Tuesday, November 9, 2010

One of the critics regards the ending of Look Back in Anger as ambiguous. What is your opinion in the matter?

Alison's Return to Jimmy Not Approved by a Critic
Some of the critics regard the ending of Look Back in Anger as most unsatisfactory. According to one critic, for instance, the ending is not appropriate because the whole silly cycle of torture and collapse will clearly begin again.
The very odd thing, according to this critic, is that the author expects us to sympathize with Jimmy Porter as if this creature were a reasonable representative of a betrayed and bewildered generation. The fact is that any one less deserving of sympathy cannot be imagined, says this critic. Jimmy's very self-pity hardens our hearts. We feel sorry for his wretched wife, who is constantly subjected to his verbal artillery; and we feel delighted when she leaves him. But we cannot forgive her for her final grovelling return. If her return is intended as a splendid gesture on behalf of the self-oppressed, it simply fails.
A Phoney Reconciliation, According to Another Critic
According to another critic, several questions arise in our minds when we go through this play. We need lots of explanations, and we feel cheated because those explanations have not been provided. The biggest cheat of all is the ending of the play. Having portrayed the hero's state of mind in the way the author has done, he cannot satisfy us with a phoney reconciliation at the end. This critic evidently means that Jimmy could not have taken Alison back after the way she had deserted him. Or, perhaps, this critic means that the present ending does not follow logically from what has gone before.
Helena's Desertion of Jimmy at the End Improbable
Let us take a look at the ending of the play in order to determine whether it is appropriate or not, and whether it is logical and convincing or not. In the final scene of the play (Act III, Scene II) Helena decides to leave Jimmy and, when she is gone, Jimmy and Alison become reconciled to each other. Now the question that arises is, whether Helena's leaving Jimmy all of a sudden, especially after the tender and loving words, the two had exchanged at the end of the preceding scene, appears to be implausible and improbable, because sufficient motivation has not been provided for her decision. It would have been better, for instance, if some kind of mental conflict in Helena had been depicted at some point earlier in the play to prepare us for 'his reversal in her attitude towards Jimmy.
The Improbability of Alison's Abject Surrender to Jimmy
Another improbability is, Alison's actually grovelling to Jimmy and almost entreating him in a most abject manner to take her back. Alison's behaviour seems to be all the more improbable when we recall the reason for her having previously left Jimmy and gone away with her father. Early in the play, when Jimmy and Cliff wrestle with each other and fall down to the floor, Alison in desperation says: "Lookout, for heaven's sake ! Oh, it's more like a zoo every day!” In other words, the behaviour of the two men has been annoying her greatly. But that is nothing. Jimmy's constant scolding her and his brutal treatment of her has been depressing her a good deal and she says to Cliff at almost the same time: "I don't think I can take much more. I think I feel rather sick." When Cliff advises her to tell Jimmy about her pregnancy, she hesitates because she thinks that Jimmy will suspect her motives at once. Thereafter we find Jimmy criticizing her for her passion which he compares to that of a python, for her going to church with Helena, for her indifference to Mrs. Tanner, and so on. His criticisms of her family have also been a constant torment to her. Subsequently, her account to Helena of the kind of life she had to lead with Jimmy soon after the marriage clearly shows that she had a most wretched and miserable time. Still later, we find her telling her father that Jimmy married her most probably from motives of revenge. She refers to Jimmy as a "spiritual barbarian" who had entered her life and thrown a challenge to her. It was in this state of mind that she had left Jimmy. For her to return to Jimmy and to fall at his feet therefore seems most illogical and unlikely. And, if her grovelling to Jimmy and her abject surrender to him were not to occur, Jimmy would certainly not offer any apology to her for the way he had been treating her in the past, and there would then be no reconciliation.
The Basis for Helena's Decision to Leave Jimmy
But a closer examination of the situation and of the minds of the various persons involved will show that there is, after all, nothing either perverse or phoney about the ending. The human mind is not a machine working in accordance with any set or prescribed rules and procedures. The human mind often functions in unpredictable ways. That is why even our friends sometimes surprise us by their behaviour. Helena's decision to leave Jimmy will not appear to be improbable if we attach due weight to what she says to Alison in the final scene. Helena declares that, even though she has been living sinfully with Jimmy, she has fully been conscious all along of the wrong that she had been committing. We have no reason to doubt what Helena says. Evidently Helena has been suppressing her conscience which kept rebuking her; but now that Alison is physically present before her, she can no longer suppress the voice of her conscience. Helena realizes the enormity of her guilt because Alison stands before her, looking tired and sick and miserable. Helena also realizes that no one can be happy while committing a wrong and hurting somebody else. Helena looks upon Alison's loss of her baby as a divine judgment on all of them. Helena's decision to leave is, therefore, perfectly understandable unless we think Helena to be a thorough hypocrite for which we have no grounds.
Alison's "Deep, Loving Need" of Jimmy
Alison's abject surrender is also something impossible or even improbable in the circumstances of the case. In the first place, we must not ignore the fact, which has been clearly intimated to us in the opening Act, that Alison and Jimmy had really been in love with each other. Theirs had been, by all accounts, a love-marriage, and Alison had always looked upon Jimmy as a knight in armour. We should also not ignore the wording of the note she had left for him when going away with her father. In the note she had written: "I shall always have a deep, loving need of you. There could be no hypocrisy or false sentiment in these words. There is also Jimmy's comment on her passion as a python's passion. The basic fact seems to be that a perfect sexual adjustment had existed between the two even though an emotional harmony had not been achieved on account of Jimmy's prejudice against the middle class from which Alison came, and her continuing to correspond with her mother.
