Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Memento
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Memento, there is a dominating theme of reality vs. illusion. In both the play and the movie, we are unable to figure out what the truth really is, mainly because the characters choose to live their lives locked inside a world of illusion. Sometimes, people try to hide the truth because it may be too painful for a person to bear. Therefore, the quotation which I think fits perfectly with these two stories, and even in real life is when Teddy tells Lenny, “You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth.”
During Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, we learn that both George and Martha have not forgotten the past, though we still don’t know the whole truth. Martha has not grown up because she has yet to be able to leave behind her father and his unconditional love. Once she does this though, she will be able to accept George as he is. Similarly, George is stressed by a troubling childhood. The “Bergen Boy” story he tells Nick about the child who “accidentally” killed both of his parents, and “when they began told him his father was dead, he began to laugh, I have been told, and his laughter grew and he would not stop,” (107) is supposedly the plot of one of George’s failed novels. Martha protests and says that the boy was actually George himself. The audience has no idea whether or not this is true, but I felt that whether or not it was true, it does reflect the deep-seeded feelings of guilt he had about his parents. All of this time though he was hiding it behind this story because he didn’t want the truth and made up his own. If he believed that the “Bergen Boy” was actually his life, it could hurt him even more, knowing that he killed his parents.
George and Martha choose to live their lives in a very disturbing way that satisfies their needs. They drink, play games with each other, and refuse to express to each other the real love that they may feel in their relationship. The illusionary object that really links this couple together is their “son.” Many times in the play, there is mention of the son. First, George warns Martha not to mention this boy before the guests come over. After she does though, there is back and forth banter about the child’s birthday, why he doesn’t come home, etc. The "child" they invent is a symbol of many things for George and Martha. For both, the idea of their own child symbolizes maturity and adulthood. It represents their desire to grow up and leave behind the painful memories of their own childhoods' by becoming parents themselves. I believe it is also a projection of themselves, of the inner child of each, which is still alive inside and hurting them because it is trapped.
As revenge against Martha, George decides to kill this "son." He does not come to this decision lightly, but he is basically forced to do so after an evening of impotent rage and humiliation. He knows it will wound Martha severely. It is significant that the boy is killed in a car accident on a country road while trying to avoid a porcupine, indicating how much of himself George has devoted to their fantasy child. Yet, George's devotion to their “child” is nothing in comparison to Martha's level of involvement as her distressed response to his death would indicate. She screams and denies George’s story saying, “No; no, he is not dead; he is not dead” (247). Despite all the functions their son served as mentioned above, the child was also a comfort, some way for them to believe they could produce something of worth in their marriage, something good that was untainted by their own painful experiences. Martha, though, carries the illusion too far, and she brings it out into the world where other people like Honey and Nick can comment on their pretend child and judge it and them. Because of this, George feels this formerly pure idea is now desecrated. George kills the child to hurt Martha, but he also seems to recognize that their deceptive existence has built up to a point beyond which it cannot go. To kill the child is to kill their fantasy life, but it may be the only way something new can be born between them, something real that they create themselves. Basically, what this story proves is that people don’t always want to know the truth, and to avoid it, we make up our own. Sometimes we are afraid to live knowing that our lives are scarred by a certain event or person. Sometimes, we even convince ourselves that illusion is reality so well, that we lose sight or what reality actually is. Human nature may be to hide from the truth if it hurts us, but when we realize, like George and Martha did, that we can’t live like that forever, it can hurt even more. Sometimes people create these illusions to expel some type of poison from their lives, and George and Martha prove that eventually, these illusions must disappear in order to go on.
In Memento, we learn of a man named Lenny who lives a life of illusion. Although it may not be completely by choice, there are many things that he could have done to free himself from his illusions. Throughout the movie, he is busy looking for the man who killed his wife. All the while, his wife was not killed (though she was dead), and he had already gotten revenge on the man who did this to her. In reality, the story he made up about a case of a man overdosing his wife because she thought his short term memory loss was an act, was actually Leonard himself. Later on, he consciously chooses to go after Teddy, even though he knows that this is not the man who killed his wife. He is basically giving himself something to live for. The Sammy Jankis business is a vague conflation of a real story with events from Leonard's own marriage, events so horrifying and guilt-causing that Leonard has had to project them onto someone else -- poor, miserable Sammy Jankis.
As Leonard narrates the conclusion of the Sammy Jankis story, we see a shot of Sammy in an insane asylum. A figure walks across the front of the camera, and suddenly, for a split second of time, we see Leonard himself in Sammy's chair. Similarly, as Teddy criticizes Leonard at the abandoned building, we see shots of Leonard himself administering insulin to his wife's thigh. But a split second later, we see him simply pinching that same thigh- a "memory" that we have seen before. What is truth, and what is illusion? We are left to figure this out on our own.
Leonard, having learned this (that he killed his wife), struggles to deal with it. He knows he won't be able to remember what Teddy is telling him, so he empties his gun to fool himself into thinking he hadn't used it. He burns the bloody and victorious photo of himself after he avenged his wife’s “death.” He pulls out a Polaroid of Teddy and writes on it: "DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES"; and he copies down Teddy's license-plate number. He drives off to have the number tattooed on his leg as a clue to help him track down the killer later. He is basically creating an illusion for his own life, so he will have something to work towards in his life, killing Teddy. Now that he knows the truth, he would rather forget it, and makes up a new one. The problem with Lenny is that while most people would be able to eventually leave this illusion filled life, he will never be able to completely figure out what reality is because of his sad condition.
Lenny sums it up very well when he says, “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there. Do I believe the world's still there? Is it still out there? ... Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I'm no different.” He knows that everything he does still has meaning and that the world will go on if his eyes are open or shut, if he is alive or dead. He realizes that he must see through himself so he can tell himself who he is. The problem is, he can’t remember, and therein lays Leonard’s problem in his own world of illusions.
As one may observe, both the play and the movie show that humans, many times try to hide their lives in illusion rather than living in reality. George and Martha live in a marriage chock full of illusions, most importantly, with the child, while Lenny also lives a life of illusion, and many times, chooses to deceive himself because he doesn’t want to know the truth of his life and his wife’s death. In real life, people try to live lives of illusion all of the time. People think that one day they will hit the lottery and everything will be all right, or even that they can go to sleep, and when they wake up the problems will go away. That is simply not true. The problem is we make ourselves believe that we can live a life of illusion and never head back to reality. Sometimes I think one day I will wake up and become a better essay writer. The truth is it will not come unless I practice. The more that I deny this fact, the worse my problem will get. This holds true for everybody.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2005.