Study Guide

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Analysis

By Edward Albee

  • Tone

    Brutal, Hilarious

    George and Martha spend most of the play viciously attacking each other. Words fly like daggers across the room and almost always draw blood. Characters get to say things like, "I swear…if you existed I'd divorce you" (1.144). At times we see the softer side of their relationship, such as George's gentleness with his wife at the end of the play. These moments truly shine when placed against the dark emotional wasteland that is the bulk of the play. Overall, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turns ferocious verbal swordplay into a funny and disturbing spectator sport.

  • Genre

    Drama, Tragicomedy

    The play is a drama because, well it's a play – a piece of literature that can only be fully appreciated when presented before a live audience. More specifically, we dub it a tragicomedy, because it blends elements of both tragedy and comedy. Throughout the play, serious subject matter is combined with dark humor to great effect. The style of tragicomedy is typical of absurdist plays. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is another famous example. It's no surprise that these two dramatic works are both tragicomedies as Beckett was one of Albee's main influences.

    Shakespeare also wrote what scholars call tragicomedies. A Winter's Tale is one such example. In these plays the action progresses forward in tragic fashion, but instead ends happily. Absurdist tragicomedies, however, rarely end with what most people would call a happy ending. In Waiting for Godot, for example, the characters are trapped in a meaningless endless cycle. Are George and Martha trapped in the same sort of thing, or have they been liberated by their shedding of illusion?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Big Bad Woolf

    The play never tells us exactly what the title is supposed to mean, and no one named Virginia Woolf ever shows up within it. This all leads us to ask: just who is this Virginia Woolf person? What does she have to do with the play? Was Albee just being totally random? Probably not. Let's investigate.

    Virginia Woolf was a writer famous for her stream of consciousness style. Woolf tried to show the emotional truths churning behind the eyes of her characters; she tried to get inside their heads and really show what it was like to be them. Also, Woolf, like Albee, was a product of the upper class. Her work often criticized and peeled back the layers of pretension that masked her social peers. The fact that Woolf was all about truth and layer peeling, leads some to think that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is just another way of asking, "Who's afraid to live without illusion?" Albee confirmed this in a Paris Review interview in which he said, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf mean who's afraid of the big bad wolf…who's afraid of living without false illusions" (source).

    A Bad, Sad Joke

    Albee goes on to note that the line, and how it makes a play on Virginia Woolf versus the big bad wolf, seemed to him "a rather typical university, intellectual joke." (source) And as we know from the play George and Martha want to be typical university, intellectual people. Of course, whenever it shows up in the play, the line is used more as ammunition than a funny ha-ha moment. Martha sings it to try and get a rise out of George. Later, George sings it to try and drown out Martha's barbs. 
    It's, uh, a very dark play, folks.

    How Absurd!

    We think it's also possible that the meaning of the title might represent a concept on which the play is based: absurdism. Absurdists believe that life has no meaning (at least not one that we can ever be sure of). Therefore, everything we do to create meaning in our lives is ultimately pointless or absurd.

    So, what does that have to do with the title? Think about it: the title comes from a joke. It's a parody of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Disney's The Three Little Pigs. Some unknown person sang the parody at the party that the characters attended earlier, and it was apparently hilarious. Notice, though, that Albee never tells us in what context the little ditty was sung. It's like we're getting the punch-line to a joke, but not the set-up. Or maybe, it's the set-up without the punch-line.

    In any case, the title is a joke whose meaning the audience doesn't know. The characters are up there laughing it up, while the rest of us are left wondering just what's so funny. Doesn't that kind of sum up the whole absurdist view of life? It's all a big joke, whose meaning is ultimately unknowable.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The main action of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? centers around the vicious battle of wills between George and Martha. Martha is a ruthless opponent, and George doesn't get the upper-hand until nearly the end of the play. After being brow beaten, humiliated, and cheated on, George defeats Martha with four simple words: "our son is…dead" (3.245). Martha reacts to this news by erupting into a bestial howl and collapsing to the floor.

