Take a Feminist Approach to the Literature of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe Research Paper

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Albee Literary Analysis

Power and Gender in Albee's

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Nothing highlights the differences between genders like a marriage. For better or for worse, the linking of a man and a woman, body and soul, engenders a complex interplay of ego, vulnerability, trust, mistrust, desire, and desperation. In many cases, a power struggle ensues with each gender flexing its particular strengths and preying on the other's particular weaknesses. Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf tells the tale of such a marriage and such a power struggle in the relationship between the main characters George and Martha. Their vicious emotional wrestling match reveals a woman struggling with her own identity as a woman and her role as a wife in an ever-shifting balance of power.

Edward Albee published his play in 1962, at the beginning of a turbulent time in gender relations. The traditional role of women in society had begun changing during World War II, when the need for men overseas opened the workforce to women and created the Rosie-the-Riveter phenomenon. As the young girls of the 1940s and 1950s grew into womanhood in the 1960s, they began to question the roles that their mothers and grandmothers had filled as devoted wives and mothers and began to explore the limits of their sexual and societal power.

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Albee was writing at the cusp of this Sexual Revolution, and many of his works explore the changing gender roles in the world around him. His female characters often seem caught between comfortable but limited traditional roles and liberating but disconcerting new possibilities. In his review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for Life Magazine in 1962, critic Tom Prideaux accused Albee of falling into the avant-garde trend of portraying "bossy wives and wishy-washy husbands" but acknowledged that, in George and Martha, Albee had succeeded in "the fleshing out of Mommy and Daddy" (110).

TOPIC: Research Paper on Take a Feminist Approach to the Literature of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe Assignment

Martha in particular resists gender stereotyping. Though she certainly starts out seeming to be a "bossy wife" in the initial exchange where she is badgering George about the name of a film about a discontented housewife, her character soon deepens when we glimpse her childlike deference to "Daddy," her college-president father. This presents an immediate conflict in the audience's mind about whether Martha is defined by her domineering persona as a wife or by her submissive persona as a daughter. We soon learn that Martha herself shares this confusion about her own identity.

Martha is clearly in awe of her father. When she is speaking about him to Nick and Honey, their guests, Albee describes her as "genuinely proud" (26) and when Honey complains about their treatment at a different university, Martha points out that "Daddy knows how to run things" (27). As John Kundert-Gibbs remarks, Martha was raised not only during a time when rigid gender roles were the norm, but also in "the repressive social climate of an ingrown academic institution" (231). So how did a woman that was obviously raised in the traditional deference to male superiority become so assertive -- even combative -- with her husband?

George does not fit the paradigm of male superiority any more than Martha fits the paradigm of female inferiority. While Martha's father reached the pinnacle of academia as a college president, George is merely an associate professor of history and seems to have no ambition to go further. Martha appears offended, in fact, that he has not used his marriage to her to advance up the professional ladder: "It should be an extraordinary opportunity…for some men it would be the chance of a lifetime" (28). George, however, implies that to do so would be literally emasculating.

Martha's and George's attitudes towards her father highlight a mutually destructive set of assumptions that each has about the other -- a set of assumptions that, when not verified, leads to a sense of gender confusion for each. That Martha is so enamored of her father and so pleased to remain in a childlike state of reverence for him indicates that she harbors an unspoken desire to fill the traditional role of deferential female with the men in her life. And George's flexing of his masculinity in front of the younger and perhaps more promising Nick indicates that he as well yearns to fill the traditional role of strong and assertive male.

Despite these desires, however, Martha and George have clearly not found in each other a sufficiently traditional partner to allow them to fulfill the traditional roles they both seem to yearn for on a deep level. George feels that his male drive toward success has been undercut in some way by his marriage. When discussing his professional history with Nick, he cryptically announces: "Dashed hopes, and good intentions. Good, better, best, bested…What do you think of that for a declension, young man? Eh?" (32). He does not say aloud who he thinks has "bested" him, but his male sense of drive and domination has been demolished.

Martha, for her part, seems utterly frustrated that George does not take a more assertive role in their marriage, despite the fact that she seems to relish the control that she has over him. The play opens with her practically begging him to show traditional male superiority of knowledge, even if only the name of a film. He responds not only by not providing the name of the film, but by not even caring to step into the role of knowledgeable husband. She is outright angry that he does not use her to advance his career, and claims that she "wear[s] the pants in this house because somebody's got to" (158).

The result is a vicious circle of disappointed expectations and bitter frustration. George bemoans Martha's taste for straight liquor, recalling the days early in their courtship when she would order "Brandy Alexanders, creme de cacao frappes, gimlets, flaming punch bowls…Real lady-like little drinkies" (24). He feels that Martha has encroached not only on the manly world of whiskey from the bottle, but also on the masculine sort of practical knowledge that "cream is for coffee, lime juice for pies" (Ibid).

He seems unable to gain a foothold in the world of traditional masculinity, despite his apparent desire and attempts. He wistfully recalls a brief moment of professional success: "I did run the History Department, for four years, during the war, but that was because everybody was away….Then everybody came back" (38). But even this professional triumph is tainted by emasculation -- the reason everyone was away is because they were engaged in the ultimate expression of masculinity: war. In comparison, the meager running of a History Department hardly seems manly. In the end, George returns to professional mediocrity and a sense of invisibility. "Don't I sort of fade into backgrounds…get lost in the cigarette smoke? Hunh?" he asks Nick pointedly (35).

Though George claims repeatedly that Martha's browbeating is the cause of his lack of masculinity, his interactions with Nick and his relationship with his father-in-law show that he has deep-seated misgivings about his own status as a sufficient male, independent of Martha's opinion of him. Martha, for her part, has her own reason for feeling less than womanly, apart for George's indifference and sarcastic dismissiveness -- a reason that cuts to the heart of traditional femininity.

Much of the dialogue in the latter part of the play revolves around Martha and George's supposed son, but it is revealed in the "Exorcism" act that the son in fact does not exist -- that he is an invention of both Martha and George. Martha is childless. Whether she is barren or George is sterile is unclear, but the lack of a child can only be a fatal blow to Martha's sense of femininity. Motherhood was the defining aspect of womanhood in the traditional sense. Feminist writer Betty Friedan, who published her famous The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the year after Albee's play was staged, wrote that the traditional role of women was simple: "All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children" (152).

That Martha is unable to bear a child leaves her utterly confused as to how to express her femininity. She is unable to fit the traditional paradigm that she so clearly values in her relationship with her father, both because of her reproductive limitations and her husband's inability to take on the dominant male counterpart. As a result, she becomes of hodge-podge of masculine assertiveness, farcical and false maternalism, and overblown sexuality.

The strong seductiveness that Martha portrays despite her age and her lack of fertility is perhaps the most poignant aspect of her gender confusion, and the most indicative of the time period in which Albee was writing. One aspect of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s was the liberation of women as sexual beings. They began testing their sexual power, and questioning the traditional edicts that confined sexual intercourse to marriage and demanded demure fidelity. This… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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