Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Mind and Character of Jimmy Porter

Physical Appearance and Habits
Jimmy Porter, who may be regarded as the hero of the play, has been described by the author as a tall, thin young man about twenty-five. He is a disturbing mixture of sincerity and malice, of tenderness and cruelty. He is a man who, by his pride, would alienate both those who are sensitive and those who are insensitive.
Jimmy is addicted to pipe-smoking. He is also a good eater, although eating well has not made him any fatter, his reason for not having put on more weight being, in his own words, as follows: "People like me don't get fat……...We just burn everything up." His friend Cliff calls him a foodmaniac who will one day be arrested for stealing vegetables in order to meet his food-requirements. Jimmy is also in the habit of playing on a trumpet. Playing on the trumpet may be regarded as his hobby. At one time he had organised a jazz band. Even though neither Alison nor Cliff, (nor yet Helena) likes his playing on his trumpet, he is quite enthusiastic about it and says: "Anyone who doesn't like real jazz, hasn't any feeling for music or people". He is interested, too, in listening to a musical concert on the radio. Jimmy is a university graduate. He had tried his hand at various occupations before starting a sweet-stall from which he is now earning his livelihood.
An Angry Young Man: Causes of his Anger; and his Self-Pity
Jimmy is an "angry young man". Throughout the play we find him cursing things and people. He is keenly dissatisfied with life in general. No specific causes for his anger have been mentioned in the course of the play, but we can draw our own inferences from his many speeches in which he condemns persons, institutions, and things in general. One principal reason for his anger seems to be the disparity between his own working-class origin and the upper middle class to which his wife belongs. In other words, he is conscious of class distinctions of which he strongly disapproves. Another reason for his dissatisfaction is that he is leading a routine life which offers no excitement or even variety. He hates Sundays because Sundays depress him by their sameness. This is how he grumbles about the monotony of Sundays: "Always the same ritual. Reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing. A few more hours and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away." Yet another reason for Jimmy's bitterness is that he finds both his friend Cliff and his wife Alison to be completely devoid of any kind of enthusiasm. This is how he states the case: "Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm—that's all. Continuing this complaint he goes on to say to Cliff, "I've an idea. Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings, and that we're actually alive." A little later he complains thus: "Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm. Just another Sunday evening." In other words, he feels irritated by the general apathy and mental inertness of Alison and Cliff. One of his early experiences also accounts for Jimmy's anger. He was only ten years old when his father died. He watched his father dying over a period of about a year, and that experience produced a deep impression on his mind. Nobody else in the family had seemed to care for the dying man. Jimmy used to sit by his father's bedside and listen to him talking. He used to spend hour after hour in his father's bedroom, listening to his father's talk which he could hardly understand at that age. As Jimmy tells Helena, he had learnt at an early age what it was to be "angry and helpless". He also says to Helena in this connection: "I knew more about—love,……..betrayal and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life." Thus there are several reasons that seem to have combined to make Jimmy an angry young man. He is feeling frustrated and bitter because society has not treated him properly and because society is callous. Nor does he derive any comfort or consolation from the companionship of his wife. Next to anger, his most dominant feeling is self-pity.
Jimmy's Criticism of his Wife
Jimmy is constantly finding fault with his wife. He criticizes her for ironing the clothes endlessly. He criticizes her for being too noisy, saying: "She is so clumsy……..The way she jumps on the bed, as if she were stamping on someone's face, and draws the curtains back with a great clatter, in that casually destructive way of hers. It's like someone launching a battleship." Sometimes Jimmy becomes extremely harsh in his criticism. For instance, he refers to his wife as "This monument to non-attachment". He describes her as "Lady Pusillanimous" which means a woman wanting in firmness of mind, or a timid and cowardly woman. He criticizes Alison for writing letters to her mother in which he is never mentioned as if his name were a dirty word. Indeed, he feels so bitter about Alison's general attitude towards himself and towards life as a whole that he almost utters a curse upon her in the following words: "If only something-something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! If you could have a child, and it would die." Subsequently, Alison does lose her child through a miscarriage and thus Jimmy's evil wish is tragically fulfilled. He also describes her sexual passion in such a way as to try to lower her in the estimation of Cliff and in order to hurt her feelings. This is how he describes her passion: "She has the passion of a python. She just devours me whole every time, as if I were some over-large rabbit……..She'll go on sleeping and devouring until there's nothing left of me." Later in the play, when he finds that Alison has fallen under the influence of Helena, he speaks to the former in an insulting manner, saying: "You Judas! You phlegm!". Since Alison does not hit back and remains silent, Jimmy says that she can "twist your arm off with her silence". He says that either he or she is stupid and mad. This is how he gives vent to his wrath on this occasion: "One of us is crazy. One of us is mean and stupid and crazy. Which is it? Is it me? Is it me, standing here like an hysterical girl, hardly able to get my words out? Or is it her?" And he goes on to speak to her in a mood of fury: "Perhaps, one day, you may want to come back. I shall wait for that day. I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing, I want to be there when you grovel". Needless to say, even this wish of Jimmy is fulfilled because Alison does one day grovel to him.