    It would seem pretty normal for Martha to react dramatically to the death of her son if she actually had a son. The thing is that George and Martha's son is purely imaginary. When they found out they couldn't have kids, they solved the problem by just making a kid up. Even though he's imaginary, both George and Martha have deep attachment to the boy. Martha reveals the depth of her feeling when she says that he is, "the one light in all this hopeless…darkness" (3.401). The darkness in question is probably her "sewer of a marriage," which she also describes as "vile" and "crushing" (3.401).

    This dream of a son seems to be so precious to both George and Martha because it's one of the few things they share. They created him together in order to escape from their "sick nights, and pathetic, stupid days" (3.401). The boy is the one bit of real intimacy that the unhappy couple shares. When George "kills" the son it's like he dropped a nuclear bomb. Now George and Martha are left with no illusions behind which they can hide. By the end of the play, they must stare, unblinkingly, into the charred battlefield that is their lives.

  • Setting

    A Living Room, the Campus of a Small New England College

    Albee gives no description in his stage directions as to what George and Martha's living room might look like. Martha gives us a pretty big clue, though, not long after she first enters the stage. She walks in, scans the room, and says, "What a dump" (1.10). George talks a little trash about it too, saying it's okay for Nick and Honey to throw their coats on the "furniture" or "floor" because, it "doesn't make any difference around this place" (1.169). We also know that George is only an associate professor and therefore doesn't make a lot of money. All these things lead us to imagine that the room is pretty shabby and probably reflect the decaying state of George and Martha's marriage.

    We also know that the house is on the campus of a small New England college. The fact that George and Martha live on campus shows that they're both firmly under the thumb of Martha's father, who is the president of the university. It's also interesting that Albee describes it specifically as a small college. This makes George look like even more of a flop, as he can't even move up in the ranks where there's undoubtedly less competition than there would be at a large university. It also makes Martha's worship of her father seem more pathetic.

    George dubs the town they live in "New Carthage." There's a possibility that this isn't the real name. It could just be another history joke on George's part. Even if this isn't a joke from George, it's certainly a historical allusion from Albee. Back in the day, Rome was at war with a city-state named Carthage. This famous conflict is called the Punic Wars, which George also makes reference to specifically at one point in the play. Rome eventually obliterated Carthage, leveling the city, killing everybody in it, and sowing salt into the soil so crops could never grow again. The fact that George calls his town New Carthage could mean several things. Perhaps it reflects his wish that his town be obliterated as well. It could also reflect the overall fear pervasive in Cold War America had of being annihilated by a nuclear holocaust. For more on the Cold War references, check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is pretty easy to get into, especially if you have a dark sense of humor. The play can be just as funny as it is emotionally brutal. These seemingly contradictory ingredients combine to make a pretty tasty cocktail. The only thing that might be a bit of a challenge is picking up on a lot of the historical, literary, and philosophical references in the book. But, hey, that's what we're here for, right?

  • Writing Style

    Realism/Absurdism

    With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as well as some of his earlier plays like The Zoo Story, Edward Albee succeeded in combining two types of drama: realism and absurdism. First let's talk about realism. Realist playwrights set out to write plays that seem real: the dialogue is similar to everyday speech; the settings are everyday kinds of locations, and the conflicts are generally issues that everyday people face. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fits the bill for the most part because the characters all speak in a way that's believable, it's set in a totally normal living room, and it centers on a bickering couple.

