Our Feelings of Sympathy and Regard for Jimmy
Jimmy has been so portrayed that he wins our sympathy in spite of his irrational outbursts of anger and his ruthless attacks on individuals and on various aspects of social life without much apparent justification. And if he wins our sympathy and even regard, the author must, to a greater or lesser degree, have identified himself with his protagonist.
The Autobiographical Quality of the Play:
Attitude to the Middle Class
Attitude to the Middle Class
As rightly pointed out by a critic, Look Back in Anger is thoroughly autobiographical in one respect. The hero here is deeply involved in what is called the class-war, as the author was. Jimmy Porter is self-consciously proletarian, having his origins in the working class, and he is proud of being so. Osborne's family too had worked very hard to earn their livelihood. The kind of puritanism which such a background often gives rise to—a social rather than a sexual puritanism—is perhaps at the core of Jimmy Porter's character. When the play opens, Jimmy has been married for four years and is now leading an exclusive kind of life, his only friend at this time being Cliff Lewis, a Welshman who also comes from the working class and who is lodging and boarding with the Porters. In spite of the passage of time, Jimmy has not been able to reconcile himself to the middle-class origin of his wife whom he holds almost as a hostage and whose family he is constantly criticizing. Jimmy has not been able to forget the opposition of Alison's family to her marriage to him. But, even if her family had not opposed the marriage as fiercely as they did, Jimmy would still have criticized that family because of their superior social status. And the fact that the speeches in which Jimmy criticizes the members of that family are among the most eloquent, rhetorical, and effective, shows that the author imparted to Jimmy some of his hostility to the upper classes.
Jimmy's Denunciations of the Middle Class
Jimmy describes Alison's father as a man who can never forget his past life, and who is "still casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness." Jimmy makes fun of the manner in which Alison's father keeps thinking about what he has lost by the ending of the imperialist regime in India. About Alison's brother, Jimmy has some very nasty things to say. Her brother Nigel, says Jimmy in his bitterly sarcastic manner, is just about as vague as he can get without being actually in visible. Jimmy goes on to say that nothing is more vague about Nigel than his knowledge. Nigel's knowledge of life and ordinary human beings is so hazy that he really deserves some sort of decoration or medal for it, Jimmy adds. The whole speech in which he condemns Nigel is a masterpiece of rhetoric. But Jimmy's bitterest hatred is reserved for Alison's mother. Alison's mummy, he says, had locked up Alison in her "eight bedroomed castle." "There is no limit to what the middle-aged mummy will do in the holy crusade against ruffians like me", says Jimmy. A woman like Alison's mother would not hesitate to cheat, to lie, to bully, and to blackmail in order to protect her "innocent" children against men like himself. Jimmy describes the protests of Alison's mother against his marriage to Alison as the bellowing of a rhinoceros in labour. Her further says that Alison's mother is as rough "as a night in a Bombay brothel, and as tough as a matelot's arm." He ridicules that lady for having thought him to be a criminal just because he was keeping long hair. She had hired detectives in order to watch his activities and find out what crimes he was guilty of. He refers to that lady as an "old bitch" and wishes her death. When that old woman dies, says Jimmy, the worms in her grave will suffer from indigestion and belly-ache after eating her flesh. Indeed, Jimmy's criticism of Alison's mother is so unpalatable that Helena, after listening to it, begins to feel sick; and Alison's mother is no doubt an epitome of the entire middle class, in Jimmy's view. All this criticism shows, to a large extent, Osborne's own dislike of the middle class.
Jimmy's Proletarian Attitude to Helena
Nor does Jimmy spare the other two representatives of the middle class—Helena, and his wife Alison. His denunciation of Helena is also characterized by a bitter irony. He calls her an expert in the new economics—"the Economics of the Supernatural" She is in his opinion one of those mysterious share-pushers "who are spreading all those rumours about a transfer of power". Helena and her kind of people "spend their time mostly looking forward to the past." The only place in which they can see the light is the Dark Ages. When Helena says that she will slap him, Jimmy warns her that she should not make the mistake of thinking that he is a gentleman who will refrain from hitting her back. Jimmy talks like a real proletarian when he tells her that he has no public school scruples about hitting girls. "If you slap my face—by God, I'll lay you out!" he tells her.
