Narratives and myths in The Caretaker and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

With reference to two texts you have studied, compare the ways their authors use narratives or mythsto present the mind and self.

Narratives and myths are rampant in both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well as The Caretaker, revealing their characters’ states of mind to the audience and allowing characters to create illusions for themselves. Characters in both plays construct their ideal sense of self, using myths and narratives as coping mechanisms, which are ultimately destroyed by the end of the plays. Martha’s reliance on myths and narratives manifests in her using them as coping mechanisms, but results in her eventual acceptance of her reality, while Davies, despite similarly having a dependence on narratives to cope with his reality, fails to accept or embrace his situation, remaining in denial up till the end of the play. Albee and Pinter thus use narratives and myths to depict both the growth and stagnation of characters’ states of mind, portraying characters at the various stages of their ideal selves and their true selves. 

Narratives or myths are used by characters in both plays as coping mechanisms to deal with trauma, revealing an individual’s fragile state of mind, with both characters fabricating narratives in order to deal with or cope with an incomplete sense of self. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Martha creates a narrative about her relationship with her father as a defence mechanism, helping her to cope with the reality of their relationship. Martha describes her relationship with her father in a largely positive way, stating “[She] worshipped him… [She] absolutely worshipped him.”. Here, the intensification of “admired” to “worshipped” shows Martha beginning to overcompensate in her description of her relationship with her father, with the elevation of her father to an almost god-like status showing her going over and above to assure both the people present in the conversation as well as herself of their relationship. The addition of the intensifier “absolutely” as well as the repetition of “worshipped” further reinforces that, with the word “absolutely” leaving no room for any feelings other than reverence for her father. The ellipses used here underpin a sense of uncertainty beneath Martha’s praises of her and her father, showing her hesitation and the reality of their relationship – that they were not that close after all. The description of her father as being “pretty fond” of her, in contrast to her “absolutely [worshipping] him”, show the truth of their relationship, with the contrast between “pretty” and “absolutely” being stark in terms of indicators to how much Martha’s father valued her and how much she valued her father. The contrast between “fond” versus “worshipped” also hints at the different lengths to which they viewed each other, and implies the reality that Martha’s father did not really care for her that much. Finally, her statement of “we had a real… rapport going… a real rapport.” shows her hesitation, with the repetition of the word “real” showing how she was overcompensating and that they did not, in fact, have a real rapport. Martha’s overcompensation in talking about her father’s relationship with her shows the reality of their relationship, and shows her dealing with it through narratives in order to cope. In The Caretaker, Davies similarly utilises his narrative of Sidcup as a defense mechanism, helping him to cope with the reality of his lack of identity, home, and roots. Davies describes his identity as being certain and reliant on Sidcup, with his assertions having “great feeling”. The word “great” in the stage directions lends a sense of confidence to Davies’ claims. The punctuation in his statements “If only the weather would break! Then I’d be able to get down to Sidcup!” shows the conviction behind his words, initially showing the audience his sense of enthusiasm towards Sidcup, which has similarities to Martha’s appraisal of her father initially appearing to show their closeness. Tentative words such as “If only” and “Then” further show or paint Davies as shifting the blame of his identity away from himself and onto an external factor. However, the repetition of the declarative sentence “I got my papers there!” show the audience his overcompensating on behalf of his lack of identity, blaming it on Sidcup. The further use of repeated exclamation marks portray to the audience a sense of desperation and attempts at asserting his claim on Aston. The later repetition of “If only I could get down to Sidcup!” shows Davies’ similar overcompensation and overreliance on the Sidcup narrative in explaining his identity, with the phrase “it’s got it all down there, I could prove everything”, showing the extent at which he relied on or used this narrative as an excuse for his situation. Absolute words such as “all” and “everything” show how he places complete responsibility for his identity on Sidcup. Here, Davies differs from Martha in using his narrative as a coping mechanism in blaming an external factor for his lack of roots, or dubious identity, while Martha uses her narrative as a coping mechanism in painting an idyllic scene of her and her father’s relationship. However, both characters clearly use these narratives to help them cope with missing aspects in their lives, with Martha creating a narrative in order to deal or cope with her and her father’s lack of a relationship, idealising their relationship, while Davies creates a narrative in order to cope with his rootless identity, placing the blame on an external factor. 

