she is tied to a hospital bed. Her realization at the conclusion of the film that she wanted to have a better balance between academia and a social life, as you mention, demonstrates a fundamental change in her character which we see often in hero films. However, heroes usually conquer the force that is oppressing them, and I’m wondering if you think this is true. As you mention, Vivian does seem to regret the way her life worked out, but she sees the error of her ways. In your opinion, is there any way that this could be a triumph for her?April 10, 2017 at 12:53 pm #1005Darby DalyParticipant
I think that you have written a very strong analysis of the relationships between the characters of Wit. I particularly thought that your analyzation of the relationship between Dr. Posner and Vivian was very interesting. Through the flashbacks that we saw of Vivian’s life, it is clear that she had dedicated her life to her work rather than to actually enjoying herself. The more we get to know Dr. Posner’s character, the similarities between the two characters become very clear.
The interaction between Dr. Posner and Vivian when she is asking him about why he chose his career path, and why he specifically chose to study cancer is evidence of your claim. Dr. Posner’s responses to Vivian’s questions make it clear that they share similar priorities, and through Vivian’s reactions to his answers, it is even more clear that she is aware of this similarity. I think that at this point of the movie, Vivian was beginning to realize that she did not live her life the way she wanted to, and her responses to Dr. Posner seemed to be an attempt to make him realize that he was headed down the same path.
Both of these characters dedicated their lives to work, allowing it to consume all of their thoughts and actions. During the course of their lives, Dr. Posner and Vivian seem to prefer to push other people away, as they believe that not only do they not need anyone else, but they do not have time for such interactions.
–Darby DalyApril 10, 2017 at 2:31 pm #1006Emily McClemontParticipant
I think that you do an effective job of illustrating the relationships between the central characters of Mike Nichols’ Wit (2001). I find your statement regarding Vivian’s internal struggles particularly interesting, as you state, “the viewer can see that in her final moments Vivian regrets the life she chose and would have, presumably, liked to live a life more similar to that of Evelyn with a better balance of her intellectual life and a real life.” I think that your identification of Vivian’s wish to lead a balanced is accurate, as depicted throughout the film. I find that the moments in which Vivian reflects on her harsh and unaffected demeanor when refusing to allow a student an extension for his paper following his grandmother’s death and her statement, “I wish I had given him an A” in regards to her A- evaluation of Dr. Posner when he was her student, enhance your assertion of Vivian’s desire for a more balanced life. I would also like to point out that the film highlighted the Barnes and Noble bag which Evelyn carried the books for her grandson in as a potential symbol of this desire; the bag of books signified Evelyn’s relation to a life outside of intellectual studies, and when brought into Vivian’s hospital room and placed on her empty nightstand, it emphasized Vivian’s lack of a balanced life.
- You must be logged in to reply to this topic.