Look back in anger is a play about a about a love triangle involving a smart but estranged young man (Jimmy Porter), his upper-middle-class, unemotional wife (Alison), her arrogant best friend (Helena Charles) and Cliff, a friendly Welsh who also lives with them and attempts to keep the peace in the household. However this essay will turn its main focus on the character Jimmy Porter and his feelings of alienation towards his wife and society in general.
Part of Jimmy's alienation is from a general feeling in Great Britain in the 1950s when the ordinary British citizen felt passed over by a government who had promised prosperity for everyone.Â Instead, following WWII, in which London was destroyed, the British people struggle with new threats and a country put back together with a socialist system in place that is designed to keep everyone equal, except the very rich who remain the upper class, high above the ordinary citizen.Â Jimmy resents all of this andÂ knows that it will never change.Â
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Instead of an identity crisis, it is, without a doubt, but Jimmy knows who he is, however, he doesn't know where he fits in the modern world around him. This also plays into the generation gap theme. Not only is there a gap between Jimmy and the older generation, for example the one that Colonel Redfern belongs to, there is a gap between himself and his own generation since he apparently has been born into the wrong one.
Another issue highlighted in the play is the difference in class and the problems caused by it, Jimmy was thought of as lower class with his dinner suit covered in oil and unsuitable for Alison by her parents. This tension and feeling of inadequacy is clear in the play.
Jimmy feels demoralized because other people, like Nigel, make headway into their careers and into society even though they are vague and not oriented to action, but Jimmy does not try to advance in any career even though he considers himself to be the kind of person that deserves such gains. He feels that other people remain stupid and blind to society's needs, even though they are offered a privileged education. However, he does not use the obvious intelligence he has to do anything but think of new ways to criticize everything that is wrong with the world around him, even though he could presumably use it to take the action he believes.
Jimmy is immediately introduced as a very aggressive character. The play's description of his character before the opening scene points directly to his alienating tendencies, since his love of saying boiling truths causes his friendships to turn sour. Nevertheless, when describing Jimmy's honesty is also interesting add the word "apparent". This calls to our attention to listen carefully to his upcoming outbursts to see if he is speaking the truth, or just saying whatever will get a rise out of the present company.
Another way for Jimmy to reveal his great hate for the classes above him is his contempt for Alison's entire past. Jimmy spoke for a large segment of the British population in 1956 when he ranted about his alienation from a society in which he was denied any meaningful role. Although he was educated at a "white-tile" university, a reference to the newest and least prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the real power and opportunities were reserved for the children of the Establishment, those born to privilege, family connections, and access to the "right" schools. Part of the "code" of the Establishment was the "stiff upper lip," that reticence to show or even to feel strong emotions. His struggle is quickly revealed to be a case of raging against the "establishment," because he clearly sees class-based privilege as the basis of all that's wrong with the world. The Establishment is a term used to refer to the traditional ruling class elite and the structures of society that they control, including everything from class tendencies to religion to issues of race and sexual orientation, and Jimmy has clearly chosen the class struggle as his own cause. He is starting to portray himself as a kind of a spokesperson for the lower class. Maybe this is his calling, or maybe he is simply too lazy to build up a life of his own and make something of himself. The fact that, with his intelligence and energy, he is the owner of a sweet-stall, which is not a steady income, is suspect. As Colonel Redfern points out, operating a sweet-stall seems an odd occupation for an educated young man. Jimmy is an angry young man who operates out of a deep well of anger and feels that his opportunities in life were shaped by his middle class upbringing. His anger is directed at those he loves because they refuse to have strong feelings, at a society that did not fulfil promises of opportunity, and at those who smugly assume their places in the social and power structure and who do not care for others. He lashes out in anger because of his deeply felt helplessness. When he was ten years old he watched his idealist father dying for a year from wounds received fighting for democracy in the Spanish Civil War, his father talking for hours, "pouring out all that was left of his life to one bewildered little boy." He says, "You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry - angry and helpless. And I can never forget it."
