Crisis of the Soul in Margaret Edson's Wit

Most people live their lives trying to find its meaning. People strive for happiness, comfort, and peace, but there is always a desire to accomplish that sense of self-fulfillment, and this may only be achieved when finding out why it is that they are alive; this is exactly what the meaning of their lives truly is. Also, it is important to keep in mind that everything happens for a reason. This means that fate exists, and in accordance with religious belief, fate inevitably leads to salvation. Joining these ideas results in accepting that the meaning of a person’s life is to attain salvation, or redemption, thus putting an end to the crisis of the soul. Reading through Margaret Edson’s Wit, it becomes clear that its protagonist experience a crisis of the soul as her health begins to decline, on account of cancer. As her condition gradually deteriorates, Edson’s protagonist continues on her quest for redemption, managing to find it, and by so doing reclaiming and saving her soul) in time to be in peace with herself in death. Edson’s play mirrors Margaret Wise’s The runaway bunny, in which a small bunny tries to figuratively escape from its mother through a number of ways before finally reaching the realization that there is no escape from fate. Soul crises drive individuals to defy fate, but in the end the reality remains that fate is inescapable; this realization ends up replacing anxiety with peace.

Margaret Edson’s play revolves around a Literature professor named Vivian Bearing, Ph. D. This woman, who is passionate about literature, especially the works of John Donne, is fifty years old and has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in an advanced stage. Her cancer prognosis is not good, and so she is confined to the hospital as she undergoes an aggressive treatment, mostly involving chemotherapy. As time a progress, Vivian is gradually confronted with the realization of her mortality, of her inescapable fate: death.

The playwright explains her purpose in creating a character, which, at first, seems to be unsympathetic. ‘I wanted to talk about a person's relationship with grace - meaning the flow of harmony in and out of her life, her relationship with God, and her growing awareness of herself as a person with a soul and the capacity for love. And the best way to talk about that was to show a person who had none of these attributes and show her gradually coming into them’ (Cohen).

Vivian is a scholar; she is a person who has always given precedence to the mind over heart and soul. Based on this, it is extremely interesting to find that Edson introduces an allegory of the soul into Vivian’s plight: The runaway bunny. The little bunny that fantasizes about leaving his home and escaping his mother is a major symbol throughout this play. The bunny symbolizes Vivian, more specifically her soul. Vivian’s soul is lost, and this causes her to be at a loss with herself, with her own existence. She finds it hard to reconcile her hospitalization, thus creating a spiritual crisis that drives her to attempt to escape her reality: “I’m scared. Oh, God. I want … I want … No. I want to hide. I just want to curl up in a little ball” (Edson 70). Based on this, it is also ironic to find that such a learned woman lacks the ability to feel and become aware of the fact that her life has a higher meaning and it is different from the study of literature, though a fate is inevitably associated to it.

Later on, it becomes clear that Edson’s character also modifies the meaning of Donne’s poetry, which had true religion as one of its major themes. Donne believed that man’s life had a fate associated to it, and no matter what was done to try and escape that fate, the end result would always be redemption in death and return to God, who was man’s creator. In Wit, this central belief is defied, at least in principle, by Vivian’s character. She is a woman who disregards fate and even God; she devotes her life to study literature and this limits her ability to respond humanely i.e. in a manner that is consistent with religious belief and the idea of fate.

Coming back to The runaway bunny, it is interesting to point out the story’s ending: “Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he did. “Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny” (Wise). The bunny tries to tell its mother that it will leave home and make a life of its own far from its mother. The mother, however, always has a response, making clear each time that there is no escape from her. In the end, the bunny must accept the inescapability of its existence and its mother’s company. Once the bunny comes to this realization, its soul finds peace, and it is finally in a position to enjoy tranquility, that is precisely why its mother tells it to eat a carrot.

For the most part, people spend a significant portion of their lives pursuing happiness, or at least some kind of higher meaning. In some instances, people attempt to escape the fate that God has set out for them. Regardless of whatever they might attempt, in the end all must come to terms with one inescapable reality: fate cannot be cheated. This realization gives peace to the person’s heart, mind, and soul, thus allowing the person to face death without fear. In Wit, Margaret Edson develops the character of Vivian Bearing, a woman who is faced with death through ovarian cancer. The play tells the story of a woman who tries to escape her fate, very much like the little bunny that helplessly tries to escape home only to find that there is no escape to life.

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