Investigating Misogyny in 'Miss Julie' and 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' - Owlcation - Education
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Investigating Misogyny in 'Miss Julie' and 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University, and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in the film version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in the film version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) are often criticized by theorists and viewers for their misogynistic portrayals of women. Each play has a female lead that is considered a domineering, man-hating woman, often perceived as an unpleasant, feminist caricature that can escape neither the nature of her body nor the “natural” dominance of man. The authors themselves have only strengthened such perceptions and readings of their plays, either through overtly misogynistic prefaces and letters (Strindberg) or more subtle hints of misogyny in interviews (Albee). Several critics have jumped on the opportunity of reading Strindberg’s play through his theories on women, and choosing to interpret Albee as a misogynist through homoerotic readings of his plays, reductive analyses of Martha in Virginia Woolf, and his thematic similarities to both naturalism and Strindberg. What such critics fail to recognize, however, is the complexity of these “misogynistic” portrayals as well as what these domineering female characters mean for the role of women in both theater and in society. In this essay I investigate accusations of misogyny in Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Albee’s Virginia Woolf, and suggest that Strindberg and Albee through Julie and Martha (the female protagonists of these plays respectively) are working within the framework of naturalism in order to break down the idealization of women that serve to threaten feminist agendas rather than promote them. The result is not necessarily the “rightfully” punished “half-woman” as many critics would assume, but rather sympathetic, strong female characters that are not afraid to reveal the ugly side of femininity, who are equal partners with the men with whom they battle, and who blur the line between feminism and misogyny, dominance and submission, naturalism and anti-naturalism.

In order to undermine a purely misogynistic reading of Miss Julie and Virginia Woolf, the term “misogyny” needs to be defined in the context of modern drama and naturalism. In the introduction to Staging the Rage, Burkman and Roof seek to define and interpret misogyny within modern theater. According to Burkman and Roof, whether a “representation is misogynist depends not so much on whether there are negative representations of women or femininity,” but rather “on how those representations function within the whole system by which a play’s meaning is produced” (12). In other words, an “unflattering portrait of a woman is by no means misogynist in its own right” (11) but it is how that portrait is functioning in the production of meaning that deems it misogynistic or not. Misogyny is “generally a response to something beyond the acts or attitudes of any individual woman” (15). Flat stereotypes of women, therefore, could typically be viewed as misogynistic, whereas more complex female characters, such as Miss Julie and Martha, call for more intricate readings that do not simply reduce their roles to caricatures. Burkman and Roof go further in their definition of misogyny, stating:

Misogyny in modern drama may include negative portrayals of women, the physical and psychological punishment of women, women’s exclusion and degradation, and drama’s structural reliance upon women as the spectacular objects of commodity exchange (13).

As Burkman and Roof suggest, misogyny in modern theater “may include” all these things, or it may not. The question becomes, where is the line drawn between misogynistic portrait and negative portrait, and who draws the line? It is a question that hinges on the function of the portrait within the play, and is problematized by audience and critic interpretation and reaction. Burkman and Roof reflect that there is a thin line between Western drama’s need and hatred of misogyny, but that the act of seeing live bodies in theater may make misogyny more of a presence than felt in the text alone:

What is it about Western conceptions of drama […] that both seem to require misogyny and at the same time attempts to dismantle it? […] Does the actual presence of actors in theatre encourage a misogyny that might otherwise remain more theoretical or figurative? (13).

The difference between theoretical or figurative misogyny and a visual or actual misogyny is important when considering Strindberg and Albee, whose critical discourse indicate a, perhaps, separate theoretical misogyny that may have been literalized or manifested unintentionally by the bodies on stage in a way that has affected audiences’ interpretation of characters. Similar to what Burkman and Roof are suggesting, Strindberg and Albee seem to dismantle misogyny as they implement it, creating sadomasochistic, powerful but “impotent” women who’s portrayals, in part, heavily depend on the actresses’ management of the roles and the audiences’ interpretation of those performances. The actual sight of a man and woman battling on stage may create a discomfort that triggers a misogynistic reading from the audience, especially since the woman seems to “lose” by the end of the play.

