Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man
Look Back in Anger is the story of Jimmy Porter, his wife Alison, his friend Cliff, and Alison's friend, Helena. Although the story concerns all these four persons, the most dominating character in the play is Jimmy Porter, and it is he who makes all the most important speeches with an intellectual content. Jimmy Porter is also the most important person from the psychological point of view, as he is from the intellectual angle. He is a complex personality, while the others are comparatively simple persons.Jimmy is the angry young man who is keenly dissatisfied with life in general and who is unable to reconcile himself to his environment and to the people around him. Throughout the play we find him raging against things, denouncing people, and giving expression to his disgruntlement and bitterness in endless rhetoric. Alison Porter is important too, from the psychological point of view as representing a woman who suffers passively, and who after a brief period of self-assertion, ultimately adopts an attitude of submission to her domineering husband. Cliff and Helena stand only on the fringes of the action of the play.
Jimmy, a Social Rebel
The action of the play takes place in a flat in a town in the English Midlands. The occupants of this flat are Jimmy Porter, his wife Alison Porter, and Jimmy's friend Cliff Lewis who is a Welshman. Both Jimmy and his friend are men of a working-class origin while Alison comes from an upper-middle class family. The social disparity between the husband and the wife is one reason why Jimmy is always in a state of dissatisfaction. Somehow, he cannot reconcile himself to the upper classes. He is a social rebel, and he constantly criticizes his wife and the family from which she comes. All the three persons are nearly of the same age, being about twenty-five. Jimmy is well-educated, having graduated from a university. Although, he is a university graduate, he is earning his livelihood by running a sweet-stall where he is assisted by Cliff. He has previously tried his hand at many other occupations, but he could not stick to any one of them. The fact, that society has not treated him well is perhaps another reason why he is dissatisfied with life. In other words, not having been able to find a suitable career, he feels that he is unwanted by society. Jimmy may therefore be regarded as a maladjusted person both at home and outside.
Jimmy's Dissatisfaction with Things and With Persons
When the play opens (on a Sunday evening), Jimmy and Cliff are reading the Sunday newspapers, and Jimmy is making a lot of fuss about what he finds in the papers. He reads out a couple of items from a newspaper, making fun of one of the contributors. Although there are a large number of newspapers and magazines lying around in the room, Jimmy is mainly interested in two of them which he describes as "posh" papers and which are a special target of his criticism. Jimmy's dissatisfaction with things and with persons becomes evident as soon as he starts talking. He regards Cliff as an ignorant man, and snubs him at the slightest excuse. He scolds his wife Alison for her ceaseless ironing of clothes. He loses his temper when the church-bells begin to ring. Nor does he have a good word about the landlady, Miss Drury.
Jimmy's Bitter Criticism of
Cliff, Alison, and Alison's Family
Cliff, Alison, and Alison's Family
Jimmy is dissatisfied with the routine kind of life which he has to lead, and with the behaviour of both his wife and his friend, referring to both of them as devoid of any enthusiasm for anything. He hates Sundays especially because it is always so depressing on Sundays. Most of the comments which Jimmy makes on persons and things are witty, though his wit is sarcastic and bitter. He especially shows his bitter wit in his comments on his wife and her relations. He describes his wife and her brother Nigel as being "sycophantic, phlegmatic and pusillanimous". He criticizes Alison's father who, he says, was very happy in imperialist India but who is now leading a life of regret at having lost the advantages and benefits which he used to experience as a big boss in that country. He criticizes Alison's mother because she belongs to a social class higher than the one he himself comes from, and because she had opposed Alison's decision to marry him.
The Bears and Squirrels Game between
Jimmy and Alison
Jimmy and Alison
Jimmy's constantly speaking in a tone of condemnation has begun to weigh upon the mind of Alison who is a sensitive kind of woman. She is pregnant but she has not yet revealed her pregnancy to Jimmy. As there is a perfect understanding between Alison and Jimmy's friend Cliff, and as Alison and Cliff are very fond of each other, Alison discloses the fact of her pregnancy to Cliff who advises her to inform Jimmy about it. When Cliff goes out for a little while, there is a tender scene between Jimmy and Alison recause basically they are in love with each other, although Jimmy is unsparing in his criticism of Alison and her family. In the course of this tender scene, both express their love for each other, and even talk about the game which they have been playing, the bears-and-squirrels game which consists in Jimmy's treating Alison “as a beautiful squirrel", and Alison's treating Jimmy as a really marvellous bear". Alison is now on the verge of telling Jimmy about her pregnancy but Cliff suddenly comes back and Alison is not able to disclose the fact to Jimmy.
