Family Relationships in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Consider Albee’s presentation of family relationships in relation to ideas about the mind and self.

2020 JC1 June Common Test

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, familial relationships, or lack thereof, between characters are presented as being highly illusory and idealised as well as far from the unhappy reality, in order to cope with the latter. Hence, Albee asserts that these falsely intimate familial relationships do ultimately harm to the characters’ mind and selves, despite distracting from the true state of relationship, and must be overcome to confront and mend reality.

Martha’s relationship with her father is idealised by the former in order to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between her desire for a close relationship with her father and the estrangement of reality, seen through how Martha gives exaggerated verbal affirmation of her closeness. In Act 1, Martha tells the party that “I sort of grew up with [her father]”, after which she “pause[s] – thinks”, before launching into an effusive stream of praise for him. The first phrase “sort of” already seems to denote the reality of the estrangement from her father, as well as conveying Martha’s uncertainty. The stage direction “pauses, thinks” further indicates that Martha is actively attempting to fabricate an idealised story about her relationship and is thinking of that on the spot, which manifests in “Jesus, I admired the guy!” The exclamatory sentence and expletive serve to emphasise the extreme adoration, which only further intensifies to “worship”, and is repeated “I worshipped him…I absolutely worshipped him”. This elevates the praise to ludicrous heights, as the intensifier of “absolutely” and repetition of “worshipped” seems extreme and exaggerated, as though Martha is actively attempting to convince and affirm to herself, as well as the guests that the love between herself and her father is indubitable. However, the reality of their relationship is later revealed by George that Martha’s father “doesn’t give a damn whether she lives or dies”, exposing the estrangement and alienation Martha feels, and her resulting need to idealise an illusory, loving relationship with her father to cope with the truth.

Martha and George’s relationship as husband and wife also demonstrates a wilful idealisation on occasion. Instigated by George, the parasol-gun game brings Martha seeming joy, as she “joyously” exclaims “where’d you get that…?” and “giggling”, demonstrating a euphoria that seems disproportionate to George’s response, which is shown to merely be a “trifle abstracted”, giving a clear comparison of the likely lack of genuineness Martha feels. Despite George’s unwillingness to do so in front of the guests, Martha “will not be dissuaded” in engaging in physically intimate displays of “kiss[ing]” and Martha “taking George’s hand, places it on her stage-side breast”. These explicitly intimate acts are on full display for Nick and Honey, and even seems to target the audience” through “stage-side”, displaying Martha’s attempts to enforce and delude herself, the guests and the audience into believing that George and herself indeed are loving, despite all the verbal violence that had occurred before that and the actual, vindictive nature of George’s ‘game’ that sparked this response in the first place. Hence Martha once again attempts to realise an idealised, affectionate relationship with her husband, of which the reality and lack of reciprocity in their familial relationship is exposed again by George, who “breaks away” and pronounces her true attempts as “blue-games for the guests”, connoting the falsity of the affection in the familial relationship.

Finally, this wilful idealisation of familiar relationships culminates in the most vibrant and detailed of all that of the mythical son upon whom Martha constructs a beautiful and perfect illusion of family as mother, father and child in order to cope with her barren reality. Martha describes vividly how she “carried the child…across the great fields”, the imagery of carried” and “great fields” serving to emphasise the sacrificial and greatly loving nature of Martha’s actions, hence displaying how she is a similarly sacrificial and loving mother to her child, implying a great closeness and perfect in this familial relationship. This is further reinforced by Martha repeating “and as he grew” twice, highlighting the continuity and persistent perfection and nurturing of the son’s relationship with her, and the physical motion of “spreading her hands” to emphasise the vividness and perceived reality of Martha and George’s idealised role as loving parents who their son had “a hand out to each of us for what we could offer”, further emphasising the dependence of their son and the loving reciprocity of the familial perfection relationship-wise. Of course, this false familial relationship is destroyed and exposed by George with “Our son is DEAD!”, once more demonstrating a need to fictionalise familial relationships in the absence of them, even to the extent of constructing a wholly false one from nothing, showing the mind’s strong desire to create an ideal version to cope with real events.

In conclusion, the characters, particularly Martha, construct highly fictionalised familial relationships to reflect their ideal version of them, in order to delude and distract from the sad reality. However, by the end of the play these familial relationships are stripped of illusions and confronted – the first step that Albee presents as the mending first step towards an ideal familial relationship not in the mind, but in reality.

Leia Ong (20-U1)