Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Act 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Nick rejoins George, and Nick explains that his wife is frail and shouldn’t drink, and then tells George that Martha is in the kitchen making coffee. He reiterates that he doesn’t like to get involved in other people’s affairs. George mimics him, and then asks if Nick thinks he enjoys Martha’s ridiculing. Nick remarks that he doesn’t see why George has to subject other people to it as well.
It’s unclear who is responsible for creating the tension and discomfort of the evening. Nick tries to blame George, but George reasons that he is being particularly targeted by his ridiculing wife. Note also how Nick and Honey have a "standard" (at the time) husband and wife relationship—he's strong; she's frail—that stands in contrast to George and Martha's.
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George asks Nick about his wife’s sickness, which Nick describes as occurring fairly frequently. This leads Nick to reveal that he married Honey because of a hysterical pregnancy: he thought she was pregnant, but she turned out not to be. The two husbands laugh together.
The tables turn as Nick now reveals a secret about his and his wife’s life together, after Martha and George have revealed so much about their own: there was no love in Nick or Honey's marriage either. It's funny, by the way, that a biologist like Nick was fooled by a hysterical pregnancy, and suggests that biology may not have all the answers about humans and their interactions.
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George tells a story from his adolescence: when he was in prep school, during Prohibition, he and his friends would go into New York to listen to jazz and drink booze. One night, he says, one of the boys in the group who had accidentally killed his mother with a shotgun some years before, ordered “bergin and water.” After some time, everyone in the gin mill had heard of the boy’s mistaken order and began ordering “bergin” for themselves. At Nick’s prying, George tells what happened to the boy: the next summer, while driving with his learner’s permit and his father next to him, he swerved to avoid a porcupine and hit a tree, and ended up killing his father. He was put into an asylum.
George’s story begins in an amusing and light tone, and quickly becomes sinister and tragic. This progress, from innocuously amusing to dark and difficult, mirrors the development of the play. The story of the son who accidentally kills both of his parents—who orphans himself—seems connected to the subject of George and Martha's own son, somehow, though how is not clear at this point.
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George and Nick continue to chat—Nick asks if George has any daughters, and George responds that he only has the one son, whom he calls a “beanbag.” He tells Nick that he would like to set him straight about something his wife said. Martha interrupts and announces that she and Honey are drinking coffee. George and Martha go back and forth, calling each other by different French insults.
Note how Martha interrupts and demands they switch from alcohol to coffee—from drunk to sobering up—just as George seems about to reveal something about his son. Martha doesn't want that subject discussed. George and Martha’s French insults exemplify the sophistication of their relationship, even in their petty bickering.
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George begins in again on Nick’s marriage, and guesses that, in addition to the hysterical pregnancy, Honey has money. Nick lets on that George’s guess is correct, but adds that he and Honey grew up together. He admits that there was never any particular passion between them. The men refill their glasses, and George asks again about Honey’s money, explaining that he is interested “by the pragmatic accommodation by which you wave-of-the-future boys are going to take over.” George reciprocates by telling Nick that Martha’s money comes from Martha’s father’s very rich second wife.
Nick and Honey at first stood as ideal contrasts to George and Martha. But now they are revealed as just more repressed, hiding their secrets behind a façade of propriety. Nick married to avoid scandal and for money. And though Nick sees himself as someone who will usher in a new future, The revelation about Martha's father's money suggests Nick is no different from those careerists of the past.
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George explains his interest in Nick by identifying him as a threat. Nick plays along and jokingly describes his sneaky plans for taking over the college. George informs Nick that the best way to gain power is through the faculty wives. Nick infers that he better mount Martha, then, and he and George exchange surprise at the apparent seriousness of the suggestion.
Nick and George now make explicit both their rivalry—that both seek power at the college—and the implicit attraction that has been developing between Nick and Martha throughout the evening. Nick in particular seems taken aback by this—mostly by the realization that he might actually be attracted to Martha, and that the attraction might be because she could help his career.
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Martha returns, with a very drunken Honey in tow. Martha tells George to apologize to Honey for making her throw up, but Honey interjects that she often gets sick, though the doctors say there’s nothing wrong with her. Martha begins to tell Nick and Honey that their son also used to throw up all the time, whenever he saw George. George retorts that the real reason their son got sick was because Martha would drunkenly “fiddle at him.” They continue, increasingly aggressively, to dispute the causes of their son’s sickness.
This kind of dynamic has become very common between Martha and George—their arguing about something regarding their son, and each accusing the other for their son’s problems.
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Martha mentions another embarrassing disappointment of George’s—that he tried to publish a book, but was prevented by Martha’s father. Honey requests some music for dancing, and George puts on Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Honey gets up and dances by herself, and Martha criticizes the choice of music. George calls Honey “angel tits” and ask if she’ll dance with him. Nick takes offense at this epithet. When a jazzy slow tune begins to play, Martha grabs Nick and begins dancing with him. They dance closely, and then further apart, but still undulating as though they were pressed together.
Martha's continued attack of George's failures (and the humbling of George by her father) is here directly connected to her more aggressive flirtation with Nick. That Nick takes offense at George's sexual comment to Honey further reveals Nick's hypocrisy—he cares about surface propriety, but at the same time is dancing in a sexual way with George's wife.
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Martha discloses more of George’s embarrassing history: he wrote a novel, but when her father read the novel he was very shocked to find that it was all about a naughty boy child who killed his mother and father. Martha’s father forbade him from publishing the book. George demands that Martha to stop. When she continues, he rips the record off of the phonograph. She still continues. She reveals that George, after Martha’s father’s threat, threw the book into the fireplace.
