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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Book Summary
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The play is divided into three acts, which all have titles-- "Fun and Games", "Walpurgisnacht" and "The Exorcism".

In the first act Albee begins to probe the lives and the values of his four characters. The conflict between Martha and George is revealed as well as the secret that binds them to each other. To spite her husband, Martha breaks the code of secrecy and exposes their imaginary child. They use this rupture of their illusion to hurt each other. The guests and their hosts - Nick and Honey indulge in playing games with them, not understanding the magnitude of these oddly constructed battles.

The title of the second act - "Walpurgisnacht" is an allusion to the German legend. According to the legend, on the eve of May Day the witches held an orgiastic Sabbath on the heights of the Broken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains. This act continues the games from the previous act, only the action reaches a climax as all the characters act in ways that are extreme versions of themselves. The drinking is increased, stories and secrets are revealed, sexual proclivities occur between Martha and Nick, and George decides to play the biggest game yet called "Kill the Kid." There is a sense of these people being out of control and directed by their most basic instincts and desires.

The third act marks a climax as George and Martha's fantasy child is killed. It is called "The Exorcism" as George decides that Martha has to be purged of the cherished illusion she holds and that he once held in order for them to be whole again. Moreover, Honey confesses her desire to have a child despite the pain that she fears. This act indicates that the characters are on the path to recovery and shows both Martha and George as being in similar positions, the power structure has been leveled and they must start life anew. This is the denouement of the play.


Major Themes

Albee's main concern in this play is to present the hollow nature of American ideals of success and question the American way of modern life that devalues compassion and equality while elevating success and ambition as the pinnacle of achievement. It shows how this prevailing ideology can have destructive and alienating effects as well as harmful social consequences. All of the characters are portrayed as well-educated, middle-class people who should be ideal citizens who represent the best of American culture. Yet their descent into barbaric behavior during the course of the night reveals how the prevailing ideology of the times has tainted even the most privileged sector of society.

Though Nick is a relatively minor character, he is significant in illustrating this theme. He has decided to employ unscrupulous means to get his way up the professional ladder. He represents a young ambitious professional who is out to get what he wants at whatever cost. He treats his wife as a child and she complies by behaving in a child-like manner.

The relationship between the two couples is especially significant. Both depend on illusions to keep their marriages in tact. George and Martha have to even depend upon an imaginary son in order to be able to have a meaningful communication. The entire matter of the son in fact is supposed to remain a private affair between them. Even when they do communicate otherwise, Martha never treats George as an equal. In the first part of the first act, the audience is shown the different ways in which Martha devalues him. First she remarks "You make me puke," indicating how intolerable she finds him and then almost immediately she demands "a great big sloppy kiss" from him. This hints at the fact that she also wants him to be her lover but nothing else. In fact as George later implies, she either sees a man as a "flop" or a "stud" depending on how he can perform in bed. This itself shows the warped scale of values that Martha upholds.

The fact that they use games in order to entertain and indeed derive entertainment from their guests is an indication of their abnormal attitude. George is constantly scheming ways to avenge Martha's insults. She in turn wonders aloud that George is always catching up with her new rules (of the games that she plays) just as soon as she changes them. Games have become such an important part of their lives that they cannot exist without them.

George is also not quite human in his behavior. He deploys absurd practical jokes like aiming and firing the popgun at Martha that have a violent edge to them. On the other hand he resorts to violence when he cannot handle her harsh indictments. In fact, as Martha herself suggests, he probably puts up with her because he is a masochist. Moreover, it is indicated that he requires someone like her so that he can have someone else to blame for all his failures in life. This type of behavior is again absurd.

Honey is another character who behaves abnormally. She giggles out of place and indulges in eccentric activities like lying on the bathroom floor and peeling the labels off the liquor bottles. She does not share an intimate relationship with her husband and pretends to ignore George's hints about the adultery that his wife and her husband are committing in the kitchen. Her hysteric pregnancy, if considered as a fact, is an important indication of her abnormal personality. Sucking her thumb, sleeping in a fetal position and other tendencies point to her unwillingness to accept herself as an adult. She is obviously afraid of bearing a child and her paranoia takes the form of her habit of throwing up. In the end though there is a significant change in her, when she is moved by George and Martha's account of their son and announces her decision to have a baby.

An important turning point for George is Martha's apparent seduction of Nick. It is quite unusual that a woman over fifty years can seduce a man under thirty. Although she has played the game of "Hump the Hostess" for years, she has never actually gone this far. That George, who should be protesting, calmly continues with his reading, is a sign that their relationship has reached a point of uncaring detachment. Indeed there is not single relationship in the play that is portrayed to be healthy and stable.

Minor Themes

The play also questions the modern way of American life that succumbs to illusions rather than confronts reality, and the unwillingness to face facts and accept them, however unpleasant they may be.

The creation of George and Martha's son embodies their desperate need of illusion in a life whose reality is either too bitter to digest or too bland to bear. The deliberate intention to confuse and intimidate their guests with insidious games show how George and Martha have traded a sane reality for an illusory one. The details that the two relate surrounding the birth of their son convince the audience that their illusion is so extended and complete that it has moved into a realm close to madness.

Indeed a climactic event is the realization by George that they cannot subsist on illusion for long. The need to revert to reality, however intolerable or dreadful, is imperative. This translated in the need to "kill" the son, who has been a source of hope of survival for much of their married life. This is suggested by the important metaphor of peeling off the label, or the skin, as George suggest, until one reaches the marrow of things and there is nothing else to be explored. This is when he manages to bring Martha face to face with reality. Of course he is aware of the hurt that this will bring her; however, he is doing it for a greater good. He realizes that if he and Martha continue to live in this delusional world, they will not be able to leave the vicious circle that will eventually bring them to the brink of madness.

The presence of the name Virginia Woolf in the title of the play brings to mind the famous novelist. Virginia Woolf did suffer an imbalance of mind and committed suicide, probably because she could not face life as it was. This idea is echoed in her characters who become detached from reality because of an intolerable life. Similarly, in this play, the main characters, George and Martha resort to fantasy, as they cannot bear their reality. However, it is George who realizes the danger of indulging in such extreme fantasies. He is horrified to find that at a point, Martha cannot even distinguish between truth and illusion. This is a play about the shattering of illusions. During the course of the play, for instance, Martha realizes that George is not as inadequate as she supposed him to be. Indeed, he is the one who provides her with the physical and emotional comfort that she requires. No one can take his place; this is reflected in her disappointment with Nick. In the end of the play, Martha is divested of her fantasy of being a mother and admits for the first time that the reality scares her. She has realized how stark a life can be without an illusion to furnish it.

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