    In an Albee play, however, nothing is ever quite what it seems. What starts off as a realistic seeming situation quickly spirals into the realms of the absurd. The Theatre of the Absurd began in Europe in the wake of WWII, and was inspired by the existential philosophies of Albert Camus (who wrote many novels, including The Stranger and The Plague). In the absurdist view, there is no ultimate meaning to our lives. As a result, everything we do is therefore an absurd illusion, which we create in order to avoid the fact that nothing matters and we're all alone. Through cutting insults and gross humiliation the characters of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gradually strip away the illusions that they've hidden behind. With the destruction of the imaginary child at the play's climax, George and Martha's last illusion is destroyed. They are trapped, alone together in an absurd and uncaring universe.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Babies

    This play is chock full of baby images. It seems like Albee slips one in at least every other page. First of all, George and Martha call each other "baby" all throughout the play. Martha also calls Nick that a few times too. One of those occasions is the first time they kiss. Nick touches her breast and she pushes him away saying, "Take it easy, boy. Down, baby." (7.31)

    George and Martha also often refer to Nick and Honey as if they were children. When the young couple first arrives, George greets them with, "You must be our little guests" (1.64), while Martha says to them "Hey, kids…sit down" (1.175). Later on George calls them "tots" (3.232) which is an even more blatant baby reference.

    Another baby image is when George describes Honey on the bathroom floor, saying she's "Peaceful…so peaceful […] sucking her thumb […] rolled up like a fetus" (2.750-2.752). We should also point out that Martha sometimes talks to George in baby talk, usually by begging for a drink.

    The reason for all this baby imagery becomes pretty clear when we learn that both couples have had imaginary children. Nick married Honey because she had a hysterical pregnancy. She swelled up as if she were pregnant, but it turns out it was all in her mind. And, of course, there is George and Martha's imaginary son, whose "death" marks the climax of the play.

    Both couples seem to be fixated on the fact that they don't have children. One of Honey's few sincere moments is when she plaintively cries, "I want a child. I want a baby" (3.362). Then, when George "kills" he and Martha's son you'd think that a nuclear bomb went off. Martha is completely devastated. Both couples' fixation on children could represent any number of things. Perhaps, they wish to fill the holes in their relationships with a child. Maybe, they feel a child would project the image of a happy family. Possibly, they hope that a child would bring real meaning to their lives. Any or all of these things could be true.

    Religious Ritual

    Pagan Rituals

    Act 2 of the play is called "Walpurgisnacht." That's a big word and refers to a festival that occurs on April 30th in many European countries. Though the holiday is now named after the Catholic St. Walpurga, its rituals and meanings are of pagan origin and it is more closely associated with pagan ritual than Catholicism. Walpurgisnacht is a lot like Halloween, as it's an evening for witches, spirits, and ghosts. Kids even go out and play pranks. It's kind of a tease though, because there's "tricks" but apparently no "treats" in particular. Tsk, tsk, Europe.

    It makes a lot of sense that Albee would name his second act after a holiday with such strong pagan origins. For starters, the act definitely begins to feel a bit like a wild, sexually liberated pagan festival when Nick and Martha begin dancing and making out. More importantly, it's in this act that the specters of the dead play an important role. When Martha reveals the sad story of George's novel, we realize that George is most likely responsible for the death of both of his parents. By telling this story, Martha becomes like a Walpurgisnacht witch summoning the dead to do her bidding. In this case, her bidding is to completely humiliate her husband. Perhaps, Albee is setting us up for this idea in Act 1 when George says, "Martha is the only true pagan on the Eastern Seaboard" and that she "paints blue circles around her things" (1.660, 1.663).

    Christian Rituals

    Throughout the play there are several Christian symbols as well. The chiming of doorbell is much like the chiming of bells at a Catholic mass. Also, the entire play takes place on a Sunday. George also shows off his Catholic chanting skills when he intones Kyrie Eleison and the Dies Irae, both part of the Requiem. Act 3 is called "The Exorcism," which is the Catholic practice that supposedly evicts demons or evil spirits from a person or home. The spirit in question in Act 3 is George and Martha's "son."

    All this Christian imagery appears to be centered around the "death" of this imaginary son. One hint of this is when Martha refers to the boy as "Poor lamb" (3.343). This would seem to set the son up as a kind of Christ figure, as Jesus is sometimes called the Lamb of God. Christians believe that Jesus' crucifixion was a sacrifice deemed necessary by God. Jesus had to die to take away the sins of mankind.