Jimmy's Raging Against His Middle-Class Wife
As for Alison, she is a target of Jimmy's verbal assaults from the very beginning. Jimmy finds fault with her for ironing the clothes endlessly, for being too noisy ("it's like someone launching a battle-ship"); he finds fault with her for being a "monument to non-attachment" and for being completely devoid of animation, enthusiasm, or relaxation of spirit. He describes her as "Lady Pusillanimous", also using the words "sycophantic" and "phlegmatic" for her as well as for her brother. He almost curses her by wishing her to have a child which would die. He describes her passion in a manner which is most insulting to her. She has the passion of a python, and she just devours him whole every time she makes love to him, he says. When he finds that she has fallen under the influence of
, he addresses her as: "You Judas ! You phlegm !" In short, leaving aside the brief interval during which he plays the bears-and-squirrels game with her, he misses no opportunity of denouncing her or raging against her. Helena
Jimmy's Opposition to Middle-Class Morality
Jimmy is even opposed to middle-class morality. Middle-class ideas of morality and respectability at the time demanded that a woman should remain a virgin till she got married, but Jimmy had got annoyed with Alison when, after marrying her, he found that she had preserved her virginity. According to Alison's own statement to Cliff, Jimmy was quite angry with her about her virginity, as if she had deceived him in some strange way. Jimmy seemed to think that an untouched woman would "defile" him.
The Quality of Solidarity Lacking in
Jimmy believes in the virtue of solidarity which is a virtue of the working classes. The reason why he, on the whole, gets on well with Cliff is that he can rely upon Cliff who also comes from the working class. Jimmy cannot trust women because, in his opinion, women are lacking in the virtue of solidarity, especially middle-class women. And his distrust of women is justified because Alison lets him down at a crucial moment in his life when he has just received the news of Mrs. Tanner having suffered a stroke, while Alison herself is betrayed by Helena who takes Jimmy as a lover. Subsequently, Helena lets down Jimmy by deserting him.
The Unfavourable Impression of
Jimmy Produced By the Stage-Directions
Jimmy Produced By the Stage-Directions
In all this criticism of the middle classes, the author's sympathies are no doubt wholly with Jimmy. This does not, however, mean that Osborne has tried to idealize Jimmy. In fact, Osborne points out certain serious faults of character; from which Jimmy suffers. He particularly does this in the stage-directions where we find plenty of criticism of Jimmy, the criticism being sometimes direct and sometimes indirect or implied. For example, in the very beginning Jimmy is described as a disturbing mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and cruelty; restless and full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and the insensitive alike. He is also described as honest or apparently honest. To many, he seems to be "simply a loud-mouth". He is so vehement as to be almost non-committal. Now, these stage-directions do not sound heroic at all, and the impression thus produced is strengthened by the running commentary of stage-directions throughout the play. This running commentary gives us constant indications of Jimmy's neurotic determination to establish and keep his supremacy in any situation, inventing trouble where there is none. His hysterical persecution of Alison is childish petulance.
The Favourable Impression of Jimmy Produced by
a Performance of the Play
a Performance of the Play
Yet somehow the impression that is produced by a performance of the play or by our reading of the play as a whole is not unfavourable to Jimmy. What emerges from an actual performance of the play or our reading of the entire play is a more or less favourable impression of Jimmy. We find something genuine in Jimmy's grievances. There are really no great and noble causes left; it need not be just the weakling who cries out against the world. Jimmy is a witness to right values in a world gone wrong; he is the mouthpiece of protest for a dissatisfied generation. And, finally, what really strengthens the favourable view of Jimmy is the burning rhetoric of his great tirades. Even if the motivation of these tirades is to be found in petty personal disputes and minor skirmishes in the battle of the sexes, once Jimmy gets going, they generate their own force and conviction. The divergence between the Jimmy of the stage-directions and our over-all impression of him thus derives mainly from the author's shifting, ambivalent love-hate relationship with his hero. In view of this love-hate relationship, we cannot assert that Osborne's sympathies are wholly with Jimmy.
Osborne's Sympathies Not Wholly with Jimmy
If Osborne's sympathies had been wholly with Jimmy, Jimmy would have given evidence of having some positive values. As it is, Jimmy's attitude to life is mainly negative. He certainly feels a real tenderness for his wife, but this tenderness is unable to dispel his suspicions of her. In attempting to hurt his wife, he violates every decency of life and of life itself, and he employs every savagery of tone and mood which he can command. He can accept neither love nor death with ease. The sound of church-bells torments him with the thought of possible worlds other than his own. The result of his mental make-up is that Jimmy's ideals suffer shipwreck alongwith himself. His genuine affection for Cliff and his love for Alison are at the mercy of his anger rather than directing his anger as should have been the case. His trumpet can mock the universe but not sound a call to battle. In view of all this, it is clear that the author did have his own doubts about the character of Jimmy. And yet at the same time Jimmy has been portrayed as possessing certain positive aspects too. It is noteworthy that Alison and Cliff, and later even Helena, feel that Jimmy is basically worthwhile. They may not accept his ideas, but they never doubt that his torment is at bottom that of a good man, and that he deserves success, whether or not he can really achieve it. Also they perceive that his anger has in it elements of honesty and courage which might prove fruitful. Helena thinks that he should have lived in the days of the French Revolution. Alison's image of him is always that of a knight in armour. To this extent, then, Osborne's sympathies, and ours too, are entirely with Jimmy; and to this extent Jimmy represents a self-portrait by the author.