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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Book Summary
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The play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, simmers with potential violence and brute force. The enraged characters declare their motivations and intentions in a fierce abusive fashion. A sense of coarseness and brutality pervades the play.

The incident of George aiming a gun at Martha's head, and declaring that someday he will kill her with a real gun, stands out as an example of the potential cruelty he harbors as well as his growing frustration with their relationship. In fact, after pulling the trigger he announces "You're dead! Pow! You're dead!" This also reflects on his past and his need to re-enact his parents' death at his hands. His feelings of responsibility come out in a warped show of faux-violence.

In the second act George speaks of various ways to battle Martha. He can only think of guerrilla tactics where the opponent is injured. The parable of the boy, who kills his parents and laughs maniacally over their death, serves as a pointer to the genesis of violence. He cannot come to terms with his mother's violent death at his hands.

There is also a mention made of the actual physical boxing fight between Martha and George encouraged by Martha's father. Quite significantly, Martha wins the match. Thus their relationship is not only characterized by verbal battles, but it also culminates in an actual combat through this fight. This further implies the contest- like quality that is embedded in their relationship.

Whenever George is unable to check his wife's vicious tongue, he threatens to punch her in the mouth and rip her to pieces. Moreover, she is manhandled by him twice. He can only respond to her violently when she emasculates him in public. He warns her that she cannot withdraw from a game whenever she has gotten her share of "blood." This again indicates the gruesome quality of the play.

Martha relies on her venomous tongue when she announces that she will "finish" him some day. She also fears that perhaps one day in a drunken state she might either break his back or push him off from a height. She is so obsessed with violence that she sees brutality even in the flowers that George brings for her -- "Pansies! Rosemary! Violence!"

"Violence! Violence!" is Honey's exclamation and reaction as she watches George choke Martha. It is like another one of the games they play.

From the beginning to the end, the play focues on violence as one of the few ways that people can communicate with each other. It becomes an integral part of the drama that seems to be a battle of wills, all of them suffering from their own failures, shortcomings and perverse minds.


The play employs different symbols, allusions and metaphors to convey various messages related to the characters, their nature, their behavior and also the setting.

In the first act George alludes to a variety of literary and therefore fictional places such as Illyria, Penguin Island, Gomorrah and Carthage.

New Carthage is the town where the action of the play takes place. Carthage derives its name from the ancient city that was founded in the ninth century B.C. and was located in the north of Africa. Dido and Aeneas' love story took place with this city as the backdrop. According to legend, Dido ended her life by throwing herself on a flaming pyre to avoid marrying the king of Libya after Aeneas abandoned her. Carthage was later destroyed in the Punic Wars. It was robbed of all its riches and aristocracy and was referred to as a city of "unholy loves." George's allusion refers to the conquered city of Carthage due the irresponsible and deadly behavior of Dido and Aeneas.

Another allusion he makes is to Illyria, the idyllic seacoast setting of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In this play, Shakespeare explores the terrain of love, which is often delusional and full of game playing. George's allusion may refer to the games the characters play in order to outwit the other or add to the delusional qualities that are intrinsic to love. Also, much drinking is imbibed by several of the lower class characters in the play.

Gomorrah is a city mentioned in the Bible that was destroyed by God because of its sexual licentiousness. Penguin Island is an allusion to Anatole France's novel, Penguin Island that deals with civilization as reality and illusion.

Martha's father, the President of the college, expects his staff to be loyal, devoted and dutiful. As George puts it, he wants them to be like ivy, clinging to the building. Ivy here symbolizes subdued and vulnerable subordinates of the college who need support to form an identity of their own and who, in course of time, become a part of the land and the landscape. As they age and become feeble they too will drop dead like the withered ivy plants. He is alluding to himself and the concessions he has made.

The short-barreled gun symbolizes George's strength and power to retaliate, however, at the same time the parasol that stems from the gun signifies his internal weakness. He is emasculated by Martha's wrath and must act in a manner commensurate to her own in order to salvage himself as well as his identity.

The history department that Martha keeps referring to stands for the past and all that is old and petrified. She also uses words like "bog", "fen", and "swampy" to address George. They all signify decay, rot and decomposition. She thinks that like all these things her husband's existence is inconsequential and hidden. He does not stand out as an individual but has become a nothing.

In another incident, in the second act, Nick extends lip service to George about Martha's trenchant behavior. George understands his cold gesture. In a very dramatic way he expresses that his (Nick's) compassion towards him makes him weep "Large, salty unscientific tears!" George is referring to Nick's inhuman attitude. He knows that Nick's sympathies are neither genuine nor humane but that he is an opportunist who is pandering to him. In total contrast to this, George still values sentiments. For a biology professor who studies the functions of life, tears only convey a human function, a physiological response to pain. For George, tears are a sign of communicating emotions. George points out that the progressive world attaches little relevance to them, as they are "unscientific."

In the same act, Nick is advised by George to be careful about the ways he is trying to reach his goal. He refers to the "quicksand" that will suck him and drag him down. Nick holds that his career is of supreme importance to him and he cares little for the methods he chooses to achieve success. He ignores any risk involved in it. George points out that his means may jeopardize his career totally. The term "quicksand" is suggestive of how easily it is to fall asunder when one is pursuing unscrupulous goals.

In the third act Martha talks of their tears being crystallized into ice cubes. Their futile bid to trace and join the missing link in their marriage results in further frustrations. The disappointments take the form of ice cubes that have been recycled from their tears. Here she reveals how their constant drinking has been a substitute for revealing their emotions.

The imaginary son signifies the empty relationship of George and Martha. In the last act they speak of bringing up their imaginary baby. It is an illusion upon which they try to base their marital relationship. The growth of the son is again symbolic of the developments in their relationship and its inability to be anything more than the delusions they have brought to it. They also make a reference as to how their relationship ran into some rough times. Their son's fracture episode signifies this. Martha discloses that their son grew to walk "evenly between" them, protecting them from their own weaknesses. She hints at how the illusion tried to bridge their relationship.

Albee uses these figures of speech to present the hollowness of life, with its characters isolated from each other, and devoid of the warmth of love.

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