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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What does alcohol represent in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Alcohol was almost always served at social functions in the 1960s. Drinking to excess was common, and someone getting sick, as Honey does, was commonplace. As George says to Nick, "We drink a great deal in this country." People who did not drink were looked upon as oddballs who did not fit in. In addition, the characters in the play experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance, a condition where there is a discrepancy between what one thinks or wants and what actually is (e.g., Nick did not want to marry Honey, but he did because of her hysterical pregnancy; Honey wants to play the proper part of an academic's wife, but her intellect is insufficient). Critic Robert M. Post has suggested that the characters' experiences of cognitive dissonance drive them to drink heavily in an effort to ease psychological distress. Others have observed that the extreme levels of intoxication contribute to the degeneration of the logical order, allowing the play to slip from realism into the realm of the absurd.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why do Nick and Honey remain at George and Martha's home when the evening is so unpleasant?

Nick and Honey remain at George and Martha's home for two reasons. First, they are mesmerized by the horror of the scene, as it is like watching a train wreck or a traffic accident in slow motion. Nick and Honey cannot believe what they are hearing and seeing and cannot tear themselves away from the horror of it. They want to see how it will all turn out too. Will George and Martha tear each other apart? Will George produce a real gun and shoot Martha? Anything can happen, given the fierceness with which George and Martha attack each other. Second, Nick and Honey are polite, especially Honey. It would be rude to suddenly leave George and Martha's house, and Honey and Nick do not want to be rude and possibly cause offense. They do try to leave in Act 3, but they aren't allowed to.

Why is it ironic that George is a history professor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

George is a history professor, someone who has devoted his adult life to learning about the past, yet he does not learn from the history of his own marriage. It is ironic that George and Martha keep having the same battles over the same issues. Their battles have been going on for decades, but neither George nor Martha appears to have learned anything from the experiences. Because Albee's play explores the devolution of American character, George's position as a history professor also functions as a device for delivering useful historical context throughout the play. One example is the book on the decline of Western civilization. It would be out of place for a man of another profession to pick up this book. A famous philosopher once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This richly applies to the situation between George and Martha.

Why does Albee bring up test-tube babies and genetic engineering in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Albee brings up the issue of test-tube babies and genetic engineering to show the hopes and the fears of the future. Science has the potential to improve the lot of humankind. Science can cure some diseases and help some infertile people to bear children. The latter is especially significant to the play, as both couples are childless. Martha appears to be unable to bear children (George's fertility is never mentioned), and Honey had a hysterical pregnancy and has not been pregnant in actuality. That Honey is described as "slim-hipped" suggests that she, too, is unable to conceive.

What does the boxing match between George and Martha represent in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The boxing match occurred as a result of Martha's father asking George to box with him. George didn't want to, as it would not be polite for George to attack his father-in-law, who is also his boss. While George and his father-in-law were arguing about George not wanting to box, Martha put on a pair of boxing gloves. She snuck up behind George and threw a hard punch. George turned around quickly, and Martha's punch caught him right on the jaw. Off balance, George stumbled back a few steps and fell into a berry bush. Martha sees this event as having affected George's entire life and career. The boxing match, then, is another way that Martha humiliates George. It is another example of the shifting balance of power between them. That Martha caught George from behind, however, shows that she does not fight fairly. She is a vicious, sneaky fighter. Finally, George and Martha's entire marriage can be seen as a verbal boxing match. Some blows land, some do not. Some do significant damage. With each ringing of the chimes (akin to the round bell in a boxing match), there is a shift in the power dynamic.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? who is to blame for George being a failure in his career?

George's career failure must be laid at his own feet, at least partly. He does not have the social skills necessary to succeed, especially in the highly political world of college teaching. Martha says that George got "bogged down," suggesting that he lacks ambition. This certainly appears to be the case, as the text does not mention George publishing anything (necessary for advancement in academia). However, some of the blame for George's career failure must be assigned to Martha, because she has not fulfilled her duties as a supportive academic wife. Just the opposite is true: she undermines his career by sleeping with his coworkers and by demeaning him in front of anyone who will listen. George functions as a symbol of the failure of the modern American man. He represents men who cannot get ahead, who are stuck at jobs they endure (or detest), and who lack the support and respect of their wives.

What does the incident with the shotgun in Act 1 add to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

George aims a shotgun at Martha. Instead of bullets a large red-and-yellow parasol pops out from the barrel. This terrifies Honey, who screams. Martha, on the other hand, is delighted with George's stunt and laughs so much that she almost breaks down. This scene, then, adds both terror and humor. It adds terror because it suggests that, if pushed too far, George is capable of real violence against Martha. The visual of the umbrella coming out of a gun, an old joke, adds humor because it is unexpected.

What does the absence of mothers in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? suggest about Albee's themes?

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee surfaces the post–World War II mentality in the United States that women are meant to be in the home, caring for their children, representing the nurturing and loving aspects of humanity. The absence of mothers in this play subverts these expectations. Through Martha and Honey the play explores what women who were childless, whether or not by choice, might have experienced as second-wave feminism was dawning. Perhaps at one point Martha wanted children, but, in the wake of the discovery that she never would, she could have done a number of other things, a fact she makes her guests aware of when she says she is smarter than George. In addition to challenging traditional gender roles, the fact that there are no mothers suggests that there will be no new generation. During the Cold War, there was a fear of mutually assured destruction, the annihilation of the human race by nuclear warfare. By denying Martha a child and denying Honey the desire to mother a child, Albee is commenting on the destruction of the nuclear family. A psychological analysis of the play could yield the conclusion that Albee understands and writes female characters in this way because he was orphaned as a child, consequently denied a mother's love.

Why does Honey repeatedly vomit in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

At the end of Act 1, Honey says, "I'm going to be sick ... I'm going to be sick ... I'm going to vomit." On a literal level, Honey vomits because she drank too much and upset her stomach. However, her husband Nick is not sympathetic. Rather, he is annoyed, saying "Oh, for God's sake!" as he goes after her. On a figurative level, Honey's vomiting can be seen to represent her disgust at the vicious fighting between George and Martha. Their attacks have turned her stomach and made her physically ill.

What is the significance of the title of Act 2 in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Act 2 is called "Walpurgisnacht." This is a reference to a witches' orgy, named after Saint Walpurga, an ancient German nun, that traditionally took place on April 30. The night is filled with horror and terror, as the devil's servants —witches and warlocks—act without any boundaries. This is how George and Martha behave in Act 2, when they drop their remaining manners and inhibitions and attack each other with total abandon. We see this especially when they discuss their "son," the imaginary child, the one topic that has been off the table. Albee might be alluding to the scene in the dramatic work Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) titled "Walpurgisnacht," in which Mephistopheles, the devil incarnate, leads the titular character Faust away from the romantic love he has for a woman named Gretchen toward a carnal, sexual love with a naked witch. A parallel might be drawn between Nick and Faust and Martha and the witch here, as George encourages Nick to have sex with his wife. Toward the end of this scene in Faust, Gretchen drowns her newborn baby, just as George symbolically kills the imaginary son at the end of Act 3.

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