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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 June 28, 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 June 28, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Whos-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf/.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Act 3, The Exorcism (Section 2) | Summary

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Summary

George is at the door. He has returned after picking a bouquet of snapdragons for Martha. As George hands Martha the flowers, he says, "Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores." Martha laughs. George looks at Nick and greets him as his son, saying, "Sonny! You've come home for your birthday!" George and Martha call Nick the houseboy, a type of servant. George talks about a time when he was sailing past Majorca and watched the moon dip below the horizon and then come back up. Martha says he is lying. When Nick enters their fight by asking about George killing his parents, both George and Martha gang up against him. George says "Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference, hey, toots?"

George says they are going to play one last game, which he calls "Bringing up Baby." George and Martha argue, and George says he wants Martha to pull herself together so he can knock her around. George calls Honey back to the living room. She has been in the bathroom, lying on the floor, peeling the label off a liquor bottle. George begins talking about their son. Martha joins in, and they weave a tale of his birth and early years. They talk about their son's minor childhood illnesses and his appearance. As Martha talks, George says the Latin prayer for the dead.

Honey announces that she wants a child. George says that their son hated Martha; Martha says their son hated George. As the suspense grows, George and Martha talk over one another, George reciting the Latin prayer for the dead and Martha saying that their son is the one thing she has tried to preserve in their marriage. Honey screams for them to stop. George says he has bad news: a man came from Western Union with a telegram stating their son died in a car accident. He was driving with his learner's permit and swerved to avoid a porcupine. Martha screams that George "CANNOT DO THAT!" She says he doesn't have the power to decide these things. Martha demands to see the telegram. Laughing, George says he ate it. Martha spits in his face. Honey says she saw George eat the telegram.

Nick realizes that George and Martha made up the story of their son. George says he had the right to kill their son because Martha mentioned him, which is against the rules of their game.

The games over, George dismisses Nick and Honey. It is dawn, they leave, and George and Martha exchange bits of conversation about nothing. The mood is tense. George sings "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Martha replies, "I ... am ... George."

Analysis

The snapdragons symbolize that Martha is a dragon who attacks George. As George hands Martha the flowers, he says in Spanish, "Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores" (Flowers, flowers for the dead. Flowers). It is a reference to a line in the play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams (1911–1983). In both plays flowers symbolize desire (they are given to lovers) and death (they are displayed in funerals and on graves). Both plays revolve around marriage too.

Act 3 presents the play's climax. This occurs when George "kills off" their son by saying that he died in a car accident, swerving to avoid hitting a porcupine on the road. George and Martha never had a child. What George is killing off is the last of their illusions. He justifies his actions by the fact that Martha had mentioned their son in front of Nick and Honey and so made public their most private game. George feels empowered—perhaps even compelled—to play the game out to its conclusion in front of their guests. For the moment this gives George the upper hand in their marriage, and George and Martha can continue to attack each other. However, Martha's admission that she is indeed afraid of Virginia Woolf—the big bad wolf—suggests that irreparable harm has been done to their relationship.

When George says "Truth and illusion," he is talking about his claim to have sailed past Majorca, but he is also referring to all the illusions in his marriage—those concerning his son, his book(s), and whether or not he killed his parents, among others. Albee wants to make sure the audience does not miss part of his message: that after a time illusion and truth merge and one cannot be differentiated from the other. This is especially true in George and Martha's marriage, as their various stories and claims, told for decades, cannot be verified. Further, Albee is saying that it doesn't even matter, because the line between truth and illusion is thin, especially in the United States in the 1960s, the play's setting.

Honey says she "peels labels." In this act she peels the label off a liquor bottle. This symbolizes the peeling away of illusions to get to reality. This is what Albee does in the play: he strips each of the characters of his or her illusions, from Nick seeing himself as a stud (when he cannot maintain an erection) to Honey seeing herself as a wife and mother (when she admits she does not want to have children).

Nick and Honey parallel George and Martha: both men are professors and both women are faculty wives. Both couples drink to excess; both are unhappy in their marriage and their lives. Albee is suggesting that Nick and Honey have the potential to become another George and Martha. On the one hand, the fact that Honey peels the label off the bottle suggests that she is ready to peel away the illusions that have papered over the cracks in her marriage and life. On the other hand, she is still clutching the bottle of liquor, which suggests that she is not ready to give up drinking to numb herself to the emptiness of her life. Spending an evening with George and Martha may or may not have convinced Nick and Honey to reevaluate their marriage and lives.

As Martha talks about their son, George recites a traditional Christian prayer for the dead. He makes a religious hand sign as he says, "Kyrie eleison, Christe, eleison," which means "Lord have mercy." This is the exorcism, as George tries to rid their marriage of its demons—its illusions. Now George and Martha will have to live in the real world, empty of distorting fantasies. However, a strong case could be made that their marriage cannot exist without illusions, without the lies they tell themselves and the masks they wear to cover painful emotions and difficult truths. George and Martha, like many people, show false faces to the world—and very often to themselves as well—to cover the harshness of reality. Martha is justly afraid of facing life without the cover of illusion.

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