Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling Theme Analysis

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.
Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling Theme Icon

George and Martha use Nick and Honey as an audience to whom they reveal dark secrets about their marriage, and thereby to betray one another’s honor and secrecy. Alcohol loosens everyone’s lips, and encourages even Nick and Honey to say things they otherwise wouldn’t. Nick discloses to George the story of his own marriage and Honey’s false pregnancy; Martha tells Nick and Honey about the book that George wrote but failed to publish on account of her father.

At the end of the play, as though revealing some truth, George and Martha begin to tell conflicting stories of their son’s birth and childhood. When George speaks, Martha accuses him of lying; when Martha speaks, he accuses her of lying. Then George dramatically reports that their son has recently died in a car crash. Martha yells at her husband, accusing him of having killed their son, and he responds, “You broke our rule, baby. You mentioned him . . . you mentioned him to someone else.” While the scene is confounding and difficult, it becomes clear that they never had a child after all, and yet placed great importance on maintaining, privately, the belief that they did. The fact that they have been lying all along about the existence of their son throws doubt on the truth of other stories they have told throughout the play, as of George’s story about the boy who accidentally kills both his parents. In fact, there is a suggestion that it is George's parents who have died, though perhaps not that he actually caused their deaths.

The play puts pressure on the contrast between stable appearances and chaotic hidden realities, and on the thin line between secret-revealing and story-telling. The final line of the play—Martha’s admitting that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf—lends further significance to this theme. Virginia Woolf was a social realist, who often depicted darkly realistic family lives. In admitting that she’s afraid of Woolf, Martha identifies the scariness of unmasking the truth, of facing reality, and in doing so, for the first time, admits a deep and honest truth about herself.

Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling 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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Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling 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 Appearance, Secrecy, and Truth-Telling.
Act 1 Quotes

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. 


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Act 2 Quotes

It was a hysterical pregnancy. She blew up, and then she went down.

Related Characters: Nick (speaker), Honey
Related Symbols: Babies
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Honey has left the room to be sick and Martha is tending to her; alone with George, Nick has admitted that Honey is sick often, and confessed that he married her because they thought she was pregnant. As it turns out, it was a "hysterical pregnancy," meaning Honey believed she was pregnant and even had symptoms of pregnancy, yet was never actually pregnant at all. This fact about Honey conveys the intensity of her desire for children. Indeed, the unfulfilled wish to be parents causes both couples to act in strange and delusional ways. While "hysterical pregnancy" is a recognized clinical condition, the word "hysterical" is particularly fitting in a play populated by characters who frequently behave in a crazed, delirious manner.

In the hospital, when he was conscious and out of danger, and when they told him that his father was dead, he began to laugh, I have been told, and his laughter grew and he would not stop, and it was not until after they jammed a needle in his arm, not until after that, until his consciousness slipped away from him, that his laughter subsided.

Related Characters: George (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

George has been telling Nick a story from his teenage years, when a boy he knew confessed that he accidentally killed both his parents, first by shooting his mother and then running over his father while learning to drive. George describes the moment when the boy woke up in the hospital following the car accident to be told that his father was dead. According to George, the boy laughed hysterically for such a prolonged period that he had to be sedated. Like many other moments in the novel, this story depicts the disturbing realities that lie beneath ordinary social dynamics. The boy's laughter is a bizarre and highly inappropriate reaction to the news that he has murdered his father; at the same time, this is consistent with many other moments in the play when dark and cruel behavior is accompanied by laughter. 

The fact that this story involves a parent-child relationship is also significant. The desire to have children is an overwhelming force in the novel, yet this passage depicts an inverse to this theme: the Oedipal narrative of a boy murdering his father. The story is also connected to George's later symbolic "murder" of his and Martha's imaginary son, when he tells the other characters that they have received a telegram with the news that their son is dead. The playfulness with which George presents these matters of familial life and death implies that he does not take them seriously, emphasizing the sense of nihilism that runs throughout the play. 