Helena, a Friend of Alison's, Coming to Stay with Alison
There is a telephone call for Alison from her friend Helena Charles who is an actress. Helena informs Alison on the telephone that she is coming to this town for a theatrical engagement and that she will be staying with Alison. On learning about the impending visit of Helena, Jimmy again loses his temper because he has never liked Helena and because he regards her as one of his "natural enemies". Act I closes with perhaps the most offensive speech that Jimmy makes to Alison. He here says that he wants that something should happen to Alison in order to wake her out of her "beauty-sleep". If for instance, she could have a child which dies, a child which comes out of her body and flesh, he would be quite happy. He then describes her as a woman with the passion of a python, adding that every time she and he make love to each other, she just tries to devour him.
Alison's Account of the Circumstances of Her Marriage
Two weeks pass. Helena has been staying with the Porters during this period. Helena has been helping Alison with household duties. It is the late afternoon of a hot day when Alison and Helena have an intimate conversation in the course of which Alison gives to Helena an account of the circumstances in which she had married Jimmy. Alison's parents had opposed the marriage, but Alison had disregarded their opposition. For several months after the marriage she had led a very poor life with Jimmy because Jimmy did not even have any accommodation of his own to keep her. They had been living with Hugh Tanner, a friend of Jimmy's. She has never been able to like Hugh Tanner who was a most ill-mannered man. It was only when Hugh Tanner had left for some foreign country that Jimmy had brought her to this town where he had started a sweet-stall with the help of Hugh Tanner's mother. Jimmy and Mrs. Tanner (Hugh's mother) were quite fond of each other. Alison also tells Helena that she has not yet revealed her pregnancy to Jimmy. She further tells Helena that she and Jimmy often play the bears-and-squirrels game, imagining themselves to be animals. When the two women are talking to each other, Jimmy is playing on the trumpet the sound of which is a cause of irritation to both of them.
Jimmy's Harsh Comments on Alison,
Alison's Mother, and Helena
Alison's Mother, and Helena
Cliff and Jimmy now join the two women, and Jimmy begins to talk in his usual manner, criticizing things and people in general. Jimmy now feels especially annoyed to learn that Alison is going to church in Helena's company. Jimmy makes many mocking and disparaging comments on Alison, on Alison's mother, and on Helena. When Helena says that he deserves to be slapped for talking in this unpleasant manner, Jimmy says that, if she slaps him, he will not hesitate to slap her in return.
Jimmy's Sad Account of the Death of His Father
Jimmy then asks Helena if she has watched anybody dying. Helena replies in the negative. Jimmy proceeds to give an account of the death of his own father whom he had watched dying when he was just a boy. That experience had been terrible for Jimmy. At that early age Jimmy had learnt more about life, betrayal, and death, than Helena would know all her life, he says. However, Jimmy's sad account produces no effect on any of the listeners.
Helena's Telegram to Alison's Father
Helena cannot tolerate the kind of treatment that Alison is receiving from Jimmy. She therefore secretly sends a telegram to Alison's father to come and take away Alison. However, she soon reveals to Alison what she has done, and she obtains Alison's consent that Alison will leave Jimmy and go away with her father.
Mrs. Tanner Seriously Ill In London
Jimmy receives a telephonic message that Mrs. Tanner has suffered a stroke and has been admitted to a London hospital in a serious condition. Jimmy gets ready to go to London in order to see Mrs. Tanner. He would like Alison to go with him, but Alison refuses.
Colonel Redfern, Alison's Father, Arrives
The next evening Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, arrives in response to Helena's telegram. Colonel Redfern is not happy to learn that Alison wants to leave Jimmy. In fact, he says that it was wrong on his part and on the part of Alison's mother to have opposed Alison's marriage to Jimmy. The Colonel even admits that there is much truth in Jimmy's description of him as "just one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that cannot understand why the sun is not shining any more".
