Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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Imperfect Marriage 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.
Imperfect Marriage  Theme Icon

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf paints a harsh portrait of marriage as a vehicle for conflict, arguments, and disappointment. George and Martha, though named after the first presidential couple of the United States, are a model of dysfunction, an undermining of the idea of the happy couple. They invite Nick and Honey to their house to serve as an audience for their mutual disdain and bickering. Though Nick and Honey are initially presented as sane and functional, particularly in contrast to their counterparts, their marriage is quickly revealed to be similarly dysfunctional

The play depicts the unraveling of the two marriages as the appearances that the characters assume in public are sullied with the drunken revelations of their private thoughts and histories. At the end of the night of debauchery, however, Honey and Nick go home together and George and Martha remain, each to resume their married lives. The suggestion is that all marriages are marked with some conflict and turmoil, but that, when all is said and done, they continue on. Given that the play premiered in the early sixties, it can be read as a reaction to the fifties, when unrealistic images and advertisements of the ‘perfect American family’ and home life abounded.

Imperfect Marriage ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Imperfect Marriage 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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Imperfect Marriage 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 Imperfect Marriage .
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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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. 

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.   

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.

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. 

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. 

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 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.