Just before we got married, I developed…appendicitis…or everybody thought it was appendicitis…

Related Characters: Honey (speaker), Nick
Related Symbols: Babies
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

Martha and Honey have returned, and Martha has demanded that George apologize for making Honey sick; Honey interjects that she gets sick often, and that before she was married she developed a condition that "everybody thought... was appendicitis." Because Nick has already told the real version of this story to George, the audience is aware that what actually happened to Honey was a hysterical pregnancy. This passage thus involves multiple layers of false appearances––Honey's false pregnancy, her lie that it was appendicitis, and even to some extent her marriage to Nick, which Nick has admitted took place to avoid scandal when they thought Honey was pregnant out of wedlock. Nick and Honey, whose marriage seemed respectable and harmonious at the play's outset, are revealed to lead lives consumed by secrecy and deceit in much the same way as George and Martha.

Our son ran away from home all the time because Martha here used to corner him.

Related Characters: George (speaker), Martha
Related Symbols: Babies
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Martha has told Nick and Honey that her son used to be sick whenever George was in the room; George responds that their son would frequently run away because Martha "used to corner him." Once again, George and Martha attack one another in a strangely open, almost performative way. They seem fixated with one-upping each other, competing over who can leverage the crueller insult. George's words here evoke disdain for Martha's feelings about their imaginary child, perhaps suggesting he is resentful of the intensity of her desire to have children. Meanwhile, the fact that George and Martha use their imaginary son as a way of insulting each other conveys the extent of their marital misery; even engaged in a fantasy game, they cannot imagine a happy home life, but only different manifestations of their current unhappiness.

You told them! OOOOHHHH! OH, no, no, no, no! You couldn’t have told them…

Related Characters: Honey (speaker), Martha , George , Nick
Related Symbols: Babies
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

George has played a game he calls "Get the Guests," in which he has told the other characters a thinly-veiled version of the story Nick confessed of Honey's hysterical pregnancy. Having realized that Nick must have told George her secret, Honey cries out in horror, exclaiming "you couldn't have told them." Honey's non-verbal cries of "OOOOHHHH!" in this passage convey her drunken and emotional state and make her seem childish. (This impression is emphasized by the fact that George has told the story like a children's tale, with Honey shown as a mouse who "puffs up.") Unlike the three other characters, who are all accustomed to taking part in intellectual rapport, Honey is characterized as earnest and unintelligent; she is not able to understand the ironic and absurdist ways in which George and Martha speak and interprets their words literally. 

This sense of earnestness translates to her relationship with Nick, whom she can't believe has betrayed her by telling George about her false pregnancy. Nick has repeatedly told George that he finds George and Martha's fighting and open discussion of their marital problems uncomfortable and inappropriate; however, at this moment it is revealed that Nick has done the same thing to Honey. This suggests that George and Martha are having a corrupting influence on the younger couple. At the same time, the fact that Nick and Honey's marriage seems to unravel so easily implies that the issues of dishonesty, secrecy, and betrayal plague all marriages, rather than being unique to George and Martha's exceptionally tumultuous relationship. 

Act 3 Quotes

I cry all the time too, Daddy. I cry allllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And George cries all the time, too.

Related Characters: Martha (speaker), George
Related Symbols: Babies, Alcohol
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning Act 3, Martha is alone onstage, drunkenly talking to herself and conducting imaginary conversations with George and her father. She confesses to her father that she and George both "cry all the time," but says that she cries "deep inside, so no one can see me." This passage furthers the revelation of a more vulnerable side of Martha. Her confession "I cry all the time too, Daddy" makes her sound like a young child. This emphasizes the notion that Martha has not been able to move beyond the position of a child, partly because she has not had any children herself. The affectionate term "Daddy," meanwhile, highlights her closeness and loyalty to her father, an attachment that seems to come at the expensive of her relationship with George. 

This passage also evokes the themes of appearances and secrecy. Although Martha is brash on the surface, here we realize that internally she feels weak and sad. Her statement that she cries "deep inside" shows that Martha represses her feelings beneath a confident, careless exterior. Although George and Martha exhibit disdain for the social codes that require people to mask their true feelings beneath civility, this scene reveals that they are equally guilty of suppressing their emotions—they just do so under a cloak of flamboyant vulgarity rather than restrained politeness. 