Even as texts, though, where the factors of actresses’ abilities and human bodies are removed, these women are still demanding interpretation from the reader without providing any clear cut answers. The reason these particular female characters create such mixed reactions among viewers and readers might have to do with the fact that they are negative portraits in that Miss Julie and Martha are far from fitting the characteristics of an ideal powerful woman. They seem to give women a bad name with their arbitrary adherence and rejection of societal feminine ideals, and their dominance and submission to the men with whom they interact. These women do not fit into any neat categories created in theater or society; they are neither truly powerful nor naturally submissive. Because of this they may be deemed as unnatural or misogynistic, when in fact they are problematizing the stereotypes that are determined to simplify the complexity of their characters.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?" (1966)

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?" (1966)

In order to further interpret the portrayals of Miss Julie and Martha as women who both implement and dismantle misogyny, it is important to look at Émile Zola’s theories of the naturalism movement and their influence on the critical reception of Strindberg and Albee. Miss Julie is often regarded as “the play that most nearly satisfies the requirements of Zola’s naturalism” (Sprinchorn 119), and Strindberg’s earlier plays, such as Miss Julie and The Father, are widely known as popular attempts at naturalist drama, just as Strindberg was known during this period as a follower of Zola’s theories. Though Albee does not carry an openly naturalist agenda, he is acclaimed for “reinventing a set of already-existing conventions” (Bottoms 113) and, as Michael Smith puts it, finding the “fire in the soggy ashes of naturalism” and “forg[ing] a technique of inestimable potential”1. Both Albee and Strindberg are believed to be heavily influenced by Zola, so it is important to look at naturalism’s apparent links to misogynistic readings. Discussing naturalism in novels, Zola writes about his impatience with:

ready-types which writers introduce into a story without any trouble. These attractive characters, ideal conceptions of men and women, destined to compensate for the sorry impression of true characters taken from nature […] There is a tinge of human beast in all of us, as this is a tinge of illness. These young girls so pure, these young men so loyal, represented to us in certain novels, do not belong to earth; to make them mortal everything must be told. We tell everything, we do not make a choice, neither do we idealize, and this is why they accuse us of taking pleasure in obscenity (703).

Zola seeks to eliminate abstraction in the characters of literary texts, along with idealization. He instead calls for gritty, “real” character portrayals, and authors and playwrights that are “brave enough to show us the sex in the young girl, the beast in the man” (707). This aspect of naturalist theory, despite the call to break down the idealization of female (and male) characters, is not necessarily misogynist on its own. It is the relationship, however, between naturalism, determinism, and sex and sexuality that tends to attach misogynistic connotations to plays with naturalist ambitions or tendencies, such as Miss Julie and Virginia Woolf. According to Judith Butler, “Feminist theory has often been critical of naturalistic explanations of sex and sexuality that assume that the meaning of women’s social existence can be derived from some fact of their physiology” (520). Though Martha and Julie are in many ways defined by their female bodies, heredity, and environment, they are performing within a naturalistic framework that actively works within and against naturalism just as they work within and against the misogyny that seems to paint their existence. Similarly, their playwrights are often considered as reworking the naturalist view of life “as a struggle against heredity and environment” into “the struggle of the minds, each seeking to impose its will on other minds” (Sprinchorn 122-23). Strindberg and Albee use Zola’s hatred of “the social establishment” and his exposure of “the sham and ‘humbug’ of modern civilization” (Sprinchorn 123) as a way into a naturalistic framework that they later overturn with the power of a socially-imprisoned psychology. Though the female protagonists seem to fall victim to a deterministic, male-dominated world, Martha and Julie in fact willingly subject themselves to a naturalist and patriarchal worldview in order to produce meaning that portrays naturalism negatively, and almost condemningly, in their final submissive acts. These final acts are something that I will go into more detail shortly.