His Condemnation of Alison's Family
Jimmy is also unsparing in his condemnation of Alison's parents and her brother and he has some very hard things to say about each of them, especially about Alison's mother and brother. He describes Alison's father as a man who can never forget his past life, and as one still casting "well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness." He makes fun of the manner in which Alison's father keeps ruminating upon his past life in imperialist India. This is how he mocks at Alison's father: "I think I can understand how her Daddy must have felt when he came back from India, after all those years away. The old Edwardian brigade to make their brief little world look pretty tempting. All home-made cakes and croquette, bright ideas, bright uniforms     ………What a romantic picture. Phoney too, of course. It must have rained sometimes." About Alisons's brother, Jimmy has very nasty things to say. Her brother Nigel, says Jimmy in a sarcastic manner, is just about as vague as he can get without being actually invisible. Jimmy goes on to say: "And nothing is more vague about Nigel than his knowledge. His knowledge of life and ordinary human beings is so hazy, he really deserves some sort of decoration for it." The whole speech in which he condemns Nigel is a masterpiece of rhetoric. And Jimmy concludes this speech by describing both Nigel and Alison with the following words of contempt: "Sycophantic, phlegmatic and pusillanimous". But Jimmy's keenest hatred and bitterest words are reserved for Alison's mother. He makes fun of Alison's mother for having tried to protect Alison against Jimmy's desire to marry her. Alison's mummy, says he, locked up Alison in her eight-bedroomed house. And he goes on to criticize Alison's mother in the following manner: "There is no limit to what the middle-aged mummy will do in the holy crusade against ruffians like me." A woman like Alison's mother would not hesitate to cheat, to lie, to bully, and to blackmail in order to protect her children against men like himself, says Jimmy. Alison's mother would "bellow like a rhinoceros in labour". He 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 also makes fun of 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. Jimmy continues his denunciation of Alison's mother by calling her an "old bitch" and expressing the wish that she should be dead. When the old woman dies, says Jimmy, the worms in her grave will suffer from belly-ache or indigestion after eating her flesh. This is how he states this view: "She will pass away, my friends, leaving a trail of worms gasping for laxatives behind her—from purgatives to purgatory." Jimmy's criticism of Alison's mother is so unpalatable that Helena, after listening to it, begins to feel sick. Judging by his constant efforts to hurt the feelings of others, we find him to be something of a sadist:
Alison's View of Jimmy
It is worth knowing what Alison thinks of her husband. Although she loves him, she has not been able to reconcile herself to his ideas and his behaviour during the last four years of their marriage. In the beginning, she was unhappy because she had to put up not only with Jimmy's poverty but with the crude manners of Jimmy's friend, Hugh Tanner. Both Jimmy and Hugh used to behave like gate-crashers, visiting people's homes for food and drinks without being invited. Subsequently, Alison found herself and her family to be the constant targets of Jimmy's criticism. She now feels so uncertain of Jimmy's moods that she even hesitates to tell him of her pregnancy. When Cliff suggests that she should reveal her pregnancy to Jimmy, Alison says that, if she does so, Jimmy will suspect her motives. He might make love to her during the night after learning about her pregnancy, but in the morning he would feel as if he had been tricked and as if she were trying to kill him in the worst possible way. Alison also says in this connection. "He'd watch me growing bigger every day, and I wouldn't dare to look at him." Talking to her father, Alison expresses the view that Jimmy had married her most probably from a motive of revenge. "Some people do actually marry for revenge. People like Jimmy, anyway", says Alison. "Or perhaps Jimmy should have been another Shelley,"* she goes on to say. Jimmy, according to Alison, has got a sort of genius for love and friendship—on his own terms. Alison is right in thinking that Jimmy offers his love and friendship to others on his own terms. Towards the end of Act II, Jimmy says to Helena who has just said that she loves him: "Either you are with me or against me." This attitude shows the strong egotism of this man. He is self-centred and has no consideration for the views and opinions of others. This aspect of Jimmy's personality is also revealed by Alison when she tells Helena that he expects others to be unquestioningly loyal to himself. This is how she puts the case: "It's what he would call a question of allegiances, and he expects you to be pretty literal about them. Not only about himself and all the things he believes in, his present and his future, but his past as well. All the people he admires and loves, and has loved. The friends he used to know……..His father, who died years ago. Even the other women he's loved." In other words, Jimmy expects people not only to be loyal to him but also to respect the views and opinions of his friends and relations like his father. Alison then frankly tells Helena that she has not been able to bring herself to feel the way Jimmy does about things. "I can't believe that he's right somehow", says Alison. Alison also refers to Jimmy as a "spiritual barbarian" who had suddenly entered her life and thrown a challenge at her.