Alison's Forlorn Condition after Miscarriage
But there is much more that explains and justifies Alison's surrender at the end. Alison has suffered the greatest misfortune that can befall a woman. She has had a miscarriage and has lost her baby. What misfortune can be greater for a woman than the death of her child, whether after birth or before birth? When a woman has been deserted by her husband or has herself deserted him, the gap in her life can be filled only by her child (who may yet be unborn), not by the parents at any rate. Having lost her baby, therefore, Alison has been feeling distraught and forlorn. And that is why she pays a visit to Jimmy, subconsciously thinking that she might reach an understanding with him. She is not lying when she says that it was hysteria or just a morbid curiosity that brought her here, and further when she says that she does not have any intention to cause a breach between Helena and Jimmy. But without her being fully conscious of her desire for a reconciliation with Jimmy, the desire is certainly there. The wording of the note, to which we have already referred, clearly shows that Alison had not burnt her boats while leaving Jimmy at that time.
Another Psychological Basis for Alison's Surrender
There is yet another psychological explanation for Alison's abject surrender. After Helena's departure, Alison also gets ready to leave, and she would certainly have left if Jimmy had not started speaking to her. The speech that Jimmy now makes is almost in the nature of a pathetic appeal to her. He begins this speech by finding fault with her for not having sent any flowers to Mrs. Tanner's funeral. He then speaks of his loneliness, comparing himself to an old bear which follows his own breath in the dark forest, with no warm pack, no herd, to comfort him. Then he becomes reminiscent and speaks of the first time he had seen her and had watched her all the evening. Next, he points out that she does not have enough strength to achieve what he calls a "relaxation of spirit". Then comes from his lips a statement which could not have failed to melt the heart of any woman in Alison's position. "I may be a lost cause," he says, "but I thought if you loved me, it needn't matter." To this appeal for love, Alison, who is already in a chastened frame of mind, can hardly fail to respond. She now recalls the misfortune of her miscarriage, and this recollection leads her to say: "Don't you see! I am in the mud at last! I am grovelling! I am crawling!", and she collapses at his feet.
The Psychological Basis for
Jimmy's Softening Towards Alison
Then we come to the psychological explanation for Jimmy's state of mind in this scene. Jimmy has suffered too. Having lost Alison (at the end of Act II) he had found himself in Helena's arms and had thereafter been happy enough for several months. In the final scene, however, he loses Helena and he finds himself all alone in the world. His friend Cliff has decided to leaves him, and Mrs. Tanner is no more in the world. Both Cliff and Mrs. Tanner had undoubtedly been emotional props for Jimmy. Thus, Jimmy is now facing the greatest crisis of his life. His life would be a shambles if he were to lose Alison also. He does not, of course, argue about his present state as we are doing. For him, it is an emotional moment when he feels a complete emptiness in his life and when he at the same time finds Alison at his feet. His reaction in bending down and taking her in his embrace is therefore perfectly spontaneous and natural.
The Relevance of the Bears-and-Squirrels Game at the End
There is one more important fact to make the reconciliation perfectly convincing. In the past Jimmy and Alison had played the bears-and-squirrels game. There is, therefore, absolutely nothing artificial or arbitrary in the author's making Jimmy at this point speak of his and Alison's living together in the bear's cave and the squirrel's drey. We can say that perhaps they are now playing this game ironically this time and playing it for the last time, because they can now face the reality with greater maturity and therefore with greater faith in each other.
The Ending, Credible and Appropriate
Thus the ending of the play, the reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison, becomes perfectly credible and appropriate. It is not true that the pattern of the play is a circle, that we are back where we started, and that Jimmy will resume his fulminations and denunciations. We must not overlook the effect of suffering on Alison, and the lesson that Jimmy must have learnt from his experiences. After all, experience is a great teacher, and moreso in the case of intellectuals like Jimmy. To the fantasy world of animals (bears-and-squirrels) has been added a realization of the need for mutual adjustment in the context of the realities of life, and this realization will lend a new zest of life for both of them. Without the reconciliation, the play would have ended on a note of despair, and we would have got a nihilistic picture of life. Now we have something positive and cheering. That does not mean that all endings should be cheering, but any ending that restores our faith in human nature is preferable to one that leaves us in a state of desolation and hopelessness. At the same time we should note the tone of the ending. There is no exuberance, no jubilation, no euphoria. It is a solemn ending with just a ray of hope for the future and a feeling of relief in the present, and such an ending does not offer any glaring or jarring contrast with what has happened in the course of the play.
An Ambiguous Ending
According to a critic, the ending of this play is ambiguous in the sense that it offers two possibilities to us: one that Jimmy and Alison will now manage to achieve a harmonious relationship with each other, and the other, that the same cat-and-dog life with occasional excursions into their fantasy world will be resumed by them. It is true that Osborne has not made it specific as to what his own view in the matter is, but, as we have already seen above, the evidence points to the brighter of the two alternatives.

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