It is Strindberg’s preface to Miss Julie, rather than the play itself, that strives to act as “the most important manifesto of naturalistic theater” (Sprinchorn2), and encourages both a naturalistic and misogynistic reading. In “Miss Julie as ‘A Naturalistic Tragedy’,” Alice Templeton looks at Miss Julie in order to analyze the possible meanings of “naturalistic tragedy,” noting the play’s tendencies towards anti-naturalism and feminism despite Strindberg’s assertions in his preface. Templeton mentions Adrienne Munich’s article, which encourages “feminist critics to deal with male-authored, canonized texts” and where Munich states that “Critical discourse has tended to be more misogynistic than the text it examines” (Templeton 468). Templeton feels that Strindberg’s preface is just such critical discourse, where Strindberg displays a misogyny that is otherwise absent from the play itself. Strindberg’s misogyny and naturalism is certainly explicit in his preface. In it, he seeks to explain Julie’s behavior as the “result of a whole series of more or less deep-rooted causes” that caricaturize her as a “man-hating half-woman” (his take on the “modern” woman), attempting to “be the equal of man” which causes an “absurd struggle” (for Strindberg it is absurd that she thinks she can even “compete with the male sex”) “in which she falls” (Strindberg 676). As Templeton puts it, “Strindberg is quick to stereotype his own characters and especially eager to condemn Julie” (468). Yet, as Templeton detects, the preface is “not necessarily a trustworthy guide to the play’s meanings or to its operations as experimental drama” (469), especially since the preface is not only at times “reductive,” “misleading,” and contradictory within itself, but seems intended to serve many purposes for Strindberg. Strindberg theorists such as John Ward in The Social and Religious Plays of August Strindberg argue that “the preface positioned Miss Julie in the context of the naturalist literary movement and, in particular, answered Zola’s charge that the characters in Strindberg’s earlier play The Father were too abstractly drawn for truly naturalistic drama” (Templeton 469). Michael Meyer in Strindberg: A Biography suggests that the preface is a criticism of Ibsen and his attempts to “create a new drama by filling in the old forms with new contents”3 (Strindberg 673). Evert Sprinchorn in Strindberg as Dramatist maintains that the “preface was written … to sell the play rather than to explain it.4” The preface is decidedly “more extreme and rigid in its naturalistic tendencies than the play” (Templeton 470) and several critics indicate that a reading of the play against the preface provides more fruitful and interesting discourse than a reading through it.

The labeling of Strindberg’s texts as misogynist because of the misogyny in his theoretical discourse is also proven to be problematic because his prejudices against women are often irrational, inconsistent, and not wholly reflected in his female characters. Despite the “intensity of hatred and fear of women that he expressed in letters, in fiction, and in drama between 1883 and 1888” (which “struck many of his male contemporaries as not only distasteful but insane”), Strindberg was one of the few “male playwrights capable of creating female subjects who were active and powerful, not merely the victims or playthings of men” (Gordon 139-40). Robert Gordon in “Rewriting the Sex War” notes that many of Strindberg’s male contemporaries “had no need to examine or interrogate their actual relationships with women” and were comfortable denying middle-class married women any role “but that of mother or child-like sex object,” or other such roles that “did not constitute any form of threat to the psychic integrity of the average middle-class man” (139). According to Gordon:

A patriarchal system produced for each [of Strindberg’s contemporaries] a secure identity as a man, permitting him to voice the kind of liberal protest against inequitable political dispensation in relative safety and to the accompaniment of a chorus of grateful feminists (140).

Strindberg seemed to strive for the bravery that Zola called for, showing not only the “sex in the young girl” but giving that girl a voice and complexity that was unheard of in drama during this time. Unlike his contemporaries, Strindberg found the female character just as deep, complex, interesting, and as capable of debasement as a male character. As Gordon puts it, “For all its ambivalences, Miss Julie is possibly the first nineteenth-century play by a male writer to have conceived the woman’s role as subject of the drama, her point of view being as fully explored as the man’s” (152). Though Strindberg suffered from many prejudices, he was also unafraid of making a strong-willed woman the central character of his play.

