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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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What does the wolf symbolize in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in relation to the fairy tale "The Three Little Pigs"?

In the fairy tale "The Three Little Pigs," the first pig arrogantly believes his house of straw will protect him from the wolf. The second pig haughtily believes his house of sticks will protect him from the wolf. Only the third pig realizes that he needs a strong house, made of bricks, to protect him from the wolf. Sure enough, the wolf "huffs and puffs" and destroys the first two houses, but the third little pig's house survives. He captures the wolf and cooks him. George and Martha have not built a sturdy house—a sturdy marriage. Rather than constructing a firm foundation of truth, they have built their marriage on lies. They have rejected reality in favor of illusion. Therefore, the big bad wolf symbolizes the forces that will destroy George and Martha's marriage: their inability to face reality, their insistence on hiding behind the illusion that everything is fine. For example, they refuse to face the truth that their drinking has spun out of control, that George is bothered by Martha's affairs, and that they are wretchedly unhappy.

Why do George and Martha repeatedly sing "Virginia Woolf" instead of "the big bad wolf" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

George and Martha repeatedly sing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" instead of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," the song Frank Churchill (1901–1942) wrote in 1933 for the animated Disney film The Three Little Pigs. There are two main reasons for this. The first reason is symbolic and contributes to characterization. Singing "Virginia Woolf" for the "big bad wolf" is the type of clever word play that academics such as George, Martha, Nick, and Honey would find witty. Albee uses it to subtly describe and pigeonhole the characters in the play. Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was a British writer celebrated for her modernist style. She was a leader in the so-called Bloomsbury Group, a well-known group of English writers, artists, dancers, and scholars. Among the best-known members of the group were the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), the writer E.M. Forster (1879–1970), and Woolf. The group was named after the area in London in which many of the members lived. Their upper-crust lifestyle and influence on scholars and professors would appeal very much to the four characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Also, singing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"suggests a connection between Woolf's feminism and the dawning feminist movement in the United States. Martha expresses dissatisfaction with her gender role, as does Honey. The second reason is practical: Disney is notoriously rigid about copyright infringement, and singing the 1933 Disney song in a play would violate copyright. Albee could have obtained the rights for limited use, but such rights are very costly and would certainly have inhibited smaller and more local productions of the play. Having the characters sing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" does not require any copyright permission.

What do George's and Martha's names symbolize in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Albee's decision to name George and Martha after George and Martha Washington, the first president and First Lady of the United States, is an example of verbal irony. George Washington, known as the "Father of Our Country," is celebrated for his great success as a statesman, politician, leader, and soldier. He was also a successful farmer and is respected for his wisdom and integrity. The legend of young George cutting down the cherry tree and admitting it because he "cannot tell a lie" reflects his honesty and fine values. Martha was known for her upright character. She was assertive, well dressed, and wealthy. The character named George has none of George Washington's character traits. He is not a success in his career or a leader, shown by the fact that he could not even maintain his position as chairman of the history department. Unlike many of his colleagues, he never fought in World War II, so he is not a soldier. He is not respected for his integrity because he lies to himself, drinks to excess, and insults his wife. He does not even succeed in the traditional role of male breadwinner in the American society of the 1960s. The character of Martha has inherited some money from her father's second wife; the similarity between the two Marthas ends there. Albee's Martha is vicious, drunken, and bitterly disappointed with her marriage and her life. She sleeps with her husband's colleagues and tries to sleep with Nick, their guest, right under George's nose. Her behavior is so outrageous that George calls her a "Gorgon" and a "monster." Thus, both characters show how Americans have been reduced to pitiful figures by the circumstances of the modern age; men and women are no longer heroic models. Martha falls short of the traditional, stereotypical definition of womanhood: the ability to have children. She is a shrew, a monster, something to be feared rather than admired. George symbolizes how modern-day American men are no longer leaders, no longer respected, no longer honest. By any yardstick George does not fit the definition of American "success."

What is the significance of Nick's position as a biology professor in relation to George's profession as a history professor?

When in conversation with one another, these two men cover a long view of humanity. George, representing historical perspective with which Albee endows the text, is the source of most literary and historical allusions, as well as the critical voice of the future. Whereas the study of history is vast, encompassing many aspects of the human condition, biology is narrowly focused on cellular-level operations, perhaps with a lean toward eugenics, as implied by George's comment that the Nick will "rearrange [George's] genes so that everyone will be like everyone else." Later Nick and George predict that the biology department will eventually take over the history department; that is, the emerging fascination with the study of biology will eclipse the wisdom available to men through the study of history. Here, Albee pits two ideological paradigms against one another and accurately predicts the decline in prestige that will be suffered by the humanities over the coming decades.