His Love for Alison
In spite of his criticism and fault-finding, we must acknowledge the fact that Jimmy loves his wife, though he loves her in his own way. In Act I, we have a brief scene between the two, when they both refer to their favourite game of bears and squirrels. Jimmy here becomes almost tender towards Alison, and then kisses her passionately. He even becomes sentimental in his recollection of the past and thus expresses his feelings for her: "There's hardly a moment when I'm not—watching and wanting you. I've got to hit out somehow. Nearly four years of being in the same room with you, night and day, and I still can't stop my sweat breaking out when I see you doing— something as ordinary as leaning over an ironing board." In other words, Jimmy is fond of his wife and would not like her to perform such ordinary labours as the ironing of clothes. He goes on to say that even her trivialities have become indispensable to him. He becomes so passionate at this time that he would like to make love to Alison right now, though she cannot agree because Cliff would be coming back any moment. Afterwards Alison explains to Helena the meaning of the bears-and-squirrels game. This game, says Alison, represents an imaginary world in which she and Jimmy think themselves to be animals, "little furry creatures with little furry brains. Full of dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other". Towards the end of the play also, when there is a reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison, Jimmy's heart seems to soften and melt towards her and he once again plays the 'bears-and-squirrels' game with her.
His Attitude towards Helena
Jimmy's attitude towards Helena is also to be taken into account when we assess his character. In the beginning, we find him becoming furious at the very mention of Helena's name. On learning that Helena is coming to stay with them, he asks Alison if that bitch, whom he regards as his "natural enemy", is bringing her armour with her to protect herself against his attacks. Later in the play he takes Alison to task for going to church under Helena's influence. He scolds Alison in the following manner: "Are you going to let yourself be taken in by this saint in Dior's clothing? I'll tell you the simple truth about her. She is a cow. I wouldn't mind that so much, but she seems to have become a sacred cow as well!" After commenting on Helena in this mocking manner, he makes a long speech in which he ridicules her. He calls her an expert in the new economics which, according to him, is "the Economics of the Supernatural". He describes her as one of those mysterious share-pushers who are spreading all those rumours about the transfer of power. He goes on to say that Helena is the kind of person who spends most of her time "looking forward to the past". He further says about Helena: "She prefers to be cut off from all the conveniences we've fought to get for centuries. She'd rather go down to the ecstatic little shed at the bottom of the garden to relieve her sense of guilt. Our Helena is full of ecstatic wind." This is a very offensive way of ridiculing a woman. When Helena says that she might slap him, he warns her that he will hit her back. This is how he reacts to her threat: "I've no public school scruples about hitting girls. If you slap my face—by God, I will lay you out!" Jimmy's insulting attitude towards Helena continues till one day, after suddenly slapping him, Helena abruptly kisses him passionately. Alison having already left, a love-affair develops between the two of them. Jimmy now accepts Helena as his mistress and gets on well with her for several months that they are together. At the end of Act III Scene I, we find Jimmy and Helena in a jolly mood and the Act closes with both fondling and caressing each other. In other words, they have become steady lovers, and they both promise to be loyal to each other. Therefore, it comes as a great surprise to Jimmy when Helena, towards the end of the next scene, announces her decision to leave Jimmy. Helena's decision elicits from Jimmy one of his profound speeches in which he says that they all want to escape from the pain of being alive and from the experience of love. He then says that it is not easy to continue loving somebody. Love demands courage and strength; it demands muscle and guts. He accuses Helena of having no guts. According to him, Helena cannot live like a real human being because she wants to live like a saint. One can either live as a human being or as a saint. In other words, one can either live a life of the senses or a spiritual life. Jimmy looks at Helena's action in leaving him as an act of desertion and disloyalty, and also as an act showing her preference for spiritual life.
