Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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Children and Childishness 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.
Children and Childishness Theme Icon

Throughout the play, Martha and George act childishly in provoking one another and teasing their guests. They perform common romantically infantile gestures, like calling each other “baby,” and talking to each other in childish voices. When she drinks too much, Honey sucks her thumb on the bathroom floor. At some moments, too, George and Martha treat Nick and Honey as though they were children. All of this behavior might be understood in the context of both of the couple’s experiences with infertility and “imaginary children”: George and Martha invent a son that doesn’t really exist; and Honey had “a hysterical pregnancy.” In the end of the play, Honey yells that she wants a child. Children, and the necessary absence of them, is a subject of distress for the two married couples.

Children and Childishness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Children and Childishness 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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Children and Childishness 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 Children and Childishness.
Act 1 Quotes

Ha, ha, ha, HA! Make the kids a drink, George. What do you want, kids? What do you want to drink, hunh?

Related Characters: Martha (speaker), George , Nick , Honey
Related Symbols: Babies, Alcohol
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Nick and Honey have arrived at George and Martha's home and Martha––notably drunk herself––instructs her husband to make their guests a drink. Her overfamiliar tone and use of the word "kids" makes her sound like a mother offering her children a drink; the fact that the drinks in question are alcoholic, and that Martha herself is already very drunk, adds a disturbing twist to her question. Throughout the play, the characters reference children and recreate family dynamics, highlighting the conspicuous absence of children in the lives of both couples. 

This passage also reveals Martha's forceful personality and manipulation of those around her, and particularly of George. Rather than politely asking or suggesting that George make the drinks, Martha aggressively demands that he does so. This in turn highlights the more passive, weaker role George takes in their marriage. The hysterical laughter that precedes this demand further emphasizes Martha's volatile and intimidating character. The characters in the play frequently laugh, though this laughter almost always contains distinct undertones of hostility, fear, or hysteria; this illustrates the theme that beneath social pleasantries lie far more menacing dynamics.   


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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’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.