Analysis of A Room of One’s Own and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Room of One’s Own imaginatively portray individuals who challenge the established values of their time. Literature is an evaluation of the established values of their time, a manifestation of the composer’s perspectives regarding key issues that characterised their zeitgeist. This is evident in Virginia Woolf’s polemical essay, A Room of One’s Own (1929), in which she portrays male anxiety towards women during the post-WWI period.
Similarly, Edward Albee’s 1962 satirical drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Afraid) projects an analogous fear of female dominance, although in post-WWII American society. In a further comparison, both composers focus on the importance of wealth in society, where Woolf considers the significance of material security with regards to fiction writing in English society in the 1920s, whilst Albee criticises materialistic values in relation to social conformity in American society in the 1960s.
Since the late 19th century female suffrage movement that empowered women, men feared being displaced from their traditional positions of authority. Woolf conveys these established patriarchal values through A Room of One’s Own, in her examination of the phallocentric literary sphere of the 1920s, where anybody could write literature, “save they [were] not women”. The symbolic title highlights women’s need for material security as a pre-condition “to writ[ing] fiction”, arguing that historically, men have denied women opportunities for achieving economic equality.
Woolf’s ironic use of simile reinforces her hypothesis that “if only Mrs Seton … had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers … to found fellowships”. This highlights the historical lack of educational and financial opportunities for women. Furthermore, Woolf blames patriarchal values for institutionalising discriminatory practices in English society. At the fictional “Oxbridge”, a Beadle indicates that “this was the turf; there was the path”, symbolising the established gender exclusion in academia. Her thoughts interrupted, she expresses disappointment “as they had sent my little fish into hiding”.
Through this metaphor, Woolf implies that men’s “protection of their turf” denied women opportunities for creativity, portraying an ingrained contextual fear of female intelligence that was perceived as encroaching upon male dominance in every sphere of endeavour. Albee’s contemporary political satire, Afraid, also portrays male and female rivalry, incorporating textual features such as intense drama and blunt stage directions to convey the fierce gender conflict of his time. Whilst both texts were composed in post-war periods, Albee’s drama savagely critiques the established societal values of small town American society in the 1960s.
This is evident when Martha criticises George as “a great…big…fat…FLOP! ” unable to rise up the departmental ranks. The use of crude colloquial language and aggressive stage directions accentuates her frustration as she “spits the word at George’s back”, reflecting Martha’s authority over him, which symbolises women’s growing influence in mainstream American society in the 1960s. Furthermore, Martha recalls the “boxing match we had” in an attempt to humiliate him, an allegory for the gendered power struggle.
George reacts negatively, and to regain superiority, he “takes … a short-barrelled shotgun … aims it at … Martha … [and] pulls the trigger”. Coupled with this stage direction, Albee’s use of exclamatory punctuation in George’s childish point-scoring of “Pow! You’re dead! ” signifies his desperation to recover his masculinity. In this way, Albee portrays the constant quarrelling between George and Martha as a symbol of anxiety and dysfunctionality in America in the 1960s, depicting the national paranoia associated with the Cold War and nuclear warfare.
Just as Woolf and Albee represent the gender conflict in post-war societies, they also criticise the wealth inequality and the greed of their time. Whilst Woolf reasons that discrimination against women often prevented them from writing fiction, she also considers that poor material conditions likewise limited their contribution to literature. Through the use of the modal verb to emphasise the importance of financial security, she expresses her contention regarding material needs that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
The anecdote of the tailless cat is symbolic of the distractions that interrupted women in their writing, thus Woolf highlights the need for the privacy of a room of one’s own in order to “think of things in themselves”. Furthermore, she decides that “500 pounds a year for ever … seemed infinitely more important” than the suffrage movement as it was more conducive to her writing fiction. No longer working “like a slave”, Woolf’s simile highlights that “food, house, and clothing are forever mine”, reflecting the value of financial security in English society in the 1920s.
Thus, Woolf sustains her thesis and highlights the importance of money and privacy, conveying the established attitude that a secure income ensured creative and intellectual freedom in English society. Alternatively, Albee’s political allegory reflects his criticism of the materialistic mores of American society in the 1960s, portraying human shallowness in a dramatic appraisal of the American Dream, an idea which has resonated within society since the founding of America.
It epitomises a conservative national ethos that entailed the possibility of universal prosperity and the pursuit of happiness for all, thus many individuals sought to increase their wealth and social status. This materialistic idea is conveyed through Nick, who crudely boasts, “my wife’s got some money”. In characterising Nick as the typical shallow ‘jock’, Albee undermines this concept of the ‘self-made man’, dramatising a soulless aspect of the American Dream. Additionally, Martha criticises George’s salary, mirroring the contextual attitudes of middle-class America, when status was associated with high income levels.
She sneers at George, advising him not “to waste good liquor…not on your salary”. Here, Martha’s mocking tone captures her disappointment as she “hope[s] that was an empty bottle”. However, the “empty bottle” also symbolises her despair as George is only “on an Associate Professor’s salary”. This brings to mind the social importance of income but unlike in Woolf’s society, where women’s economic security may liberate creativity, here economic success serves as a status symbol within the American Dream.
Thus, literature, with its distinct forms and features, is influenced by varying contexts, portraying similar concerns that enhance our understanding of the established values of the time. Woolf’s polemic, A Room of One’s Own (1929), may differ textually and contextually from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), which portrays a savage attack on American values, but both texts reflect male fear of women due to their growing influence in post war societies. Furthermore, they focus on the importance of wealth with regard to literary creativity in English society in the 1920s and the realisation of the American Dream during the 1960s.