Miscellaneous Criticism by Jimmy
Apart from this kind of criticism of individuals, we find Jimmy criticizing various aspects of social life. We find him condemning the Bishop of Bromley for his apparent support to the hydrogen bomb and also the Bishop's partiality for the richer class as against the poor. We find Jimmy criticizing the so-called "posh" newspapers, one of which is obviously a Conservative paper, while the other belongs to Liberal Party. Then he criticizes religion and its practices and beliefs. He speaks bitterly about the rituals of the church and feels unhappy when Alison goes to church under Helena's influence. He criticizes the people for their midnight invocations to the Coptic Goddess of fertility. He finds fault with the way people slaughter animals to be offered as sacrifices to the god. He says in his characteristic cynical manner that people who sacrifice any thing such as their careers or their beliefs or their sexual pleasures do so because they never really wanted these things in the first place. Our admiration for those who seem to be making such sacrifices is therefore misplaced, according to Jimmy. He expresses his dissatisfaction with the routine kind of life that he has to lead, especially on Sundays. This is what he says in this connection: "God, how I hate Sundays! It's always so depressing, always the same. We never seem to get any further, do we? Always the same ritual. Reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing. A few more hours, and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away." He indulges in a very sharp attack on women when he accuses them of being noisy in their day-to-day work and activities, and when afterwards he accuses them of seeking men's blood. He wonders why women want "to bleed men to death". As for men, they have no choice but to "let themselves be butchered by the women." He also criticizes the kind of people who go to cinema and who ruin the enjoyment of men like himself by their silly comments on the films. He is even fed up with sex, at least the normal kind of sex and would like to try homosexuality for a change, in this way emulating the example of the French writer Andre Gide. He composes a cynical song about booze and whoring. He criticizes the kind of news-items and news-reports which appear in the newspapers. For instance, one of the papers has published the absurd view that Shakespeare changed his sex when he was writing the play, The Tempest. He criticizes the kind of persons who become cabinet ministers by speaking of Alison's brother who is a politician and a candidate for a government ministership. In short, there is hardly anything which pleases him. He is disgusted with people and with life as a whole, and his dominant mood is one of boredom. In this mood he gives expression either to his resentment against the way the things are going or a feeling of self-pity because he thinks himself to be the victim of society and especially of the middle classes.
His Liking for Certain Persons
The only persons about whom Jimmy expresses a favourable opinion are Webster, Madeline, and Cliff. Webster is one of Alison's friends and Jimmy likes him because he gets from Webster what he does not get from other people and because Webster has got "bite, edge and drive". In Webster's company, Jimmy feels exhilarated. Madeline was Jimmy's mistress at one time. Jimmy had found her to be really alive. This is how he praises Madeline to Cliff and Alison: "She had more animation in her little finger than you two put together………Her curiosity about things, and about people was staggering…………Just to be with her was an adventure. Even to sit on the top of a bus with her was like setting out with Ulysses." As for Cliff, Jimmy thinks him to be a loyal and generous friend. Cliff, in Jimmy's opinion, is a man with a big heart; and he, therefore, feels genuinely sorry when Cliff decides to leave him in order to get married and settle down, even though Jimmy does not make a show of his regret in this connection. Jimmy values the virtue of solidarity which is a working-class virtue. He sees this virtue in Cliff, while he finds Alison lacking in it. Jimmy also values the quality of loyalty or fidelity which is, of course, very much allied to solidarity. This quality also is to be found in Cliff but not in Alison or even in Helena. He is making a reference to his demand for this quality when he says to Helena: "Either you're with me or against me."
