Charlie says grace, but in the middle, Steve's phone rings (his ringtone is the theme song from Sanford and Son). After Steve runs out of the room to take the call, Charlie continues saying grace. As they begin to eat, Violet asks Barbara if she wants a side table and tells her daughters that she wants to get all new furniture. Barbara tells her mother that she's not ready to talk about possessions yet.
When Barbara tells Violet that Johnna made the meal, Viola snaps, "' 'Swhat she's paid for." Charlie asks Jean about her vegetarianism, and she tells him that when one eats meat, one is ingesting the animal's fear. Charlie says he eats meat at every meal, and Violet, abruptly remembering the old "Where's the beef?" commercial, starts screaming, "Where's the meat?!" Everyone is silent.
As people begin talking about what a nice funeral service it was, Violet interjects, saying that she would have preferred an open casket and saying, "He hadn't written any poetry to speak of since '65 and he never liked teaching worth a damn. Nobody talked about the good stuff. Man was a world-class alcoholic, more'n fifty years." She tells a story about the time he got so drunk at an alumni dinner that he "fouled" himself.
As she laughs, everyone feels awkward. Steve tries to talk about Beverly's poetry, when Violet interrupts him to ask, "Who are you?" Karen reminds her, but Violet thinks it is strange that Karen brought a date. "We're getting married on New Year's," Karen says, and invites her mother to the wedding. Violet alludes to the fact that she won't make it and asks Steve how many times he's been married; he tells her he's been married 3 times. "You should pretty much have it down by now, then," Violet says.
Suddenly, Charlie hangs his head and everyone asks what's wrong. Abruptly, he says, "I just got a big bite of fear!" Everyone laughs at Jean's expense, playfully, and Barbara jokes that Jean sometimes eats a hamburger. When Jean calls Barbara a liar, Violet says to her, "If I ever called my mom a liar? She would've knocked my goddamn head off my shoulders." Silence.
Violet asks Bill if he found anything in Beverly's office, then tells the girls that Beverly left everything to her. "We never got around to taking care of it legally, but you should know he meant to leave everything to me," she says. The girls simply say "Okay," as Violet brainstorms all the ways she might get rid of the furniture.
Suddenly, Barbara says, "Or you might never get around to the auction and then we can just have it for free after you die." "You might at that," Violet says, coolly.
To break the tension, Little Charles asks Bill about some of Beverly's poetry that he found in the office. Before they get on to that topic, Violet reveals that she knows Bill and Barbara are separated, saying, "Nobody slips anything by me. I know what's what."
Barbara and Bill don't want to talk about it, but Violet continues to rattle on, saying, "You can't compete with a younger woman, there's no way to compete. One of those unfair things in life." Bill confirms that there's a younger woman involved, and Violet echoes her earlier opinion that women get uglier as they age, insulting Karen in the process.
"I'm just truth-telling. Some people get antagonized by the truth," Violet says. When Barbara confronts her mother for "attacking" them, Violet bellows, "You ever been attacked in your sweet spoiled life?! Tell her 'bout attacks, Mattie Fae, tell her what an attack looks like!" Violet screams at Barbara about the fact that she and Mattie Fae were physically attacked by their mother and their mother's suitors. "None of you know 'cept this woman right here and the man we buried today!" Violet yells, before telling them that Beverly lived in a car with his parents from the age of 4 to the age of 10.
She berates her daughters for not working harder given what they inherited. "You never had real problems so you got to make all your problems yourselves!" she yells. As some of them try to diffuse the tension in the room, Little Charles stands and says he has a truth to tell. Ivy begs him not to say anything and he flees the room.
Barbara calls her mother an addict and Violet agrees. Barbara lunges at her and they struggle, Barbara strangling her mother a bit. She orders everyone else to do a pill raid, going through the house and taking the pills, and asks someone to call a doctor. Violet struggles, but Barbara screams, "I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW."
Act 3. Scene 1. Later, the shades have been removed from the windows. The three sisters sit in the study drinking whiskey. In the dining room, Jean and Steve play Mattie Fae and Charlie in a game of spades. On the second floor landing, Violet looks out the window.
Karen asks Barbara if Violet needs to go to an institution, and Barbara says that the doctor thinks their mother is "slightly brain damaged." Ivy tells them about Violet's tactics for stockpiling pills. They discuss the fact that Violet is a member of the "Greatest Generation." Barbara recalls a time that Violet made a big speech about wanting to be a better mother all while smuggling a bottle of pills in her vagina.