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Jimmy is a character who looks at the world beyond the extent of his own existence.Â He cannot find anyone to talk to about the injustices or curiosities he feels about life.Â While Jimmy lectures everyone around him to open themselves to honest feeling, he is trapped in his own problems of social identity. Jimmy sees suffering the pain of life as the only way to find, or "earn," one's true identity.
Jimmy is a character of immense psychological complexity and interest and he dominates the play through the power of his anger and language.
Jimmy comes from the working class and although some of his mother's relatives are "pretty posh," Cliff tells Alison that Jimmy hates them as much as he hates her family. It is the class system, with its preferential treatment for those at the top and exclusion from all power for those at the bottom, that makes Jimmy's existence seem so meaningless. He has a university degree, but it is not from the "right" university. When speaking of Alison's brother Nigel, he says, "You've never heard so many well-bred commonplaces coming from beneath the same bowler hat." It is Nigel, the "straight-backed, chinless wonder" who went to Sandhurst, who is stupid and insensitive to the needs of others, who has no beliefs of his own, who is already a Member of Parliament, who will "make it to the top." Jimmy hates him for his connection to the world.Â A connection that he knows he will never have.Â Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, is not shown unsympathetically, but her mother is portrayed as a class-conscious character that used every tactic she could to prevent Alison from marrying Jimmy. The only person for whom Jimmy's love is apparent is Hugh's working-class mother. Jimmy likes Cliff because, as Cliff himself says, "I'm common."
Allison, Jimmy's wife, has found a way to accept her life, and silently bears any and all burdens.
His assaults on Alison are nasty and sometimes savage. He seems to be trying to force her to have a genuine response, something coming from her that is not tainted by her class and up-bringing. He says she is not real because she has not suffered real pain and degradation. When she leaves he is hurt but quickly adjusts. Jimmy has hated Helena for the same reasons he hated Alison, namely her social class and "proper" upbringing. While Jimmy apparently hates Alison's mother, he seems to like Colonel Redfern because he can feel sorry for him.
Jimmy's alienation from Alison comes precisely because he cannot break through her "cool," her unwillingness to feel deeply even during sexual intercourse with her husband. He criticizes her in a coarse attempt to get her to strike out at him, to stop "sitting on the fence" and make a full commitment to her real emotions; he wants to force her to feel and to have vital life. He calls her "Lady Pusillanimous" because he sees her as too cowardly to commit to anything. Jimmy is anxious to give a great deal and is deeply angry because no one seems interested enough to take from him, including his wife. He says, "My heart is so full, I feel ill - and she wants peace!"
Although Alison is the direct target of Jimmy's invective, her apathy and passivity are merely the immediate representation of the attitudes that Jimmy sees as undermining the whole of society. It is the unworried weakness of society that enrages Jimmy. The Church also comes under attack in part because it has lost relevance to contemporary life. For Helena it spells a safe habit, one that defines right and wrong for her - although she seems perfectly willing to ignore its limits against adultery when it suits her. Jimmy sees the Church as providing an easy escape from facing the pain of living in the here and now - and thus excluding any real redemption. Of course, Jimmy has also slipped into a world of repetition as illustrated by the three Sunday evenings spent reading the newspapers and even the direct replacement of Alison at the ironing board with Helena. Deadly habit is portrayed as menacing.
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Helena criticizes Jimmy saying, "There's no place for people like that any longer - in sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile. Sometimes, when I listen to him, I feel he thinks he's still in the middle of the French Revolution. And that's where he ought to be, of course. He doesn't know where he is, or where he's going. He'll never do anything, and he'll never amount to anything."
Jimmy's character is summed up in this statement; since he has no revolution to fight, he creates one wherever he can, thus alienating his friends and family and ending up right where he started. This may be where much of his frustration is coming from: he was born out of his time, and finding a completely motionless society around him, he is left with his revolutionary tendencies and no way to express them. As Helena says, he is struggling so badly with a yearning for a time in the past that he cannot get a hold on his place in life.
Inês Conceição Pereira
Línguas, Literaturas e Culturas