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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is Albee's message about illusion and reality in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been called" a comedy of concealment" for its central conflict between illusion and reality. By the end of the play, the audience may not be sure of what is real and what is not. For instance, was George the boy who killed both his parents? Does Honey really want a child or has she been taking birth control pills all along? Once a character or audience member thinks he or she has assembled some logical narrative, Albee shakes it up with new information, like the graduation gift from George's parents. Critic Robert Brustein has observed that Albee seems more interested in his characters' concealed reality than in their actual history. He has noted that George and Martha's conflicts are contests with specific rules, and what they reveal about each other may be contrived illusion, not reality. What Albee draws out is the very endeavor of holding existential dread at bay through these games, lies, and illusions. Paradoxically, he is saying that illusions can blind people to what they must be or do to survive—and yet they may not be able to survive without at least some of their illusions. On the macro level, the conflict between illusion and reality is tied to George's reading from the book The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). In order for a nation to drop an atomic bomb, it must assume itself the superior, unchallenged power, an assumption called into question during the Cold War when the Soviet Union challenged the United States in the arms and space races. The illusion that the West will prevail is dismantled by Spengler's assertion that the West must eventually fall. The threat of this collapse of the West is articulated when George says, "I will not give up Berlin!"—a city that was divided among the Allied forces at the end of World War II. Before long, as tensions grew between the Soviet Union and the United States, Berlin became a real and symbolic battleground for power. To give up Berlin—and with it the illusion of Western superiority—would be for the West to fall.

What is Albee's message about success in America in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Most Americans base their definition of success on the acquisition of material goods: a large home, luxury cars, and the latest electronics, for instance. The nonmaterial aspects of success may include a spouse, children, and perhaps a designer dog. In the 1950s, when Albee was in his 30s, most Americans considered themselves successful because the country was riding on a wave of material prosperity. Many soldiers returning from World War II had been able to purchase homes in the suburbs, get stable jobs, marry, and have a family. The family in which Albee was raised, as with many families in the 1950s and 1960s, was deeply concerned with conforming and fitting in. The family wanted to project the illusion of perfection. Albee was never comfortable with this image of success, however, and rebelled against it in his personal and professional life. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee is suggesting that success should not measured by society's yardstick. He is saying that trying to achieve conventional success can be crushing, as the audience sees in the fate of George and Martha.

What role does the American Dream play in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The American Dream is the belief that every American has an equal chance to achieve success through hard work, determination, initiative, and luck. According to this uniquely American mythology, success manifests as home ownership and a nuclear family; in other countries, success is usually determined by family background and social standing. In the play Albee is saying that the American Dream is an illusion. George and Martha's dysfunctional tale stands in stark contrast to the narrative of their namesakes, the first president and First Lady of the United States. The significance of this representation goes beyond the possible suggestion that George and Martha failed to achieve the American Dream because they don't have a nuclear family and George has not ascended to a position of power in the university. What Albee forwards is the notion that the American Dream is a failed concept; that achieving benchmarks of outward success does not add up to a satisfying existence, free from the fear and existential dread that sets in when one stands outside the narrative and looks at reality.

How does Honey peeling labels contribute to the theme of illusion versus reality in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Honey peels the labels off the bottles of liquor that she drinks. In Act 2 she apologetically holds up her brandy bottle and says, "I peel labels." George replies, "We all peel labels, sweetie," and extends the metaphor to include peeling skin, muscle, and bone down to the marrow. He says, "That's what you gotta get at." Honey's actions symbolize peeling away layers of illusion to get to the core of reality. George states this in his reply to her. In Act 3, through the exorcism, George is peeling away the illusions in his marriage when he "kills off" his and Martha's imaginary son. This is the climax of the play. The line "we all peel labels, sweetie," suggests that Martha and George have been down this road before; they have peeled the layers back to the marrow, confronted their realities, and then receded into their illusions once again. Throughout the play there is a rehearsed quality to the rounds between Martha and George, reflecting a ritualistic element, an element that is also offered by the titles of Act 2 and 3. At the end of the play, when George has brought Martha's fun and games to an end and she admits that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf, or reality, the ritualistic tenor of the play implies that Martha will at some point recede back into her illusions and the game will play out again with future house guests.

