Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Look Back in Anger opens on a lazy, mid-1950’s Sunday afternoon in a one-room attic apartment in a town in the English Midlands. As usual, Jimmy Porter and his friend and business partner, Cliff Lewis, are reading the Sunday papers while Jimmy’s wife, Alison, irons. As usual, Jimmy is verbally bashing everyone and everything around him, including Cliff and Alison—who seem to take his anger in stride.
What makes Jimmy so angry? To support a political reading of Look Back in Anger, critics cite Jimmy’s famous speech near the end of the play, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left,” suggesting that Jimmy’s anger comes from his disappointment that the faded Edwardian glory of England can no longer be real and felt with conviction and enthusiasm. This interpretation is supported by an earlier passage in the play in which Jimmy is quite nostalgic about the Edwardian world of Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern: “all home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms . . . what a romantic picture.” Jimmy admits that “if you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.”
In his contemporary England, Jimmy sees only political decay and the pretense of continued health. As an intelligent, articulate, and educated twenty-five-year-old, Jimmy has not been able to find work that matches his skills, so he earns a meager living running a street-corner candy stand with Cliff as his partner. Part of him reaches for more success, symbolized most eloquently in his frequent, offstage riffs on his jazz trumpet, but part of him mistrusts success because he does not trust aspiration in a country where aspiration is associated with all that is false and hollow. From his demeaning social...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
On a Sunday evening in April, Jimmy Porter and Cliff Lewis, both working-class men, and Jimmy’s upper-class wife, Alison, are in the attic flat they share. Music is playing on the radio, and while Alison irons, Jimmy and Cliff read the newspapers. From time to time, Jimmy makes acid comments on what he is reading, orders the other two to minister to his needs, or points out Cliff’s defects, in particular his ignorance and his ineffectuality. Jimmy’s worst venom is reserved for his wife, who he says is as vacuous as her mother and father and, like them, incapable of thought. Cliff defends Alison, and she treats him with sisterly affection, pressing his trousers and giving him cigarettes, despite the fact that the doctor and Jimmy have forbidden him to smoke. Furious because Cliff and Alison refuse to fight with him, Jimmy contrasts their lethargy with the energy of his former mistress, Madeline, and of Webster, a gay friend of Alison. He then returns to his verbal attacks on Alison, her family, and her gender, claiming that women’s worst vice is that they are noisy. Increasingly annoyed with both Alison and Cliff, Jimmy turns off the radio, contending that with Alison ironing and Cliff turning the pages of his newspaper, it is impossible to hear the music.
Cliff finally insists that Jimmy apologize to them both, and in the resulting scuffle, the ironing board is knocked down and Alison is burned. Angry at last, she tells Jimmy to leave. He walks out of the room, and while Cliff is treating her injury, she confides in him. She is miserable, she says, and even though she is pregnant, she is seriously considering leaving Jimmy. Jimmy comes back into the room and apologizes to Alison, attempting to explain his behavior as a reaction against his feeling that he is trapped by his love for her; he also acknowledges an abiding anger because Alison has never experienced the pain that he has and cannot understand him. Alison is then called to the telephone downstairs. She returns to report that she has invited an actor friend, Helena Charles, who has just come to town, to stay with them for a few days until she finds a place to live.
Two weeks later, Helena has established herself in the household, and, as Cliff commented, the tension has mounted. It is true that by doing most of the cooking Helena is a great help to Alison; however, she makes no secret of her dislike for Jimmy. She pressures Alison to take immediate action about her situation, either by telling Jimmy about her pregnancy and demanding that he become a responsible member of society or by leaving him and returning to her parents. Jimmy makes no secret of his hatred for Helena, and after Alison announces that she is going to church with her friend, Jimmy...
(The entire section is 1119 words.)