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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee

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Course Hero. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed January 23, 2017. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Whos-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf/.

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Course Hero, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed January 23, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Whos-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf/.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Act 1, Fun and Games (Section 5) | Summary
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Summary

Nick says that he is 28 years old and Honey is 26. George admires Nick's fitness and mentions the confusion over Nick's teaching position. Martha thinks he is a math professor, but he is a biology professor. George says that Nick and people like him are going to make "all the trouble" with chromosomes. George lists his academic degrees and says that he ran the history department during World War II, when the other men were off fighting.

George asks Nick how many children he and Honey plan to have. When Nick says "not yet," George responds, "That's for me to know and you to find out." He describes the college town of New Carthage to Nick as "your heart's content," peppering his description with literary allusions. In fact, George alludes to three literary settings in his conversation with Nick: Illyria, the ancient city that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) used as the setting for Twelfth Night; Penguin Island, the mythical setting for a novel by the French Nobel Prize–winner Anatole France (1844–1924); and Gomorrah, a city described in the Bible (Gen. 19:24) that God destroyed because its inhabitants were wicked.

After rambling about how Martha's father expects loyalty from the college's professors, George describes Honey as "slim-hipped." Martha goes upstairs to change her clothes. Honey says Martha told her that she and George have a son, who will be 21 tomorrow. Martha comes downstairs in a sexy outfit and flirts with Nick. Martha tells Nick and Honey about a boxing match in which she knocked George out. George shoots a rifle at Martha. A large parasol pops out of the barrel and everyone laughs. Martha is especially delighted with George's stunt.

Analysis

George lists his degrees to brag. Because Nick has the same degrees, George's bragging is embarrassing and shows how little he has really accomplished, given his extensive education. He did not fight in the war, for instance, and was not able to hold on to the chairmanship of the history department when the other men returned from the war. He is bitter because none of his colleagues were killed; had they been, he would have kept the chairmanship. His feelings are shocking, as he wishes his coworkers had been killed so his own career could have advanced.

George compares New Carthage to two literary settings where everyday reality is suspended and to an evil place that was destroyed. His allusions beg comparison with the harsh reality and illusions found in George's home life with Martha.

This play was written during the Cold War, when Americans faced uncertainty and fear because of political tensions with the Soviet Union. Albee recreates that feeling in the play as George and Martha keep Nick and Honey unsure of how they should react to their hosts' conversation and games. Nick and Honey don't know what is really going on, why they are present, and how the evening will progress. This mood of uneasiness will build to the play's climax.

George repeatedly refers to Honey as "slim-hipped." On a literal level, he means that she is slender. On a symbolic level, he is referring to her fertility, as some people believe that women with broad hips are more fertile than those with slender hips.

Martha flirts so shamelessly with Nick that it is not shocking when George emerges with a rifle. However, the purpose of this act is to build tension, and shooting Martha would result in tragedy, not tension. By having a red and yellow parasol pop out of the rifle, Albee creates humor, which relieves the tension. The colorful parasol, however, is also frightening because it brings up an image of China, one of the United States' enemies during the Cold War. Albee will then build the tension to a higher peak. Nonetheless, that George would aim a rifle at his wife, even a joke rifle, shows the very real pain and desperation under the surface of their fighting.

Martha is delighted with George's actions, showing that she welcomes an escalation of the tension between them. Her reaction also shows that she appreciates George's "humor" and finds his action witty. His violence arouses her, and she asks George to kiss her. She even places his hand on her breast, making her feelings unmistakable. Martha is furious when George won't kiss and fondle her in front of their guests.

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