How do George and Martha fail to fulfill gender roles in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In the 1960s American women were expected to be conventional homemakers: raise children, cook meals, clean the home, and perhaps volunteer in the community, play bridge, or garden in their leisure time. Men were expected to be the breadwinners. Men were also expected to be promoted and rise in their careers. Of course, these were stereotypes: some women worked, some men cooked, cleaned the home, and took care of the children. Nonetheless, this strict gender role division was the conventional image of the time. George and Martha fail to fulfill these expectations. Martha has not had any children, and she does not appear to meet any of the conventional roles of a 1960s wife. There is no mention of her cooking, cleaning, or having leisure social activities. Similarly, George fails to fulfill his gender expectations. He does not make much money, and he has not become a success by rising in his career. Martha's dissatisfaction with George's ability to meet these expectations is revealed through comments such as "You can't afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary! Not on an associate professor's salary! So here I am, stuck with this flop." The word flop is echoed later when Martha calls Nick a flop after he fails to perform sexually. Here, Albee uses verbal repetition to tie different parts of the drama together by reminding the audience of them.

Based on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? does Albee prefer illusion or reality?

It seems from the title onward that the choice between living in illusion or reality will be the play's theme. The title expresses a fear of an author who explored stream of consciousness, a narrative form that approximates the flow of thoughts through the character's mind in an unencumbered way, without clarification or imposed narrative structures. In the work Albee suggests that an authentic life is based on reality, not illusion. George and Martha fight viciously while living under their illusions. It is only when they shed their illusions, when their illusions are "exorcised," that they can start building a life that has the potential to be satisfactory and perhaps even happy.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Martha telling the truth when she says George is the only man who has made her happy?

In Act 3 Martha says that George is the only man who has ever made her happy. She says, "[George], who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy." George is the only man who is good to her, who can make her laugh, who can make her warm when she is cold. Martha is being sincere, and that is the tragedy of the play: the one person Martha loves, the only person Martha loves, is the man she attacks and pushes away. He is the man she "bites so there is blood" and who has "made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake" of loving her. Martha's need to engage with something beyond the life of a housewife compels her to invent games that challenge her intellect, and she believes that George is not only the only man who will play along with her in a demonstration of love but is also the only one who can keep up with her rules as fast as she can change them.

What is the significance of Martha's relationship with her father in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Because Martha's father has given her status as the daughter of the college president, Martha worships him and does everything he requests. For example, she invited Nick and Honey over after the faculty party—even though it is very late at night—because her father asked her to do so. But, as the play develops, Martha's father emerges as a cold and distant figure, more concerned with his social standing than with his daughter's problems. For example, when Martha rebelled and married the gardener, her father had the marriage annulled and quickly found Martha a suitable husband—George—and had them married with equal haste.

How do Nick and Honey illustrate the theme of private versus public images in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The play shows many disconnects between private and public images. The lives of Nick and Honey are good examples. Nick appears to be the perfect young man of the 1960s: he has a good job, a fine education, and a loving wife. He is handsome and in shape too. However, he does not seem to have any attachment to his work, and he admits that he never loved his wife. He did not love her when they married, and he does not love her now. He married her because she appeared to be pregnant and marriage was the socially conventional action to take. His public image does not match his private image. Honey appears to be the ideal young wife of the 1960s: attractive, compliant, and wealthy. However, her reality is very different. Her hysterical pregnancy suggests her conflicted feelings about motherhood. She says that she wants to have a child, yet she takes birth control pills to prevent conception. Her excessive drinking suggests deep issues with her marriage and dealing with life. She is loopy for much of the play, vomiting in the bathroom and not always following the conversation. Her public image does not match her private image.

How do elements of stagecraft heighten the drama in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A master of theater, Albee uses many elements of stagecraft to make this play dramatic. First, from the opening of Act 1 on, he works in many sound effects. These include the door chimes that signal the start and end of the metaphorical boxing rounds in which Martha and George are engaged. Other sounds, such as the crash upon entry in the opening scene and the scratching of a record being ripped from the record player, introduce the tone of discord, helping to establish the concept of dissonance in the drama. He also has many dramatic visual effects, including the shattering glass, physical fights, and sex scenes. The sex scene between Martha and Nick might qualify as what some critics have called the "theatricalization" of cultural norms. In this insular academic culture, it is clear that a fair amount of philandering occurs; here, Martha is intentionally inhabiting her role as a professor's wife. Albee also uses stage directions to create drama by indicating how actors move across the stage, shout, pause, and use body language to convey mood. For example, when George confronts Honey about her hysterical pregnancy, the stage direction stipulates that George speaks to Honey "[as if to a baby]," reminding the audience that Honey represents an adolescent version of Martha and that she and Nick are headed toward the same outcome if they do not confront their reality. Similarly, when George realizes that Honey has been intentionally preventing, if not terminating, pregnancies, the stage direction signals that George initially "[nod[s] his head ... speaks with compassion], and in a moment's time, his tone shifts "[ugly again]." This vacillation reveals the mercurial nature of George's character, leaving the audience with the sense that anything could happen, thus building tension.

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