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Comparative Study Woolf & Albee (Including Reflection Statement)


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Through the exploration of a pair of texts composed in different contexts one can observe the significance of the ability of texts with varied form and context to still present and reflect similar values. A Room of One’s Own (hereafter AROO), a polemic, by Virginia Woolf and the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (hereafter WAVW) by Edward Albee both address gender inequality and truth and illusion even though their contexts and form starkly contrast. An analysis of similar themes will provide a greater understanding of meanings and perceptions of the texts.

AROO, written in the post-war period of the late 1920s, was composed in a time of great social change due to the destruction and turmoil of the War. Modernist writing highlights the absence of, and search for, meaning and features experiments with new forms. Loss and absence lie at the heart of Woolf’s art, resulting from the experience of loss as an adolescent – her half sister, father, brother and mother. Her refusal to give one single view of anything, offering instead multiple, often conflicting views which the reader has to balance and bring together is another modernist trait. In contrast, WAVW was written in a far more conservative context, and although Albee does challenge societal roles, he does it in a more blatant way. Written during a time of Cold War tension, where fear and instability was disguised beneath the facade of the Great American Dream, Albee is still able to paint a dystopian image of the stereotyped family unit. Post-modernist writing abandons all meaning and the Theatre of the Absurd, emerged at the time, as a theatrical technique used by Albee to reflect a post-modern world. Interestingly, AROO and WAVW are both representations of a privileged intellectual life and criticise the values in the society they lived in because the composers believed them to be detrimental to the individual.

A central issue that arises in both texts is truth and illusion. In AROO, the idea that women are inferior to men is an illusion manifested in society through the oppression of women. “Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact”, Woolf, in reference to the idea that by fictionalizing relationships and human existence, allows us to see the emotional truths regarding humanity and society. By choosing fiction as the medium for her argument, Woolf continues to explore the complex network of relationships between truth and fiction, facts and lies, and opinions and emotions. "Lies will flow from my lips, but there may be some truth mixed up with them." The clever creation of a persona allows her to see the subject of women and fiction objectively, she tells readers to call her “by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance” to show that it shouldn’t matter who one is when writing fiction. Woolf believes the unfair portrayal of women in fiction is due to most fiction being written by subjective men. Women have been marginalised and trivialised due to the fact that male writers want to keep up their image of being superior. She concludes that women’s representation in fiction is an illusion as men have “written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth”. Woolf has included “light” as a recurring motif throughout the text to symbolise truth. Her humour and self-critical approach comfort the reader and helps her achieve the very thing she wishes literature to be, free of anger and bitterness.

In contrast, WAVW shatters the illusion about contentment derived from academic success. It startles our ideas of relationships between educated men and women and challenges our assumptions about the American dream. Martha and George are educated, privileged, wealthy and childless, yet are unhappy with their lives, shown by the angry, “flop!”, and sarcastic conversations shared between the two in the opening act. The extended metaphor of ‘games’ represents George and Martha’s destructive relationship and provides entertainment as they try and outdo each other with threats and humiliation. George is presented as a tragic victim of living a life with illusions and shows us that the American dream is definitely not as perfect as it looks. The most significant illusion in the play is that of George and Martha’s imaginary son, which sustains their bitter and destructive marriage. Albee presents us with the idea that illusions can sometimes give us comfort because they let us escape from the cold and harsh reality. George says, “our son... he’s a comfort... a bean bag”, which shows that they have created their son for a source of comfort. However Albee makes it clear that we must live without them because we see that George and Martha get too caught up in making up stories that even they can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. The name of the second Act in WAVW is called “Walpurgisnacht” which is a religious allusion to a pagan festival where witches gathered for a demonic bonfire to expel evil spirits. Albee uses this to show that illusions are like evil spirits and we should get rid of them as soon as possible. The third act, “Exorcism”, symbolises the characters ridding themselves of illusions that have created chaos and unhappiness. Martha’s soliloquy shows her acceptance of reality. It exposes her insecurities and admits her marriage is dysfunctional and built on illusions.

While Woolf highlights the need for truth in fiction, Albee stresses the need for truth in life. Woolf strives to teach us that fiction is often an illusion and we must not always trust what is written, as most of it is subjective, she achieves this through her humorous tone, paradox, persona and motifs. However Albee shows us through symbols and allusions in WAVW that people are afraid to live life without illusions and even though they give us comfort, we must learn to live without them because it may then be hard to distinguish between truth and illusion. While written in entirely different forms and contexts both highlight the need for truth and the detrimental effects of illusion. Truth and lies is a universal issue as it will always exist in society and the analysis of it in two texts from different times broadens our understanding of the depth of the issue.

Another common theme in both texts is challenging society’s values.

