Study Guide

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Edward Albee

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


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.

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