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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Themes


Illusion versus Reality

George and Martha have based their lives on illusions, thus creating their own reality. For instance, Martha sees herself as having a close and loving relationship with her father, when they are in fact distant. While his colleagues were away at war, George served as chairman of the history department and sees himself as having continued in that position had the other members of the department not returned from the war. It is clear, however, that he would never have managed to keep the position, as he is not a leader. Both George and Martha have constructed an illusion that they have the "perfect" 1960s marriage, complete with a son. The son is imaginary, but their story of his life is extremely detailed. They drink to excess to drown their sorrow.

Albee suggests in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that a life built on illusions cannot be sustained. Only by facing reality can people survive and perhaps reach some measure of happiness. George and Martha face reality when George "kills off" their imaginary son so they can face the world—and each other—with honesty and integrity. Whether they will succeed remains open to interpretation.


Martha's private image is positive. She sees herself as socially prominent and respected because she is the daughter of the college president and is married to a professor. Her public image is very different. She is not respected because she seduces the men on the faculty and is a mean drunk. George's private image is somewhat positive, as he sees himself as a man much put-upon by his wife, a man beaten by circumstances. However, his public image is very different. He has lost face because his wife has betrayed him and he is a failure in his career, never advancing in academic rank (to full professor) or to a leadership position (as college president, as his father-in-law had initially planned.)

Therefore, the theme of image (especially the disconnect between public and private) links to the theme of illusion versus reality, as people's private images are often at odds with their public ones.

The American Dream

George and Martha—named after George and Martha Washington—are middle-aged and have a wretched marriage. They are disappointed in their lack of a child, disillusioned by each other's lies, drink too much alcohol, and verbally attack each other. The audience can assume that George and Martha were once in love, or at least liked each other enough to get married. But their union has been perverted into hate, misery, and resentment. Their marriage represents the failure of the American Dream, the uniquely American idea that people can get ahead with hard work and luck, without family connections or inherited money. In the 1960s most people believed that the American Dream was within everyone's grasp.


In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee explores what it meant to be a success in America in the 1960s. At that time a man's success was determined largely by the status of his job and size of his paycheck: the more status he had and the more income he earned, the more successful he was considered. In addition, a successful man was supposed to have a happy marriage to an attractive wife who produced attractive and cooperative children, kept a lovely home, cooked tasty meals, and perhaps did some volunteer work in her spare time.

A successful 1960s woman was expected to be married. She could be counted on to support her husband's career by entertaining in the home and by attending and socializing at her husband's business functions, as required. She was "allowed" to hold a low-status position, such as a secretary or salesclerk, for extra money. Some women did have prestigious careers, and some people (men as well as women) did stay single and childless, but they were considered odd and not successful.

By the standards of the time, then, George and Martha are both failures. George has not advanced in his career, nor does he earn much money. Martha does not have children, nor does she support her husband's career.

Balance of Power

George and Martha fight with each other to gain power over the other. At first Martha appears to have more power because she is a stronger and more vicious fighter and feeds off her father's status as college president. However, George shifts the balance of power in his favor when he reveals the story of their son and then "kills off" the son. Their conflict mirrors the jockeying for power during the Cold War, the period from after World War II to 1991 when Western countries, including the United States, had a hostile relationship with the Soviet Union. As a reviewer for the Guardian pointed out, "George and Martha are superpowers, forever ... stockpiling their emotional armories and playing lethal games of brinksmanship." The characters' fear of the future can be compared to that of people who came of age during the tension and uncertainty of the Cold War era.


Religion is one way that people cope with the emptiness in their lives. George calls Martha a "pagan," meaning that she lacks religion. Albee makes no mention of George being religious. Therefore, religion does not offer George and Martha a way to cope with their disappointments and futility. Only discarding their illusions and facing reality might help them deal with what Martha calls the "sadness" in their lives.


George and Martha have a wretched marriage, filled with hatred. They are vicious to each other and spread their venom to their guests. They don't follow the time-honored rule about keeping your private business to yourself. Their savagery suggests that marriage can become a prison in which people are trapped by routines, "games," and the inability to face reality. Albee suggests that many marriages in the 1960s were similar to George and Martha's. Nick and Honey's was built on a lie, a false pregnancy, and lacks passion. Nonetheless, many couples endured because of the social pressures to conform and to appear to be happy.

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