The book that George wrote but did not publish appears to have recounted the very story that he told to Nick earlier on in the night, which suggests that the story may have been closer to George’s own life than he had suggested. Martha paints George as cowardly for having thrown the book into the fireplace after her father’s disapproval, and there is a suggestion that she is as angry at George for failing to stand up to her father as she is at his failure to advance (and perhaps those things are connected).
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George yells at Martha that he will kill her and grabs her by the throat. Nick intervenes, and throws George onto the floor. George asks what other games they cam play now that they’ve exhausted “Humiliate the Host,” and proposes “Hump the Hostess.” Nick appears frightened. Finally George decides they should play a round of “Get the Guests.” George begins to describe what he claims is his second book. The narrative that he recounts is the very story that Nick told him about his marriage to Honey. He begins by describing Nick’s present situation, and then leading into a flashback to “How They Got Married.” When Nick recognizes the story, he tries to keep George from continuing.
The scene becomes more direct and violent when George threatens Martha, thus necessitating Nick’s intervention (pushing Nick into the traditional role of the "chivalrous" man). Yet Nick is unable to deal with the way that George makes everything explicit: Nick seems like he would be fine with actually "Humping the Hostess," but he can't handle it being talked about openly. Notice also how George's dexterity with language allows him to turn the tables and reclaim power.
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By the end of the story, when George is describing how “the Mouse” (his name for Honey) got all puffed up, Honey stands up and declares that she doesn’t like what’s going on. She becomes hysterical as George describes how the Mouse’s “puff went away,” and then turns to her husband and yells at him, “You told them!” Distraught, she grabs at her belly. George abruptly declares, “And that’s how you play Get the Guests.” Honey announces that she’s going to be sick and runs out of the room. Nick promises that he’ll make George regret what he’s done as he leaves to care for his wife.
Honey, who has appeared easy-going throughout the evening abruptly becomes distraught when she hears George tell the story of her hysterical pregnancy. George has regained power, here. At the same time, in doing so he has become much a less sympathetic character. To regain power he had to become the one causing pain to someone even weaker than he was.
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Martha congratulates George for his performance, judging it to be the most life he’s shown in a while, but then calls him a bastard. George reminds Martha that she had behaved rather viciously herself. She retorts that he can stand it but their guests shouldn’t have to. George warns Martha that she’ll wish she had never mentioned their son. Martha criticizes George for talking as though he were writing one of his “stupid papers”. George calls her “spoiled, self-indulgent, willful, dirty-minded.”
Martha distinguishes between what George has just done and what she has been doing throughout the course of the evening: while she was merely provoking George in their customary marital bickering, George directly injured their guests, whom they invited over in order to be nice to them. George seems not to accept this line of reasoning.
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Nick reenters, leaving his wife on the bathroom floor, and apologizes for Honey’s behavior. George leaves with a bucket to get ice for Honey. When George has gone, Martha asks Nick for a cigarette, calls him lover, and slips her hand between his legs. She asks him for a kiss, and Nick reasons that his wife won’t know the difference. In the middle of their kissing, George enters and watches for a moment before leaving, unnoticed. Nick puts his hand inside of Martha’s dress, but Martha tells him to take it easy.
Nick and Martha’s romantic tension is finally realized when they kiss at last. Though Martha initially encourages it, she has to stop Nick from taking it further. When George quietly observes what is happening but does not intervene is one of the most affecting moments of the play, communicating a deep sadness on his part.
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George sings “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and then returns with the ice bucket and says some unintelligible remark to Nick, which Nick brushes off. George offers drinks to Nick and Martha and says that he saw Honey lying on the bathroom floor sucking her thumb, curled up “like a fetus.”
This scene contains a fair degree of dramatic irony, insofar as the play’s audience knows that George has witnessed Nick and Martha’s kiss, but Nick and Martha do not. Honey, meanwhile, is described as being even younger than a child—she is compared to an unborn baby.
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George says that he’s going to go read a book, because he always reads around four o’clock. Martha corrects him that he always reads at four pm, not am, but he absorbs himself nonetheless in his book. She tells George that she and Nick will just amuse themselves. George distractedly endorses her plan. When she tells her husband that she is necking with one of the guests, George tells her “good” and encourages her to go right on. Martha looks upset; she tries to challenge George, but he remains unfazed. George encourages Nick to throw Martha over his shoulder.
George aggravates both Martha and Nick by pretending not to care that they are kissing. His tactic is sly and counterintuitive: he infuriates them more by appearing unfazed and thus undermining what they thought was a thrilling transgression or a taking of power. Martha's upset suggests that her actions are made to provoke George—are dependent on George—and that what she wants from him is a response.
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Martha calls George a motherfucker, and after kissing Nick, instructs him to wait for her in the kitchen. When Nick has exited, Martha addresses George, threatening to take Nick upstairs. George, now upset, responds, “SO WHAT, MARTHA?” She tells her husband that she’ll make him sorry he made her want to marry him, and then leaves to join Nick. George reads aloud a quote about the fall of the west, “burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events.” From offstage, Martha’s laughter and the crashing of dishes can be heard. George throws his book at the chimes and mutters aloud, “You’re going to regret this, Martha.”
After Martha and Nick leave, George drops his cover of not caring about their flirtation. He abandons his calm when he hears Martha and Nick in the kitchen and throws a book at the wind chimes. The quote in the book again connects the failures in George and Martha's marriage to fears of impending decline in the US democracy and Western civilization.
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