1 Quote taken from Bottoms, 113.

2 Evert Sprinchorn; Quote taken from Templeton, 469.

3 Templeton, 469.

4 Quote taken from Templeton, 469.

First "Miss Julie" production, November 1906

First "Miss Julie" production, November 1906

Strindberg’s personal life also, at times, went against the misogyny he preached, and his inclination to waver between two opposing binaries, such as misogyny and feminism, was not uncommon. Each of his three marriages was “to a woman whose career gave her an independence that was unconventional” and it was believed that up until 1882 he was “very sympathetic to the idea of female emancipation” (Gordon 140). While reflecting on Strindberg’s misogyny, Gordon notices that:

Strindberg’s misogyny (like his anti-Semitism or the tendency for his close male friends inevitably to become enemies), involved a peculiar process in which he initially identified with the outsider as a victim of a repressive society and subsequently perceived himself as a victim of the outsider upon whom he projected all the evils previously ascribed to society itself (141).

The idea that Julie may be both the victim of “a repressive society” and a projection of “all the evils previously ascribed to society itself” may account for her ability to straddle the line between misogynistic and feminist portrait. Strindberg is known for his “continual experimentation with new ideas and attitudes” during which he often displaced one idea with its binary opposite: “feminism – patriarchy; admiration for Jews – anti-Semitism; Naturalism – Expressionism/Symbolism;” (Gordon 152) etc. Miss Julie is perhaps reflective of that state of mind, as she seems to exist in between several binaries that complicate her reception by both critics and audiences.

Miss Julie straddles the line between many binaries – feminist/”half-woman,” radical/naturalist, sadist/masochist, victimizer/victim, masculine/feminine, enemy/lover, etc. – but it is Jean, the servant with whom she has a liaison and the male protagonist, who places particular binaries onto Julie that move the story forward. The play begins with Jean’s portrayal of Julie, and indeed it is Jean’s perspective of Julie that shapes and complicates the audience’s perspective of her. Coming into the kitchen after dancing with Miss Julie during the ladies’ waltz, Jean cannot stop talking about her with his fiancé Christine, and his language is both condemning and awe-ful: “that’s what happened when the gentry try to act like the common people – they become common! … However, I’ll say one thing for her: she is beautiful! Statuesque!” (683). Though Jean has both misogynistic and naturalistic tendencies, like Strindberg Jean’s view of Julie is not purely misogynistic, but rather more complexly based in the dichotomies of idealization and degradation, attraction and repulsion. His dichotomous view of Miss Julie appears to be a reflection of the day he first saw her, when he sneaked into the “Turkish pavilion” which turned out to be “the count’s private privy” (which was “more beautiful” to him than any castle), and he watched Miss Julie walking through the roses while he was covered in excrement (690). The audience is introduced to Jean’s paradoxical feelings of Miss Julie and judgments of her “irrational” behavior of dancing with servants on Midsummer’s Eve before Julie even enters onto the stage, and it is these paradoxical feelings that work so well with Julie’s own sense of binaries within herself. Jean’s perceptions of Julie and Julie’s perceptions of herself are completely compatible in bringing about the sadomasochistic behavior that ultimately destroys them both, while critiquing the psychological social imprisonments (such as class and patriarchy) that created their sadomasochistic mindsets. The sexual act between them seems to activate the commingling of their perceptions.

Though to some critics the dichotomies of idealization/degradation and attraction/repulsion are two-sides of the same misogynistic coin, they are further complicated by the frequent parallels between Jean and Julie, pointing towards a kind of self-admiration and self-loathing one finds in the mirrored “double” rather than a deep-rooted misogyny of the female figure. Along with their similar names, Jean and Julie often serve as mirror images of one another in their dreams, ambitions, and alternating feelings of authority and powerlessness. Both are unhappy with their station in life, and both feel that they can find freedom in the other’s situation. Just as Julie acts “below” her class by dancing with servants, hanging out in the kitchen, drinking beer, and purposely putting herself into compromising situations with Jean, Jean frequently acts “above” his class by drinking wine, smoking cigars, speaking French, and (after he has sex with her) attempting a dominance over Julie that he wouldn’t even dare use with Christine. Their dreams also mirror one another: Julie dreams that she is on top of a pillar, but she can’t fall and “won’t have peace until I get down;” Jean dreams that he is at the bottom of a tall tree and “I want to get up, up to the very top” but he can’t climb it (688). Both want to see one another as an equal, but equality means different things for both of them. For Julie, it means love, friendship, and sexual freedom, all things she cannot find anywhere except within Jean. For Jean it means being an aristocrat and class equality, so that he can assert male authority that is suppressed by his servitude. Their sense of egalitarianism masks the real equality that exists between them; neither wants to “be a slave to any man” (698) but both are trapped by the “Superstitions, prejudices that they’ve drilled into us since we were children!” (693). According to Templeton, “These shared qualities suggest that sexual and class differences are not natural and therefore determined, but are social and therefore, to come extent, changeable” (475), which goes against a purely naturalistic reading. Naturalism and a determined fate, in fact, seem to exist only in the characters’ minds, and it is this psychological naturalism that immobilizes Julie and Jean, and ultimately leads to self-destruction as an escape.

