Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf: Theme Analysis
Reality and Illusion
In response to the painful failure of their marriage, George and Martha have created a fantasy world for themselves in which the dividing line between reality and illusion has become blurred. The theme of reality versus illusion focuses on the couple’s creation of an imaginary son. No doubt this started as a piece of game-playing between them to compensate for the fact that they were unable to have a child, but over the years the game has acquired a vital importance for both of them, a private, co-created imaginary world that seems to be the only positive thing they can grab onto in a disappointing, empty marriage. The fantasy that they really do have a son is a counterweight to the disappointments they have experienced in the real world. But this fantasy constitutes a private world that cannot stand exposure to outsiders, which is why George and Martha have a rule never to mention it to anyone. When Martha breaks the rule by mentioning the son to Honey, George soon realizes that the time has come for the illusion to be broken because it has acquired too vivid a life in Martha’s mind.
The theme of reality and illusion is hinted at elsewhere in the play. It seems that George and Martha enjoy telling various stories about their past, including the details about the physical appearance and life history of their son, and then arguing about who is right. They play games with the truth as a way of letting out their frustrations with each other; they also admire the dexterity with which the other person can invent new takes on old stories. For many years they have cooperated with each other in the creation of a fantasy world, and at one point in Act 3, they show how they did it. When Martha says that she had an easy birth of their son, George contradicts her, saying that she labored hard. Martha adjusts her account, saying it was easy once it had been accepted, “relaxed into.” (p. 217). George acknowledges, “Ah . . . yes. Better.” In this example, they adjust to each other’s input and come up with a story that is acceptable to both of them.
But for the most part during this venomous night in New Carthage, the purpose of George and Martha is not to agree with each other but to gain the upper hand in a bitter struggle. Each seeks to manipulate their shared life history so that it becomes what they want it to be, regardless of what the facts might be. In Act 2, for example, it is never made clear whether the story told by George about the boy who is responsible for the deaths of his mother and father is true or not. When Martha alludes to the same story (she has obviously heard it many times before) and says that George wrote a novel about it and that the boy who killed his parents was none other than George himself, once more the question of truth or fiction is raised. In this night of drinking and venom, truth is less important than one-upmanship, the ability to create a version of the truth that will embarrass or discomfit the other person. George offers a glimpse of how he operates after he tells Nick the story of Martha’s rich stepmother. When Nick replies that Martha has not mentioned that she had a stepmother, George admits, “maybe it isn’t true” (p. 111).
By the end of the play, however, the illusions under which George and Martha have chosen to live have become unsustainable, and George takes the lead in destroying them. From now on, this couple must live according to what is real between them, rather than in the illusory world they created. The change that has taken place is made quite clear at the end of the play. In answer to Nick’s question about whether they could have children, George and Martha both agree, using exactly the same words, “We couldn’t” (p. 238). At last they can agree on something, in marked contrast to the arguments they have had throughout the play. As the stage directions state, there is a “hint of communion in this.” This warring couple is finally coming to a point where they can communicate the simple truth with each other. In the last few lines of the play, George and Martha exhibit a quiet concern for each other that they have not shown before. The game-playing is over, and although it is not clear whether they can be happy together, at least they have agreed that from now on, they will face up to what is true rather than escape through illusion.