Why does George repeatedly refer to Honey's "slim hips" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Albee has George's character repeatedly mention Honey's "slim hips" to bring up Honey and Nick's inability to have children. Albee uses Honey to symbolically make the point that American life in the 1960s has deteriorated, even to the point of affecting women's basic reproductive abilities. Prior to this period in history, the role of women had traditionally been to marry, have children, and take care of the household. To achieve this was considered the American Dream. Honey's (and Martha's) inability to bear children is in direct contrast to this dream. The revitalization of feminism was also in effect during this time in history. The fact that women were speaking out against "the feminine mystique"by expressing interest in pursuing careers and identities of their own, conflicted with the traditional role for women in American culture. The notion that having children was not so much the responsibility of women but the prerogative of the individual woman was breaking through.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why do George and Martha repeatedly and mistakenly think Nick is in the math department when he is really in the biology department?

George and Martha don't care about Nick as an individual: he is merely there as a prop, a witness to their unending battles. As a result they don't bother remembering his actual job. Nick's job is critical to his own identity, but to George and Martha he is merely another in a long line of new faculty hires who has been invited to their house to serve as the audience for their battles and perhaps as Martha's lover.

What do children symbolize to the two couples portrayed in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Neither George and Martha nor Nick and Honey have children. However, Martha and George have created an imaginary son, along with a very detailed story about him. The story functions as one of their "set pieces," a fable they use at parties to tease and entertain guests, another of their games. The death of their make-believe son marks the climax of the play. Honey had an imaginary pregnancy, called a "hysterical pregnancy." Nick married her to spare her the disgrace of being a single mother, which was the way single motherhood was regarded in the 1960s. Both couples are very much concerned about having children. For many people children are part of the American Dream and represent the core of the "ideal family." Perhaps both couples feel that children will be their legacy when they are dead. This is especially true for George, who is a failure at his job and has not even published his novel. Thus, he has built nothing of value for the future.

How does Nick's name reveal his character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is morally corrupt. He stays and watches the terrible fighting between Martha and George. He even joins in on several occasions. He ignores his wife for much of the play and admits that he never loved her. He married her because their parents expected them to, because she appeared to be pregnant, and because she had family money. He allows Martha to seduce him right under George's nose, perhaps as part of his disclosed plan to sleep his way to the top of the university even though he appears to be sexually impotent. Nick's name might be a reminder of the play's Cold War context by invoking the name of the Soviet Union's leader during part of that era, Nikita Khrushchev. Like Khrushchev, Nick is a heartless political schemer and might call to mind the antiquated nickname for the devil, "Old Nick," perhaps another comment on Khrushchev's character. Additionally, the young professor is originally perceived to be powerful and virulent but later is revealed to be impotent. The suggestion here is that the Soviet Union, and perhaps Communism, which may appear to be a powerful force on the global stage, will be shown as impotent in time.

How does Honey's name in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? evoke a stereotype from the 1960s?

Unlike the other characters in the play, Honey isn't given a real name. Instead Albee names her with a generic term of affection. She could just as easily have been named "Sweetie," "Lovey," "Sugar," or "Dear." This symbolizes the fact that she is a generic type—"a wife"—rather than a fully formed person. She symbolizes the slender, blond, American woman of the 1960s, who was often shown wearing a sweater set and pearls or cooking in a kitchen. Any other woman of the same type could be substituted for her, which shows readers why Nick values her so lightly. He openly says he does not love her and never did. He says he married her because he thought she was pregnant and because marrying her was "the right thing to do." Further, her family has money, another reason for Nick to marry her.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why does Albee open with a "crash against the front door" and what does the crash foreshadow?

The crash is literally George banging into the door of their house as he tries to enter. It is 2:00 in the morning and he and Martha are drunk. It is a very dramatic opening that allows Albee to begin the play with a literal bang and make sure the audience is sitting up in their seats. This opening crash also foreshadows the way in which George and Martha's marriage will crash. The crash suggests the mess they have made of their lives and the collateral damage they will inflict on others with their "games" and verbal battles.

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