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Christopher Brown – 20c Lit, 11

Paper 3, 11/24
A Postmodern Supersession of Modernistic Typology in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?

Albee’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a catalyst of the transition of
modernism into postmodernism that utilizes the absurdist paradigm in order to break the
rules of modernism and found a new era. The typology of Freud that became prevalent in
the 1910’s contributed considerably to modernism’s infrastructure. This play is partly a
confrontation of one of Freud’s theories—the psychoanalytical model of the Oedipus
complex—in which Albee triumphantly garbles any meaningfulness of the theory.
This play reads differently the second time through because it contains a secret
revealed only at the end. As in any mystery, the author presents a number of clues that
ostensibly point toward one end, but then he reveals the reader’s conclusion to be completely
wrong when the mystery is solved and the truth becomes clear. The purpose is to mislead
the reader,† or rather, lead the reader down a tangential path in order to accentuate the
significance of backtracking when the author reveals the truth.
The mystery of this play is the identity of the son. The vague terms that George and
Martha use even though they are alone—“the bit about the kid”—piques the reader’s
curiosity (18). Other clues follow: Martha remarks, “He’s mine as much as he is yours,”
implying he is a prodigal, estranged son—a sore subject, perhaps because Martha habitually
brings him up to blame his shortcomings on George, and vice-versa (19). When Nick asks
George if he has children, George evasively riddles back, “That’s for me to know and you to
find out,” inviting a game of inquiry to discover the truth (39). The ambiguities force the
reader to make conclusions based on a few pieces of evidence: the son’s identity is unknown
but ostensibly real; George and Nick despise each other; Nick and Martha love each other;
and murder takes front-stage. The Oedipal model seems inevitable: the son is Nick. ‡
Martha first reveals the son to Honey off-stage, as a real person who is shortly to
turn twenty-one. As the guests inquire further, the son materializes with grievous problems
and Martha states that George fears he’s been cuckolded (71). Contrarily, George affirms he
is definitely the father, “of our… blond-eyed, blue-haired… son”; if we perform the
intuitive correction, this seems to fit Nick (72). The first act closes without identifying the
son, and the reader is left to jump to wildly speculative conclusions about his identity.
The tension between George and the guests is blatant even before they arrive, but as
the night develops, George and Nick quickly become outright hostile to each other. George’s
deprecation of eugenics shows his fear of Nick—the representative of history-obsoleting
biological improvements and forced emasculation through sterilization. The murderous,
supplanting intentions between George and Nick are unmistakeable.
The attraction between Nick and Martha starts early, when Martha changes into a
nicer dress to impress Nick (47). Martha turns the talk to Nick’s physique, and their tactless
repartee shows the attraction is mutual. Their relationship becomes bawdy when Martha tells
Nick, the biologist, that he’s “right at the meat of things,” and outright explicit when Nick
expands on George’s previous notion that “Musical beds is the faculty sport around here,”
resolving that he ought to “plow a few pertinent wives,” including Martha, in order to take
over the history department (34, 63, 112).
George and Martha are both fantastic game-players, but George ends up the one
directing. Martha, George says, moved “bag and baggage into your own fantasy world now,
and you’ve started playing variations on your own distortions” (155). George calls the shots

†Although the work in question is a play, and meant to be viewed, the audience will be referred to as the
“reader” because my experience of the work is as a written, not playacted, work of literature.
‡At least two classmates—and first-time readers of the play—arrived at this speculation. My own first
encounter with the play happened too long ago for me to remember my guess at the identity of the son.
Brown 2

now; he claims that when people “can’t abide” the past, the solution is either complacency or
to set about to “alter the future”—“And when you want to change something… YOU BANG!
BANG! BANG! BANG!” (178). George decides that he has “contemplated the past” long
enough, and plots to throw Martha’s and Nick’s plans into complete mayhem. In the next
few pages, George conjures a new future; he imagines a resolution that will change the
future. Nick, at one point, tells George he will “play the charades like you’ve got ‘em set
up… I’ll be what you say I am,” to which George responds, “You are already” (150). It is all
in George’s hands; he is the puppeteer.
His victory now assured, George rings the doorbell as Nick did a few hours earlier.
Nick, like George earlier, takes considerable prodding to open the door, only to be greeted in
a shocking reversal, as if the inside were out and the outside in: “Sonny! You’ve come home
for your birthday! At last!” (195).
George finally tells Martha that “our son is… dead… he swerved, to avoid a
porcupine, and straight into a… large tree” (231). With this last imaginative embellishment
of the son’s death, George brutally defaces the Oedipal model. George presumably killed his
father, years ago, by swerving to avoid a porcupine. Now he places his son in the driver’s
seat, and has him die in this retelling of the scenario. But because the son is fictive, the
murderer is George; he kills the son, and takes his place. Now the truth is out, the solution
to the mystery is obvious; Nick finally understands the ludicrousness of the whole night:
“JESUS CHRIST I THINK I UNDERSTAND THIS!” (236). Nick does not fulfill his role in the
myth at all; instead, George ends up playing everyone: theorist †, husband, father, son, and
murderer. George’s victory is not a loophole in the Oedipal myth wherein the father wins at
the crossroads instead of the son. It is a complete upheaval of the entire model,
demonstrating that the world is not to be constrained by modernist typology, but instead
that life is far more variable than any paradigm could possibly circumscribe.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Penguin Books, 1962.

†George’s story of the boy who ordered bergin is the first time the scenario with the porcupine appears (94).
Although Martha later brings up the story, revealing it as George’s own experience, George is in control of the
definitions because he is the first to tell it.

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