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.
Ambition, Success, and Failure  Theme Icon

George’s lack of success is a great point of conflict in his marriage to Martha, who, with her father, had expected him to accomplish more than he has. George was expected to take over the college’s presidency after the retirement of Martha’s father, but Martha suggests that her father no longer thinks George fit for the position. She mocks his scholarly work, the novel he wrote, and his general weakness. George is put into relief by the young Nick, who is praised as ambitious, successful, and bound to achieve great things. Martha seems more upset with George’s lack of success than even he is, which might be read as a projection of her own frustration with her own inability to have an accomplished professional life —a consequence of the sexism of the time, and perhaps an indication of her own shortcomings as well.

That all of the characters’ focus on ambition and relative success has only led them to the seemingly unhappy situations on display in the play suggests that success as they understand it may not be a good value or barometer to dictate one’s life around.

Ambition, Success, and Failure ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Ambition, Success, and Failure 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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Ambition, Success, and Failure 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 Ambition, Success, and Failure .
Act 1 Quotes

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.   


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Act 2 Quotes

I’m loud, and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to, but I am not a monster. I am not.

Related Characters: Martha (speaker)
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

Honey has left the room to be sick again after the game of "Get the Guests," and Nick has followed her. Martha at first seemed somewhat impressed by her husband's bold behavior, but quickly begins insulting him, and the two have once again descended into cruel bickering. George calls Martha a monster, and she responds by insisting that although she's "vulgar" and domineering, she is not a monster. This exchange highlights the complexities in Martha and George's dynamic. At the beginning of the play, Martha appears to be the more harsh and impolite of the pair; she incessantly pressures the other characters to drink and disparages and humiliates George. In this passage, she claims to "wear the pants in this house because somebody's got to," a statement that suggests her behavior is a direct result of George's failure to live up to the masculine ideal of a confident, assertive husband. 

However, over the course of the play it begins to seem like George is far more cold-hearted than his wife. While he and Martha both berate each other, it is George who then chooses to torment their guests. The climax of the play comes in the form of George telling Martha their imaginary son is dead, an act that clearly has a devastating effect on her. At this point, Martha's vulnerability is exposed, and it becomes difficult for the audience to see her as a "monster." George, on the other hand, appears to have abandoned all sense of social decency and morality, suggesting that he may be the true "monster" of the pair.