'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' A Character Analysis

Edward Albee's Guide to an Unhappy Marriage

Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?
Otterbein University Theatre & Dance from USA (Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?)/CC BY-SA 2.0)/ Wikimedia Commons

How did playwright Edward Albee come up with the title for this play? According to a 1966 interview in the Paris Review, Albee found the question scrawled in soap on the bathroom of a New York bar. About ten years later, when he began writing the play, he recalled the “rather typical, university intellectual joke.” But what does it mean?

Virginia Woolf was a brilliant writer and women’s rights advocate. In addition, she sought to live her life without false illusions. So then, the question of the play’s title becomes: “Who is afraid of facing reality?” And the answer is: Most of us. Certainly, the tumultuous characters George and Martha are lost in their drunken, everyday illusions. By the play’s end, each audience member is left to wonder, “Do I create false illusions of my own?”

George and Martha: A Match Made in Hell

The play begins with the middle-aged couple, George and Martha, returning from a faculty party arranged by George’s father-in-law (and employer), the president of the small New England college. George and Martha are intoxicated and it’s two o’clock in the morning. But that won’t stop them from entertaining two guests, the college’s new biology professor and his “mousy” wife.

What follows is the world’s most awkward and volatile social engagement. Martha and George function by insulting and verbally attacking one another. Sometimes the insults generate laughter:

Martha: You’re going bald.
George: So are you. (Pause. . . they both laugh.) Hello, honey.
Martha: Hello. C’mon over here and give your Mommy a big sloppy kiss.

There can be affection in their castigation. However, most of the time they seek to hurt and degrade one another.

Martha: I swear . . . if you existed I’d divorce you….

Martha is constantly reminding George of his failures. She feels he is “a blank, a cipher.” She often tells the young guests, Nick and Honey, that her husband had so many chances to succeed professionally, yet he has failed throughout his life. Perhaps Martha’s bitterness stems from her own desire for success. She frequently mentions her “great” father, and how humiliating it is to be paired with a mediocre “associate professor” instead of the head of the History department.

Oftentimes, she pushes his buttons until George threatens violence. In some cases, he purposefully breaks a bottle to show his rage. In Act Two, when Martha laughs at his failed attempts as a novelist, George grabs her by the throat and chokes her. If not for Nick forcing them apart, George might have become a murderer. And yet, Martha does not seem surprised by George’s outburst of brutality.

We can assume that the violence, like many of their other activities, is merely another vicious game that they occupy themselves with throughout their dismal marriage. It also does not help that George and Martha appear to be “full-blown” alcoholics.

Destroying the Newlyweds

George and Martha not only delight and disgust themselves by attacking each other. They also take a cynical pleasure in breaking down the naïve married couple. George views Nick as a threat to his job, even though Nick teaches biology – not history. Pretending to be a friendly drinking buddy, George listens as Nick confesses that he and his wife became married because of a “hysterical pregnancy” and because Honey’s father is wealthy. Later on in the evening, George uses that information to hurt the young couple.

Similarly, Martha takes advantage of Nick by seducing him at the end of Act Two. She does this mainly to hurt George, who has been denying her physical affection throughout the evening. However, Martha’s erotic pursuits are left unfulfilled. Nick is too intoxicated to perform, and Martha insults him by calling him a “flop” and a “houseboy.”

George also preys upon Honey. He discovers her secret fear of having children – and possibly her miscarriages or abortions. He cruelly asks her:

George: How do you make your secret little murders stud-boy doesn’t know about, huhn? Pills? Pills? You got a secret supply of pills? Or what? Apple jelly? Will Power?

By the end of the evening, she declares she wants to have a child.

Illusion vs. Reality

In Act One, George warns Martha not to “bring up the kid.” Martha scoffs at his warning, and ultimately the topic of their son comes up into conversation. This upsets and annoys George. Martha hints that George is upset because he is not certain that the child is his. George confidently denies this, stating that if he is certain of anything, he is confident of his connection to the creation of their son.

By the end of the play, Nick learns the shocking and bizarre truth. George and Martha do not have a son. They were unable to conceive children – a fascinating contrast between Nick and Honey who apparently can (but do not) have children. George and Martha’s son is a self-created illusion, a fiction they have written together and have kept private.

Even though the son is a fictional entity, great thought has been put into his creation. Martha shares specific details about the delivery, the child’s physical appearance, his experiences at school and summer camp, and his first broken limb. She explains that the boy was a balance between George’s weakness and her “necessary greater strength.”

George seems to have approved of all of these fictional accounts; in all likelihood, he has assisted with their creation. However, a creative fork-in-the-road appears when they discuss the boy as a young man. Martha believes that her imaginary son resents George’s failures. George believes that his imaginary son still loves him, still writes him letters, in fact. He claims that the “boy” was smothered by Martha and that he could not take living with her anymore. She claims that the “boy” doubted being related to George.

The imaginary child reveals a deep intimacy between these now bitterly disappointed characters. They must have spent years together, whispering various fantasies of parenthood, dreams that would never come true for either of them. Then, in later years of their marriage, they turned their illusionary son against one another. They each pretended that the child would have loved the one and despised the other.

But when Martha decides to discuss their imaginary son with the guests, George realizes that it is time for their son to die. He tells Martha that their son was killed in a car accident. Martha cries and rages. The guests slowly realize the truth, and they finally depart, leaving George and Martha to wallow in their self-inflicted misery. Perhaps Nick and Honey have learned a lesson – perhaps their marriage will avoid such disrepair. Then again, perhaps not. After all, the characters have consumed a huge amount of alcohol. They’ll be lucky if they can remember a small portion of the evening’s events!

Is There Hope for These Two Love Birds?

After George and Martha are left to themselves, a quiet, calm moment befalls the main characters. In Albee’s stage directions, he instructs that the final scene is played “very softly, very slowly.” Martha reflectively asks if George had to extinguish the dream of their son. George believes it was time, and that now the marriage will be better without games and illusions.

The final conversation is a bit hopeful. Yet, when George asks if Martha is all right, she replies, “Yes. No.” This implies that there is a mixture of agony and resolution. Perhaps she does not believe that they can be happy together, but she accepts the fact that they can continue their lives together, for whatever it is worth.

In the final line, George actually becomes affectionate. He softly sings, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf,” while she leans against him. She confesses her fear of Virginia Woolf, her fear of living a life facing reality. It is perhaps the first time she reveals her weakness, and perhaps George is finally unveiling his strength with his willingness to dismantle their illusions.

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Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' A Character Analysis." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf-character-analysis-2713540. Bradford, Wade. (2021, July 31). 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' A Character Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf-character-analysis-2713540 Bradford, Wade. "'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' A Character Analysis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf-character-analysis-2713540 (accessed March 28, 2023).