In the end, Julie essentially orders Jean to command her to kill herself, forcing him to assume an unnatural control over her that seems to render male dominance artificial, psychological, and purely socially-constructed. Julie’s demands, “Command me, and I’ll obey like a dog” (708) and “tell me to go!” (709), are capable of rendering Jean impotent, similar to the way her father’s voice does. Jean realizes after talking to the count through the speaking tube that “I’ve got the backbone of a damned lackey!” (708), and similarly Julie’s words take away Jean’s previous sense of dominance over her: “You’re taking all my strength from me. You’re making me a coward” (709). In commanding Jean to command her, while simultaneously enforcing the parallels between Jean and her father, and Jean and herself (“Then pretend you’re him. Pretend I’m you” [708]), Julie makes her suicide highly symbolic. In killing herself under Jean’s “command,” she not only frees herself from a frustrating existence of straddling incompatible binaries (“Can’t repent, can’t run away, can’t stay, can’t live … can’t die” [708]), she asserts power over Jean and forces him to view her as himself, having him participate in his own “suicide,” making them equals. Julie uses her masochism as a destabilizer of male dominance, and by making Jean’s command more significant than the act of suicide itself she paradoxically leaves him feeling less in control and less authoritative, putting an end to his fantasy of escaping servitude. While the ending may seem like Julie’s predetermined fate, where all the elements of heredity, environment, and opportunity have culminated, Julie chooses this fate and in doing so undermines its determinacy. Her submission to Jean is a display of masochistic power that exposes both naturalism and male dominance as social and psychological imprisonments.

Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans in "Miss Julie" (2014). Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans in "Miss Julie" (2014). Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Like Julie, Martha from Virginia Woolf is often seen as experiencing a “societal reprobation” (Kundert-Gibbs 230) for being a strong woman character transgressing gender and class boundaries. Though Albee is not nearly as outwardly misogynistic as Strindberg, his plays, especially Virginia Woolf, have often been given misogynist readings. Albee himself has been accused of immorality and misogyny by early critics, and such accusations, though most have been challenged and refuted, still heavily affect interpretations of Martha today (Hoorvash 12). In 1963 in an early review of the play, Richard Schechner writes, “Virginia Woolf is doubtlessly a classic: a classic example of bad taste, morbidity, plotless naturalism, misrepresentation of history, American society, philosophy, and psychology” (9-10). In 1998, John Kundert-Gibbs quotes Albee making a somewhat misogynist statement regarding the make-believe son of Martha and her husband George:

Well, George’s involvement with the son has never been as emotional as Martha’s has. Neither of them literally believes it, but Martha slips into believing it probably because she’s a woman. Women and their relation to children, their wombs, and the whole thing …” (Albee1).

Kundert-Gibbs uses Albee’s words as a way into a misogynist reading of Martha, who he sees as being “granted a typically masculine strength and attitude” but is later “betrayed by these strengths, trapped in a society’s eye between proper ‘male’ and ‘female’ behavior” (230). This misogynistic reading, however, glosses over Martha’s complexity as a sadomasochistic character and her and George’s partnership as oppressed figures working towards the same goal (in the same fashion as Jean and Julie).