The Colonel's Pleasant Memories of His Life in India
The Colonel explains to his daughter why he feels that the sun does not shine for him any more. After having held a high position of authority in India till the year 1947, he now feels absolutely unimportant and unwanted. His life in India seems to have vanished like a dream. He would have been very happy if that kind of life had gone on for ever. (He was the commander of a Maharaja's army in an Indian State before India became free).
Alison is now ready to leave with her father. Helena was also to go with her, but Helena now changes her mind and says that she will be leaving on the following day for Birmingham where she has an appointment about a job. Alison hands over a note to Cliff to be passed on to Jimmy. Cliff is greatly upset by Alison's decision to leave but he can do nothing about it. After Alison and her father have left, Helena asks Cliff what Jimmy will do now. Cliff replies that he knows nothing about what Jimmy might do. Cliff then goes out for a drink, and Jimmy enters.
Jimmy Slapped by Helena and then
Suddenly Kissed By Her
Suddenly Kissed By Her
Jimmy is in a furious mood. He had sat by Mrs. Tanner's bed-side for eleven hours, and Mrs. Tanner had then died. Helena now gives Jimmy the note which Alison had left for him. Jimmy reads out the note in which Alison has written that she is going because she is desperately in need of peace and that she will always have "a deep, loving need of Jimmy". Jimmy then asks Helena what she is doing here. Helena, instead of answering this question, reveals to him the fact of his wife's pregnancy of which he was unaware. But Jimmy does not react to this information excitedly or jubilantly. On the contrary, he says that he does not care if his wife is going to have a baby. He then begins to talk about Mrs. Tanner's death, and feels sorry that his wife will not even send a bunch of flowers to be placed on Mrs. Tanner's coffin. Jimmy then seizes Helena by her shoulder and, in a threatening manner, asks her to get out of his house. At this, Helena slaps his face savagely. But the very next moment Helena suddenly kisses him passionately and pulls him down beside her.
Helena Living with Jimmy as His Mistress
Several months pass. Once again it is a Sunday evening. Alison's personal belongings in the house have been replaced by Helena's. Helena has been living as Jimmy's mistress all these months, and there seems to be a perfect understanding between the two of them. Helena has become accustomed even to Jimmy's smoking his pipe which Cliff still hates.
Jimmy's Criticism of Religious Observances and Rituals
Jimmy has not, however, stopped finding fault with people and with things. For instance, he still comments on newspaper reports in his previous mocking manner. He ridicules the practice of certain people in the Midlands of indulging in midnight invocations to the Coptic Goddess of fertility, as reported in newspapers. He also takes an opportunity of criticizing people who offer sacrifices to please the gods, because he believes that people mostly give up only those things which they never really wanted in the first instance or which they were incapable of really wanting. Indeed, Jimmy expresses a contempt for religious observances. However, Helena does not relish this kind of talk from Jimmy and asks him if he cannot stop talking about religion and politics.
Cliff's Decision to Leave
Cliff now decides to leave the sweet-stall and try his hand at something else. He also decides to leave his present abode and start living separately somewhere, because he would now like to get married and settle down. He tells his plans to Jimmy and Helena both of whom feel sorry that he will be leaving them. Jimmy expresses to Helena his great appreciation of Cliff as a loyal, generous, and good friend.
Jimmy's Tirade about the Absence of Good, Brave Causes
One of Jimmy's tirades in this scene relates to the absence of any good, brave causes in the present-day world. All good causes, says Jimmy, came to an end in the thirties and forties of this century when Jimmy and others of his age were still kids. Jimmy also criticizes the female sex because, in his opinion, women try to bleed men to death and because men have no alternative but to allow women to exploit them, to persecute them, and to butcher them.
Alison's Unexpected Visit
This scene closes with an exchange of tender and loving expressions between Jimmy and Helena. Jimmy appreciates Helena for having always taken the initiative in showing her affection for him. Helena tells him that she loves him. Jimmy kisses her fingers, and she presses his head against her body. He appeals to her to see that things do not go wrong between them, and she replies that she has always wanted him. He then says that he will close the sweet-stall and that they will both start a new life. Just then the door opens, and Alison enters. Alison's visit is most unexpected and both Jimmy and Helena are stunned by this unexpected development.