Within AROO, Woolf pinpoints the source of gender inequality as women having a lack of access to both financial independence and the opportunity to explore their individual identity. The text’s portrayal of the struggle for gender equality in many ways reflects the open-mindedness and willingness to challenge societal roles that framed Woolf’s era. Woolf’s thesis, “A women must have money and a room of her own if she is to write”, highlights the social, educational, economic and legal restrictions placed on women who were fulfilling the roles that society expected them to follow, therefore rarely in possession of privacy or the funds to write. Interruptions are a recurring motif that distracts Woolf’s train of thought, “a cat without a tail”; often leaving ideas unfinished, these interruptions act as a symbol for all of the distractions that women faced including children and housework which prevented them from making a career out of writing. Woolf lived in a patriarchic society and presents us with an illustration of the prejudice confronting women at the time through the juxtaposition of Oxbridge, a men’s college, and Fernham, a women’s college. Woolf discovers that it was a huge struggle for the founders of Fernham to get the college established. “What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?”, Woolf questions but soon realizes that women were busy having children and running homes, too busy to build fortunes and even if women were to go into business they wouldn’t have children and any money they did make would have been the legal property of their husbands. Woolf’s creation of William Shakespeare’s equally talented sister “Judith Shakespeare” shows the prejudice that women suffered as they weren’t treated as intelligent and capable of writing. She describes the poor conditions that a woman of Judith’s ability experienced and the privileges that women miss out on.

In contrast, in WAVW, although many barriers had been removed, women are seen as serving the function of bearing children – an area in which Martha and Honey prove to be failures. Albee subtley brings up the expectations of women in society at the very beginning of the play. Martha is babbling on about a Bette Davis movie she’s trying to remember the name of and says “She comes home from a hard day at the grocery store...she’s a housewife, she buys things.”This shows that women are still seen to play the ‘housewife’ role, looking after children, buying groceries and doing the housework. Throughout the play Martha continually refers to her father as “daddy”. This shows that women are still dependent on a superior male figure.
However Albee focuses more on proving the American Dream, widely reflected in popular culture at the time, to be destructive to the individual in society. Nick is used to symbolise the American Dream; young, intelligent, married, yet miserable. He admits that sleeping with the wives of important people is part of his strategy for gaining power and influence. When George tries to give Nick advice not to pursue his ambitions with the disregard for principles and civilised values that he has previously betrayed, Nick replies “UP YOURS”. This shows Albee believes American’s lack morality and their goal is to climb up the ladder of success and popularity, to achieve the ‘American Dream’. Albee shows us a nihilistic society, without values or meanings, a result of the Second World War, the Holocaust and the dropping of two atomic bombs. His use of the Theatre of the Absurd shows him rejecting traditional drama narratives and representing reality with chaos and irrationality with a tragic and comic nature. This theatrical aspect invites the audience to consider the allegorical meaning of the play, that George, Martha, Nick and Honey represent the true nature of American life.

Woolf and Albee both challenge gender inequality; however Albee focuses more on challenging the perceptions of the American Dream and as a result his depiction of the struggle for gender equality is far more subtle. Woolf’s use of juxtaposition of the men and women college’s, the motif of interruptions and the creation of fictional characters, like Judith Shakespeare, allow her to clearly elucidate a key issue of her time to challenge society’s values. Albee takes quite a different approach, using drama and chaotic to emphasize the form and illustrate the impossibility of the American Dream. Gender roles and inequality is a continuing problem in the 21st century as roles are always changing and a competitive nature between men and women will constantly exist. Society’s expectations are a major problem highlighted by Woolf and Albee and the need to be an individual, and make your own values, is stressed by both composers. An analysis of both texts expands the knowledge of perceptions from different times and enables us to have a clear idea of what each text represents.

AROO and WAVW are clearly products of their time. A text’s context shapes the values, meanings and issues within the text but in spite of being composed in different contexts, relationships between texts are essentially established through similar values. Both texts illuminate the importance of truth and living life without illusions. Woolf and Albee both challenged their society’s values as they were detrimental to the individual, and in particular women, in AROO. These ideas resonate with a modern audience due to their universal nature. A comparative study provides a deeper understanding and appreciation of two texts because it raises significant questions about its context and challenges the audience for which it was written.

Reflection Statement
A comparative study of texts has provided me with a better understanding of how historical, social, and cultural factors, such as the world wars, changing ways of thinking and social values and expectations, can shape a text’s content, form, style and language techniques.
Texts composed in different times and different contexts can reflect the same ideas but with different values and perspectives due to the personal context of each composer as they have gone through different life experiences which can leave a huge impact in their life, such as Virginia Woolf’s troubled childhood and lack of education and Albee’s upbringing in an intellectual and idealistic family.
It has also taught me that each audience reacts to a text differently due to the different values and morals of each society. The ability to be read in the modern world due to the universal nature of its themes is astounding and provides a greater understanding of changes in perceptions.
The analysis of two texts, from completely different contexts and varied form, broadens our understanding of values explored in each text as well as the different perceptions of the intended audience of each text. Overall the comparative study has enabled me to make a clear analysis of each text and discover insightful meanings.

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