Similar to Miss Julie, the characters of Virginia Woolf are in the shadow of the absent father figure (Martha’s father) who represents a looming patriarchal authority. Like Julie, Martha is the daughter of an important man who commands the respect of the other characters of the play – the president of the university and the boss of the two male leads, her husband George and their after-party guest Nick. Similar to Julie, Martha was raised by her father, and demonstrates an emasculating energy, particularly towards George. Her inability to have children and her sexual predatoriness towards Nick makes her a naturalistic figure in that she seems socially tied to her physiology, but like Julie the naturalistic excuses for Martha’s lewd and destructive behavior are a cover for a more complex, tragic discontent-ness that works to undermine patriarchal power through a sadomasochistic battle-of-the-sexes.

In the beginning of Virginia Woolf, audiences are almost immediately presented with Martha’s discontentness, and quickly learn that George is equally discontent with the roles of their marriage within the community of the university. Martha spends much of her first lines trying to figure out the name of a Bette Davis picture she’s reminded of upon reentering their house after a party. The only things she can remember is that Davis plays a housewife living in “the modest cottage modest Joseph Cotton [her husband] has set her up in” and that “she’s discontent” (6-7). Martha and George, like Julie and Jean, mirror each other’s discontentness, but unlike in Miss Julie, they enact their discontent through highly dramatized adoption of their expected roles in front of an audience (represented by the new faculty member Nick and his wife Honey) that they set to prove are just as discontent as they are. Mona Hoorvash and Farideh Pourgiv agree with this interpretation and establish that Martha’s character is not working against George and the unavoidable fate of a reestablished patriarchy, but rather with George in challenging traditional familial and gender roles:

Contrary to the claim of most Albee scholarship, Martha is neither a monster nor a ruin, but rather a clever, vivacious woman who, in collaboration with her husband, George, challenges the widely accepted patriarchal values by theatricalizing them (12).

In their highly theatricalized battle in front of their guests, Martha and George not only reveal the performativity of their roles as husband and wife, but they demonstrate the need to fulfill these roles because of a socially-implemented naturalism that they cannot escape psychologically.

It seems fitting that Nick works in the biology department and George in the history department, since both biology and history are the two elements that have a psychological-naturalistic hold over all the characters, Martha in particular. Talking with Nick, Martha reveals that part of the reason she married George is because her father wanted an “heir-apparent”: “A sense of continuation…history…and he’s always had it in the back of his mind to… groom someone to take over […] It wasn’t Daddy’s idea that I had to necessarily marry the guy. […] It was something I had in the back of my mind” (87). Her reasons for marriage have to do with succession, but also biology (“I actually fell for him” [90]), but the result is a frustrating existence between two people that do not fit the roles they were culturally and naturalistically assigned, causing them to constantly perform. As if to continue with this performative naturalism, George and Martha invent a son to make up for the fact that they cannot have children. This fictitious son, however, seems to serve as some function of getting-by that is privatized between the two of them – George becomes furious when Martha mentions him to their guests – showing that even when they are not in front of an audience they must still perform. The battle between Martha and George seems to stem from the disconnect between reality and performance, and society and a conflicted self that cannot adhere to society’s constructs.

The ending seems to indicate that George has won the battle, and by killing their make-believe son he has exerted control over Martha’s fantasy, seemingly breaking her down and forcing her to admit her fear of being a modern-thinking woman in a patriarchal society:

George: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf…

Martha: I…am…George…I…am…

(George nods, slowly) (256-57).

It is the ending, alongside Martha’s destructive, domineering behavior that gives the play its misogynist interpretations. However, because George and Martha throughout much of the play act more like sadomasochistic partners rather than battling enemies, it does not seem fitting that the ending is meant to be a display of ultimate dominance over the other. As Hoorvash and Pourgiv put it:

It is not imaginable that Albee, who has been criticizing many of the values of his society the whole time, would end his play by a celebration of patriarchy. The ending of the play does not represent what is desired. It has the urgency of a warning and the touching dignity of a tragedy. It does not show what should be, but what is (23).

