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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Book Summary
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The title of this act is interesting as it refers to the night of the Witches' Sabbath on April 30th when it is believed that the spirits engage in many kinds of excessive behavior: dancing, singing, drinking and participating in wild orgies. This act is characterized by similar occurrences and behaviors in this act. Honey gets excessively drunk, a senior woman (Martha) seduces a relatively younger man (Nick) to bed, and her husband ignores the incident as though he is not concerned with whatever is going on. The mood of the play goes from one of verbal sparring, bordering on malice in the first act to one of excessive and pernicious manipulation of one another's feelings to the point where there is no returning to the way they were before.

The second act touches upon how the excessive drinking of these Americans incites them to act in ways that reveal their true nature and that allow them to let go of the fantasies they hold on to. That this behavior trangresses what is normal is seen in the unleashing of anger, fury, and sexual indiscretions. Liquor has an enormous influence in controlling events and helping them retreat from reality. Both couples divulge their innermost secrets to each despite their lack of familiarity with one another and regret it later.

George's story of the boy killing his parents when retold by Martha as being a failed novel reveals that this boy who refers to bourbon as "bergen" may indeed be George and reflects his inner urge to be alienated from society. To escape the guilt of these accidental murders, the boy prepares "a needle jammed in his arm." Heroin, like alcohol, has a numbing affect and wipes out reality replacing it with a detached relationship to the world. That this novel may be autobiographical is revealed by George's lack of ambition to get it published as well as his anger at Martha for disclosing the plot. George does not want to have a child that will "kill" his parents, so he ends up killing his own son symbolically (that is declaring him dead) later on. Martha's accusation of being a "murderer" after he has tried to strangle her is true on two levels, one concerning the deaths of his parents and the other foreshadows the symbolic death of their child and in a sense the fantasy that binds them to one another.

His apparent passiveness and inability to stick up for himself may come down to his feeling that he deserves the abuse that Martha lashes out at him. She tells him this herself during the course of the act. In any case, he prefers an illusory son to a real one as it makes life less messy and he has more control over how the son will act. Reality is too much to bear for them. They need the insulation of alcohol and fantasy to keep them functioning.

George's charge that Martha is a Cyclops - a one-eyed mythical giant known to have eaten men alive--and their frequent exchange of insults and abuses portrays the futility of their marriage. This love/hate relationship is one of extremes. They have no respect for each other and yet they need each other for emotional support and the continuation of their fantasy. Yet after twenty-three years of being married, the sadistic pleasure they take in inflicting wounds on each other seems to move onto a different plane. The games they have played before have never reached such a state before. Several violations occur that reveal that this night is different from others: one is making public the supposed reality of their son and George's intellectual cowardice at the hand of his father-in-law, and the other is Martha's seduction of Nick. Although she has played games of innuendo and seduction, she has never actually had an affair. But George's apparent oblivion to the goings-on in the kitchen and his anger that flares when he throws the book at the chimes reveal that Martha has gone a step too far and she will have to pay for it.

Martha has revealed the essential weakness of her husband. The fact that not only is George a complete failure in all spheres but also that he takes to talking lies in order to cover up for his weaknesses has been exposed to the guests. George is angry and frustrated that he has been emasculated not just professionally by Martha's disclosure of how her father has prevented him from publishing his book. Because of this frustration, he physically tries to maul Martha, to shut her up. He can only react to his exposure as an intellectual coward with brute force.

Nick is averse to getting himself involved in other's affairs yet he slowly gets pulled into the game playing when George turns his fury on the younger couple, exposing the secret of their marriage. Because he has been shown to be a fraud, he now must humiliate his guests, especially Nick, whom his wife adores. Deep down, George feels threatened by Nick's motives of seduction and success. His apprehension is that he will be successful in greater measure because he is self-assured and knows how to play games that make him out to be a winner. George had failed miserably in this domain. Nick represents a "direct and pertinent threat" to his livelihood as well as his manhood. Even though Nick knows nothing of history, George pronounces that he will be head of the History Department one day. It is not so much knowledge but ambition that makes people successful.

Furious at George's audacity, Nick threatens him. Nevertheless, an unperturbed George advises him to "rearrange" his "alliances". George points out how charm and passion are missing in their marriage and also the gulf of difference in their attitudes, approaches and temperament. He is equally disgusted with Martha for changing the rules of the games. He accuses her of unfair conduct. She had already distorted reality by exposing the secret of their son and was further mutilating it.

After Nick leaves to console Honey, the two exchange more barbs and Martha accuses George of wanting her to treat him as she does so that he does not have to take responsibility for his pathetic life. Although he knows she may be right, he says she has gone too far. He brands her a "spoiled, self-indulgent, willful, dirty-minded, liquor-ridden woman." This verbal battle reveals that something has snapped in their repartee. Although it has always bordered on caustic rejoinders, here both sides feel grossly violated and in the end they declare war against each other. Martha's unscrupulous ways of "amusing" herself, George's alienation and fury, Honey's devolution into infantile behavior, and Nick's divulging of his and his wife's pathetic marriage reveal how easily the illusions between people that are built up can be blown apart and how repressed feelings can explode into violence and abuse.

The passage read by George from the book is ironical as it holds up a mirror to his marriage, which is devoid of its essence. It also lays bare the life of people in the West in general. The "crippling alliances" are the result of the inflexibility of life and how people refuse to reveal their true intentions to each other. The vehemence with which Martha threatens to seduce Nick implies that she may never have gone this far in "entertaining" guests. This fact is confirmed by George's subsequent behavior. First he ignores her, which makes Martha even more furious and then he loses control and flings away the book he is reading.

At the end of the act, George starts renouncing his illusions. He plans out quite viciously how their imaginary son will meet with an imaginary death and will use Honey's oblivious state to corroborate his story. He is slowly coming to terms with reality and now it is Martha's turn to do so. No doubt this is also a part of his vindication. Nevertheless, this turn of events is important to the theme of the play. This is the climax of the play where the protagonist realizes that one cannot continue living a life depending on illusions. Illusions must be destroyed and life needs to be faced head on.

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Plot Synopsis/Book Notes/Analysis/Chapter Notes


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