Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The play is set in the living room of a house located on the campus of a New England college in the town of New Carthage. The living room is set with chairs, a table, portraits, and a bar stocked with liquor and glasses. The purpose of this stage setting is to "create the illusion of total realism" so that the abnormality of life depicted in the play will have greater impact. The fact that the play is set on a college campus, the supposed seat of learning and discipline, gives further irony to the play.
The play actually takes place in less than a day, adhering to Aristotle's principle of time. Yet the time of day is important. It begins in the early hours of the day before dawn and ends at sunrise. This time of night is connotated with eerie events and dream-like existence.
The setting also carries allegorical overtones. Carthage was the scene of Dido and Aeneas' tragic love story. In contrast, the town of New Carthage presented in the play signifies the loss of love, affection, and warmth in human relationships.
She is the middle-aged daughter of the president of the college and the unhappy and domineering wife of George. She taunts him in public but loves him deeply.
He is forty-six, Martha's husband, and a professor of history at the college.
He is a handsome young man who is about thirty. He is a new biology professor at the college and is quite ambitious.
A plain young woman in her mid-twenties, she is Nick's immature wife.
The protagonist of the play is George, a professor of history, who is frustrated with his life and the delusions he and his wife have created. He is important in bringing about change in his and Martha's life. Though a generally subdued and henpecked character, he serves the fatal blow at the illusions that he and Martha have been subsisting on for all their married life.
George's antagonist is the world of illusion that surrounds him. His childless, long-term marriage to Martha, a loud, vicious-tongued woman, is shallow. The imaginary child they have created to help them cope stands in the way of his facing reality.
In the second act of the play, Martha attempts to seduce Nick in front of her husband. His compliance with her behavior prompts George to wake up to his reality and deal with the illusions he and Martha have created.
George exposes the emptiness of their marriage and "kills" their imaginary son. He also exposes Nick and Honey's hollow relationship. At the end of the play, George, Martha, and the guests must face the harsh reality of the future without delusions. The play, therefore, ends in tragic comedy. The illusions have been confronted, so in a sense George has defeated his antagonist; but the tragedy of the characters' lives is not solved.