They laugh about it and Karen and Ivy tell Barbara they're sorry she and Bill are separated. "That's one thing about Mom and Dad. You have to tip your cap to anyone who can stay married that long," Karen says. Ivy replies, "Karen, he killed himself." Karen and Barbara ask Ivy about her relationship with Little Charles, and she tells them that they got together after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer the year before.
Barbara asks Ivy why she didn't tell them about her cancer, and the sisters get into an argument about the fact that they don't see each other very often. Ivy resents her sisters for leaving her to take care of their parents, and tells them she's moving to New York with Little Charles.
Ivy tells Barbara that she is her mother's favorite and that she was their father's. She elaborates that when Barbara moved to Boulder, Violet thought it was to get away from her. Violet comes downstairs and waits outside the door just as Ivy is saying that she and Karen are both going to leave, and that Barbara should deal with their mother.
Violet has just taken a bath and is calm. She tells the girls about a boy named Raymond Qualls whom she had a crush on when she was young. She wanted to get some boots to impress him, and her mother hinted that she was going to buy them, but then when Christmas came, she gave her men's work boots with holes in them. "My momma laughed for days," Violet says, and the girls are deflated by the tragic story.
"That makes me wish for a heartwarming claw hammer story," Barbara says. Karen kisses Violet's cheek and Barbara asks to talk her alone for a moment. Barbara asks Violet if she wants to go to a rehab center and Violet insists that she can do it on her own, now that the pills are gone. Barbara asks how she can help, and Violet insists that she'll be fine on her own.
Little Charles is watching television in the living room, and Ivy comes in and they discuss their affair. "I want everyone to know that I got what I always wanted. And that means...I'm not a loser," Charles says, to which Ivy replies, "You're my hero." He invites Ivy to sit with him at the piano and plays a quirky song, when Mattie Fae interrupts to tell him they are leaving. She gives her son a hard time for all the television he watches.
At the lunch after the funeral service, Violet is in a particularly combative mood. While she is the grieving and vulnerable widow, her attitude is more akin to a bull in a china shop. Her tendency to want to cut through the predominating social atmosphere is only exacerbated by her pill-popping, which lowers her inhibitions and makes her indifferent to social niceties.
A big reason for Violet's alienation, in addition to her pill use, is the fact that her husband, her main partner in addiction, is gone. She laughs about a memory of Beverly fouling himself after getting too drunk at an alumni dinner, a moment that is at once cutting and affectionate, and in this we can see that she felt a profound kinship with Beverly not only through their marriage, but through addiction. No one wants to talk about these sour and painful memories, and Violet is even more alone in her grief. This moment hearkens back to Beverly's strangely sweet proclamation in the prologue—"My wife takes pills and I drink; that's the bargain we've struck." To the non-addicts in the family, this is a painful and distressing memory, but for Violet and Beverly, it was the substance of their union, a mutual agreement.
Tracy Letts is a master of the tragicomic. Especially in this scene of the family meal, the conversation weaves in and out of lighthearted and menacing territory rapidly. This mirrors the unpredictability of family dysfunction, inherited trauma, and the toll of addiction, all major themes in the play. One minute the family is laughing and the next they are silent and stunned. One minute Violet is charming and funny, and the next she is being monstrous.
In little moments, we begin to see the background traumas that have made Violet the way she is. For one thing, she is a member of an older generation and is trying to grasp on for some control in the wake of her husband's death. What we also learn at the post-funeral meal is that she was abused. When Barbara confronts her for attacking the family, Violet flies off the handle, insisting that Barbara has no idea what an attack looks like, and looking to Mattie Fae for agreement in this. While it does not justify her cruelty, this background information about Violet surely gives us a window into the reasons behind why she has disappeared into a pill addiction and why she is so hard on her own children.
For the first moment in the play, someone really steps in and stands up to the venomous Violet. After literally strangling her mother, Barbara is pushed to her limit and bellows that she's "running things now." Following this climactic takeover, Violet is deprived of her pills, bathed, and treated like an at-risk patient in an institution. Barbara's violent outburst has the effect of calming Violet down for the time being, cocooning her in a system of care after years of structureless addiction.