The authors of both plays eventually shatter their characters’ illusions or myths, forcing them to confront or face their reality, with both characters struggling to accept their fate In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee unravels the son-myth that Martha relies on for the majority of the play, which results in her being forced to accept and embrace a life without illusions by the end of the play. In the closing scene, Martha saying “Did you… did you… have to?” shows a sense of reluctance, with the question of “did you” taking a tone of unwillingness to let go of her mythThe question also shows Martha making a suggestion to George, implying that perhaps they could keep the son-myth after all. The repetition of “Did you” lends a tone of fragility to the exchange between both characters and the ellipses further show her hesitation. Her questions of “It was…? You had to?” further allude to her cautious tone and wary state, with the repetition of “had to” showing a further reluctance to move on from the son-myth and to accept life without it. The ellipses show her reluctance, with the punctuation of the question marks showing the audience her sense of hope. Her subsequent asking of “I don’t suppose, maybe, we could…” has a continuation of that sense of hope in the restoration of the son-myth, with words such as “suppose”, “maybe”, and “could” lending a tone of ambiguity and hopefulness in her question. However, by the end of the play, Martha is resigned in accepting her fate and a life without illusions, as seen by her admission and repetition of “I… am… George….”. Her assertion of “I… am…” suggests or symbolises her acceptance of a life without myths, narratives or illusions, including the son-myth, but the ellipses between the words “I” and “am” are a clear sign of hesitation, showing her struggling to accept her fate. Despite this struggle, the assertion is nonetheless present, with the concrete acceptance being clear. Similarly to Albee, Pinter unravels the Sidcup narrative, which Davies is seen to be reluctant to let go of. At the end of the play, his statements of “Maybe I could… get down…” show a last ditch attempt at reinstating the Sidcup narrative in order to save himself from being evicted from the apartment, with his reliance on it even at the end of the play showing how he failed to acknowledge the destruction of the narrative. The ellipses here show his hesitation in asserting himself, and his later on repetitions of his offer to “get down” to Sidcup similarly show his final attempts to rely on the myth, despite its unravelling. Davies’ statements of “would you…  would you let… would you…” show the hopefulness in his tone, almost beseeching in manner, which unveils his desperation for the audience to see. This draws similarities to Martha, where both characters are unwilling to let go of their myths and to cling on to them, as seen in her similarly hopeful tone. Words like “maybe”, “could”, “would” and “if” reinforce the hope in Davies’ speech, with his reliance on the Sidcup narrative being evident in this final attempt to establish himself. The “[long silence]” which ends the play is preceded by “got my…”, showing a sense of indefiniteness, particularly with the ellipses, which thus ends the play with Davies still trying to assert or rely on the Sidcup narrative. Despite similarities between both characters in showing their reluctance to let go of their narratives or myths, the two plays diverge here, for Martha ultimately accepts the destruction of the son-myth, albeit hesitantly, whilst Davies never accepts the destruction of Sidcup, with the ending of the play being testament to this. Both plays still ultimately depict the unravelling of narratives and myths, and how this forces characters to confront their realities, with Martha ultimately accepting her fate and Davies being in denial up till the very end of the play. 
Both Albee and Pinter show how characters cope with their realities through narratives and myths, and how the undoing of these narratives affect characters differently. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? depicts the struggle and acceptance of a life without myths or illusions, while The Caretaker shows how characters are unable to be independent of their narratives. Ultimately, both plays show the dependence of the individual on coping mechanisms, be it internal or external, and show how illusions are not permanent and will eventually unravel.

Lauren Ong (20-U1)