Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

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In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, what is the meaning of Martha and George's imaginary son?

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The imaginary son of George and Martha is an illusion both of them share. They pretend they have a son so as to seem more normal by the standards of American culture, which prizes the nuclear family. Martha is infertile, so they were never able to have children of their...

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The fake child is yet another example of how the play destroys the idea of the perfect little family. Though they seem like normal, respectable people, George and Martha are co-dependent, bitter, and deeply dysfunctional, resentful that their lives do not measure up to society's golden standard. They hide their abnormalities behind a facade.

Their imaginary son was their way of pretending at some kind of normalcy, but eventually, the fiction cannot hold up when Martha makes it public with their guests. This was the one "rule" of their game: the imaginary son could not be mentioned around other people. George ends up "killing" the son to destroy the illusion. The play ends with some hope that the two might be able to reconcile as a result.

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Throughout the early morning hours that George and Martha share with their guests Nick and Honey, their deep-seated, antagonistic co-dependency is the dominant force. Not content to spar with each other, they bait the younger couple into joining into their psychological game-playing.

Although it becomes apparent that they habitually treat each other with disrespect and disdain, it is also revealed that there are some genuine bonds between them. One thing they seem to share is concern for their son—who, it turns out, does not exist. An unwritten rule had been that this fantasy was one thing they shared. (Albee leaves unclear, however, if there had been a child, if Martha had perhaps miscarried or even had an abortion.)

When Martha tries to pull Honey into their private game, George feels deeply betrayed. She has just gone too far. Their private life has vanished, and the other couple might betray their secret. George must take a dire action that will both deeply wound Martha and give him the upper hand. He justifies his fatal action as compassionate release, freeing Martha from her dangerous illusion, thus separating himself from previous involvement in its perpetuation.

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Edward Albee's Tony Award winning play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf analyzes many different aspects of "the American family" during the mid 20th Century.  Society's 'picture-perfect' family during these times was the image of a happily married husband and wife with beautiful children.  Think about famous television shows from the 1950s. Sitcom families were portrayed as a working husband and a loving housewife with children.

Martha and George are symbols of the opposition of that, representing all of the 'normal' families in America who did not live up to these sometimes unrealistic societal standards. Martha and George are still together, but they obviously fight with each other and get some dark satisfaction from insulting one another. They do not have any children due to Martha's infertility. George has a job at a University, but is not at a satisfactory position level. Martha is not a loving housewife.  One could argue the combination of all these things have made Martha and George feel slightly embarrassed, guilty or resentful that their 'picture-perfect' family does not exist.  Their controversial decision to imagine a child is a product of this.  The illusion of a child is a distraction for George and Martha from the unhappiness of their life together. The only real bond they have forged is over an illusion.  That illusion is destroyed by George, who "kills" off their son.

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