Instructors’ Teaching Experience

I taught Wit in my “Madness and Desire”-themed course, in the unit I termed “The Body of the Text/ The Body as Text.” Since it is relatively short (100 or so pages of large print and generous spacing), I assigned the entire text as homework for a Tuesday class (the class met T/TH).

Concepts Taught By/Using This Text

  • Reading/performing drama (especially attending to the character list & why certain roles in a play might be played by the same actor, like Vivian’s father and Vivian’s doctor)
  • Illness/cancer narratives & storytelling
  • Close reading (how-to), especially attending to punctuation and the gaps in language (good primer for poetry)
  • The ethics of close reading and literary analysis
  • The value and relevance of literature to other fields (Wit is often required reading for medical students because of what it teaches about bedside manner and humane treatment of patients.)
  • Michel Foucault’s medical gaze (from The Birth of the Clinic)
  • Lacan’s Symbolic (control of language by father, male doctor)

Classroom Strategies

In-Class Activities

  • Autobiographical free-write: Consider a time you experienced pain, perhaps severe pain. Try to describe that pain with words, in a paragraph or so.
  • Scene readings

Homework Activity

  • Critical response paragraph to one of the following questions:
    • Vivian Bearing is a renowned scholar famous for her command of language. Yet there are instances in the play where she loses her command over language: Where are these instances during which she cannot say what she means or what she wants to say, and what is she trying to express? In Vivian’s experience, what is it that cannot be encapsulated in language?
    • Two types of “texts” are presented as being scrutinized in this play: bodies (particularly ill bodies, like Vivian’s) and literary texts. What are the differences and similarities between the types of “textual analysis” exacted by literary scholars and medical professionals as portrayed in this play?
    • What is the role of irony and wit in this play?
  • Group scene performance

Additional Resources

Accompanying Genre Readings


  • “Drama: Reading, Responding, Writing” in the Norton Introduction to Literature Shorter 11th Edition, University of Iowa Edition (1122–25)
  • “Elements of Drama” in the Norton Introduction to Literature Shorter 11th Edition, University of Iowa Edition (1180–88)

Illness Narratives

  • Diane Price Herndl, “Our Breasts, Our Selves: Identity, Community, and Ethics in Cancer Autobiographies”
  • Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller (excerpt)
  • Thomas Couser, Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing, perhaps a chapter like “Medical Discourse and Subjectivity”

Accompanying Theoretical Readings

  • Kathy Acker, “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body”
  • Elizabeth Irene Smith, “‘The Body in Pain’: An Interview with Elaine Scarry.” (PDF available here) or provide an excerpt from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain
  • Michel Foucault, excerpt from The Birth of the Clinic

Accompanying Literary Texts

  • E. Henley, In Hospital
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (in the Norton Introduction to Literature Shorter 11th Edition, University of Iowa Edition)
  • Perhaps a first-person illness narrative like Rosalind MacPhee’s Picasso’s Woman (this is a book so would have to be excerpted, like maybe a section where she talks about how the word “cancer” affected her)

Accompanying Contextual Media


  • HBO’s Wit (2001) starring Emma Thompson as Dr. Vivian Bearing