Literature Study GuidesWhos Afraid Of Virginia WoolfAct 3 The Exorcism Section 1 Summary

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Act 3, The Exorcism (Section 1) | Summary



The stage is empty when Martha enters at the beginning of Act 3. She talks to herself, asking herself if she wants a drink. She pretends to talk to her father and says that she cries all the time. Nick enters, and, as he and Martha talk, it becomes apparent they did not have sex because he could not keep an erection.

Martha says only one man has ever made her happy: George. She says George is the only man she has ever loved and, for the first time in the play, speaks well of him, showing deep emotion and kindness. She says George understands her, makes her laugh, and makes her happy. He learns the games she invents, no matter how fast she changes the rules. She ends by saying, "George and Martha: sad, sad, sad." She is afraid that one day she will go too far and break his back or push him away for good. Nick says he thinks Martha has already broken George's back. Martha continues to needle Nick about his inability to maintain an erection: she calls him a "gelding" (a castrated horse). When the door chimes ring, Martha orders Nick to answer the door, but she says he might not be able to "get the latch up" on the door, an apparent reference to his impotence.


Act 3 is called "The Exorcism." An exorcism is a religious ritual to rid demons or other bad spirits from an area they have invaded, such as a home, a town, or even the body of a person or an animal. Exorcisms vary across religious groups. Usually a religious leader is called on to carry out a complex ritual. In this act, the play's conclusion, George performs a kind of exorcism to rid his marriage of demons—the illusions that have blinded Martha and him to the reality of their lives.

Nick's inability to maintain an erection furthers the theme of male emasculation and impotence. Martha and society have already emasculated George, but the audience would expect Nick—as he is young and not yet beaten down—to be able to maintain an erection. The handsome and strong but impotent young man represents Albee's belief that the American male has lost his power. Martha reinforces Nick's failure and humiliates him when she repeatedly calls him a "flop." This is clever word play, typical of Albee's wit. When Martha says she fears she will go too far and break George's back, she fears that she will break his spirit and that their "games"—and marriage—will be over.

Martha's praise for George deepens the theme of isolation and lack of ability to connect, even when there is love. Albee carefully juxtaposes sex and love in this scene, showing that Martha's attempt to have sex with Nick was meaningless, as are all her affairs, because she is sleeping with other men just to make George angry. Martha cheating on George is another of their games, another way they hurt each other and chip away at their marriage.

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