    In a way, George and Martha's son is sacrificed just like Jesus. It's as though the son's death is the only way that George and Martha can find salvation. It's probably no accident that George makes reference to an "Easter pageant" (3.220) as he's revving up for the sacrifice. Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. Of course, George is determined to never let his son be resurrected.

    The fact that Albee uses Christian symbolism in an absurdist play is deeply ironic. After the son is sacrificed at the climax of the play, George and Martha certainly don't feel the love of a benevolent God flowing all around them. On the contrary, they've lost their last illusion and now must face the absurd meaninglessness of life. The play seems to view this loss of illusion as a tough but ultimately necessary thing. What do you think?

    The American Dream

    In 1962, when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on Broadway, America was still in a the mindset of the 1950s. People worked, built, and multiplied all in the name of the American Dream. For many Americans this meant acquiring a happy stable family, a happy stable house, and (if you were a man) a happy stable job. The closer a family resembled Leave it to Beaver the better. If your family didn't shine with that perfect sitcom gleam, well you'd just better pretend. The American Dream was one of Albee's favorite themes. (One of his early plays is even titled The American Dream.) With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he seems determined to challenge audiences' notions of what it meant to be an American.

    George and Martha are named after George and Martha Washington, making them symbolic of America as a whole. So, if the American Dream is about having a happy stable family, what does it say to have Albee's George and Martha represent all Americans? They're not even trying to pretend they're happy, and they sure as heck aren't stable. Perhaps, Albee is suggesting that there may just be a lot of nastiness behind that sitcom sheen. The fact that the most meaningful connection between them (their son) is imaginary, seems to suggest that perhaps the entire American Dream itself is really just an unattainable illusion.

    But what about Nick and Honey? At the top of the play, they seem like the poster children for the American Dream. They're an attractive, young couple. Nick is ambitious and seems destined for success. Honey seems to be polite and supportive. Over the course of the play, however, the illusion of their perfect marriage cracks and falls away. We learn that that Nick only married Honey for money and because he thought she was pregnant. We see him cheat on her with Martha, and we watch Honey drink herself into a stupor just to avoid all the unpleasantness around her. Here again Albee seems to set a couple up as symbolic of the American Dream, and then swiftly corrupts the whole image. It looks as if Albee's picture of America was in direct conflict with that of the mainstream.

    The Cold War

    Albee wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while America was in the midst of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. The two nations had teamed up against the Nazis in WWII, but it didn't take long for them to turn against each other after they no longer had a common enemy.

    America's commitment to democracy and capitalism was the ideological opposite of the Soviets' communism. While American's valued individual liberty, the Soviets thought individuals should be more concerned about what was good for the whole. (It's a lot more complicated than that. For details check out Shmoop's entry on "Cold War: Causes & Origins."

    The specter of the Cold War looms large in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The vicious verbal battles between the characters, could be seen a symbolic of the war as whole. This is perhaps most clearly shown when George and Nick are fighting about genetics. In this battle George seems to come to represent American Democracy while Nick represents Soviet Communism. George complains that with the rise of genetics "There will be…a certain loss of liberty […] diversity will no longer be a goal […] ants will take over the world" (1.596). This sounds an awful lot like what an American might say of Communism. Another big clue here is that George references ants. The cooperative social structure of an ant colony is a model for a communist society.

    George and Nick's names are also symbolic of American/Soviet tensions. George is named after George Washington, making him symbolic of America. Nick could be named after Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, so he could represent the U.S.S.R. Also, George tops off his lecture of the horrors of genetics by saying, "I will not give up Berlin!" (1.600). This is a direct reference to cold war tension. The German capitol was divided in half – one side U.S. influenced, the other under Soviet control. The divided city was a symbol of the ideological divisions of the world. By using the word Berlin, Albee weaves all these shades of meaning into the scene.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Shadow of Confusion

    Everyone is trapped in illusion.