George killing the pretend son against Martha’s wishes ends the privatized performance between them and forces them to face their discontent. Though George is the one that puts an end to the fiction, Martha grants him this power, much like Julie grants Jean the power to command her suicide. Part of their equality comes from their dual roles in their shared, performative marriage, and if Martha denies that George has the power to kill their son, she is exerting dominance over him and putting an end to their equal stance as partners. Part of the reason she loves George is because he is the only man

who is good to me, and whom I revile; […] who can hold me, at night, so that it’s warm, and whom I will bite so there’s blood; who keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules; who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and, yes, I do wish to be happy (201-02).

Similar to Julie, Martha does not want absolute power, she wants a partner – someone who reflects and verifies her paradoxical existence in a world where she cannot fit into social categories and feels doomed by naturalistic determinacy. Giving George the power to kill their son confirms that she does not want to be “Virginia Woolf,” or a type of modern feminist that dominates a man, but wants to continue the sadomasochism between them that makes her “happy,” even if that means sacrificing naturalistic performance and admitting their unnaturalness. The ending is a declaration of her love for George and, like Julie’s suicide, a confirmation of their equality under a domineering patriarchy.

It is the ambiguity of the final submissive acts of both Julie and Martha’s characters that tend to stir up controversy among critics, and tend towards misogynist readings of the plays, though both can be seen as masochistic submissions that undermine masculine authority and reveal its illusory quality. These women, in effect, become willing martyrs to male dominance, and their willing defeat makes their plays tragic and thought-provoking, challenging audiences to interpret the meaning of such acts. The answer to the questions, why does Julie allow Jean to command her suicide and why does Martha allow George to kill their fictitious son, is not found in a purely misogynist or naturalist reading, but rather in the investigation of that perceived misogyny. Through such an investigation, one can find that Martha and Julie break down feminine ideals in a naturalistic framework in order to reveal a female complexity that is often overlooked in drama, and that they display a masochistic power that seeks to reveal the flaws of a patriarchal system that works against both men and women.

1 Quote taken from Kundert-Gibbs, 230.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: New American Library, 2006. Print.

Bottoms, Stephen J. “’Walpurgisnacht’: the cauldron of criticism.” Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. 113. e-Book.

Burkman, Katherine H., and Judith Roof. "Introduction." Staging the Rage: The Web of Misogyny in Modern Drama. London: Associated UPes, 1998. 11-23. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (Dec 1988): 520. JSTOR. Web. 27 Apr. 2013.

Hoorvash, Mona, and Farideh Pourgiv. "Martha the Mimos: Femininity, Mimesis, and Theatricality in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Atlantis: Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies 33.2 (Dec 2011): 11-25.Fuente Academica Premier. Web. 19 Apr. 2013.

Kundert-Gibbs, John. “Barren Ground: Female Strength and Male Impotence in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Staging the Rage: The Web of Misogyny in Modern Drama. Ed. Katherine H. Burkman and Judith Roof. London: Associated UPes, 1998. 230-47. Print.

Gordon, Robert. "Rewriting the Sex War in The Father, Miss Julie, and Creditors: Strindberg, Authorship, and Authority." Staging the Rage: The Web of Misogyny in Modern Drama. Ed. Katherine H. Burkman and Judith Roof. London: Associated UPes, 1998. 139-57. Print.

Schechner, Richard. “Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?” Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. C.W.E. Bigsby. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975. 64. Print.

Sprinchorn, Evert. "Strindberg and the Greater Naturalism." The Drama Review 13.2 (Winter 1968): 119-29. JSTOR. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Strindberg, August. Preface and Miss Julie. The Norton Anthology of Drama (Shorter Edition). Ed. J. Ellen Gainor, Stanton B. Garner Jr. and Martin Puchner. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010. 673-709. Print.

Templeton, Alice. "Miss Julie as ‘A Naturalistic Tragedy’" Theatre Journal 42.4 (Dec 1990): 468-80. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.

Zola, Émile. "Naturalism on the Stage." Trans. Belle M. Sherman. The Experimental Novel and Other Essays. New York: Cassell, 1893. Blackboard.

© 2019 Veronica McDonald


Veronica McDonald (author) from Alabama on February 08, 2019:

It’s not. Only fun to analyze if you like theater, or literature, or psychology. Thank you for reading though. God bless.

john on February 08, 2019:

why is this impotant