Study Guide

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

By Edward Albee

Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

Martha: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf…
Honey: Oh, wasn't that funny? That was so funny (1.209-1.210)

It seems fitting that the title references the punch-line of a joke that we never get to hear. From an absurdist viewpoint, life is pretty much the same thing: unknowable and ridiculous. (For more on absurdism and the title, check out "What's Up with the Title?")

George: Martha is a hundred and twenty-five…year old. She weighs somewhat more than that. How old is your wife?
Nick: She's twenty six.
George: Martha is a remarkable woman. I would imagine she weighs around a hundred and ten.
Nick:: Your…wife…weighs…?
George: No, no, my boy. Yours! Your wife. My wife is Martha.. (1.311-1.315)

This sort of identity confusion is common in absurdist plays. If nothing means anything, than who are any of us to say who anybody is?

George: History […] will lose its glorious variety and unpredictability[…]the surprise, the multiplexity, the seachanging rhythm (1.600)

George seems to honor and find beauty in seemingly unknowable procession of time. Here we see him celebrate the absurd condition.

George: national boundaries, the level of the ocean, political allegiances, practical morality…none of these would I stake my stick on anymore (1.649)

The idea that nothing is certain is part of the basis of absurdism. If we can never be sure of anything how are we to find something meaningful in this world?

Nick: UP YOURS! […]
George: You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to…to build a society, based on the principles of…of principle […] then all at once […] through all the sensible sounds of men building […] comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours. (2.270-2.273)

This is a very absurdist sentiment: all of man's accomplishments are really worth nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Martha: Deserted! Abandon-ed! Left out in the cold like an old pussycat. HA! Can I get you a drink, Martha? Why, thank you, George; that's very kind of you. (3.1)

Here we see Martha all alone, attempting to fill the void around her with what we know to be an absurd and hopeless fantasy: a civil conversation with her husband.

Nick: You're all crazy: nuts.
Martha: Awww, 'tis the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weighs too heavy on our tiny heads.[…]Relax; sink into it; you're no better than anybody else. ( 3.18-3.19)

This statement seems to be saying that we all take shelter in absurd illusions.

Martha: HAH! I'm a Gatling gun.
Nick: (In wonder) Aimless…butchery. Pointless. (3.65-3.66)

This interchange could be pointing out the absurdity of war as well interpersonal conflicts.

Martha: Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha: Amen. (3.161-3.163)

This basically sums up absurdist philosophy. We don't know what's real, or if anything we do has any meaning at all, making everything we do essentially absurd. Still, though, we have to do something, right?

George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, […]
Martha: I...am...George...I...am...(3.541-3.544)

By the end of the play George and Martha are forced to face the hard absurdity of their condition. There lives have been failures. Even if they had succeeded it would mean nothing. They both hate and love each other, yet still they're all the other has. It's a bleak future, but the overall message of the play seems to be that we must face the absurd in order to live honest lives.