    George and Martha welcome Nick and Honey into their world of darkness. Wicked words fly back and forth to hilarious and destructive effect. No one is sure what is truth and what is lies. Everyone is trapped in illusion – Nick and Honey in the mirage of a perfect marriage, George and Martha in the mirage of their son.

    Pressure of Darkness

    Under the weight of vicious personal attacks, the illusions begin to crumble.

    The darkness only thickens as the characters continue to attack each other. Inch by inch, their illusions are beginning to crack. It's becoming obvious that there are real problems in Nick and Honey's marriage. George and Martha's son is becoming a topic of suspicion.

    Everything Comes to Light

    George shatters all illusions.

    George shatters everyone's illusions. He exposes the flaw at the core of Nick and Honey's relationship with a wicked game of "Get the Guest." He also reveals the fact that he and Martha's son is imaginary. With the destruction of these illusions the characters are now free in a way they weren't before. The ending of the play also bears a close resemblance to classic comedy in that the characters pair off in the end. Both couples end up together, which was very much in doubt over the course of the play.

    Unlike most comedies, however, the characters aren't all happy-go-lucky at the end. The stripping of illusion has laid them bare to the emptiness of their lives. In some ways the ending resembles tragedy, as the characters have all paid the price of their flaws. There's also been a death of sorts, though it is of an imaginary person. Because the play has tragic elements fused into its comic structure it is often called a tragicomedy.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    George and Martha are trapped in a bitter world of illusion.

    We begin with two people who have been trying to tear each other down for years. They hide behind illusions – like their imaginary son – to make it through the bitterness that is their lives.

    Conflict

    Nick and Honey arrive. The shattering of illusions begins.

    George and Martha drag their young guests into their verbal warfare. As the battle of wills rages, illusions begin to crack. Social niceties soon fall by the wayside and the characters' ugliness is on full display.

    Complication

    Martha attempts to sleep with Nick.

    When Martha goes upstairs with Nick it's the really the last straw for George. Though he acts like he doesn't care, it drives him toward his climactic action.

    Climax

    The Exorcism.

    After the loss of many battles, George finally wins his war with Martha. When he "kills" their imaginary son and exposes him as an illusion, his wife's will to fight finally seems broken.

    Suspense

    N/A

    There's no time for more suspense as the play immediately begins heading into its falling action.

    Denouement

    The guests leave; Martha begs.

    The play draws to a close as Nick and Honey take their leave. Martha makes one last effort to convince George that they should "give birth" to their son again. He refuses.

    Conclusion

    George and Martha begin to live with no illusions.

    At the play's final moment George and Martha are left alone together, stripped of all illusions. They have nothing but the cold hard reality of their existence to comfort them. In a strange way, they seem to be closer to each other than they've been for the entire play.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    George and Martha welcome their young guests, Nick and Honey, for a night of insult, humiliation, and shattered illusions. The action of the play is driven by George and Martha's endless need to attack each other. George constantly jabs at Martha about her age and alcoholism. Martha flirts with Nick and brings up the taboo subject her son with George. The act peaks when Martha humiliates George by relating all the details of his failure to become the head of the History Department. At the close of the act, the tension explodes when George breaks a bottle and Honey leaves to be sick in the bathroom.

    Act II

    In this act, George and Martha are right back at each other's throats. It's even worse than before. Martha really amps up her flirtation with Nick by dancing slow and sexy with him. In the midst of this she decides to share the sad story of the failure of George's novel with the guests. George responds by attacking Nick with a vicious game he calls "Get the Guests." Martha's final assault is to take Nick upstairs to have sex. George acts like he doesn't care, but as he hurls a book across the room at close of the act, we know the war is far from over.

    Act III

    George returns for the final battle. He strikes Martha where it hurts them both the most by exposing the fact that their son is imaginary. By the end, George has won the war of wills that has driven the play. George and Martha dismiss their guests and are left alone with no more illusions behind which they can hide.