Alison Apologetic about Her Visit
Jimmy goes out of the room without talking to Alison, while Alison and Helena enter into a conversation. Alison says that she is sorry to have come because she has no business to interfere in the life of Jimmy and Helena. Helena, however, says that Alison had every right to come here because she is after all, Jimmy's wife. But Alison says that she no longer believes in the sanctity of marriage. Alison adds that marriage can last only if the two partners can adjust themselves to each other. If a woman tries to dominate or bully her husband, she is sure to be discarded, like herself.
Helena's Admission of her
Guilt in Living with Jimmy as his Mistress
Guilt in Living with Jimmy as his Mistress
Helena now says that her relationship with Jimmy is of an objectionable kind. She goes on to say that, although she has spent several months in this house (which she calls a "madhouse"), she never forgot the difference between right and wrong. All the time she was aware that she was doing something sinful by living with Jimmy as his mistress. Helena also says that she has discovered what is wrong with Jimmy. In her opinion, Jimmy was born out of his time, and there is no place for people like him any longer either in sex or politics or anything else.
Helena's Decision to Leave Jimmy
Helena then says that her affair with Jimmy must come to an end, and that she would get out of this place. Neither Jimmy nor any one else can make her believe that she had been right in living with Jimmy as his mistress. Besides, there is a basic difference between her and Jimmy. Jimmy wants one kind of world, while she believes in another.
Alison's Loss of her Baby through Miscarriage
Helena has also by this time observed that Alison is no longer carrying a baby in her womb and that she must have had a miscarriage. She interprets this sad happening as a divine judgment on them all. Alison, however, does not agree that there is any divine judgment involved in her miscarriage. Alison then urges Helena not to leave Jimmy because Jimmy needs her. But Helena has already made up her mind to leave.
Jimmy's Comment on Helena's Decision to Leave Him
Helena now calls out to Jimmy who has been playing on his trumpet in Cliff’s room. In response to Helena's shout, Jimmy enters and observes that Alison is looking pale and sick. Jimmy too understands that Alison has had a miscarriage, but he does not show any sign of grief over Alison's loss of the baby. Helena now tells Jimmy that she has decided to leave him. Jimmy is completely surprised by Helena's words. Helena says that she has realized that she cannot be happy when what she is doing is wrong and when her action is hurting someone else. Jimmy says that everybody wants to escape from the pain of being alive, and that everybody wants also to escape from love. He says that love demands strength and courage which few people have. A woman like Helena wants to maintain a nice and clean soul, and cannot therefore lead a life of the senses. Such a woman should become a saint because she cannot live like a human being. One can either lead a full-blooded life of the senses or lead a purely spiritual life.
Jimmy's Grouse against Alison
Helena leaves for the railway station to catch a train to London. Jimmy is very upset. Alison too now gets ready to leave, but Jimmy starts talking to her. He complains that Alison did not even send any flowers to Mrs. Tanner's funeral and that she had hurt his feelings by her callousness in this matter. He then says that, in spite of his tremendous energy of mind and spirit, he is a lonely man. He then recalls the first time he had seen Alison when she had seemed to him to be a woman with a wonderful relaxation of spirit. He had then felt that he had found the person he had been wanting, but after his marriage he had discovered that she did not really possess that quality, (namely, relaxation of spirit). In order to acquire that relaxation, one has to be really very strong. One has to suffer, and only then can one achieve the strength to relax.
Alison's Admission of her Mistakes
Jimmy's words bring tears into Alison's eyes and she admits that she had been always wrong in her attitude. It was wrong on her part to have adopted a neutral attitude towards life, and it was wrong on her part to seek the life of a saint. She now wants to be a "lost cause" like him, and she wants to be "corrupt and futile". She reminds him that the child which had been growing inside her body had been lost. She also reminds him that he had always wanted her to suffer some misfortune. Now he can have the satisfaction that she has gone through a painful experience (of miscarriage)!
Alison is now completely overcome by her emotion. Raising her face towards Jimmy, she says: "Don't you see! I'm in the mud at last! I'm grovelling! I'm crawling!" She then collapses at Jimmy's feet. For a moment Jimmy stands rigid; then he bends and takes her trembling body in his embrace. He asks her not to cry and then reminds her of the bears-and-squirrels game which they used to play. He calls her a "poor squirrel" and she calls him a "poor bear". With this reconciliation, the play ends on a happy note.