Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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Themes and Colors
Imperfect Marriage  Theme Icon
Academia Theme Icon
Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling Theme Icon
Ambition, Success, and Failure  Theme Icon
Children and Childishness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Academia Theme Icon

The play takes place “on the campus of a small New England college,” George and Nick are both professors, and Martha’s father is the president of the college. This academic setting influences and taints the narrative in various ways at various points throughout the play. It results in specific power dynamics, tensions, and jealousies among the characters—Martha is attracted to Nick, and George is threatened by him, because of his academic accomplishments; Martha’s father bears the key to George’s future success or failure, and thus defines the terms of their marriage; George and Nick’s academic disciplines inform their modes of conversation and their argument about genetic biology.

The academic setting also contributes particular significance to the genders of the characters—the characters who are employed by the college and whose successes are examined, George, Nick, and Martha’s father, are all men. The women in the play, Martha and Honey, are only affiliated with the college through their familial relations. Honey plays an exaggerated version of the university wife, in her timidity and deference to her husband. The play examines the tricky intersection and separation in the academy, between professional and personal life, and public and private life. It also explores the limitations of academic intelligence and professional ambition in creating a happy life.

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Academia ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Academia appears in each act of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Academia Quotes in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Below you will find the important quotes in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf related to the theme of Academia.
Act 1 Quotes

Musical beds is the faculty sport around here.

Related Characters: George (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

George has confided to Nick that it is not easy being married to the president's daughter; Martha, overhearing this, has snapped back at him, before exiting the room with Honey. With the women gone, George teases Nick, who grows exasperated and tells George he doesn't like being involved in other people's business; George replies that this will soon change, as "musical beds is the faculty sport" at the university. Once again, George takes on a kind of mentoring, parental role with his guest, though again, this is given a disturbing twist by the fact that George seems to be encouraging Nick to engage in adultery. 

The framing of extramarital affairs as being akin to the children's game "musical chairs" further blurs the distinction between childhood innocence and the sinister reality of adult life. Like a child, George treats the matter at hand playfully; however, given that he is discussing marital infidelity, this suggests a kind of moral irresponsibility and carelessness. Throughout the play, Nick and Honey's earnestness is contrasted with George and Martha's unwillingness to take anything seriously, a disposition that seems to have resulted from years spent in a bitter and tumultuous marriage. 


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Do you believe that people learn nothing from history? Not that there is nothing to learn, mind you, but that people learn nothing? I am in the History Department.

Related Characters: George (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

George has been asking Nick about his work, falsely assuming Nick was in the Math department when he is in fact in Biology. Nick appears frustrated with the riddle-like way in which George is speaking with him; in this passage, George adopts the same style of speech in reference to his own work in the History department. George's question seems to imply that he does not take his academic work particularly seriously, a fact that perhaps reflects his lack of success in his field. Nick, in contrast, is a very promising scholar who takes his work very seriously, and reacts badly to George's jesting. 

George's question about people learning nothing from history may also allude to the wider political context of the play. In the first half of the 20th century, it was widely assumed that the devastating effects of the two World Wars would deter nations from engaging in international conflict; yet in 1962 the Cold War had escalated to a climax, leading many to fear that the world was facing imminent destruction by nuclear conflict. This anxiety created a nihilistic atmosphere in which it could be difficult to believe that ordinary actions mattered or that people had learned their lesson from the first two World Wars. 

He was going to be groomed. He’d take over someday…until [Daddy] watched for a couple of years and started thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all…that maybe Georgie boy didn’t have the stuff…that he didn’t have it in him!

Related Characters: Martha (speaker), George
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

With George out of the room, Martha has been telling Nick and Honey her life story, including the fact that her father had wanted her future husband to be someone who would one day take over the university presidency. Martha explains that at first her father approved of George and planned to "groom" him for the role of president; however, he then changed his mind, coming to believe that George "didn't have it in him." This story is of course highly embarrassing for George, a fact made worse by his reentrance into the room halfway through. Martha exhibits a total disregard for her husband's feelings and for ordinary codes of social conduct; indeed, it seems her motivation for telling her guests this story is simply to hurt George by making him look bad. 

Martha's use of childish language ("Daddy"; "Georgie boy") infantilizes both her and George, and trivializes the story she is telling. The term "Daddy" also suggests she has a childishly close relationship to her father, exhibiting loyalty to him over her husband. Once again, Martha and George's childlessness could be interpreted as creating an imbalance in the conventional family dynamic. Perhaps because she was not able to become a parent herself, Martha remains stuck in the position of a child, thereby alienating her from her husband.