George who is out somewhere there in the dark…George who is good to me, and whom I revile; who understands me, and whom I push off.

Related Characters: Martha (speaker), George
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

Nick has entered the room; it seems that he and Martha have had a sexual encounter of some kind, but it is unclear exactly what happened. Martha has confessed that her extramarital affairs feel pointless and that George is the only man who has ever made her happy. She says George "is good to me" and understands her, but admits that she responds by pushing him away. Having been exposed to Martha's personal vulnerability, the audience now gains insight into a different side of her relationship with George. Perhaps it is not the case that they simply hate each other, but that their feelings are complicated by mutual insecurity, resentment, and self-sabotage. 

Martha's words here seem to suggest that something about George's love for her causes her to rebuff him. Note that she does not say "who understands me, but whom I push off" but rather "and whom I push off." The use of the word "and" indicates that perhaps because George understands her so well, Martha cannot stand to be around him. This is emphasized by the fact that their relationship seems to be built on trading insults; indeed, George and Martha are able to insult each other so effectively precisely because they know one another so well. 

I’M RUNNING THE SHOW! (To MARTHA) Sweetheart, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you…for us, of course. Some rather sad news.

Related Characters: George (speaker), Martha
Related Symbols: Babies
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

George and Martha have been telling Nick and Honey about their son, taking turns to share facts about his life. Martha has explained that the boy is now off at college, and she seems to want to drop the topic, but despite his wife's protests, George insists they continue. In this passage, he announces that he's "running the show," before turning to Martha to tell her that he has bad news. George's declaration that he is "running the show" implies that he has decided to disprove Martha's claims that he is not assertive or domineering enough. It is also a meta-dramatic reference to the fact that this is a play filled with moments when the characters engage in theatrical behavior, performing in an exaggerated, flamboyant manner and reciting stories as if the other characters are an audience.

The "bad news"George references is his invented story that he has received a telegram telling him that their son is dead. George's decision to include this twist in his and Martha's "game" of telling stories about their imaginary son is the play's climactic act of cruelty. The fact that he first says "bad news for you" before correcting himself to "for us, of course" shows that he is deliberately aiming to hurt Martha; it also suggests that she is more emotionally invested in their game of speaking about their imaginary son than George is. 

I FORGET! Sometimes…sometimes when it’s night, when it’s late, and…and everybody else is…talking…I forget and I…want to mention him…but I…HOLD ON…I hold on…but I’ve wanted to…so often…oh, George, you’ve pushed it…there was no need….there was not need for this. I mentioned him…all right…but you didn’t have to push it over the EDGE. You didn’t have to…kill him.

Related Characters: Martha (speaker), George
Related Symbols: Babies
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

George has finished telling the story of receiving the news that his and Martha's imaginary son is dead. Honey, still not aware that the son in question is not real, has exclaimed in horror, and despite the fact that she knows the story is all an elaborate game, Martha also becomes hysterically upset. She says that sometimes she "forgets" and almost mentions their son in front of other people, and admits that she mentioned him in front of Nick and Honey earlier (thereby breaking the rules of the game), but insists that George took it too far. This is the climax of Martha's vulnerability, a moment when––in contrast to her usual behavior––she becomes openly upset in front of the others, breaking "character" from the tough, flamboyant persona who mercilessly hurls insults at her husband.

On one level, it seems clear that George's actions were deliberate, and that he leveraged Martha's emotional investment in their imaginary son against her. At this point in the play, George certainly appears to be the crueler of the two. On the other hand, it is perhaps rather arbitrary for Martha to decide that this act has "push[ed] it over the edge," given that she and George spend the entire play taunting and tormenting each other. Either way, it is clear that both feel betrayed and perhaps on some level even frightened of one another, a fact that foreshadows the play's ending, when Martha admits she is afraid of Virginia Woolf.