His Sharp Wit
In spite of Jimmy's anger, resentment, cynicism, and bad manners amounting to a general aggressiveness and offensiveness, we must give him credit for possessing a brilliant and ready wit. Most of his comments and remarks are characterized by this quality of wit. Much of this wit is, of course, displayed by him at the cost of Alison. For instance, in the very beginning, when she is inclined as a matter of habit to remain silent, he makes the following remark: "You can talk, can't you? You can express an opinion. Or does the White Woman's Burden make it impossible to think?" When she makes some excuse about her silence, he makes the following sarcastic remark to her: "You bet you weren't listening. Old Porter talks, and everyone turns over and goes to sleep. And Mrs. Porter gets 'em all going with the first yawn." A little later, when Cliff says that Jimmy is not allowing her to think, Jimmy says: "She hasn't had a thought for years." We have several examples of Jimmy's wit in his remarks about Helena also. For instance, when he asks Alison where she is going and Alison replies that she is going out with Helena, Jimmy makes the following witty remarks: "That's not a direction—that's an affliction. I did't ask you what was the matter with you. I asked you where you were going." When Helena prevails upon Alison to go to church with her, Jimmy says to Alison with reference to Helena: "You've let this genuflecting sin jobber win you over, haven't you?" We also see evidence of Jimmy's wit when he says to Cliff, with reference to Cliff's desire to get married, that he certainly approves the idea, and adds: "Can't think who'd be stupid enough to team themselves up with you though." This is Jimmy's witty way of saying that no woman would like to marry Cliff. Then Jimmy goes on to say in the same witty manner that Cliff will get married, to some respectable little madam who will send him out to work and herself rule the household. We must also recognize that fact that Jimmy is capable, on rare occasions, of enjoying real fun which has no tinge of bitterness or cynicism or malice in it. This side of Jimmy's character we discover in Act III Scene I where he joins Cliff in singing a humorous song and acting like a comic character on the stage.
Callous, and Yet Sentimental
Jimmy gives us the impression that he has no genuine feeling in him and that he is a callous or hard-hearted man. For instance, he shows absolutely no emotion when he learns that his wife is going to have a baby. Nor does he give any sign of emotion when later he learns that his wife has had a miscarriage. He seems to be a dry kind of man, on the whole, if we judge him by most of his remarks, comments, and views. And yet there are certain situations in which we find him to be very emotional and even sentimental. In Act I we have a brief scene of tenderness between him and his wife. Later, he feels really sad when he learns that Mrs. Tanner has had a stroke and feels even sadder when Alison refuses to go with him to London to attend upon the dying woman. On this occasion the stage-directions tell us that Jimmy feels so sad that he throws himself on the bed and buries his face in the bed-sheets. Then he has a tender scene with Helena in Act III when he expresses his appreciation of the way she has been loving him. Lastly, there is the final scene where we find Jimmy speaking in a very pathetic manner about everybody wanting "to escape from the pain of being alive" and wanting to escape "most of all, from love". Here he speaks of his profound loneliness, comparing himself to the old bear which follows his own breath in the dark forest. It is here that he expresses his deep-seated need for companionship with some kindred spirit. Helena has already left him, and so he makes the following appeal to Alison: "I may be a lost cause, but I thought if you loved me, it needn't matter." The play ends on a poignant though cheering note, with Jimmy's plight contributing a good deal to the pathos.
Jimmy as a Spokesman of the Post-War Generation
Jimmy has been regarded as a spokesman of the post-war generation in Britain. This play was first produced in 1956 when young people in Britain were suffering from the disappointment of the hopes which they had cherished and nursed in the years following the end of World War II (1939—1945). The general mood of the people in Britain at that time was one of frustration, disillusionment, cynicism, rebelliousness, and even despair. Now, such is the prevailing mood of this play also, and it is Jimmy who gives expression to this mood through his many and long speeches. He thus becomes a kind of representative of the young people of his time. The play therefore acquired for the audiences of the time an immediate and topical appeal. "Angry young man" was the expression which became current because of the manner in which Osborne had portrayed his young protagonist. Our own reaction to Jimmy depends upon what we think the present-day conditions of life to be. If we feel optimistic about our future, Jimmy has lost his relevance to us; but if our own mood happens to be one of disillusionment and hopelessness, Jimmy's speeches will find an echo in our bosoms.
Jimmy Porter, as a Self-Portrait of the Author
Some critics believe that Jimmy represents a self-portrait of the author. There is much substance in this view. Osborne too had a grievance against the middle class, and his family too had struggled against the odds of life. The force of Jimmy's rhetoric also lends some support to the view that Osborne has put something of himself in his portrayal of Jimmy. Osborne's sympathies too are evidently with Jimmy, to a large extent. However, we must not exaggerate the resemblance between the author and his protagonist. A resemblance there is, but not an identification of the author with his hero.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!