Look Back in Anger Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 position, Jimmy lashes out at all the self-important people around him. His anger strikes at everything associated with British bureaucracy, but, unhappily, it also overflows into mistreatment of his wife and his friend Cliff.

A more psychological and domestic interpretation of the play often points to Jimmy’s pain over his father’s death. When Jimmy was ten years old, he spent a year watching his father die. To him, the rest of the family did not seem to care, and Jimmy sees a similar lack of sensitivity in Alison. He calls her “Lady Pusillanimous” (meaning cowardly), a “monument to non-attachment,” and in one of his verbal tirades even wishes that some catastrophe would shock her out of her lethargy, even something horrible such as having a child die. This is indeed what happens, and that tragedy serves, ironically, as the reconciling force in their marriage.

There are other interpretations of Jimmy’s anger, but his complexity derives from the fact that the precise cause of his discontent remains elusive. In fact, audiences and critics find Jimmy compelling because the richness of his pain defies final analysis.

Jimmy’s anger cools a little at the end of the play but only because his conflict with Alison is resolved at a very great price. When Alison discovers that she is pregnant, an old friend, Helena Charles, comes to stay with the Porters, and Jimmy’s badgering intensifies; his harassment is eventually directed toward Helena. In reaction, Helena convinces Alison that she should leave Jimmy and live again with her father, and Alison leaves. At the end of act 2, however, Helena is drawn by some strange attraction to Jimmy and offers herself to him, becoming his mistress. When act 3 begins, it is Sunday afternoon again and Jimmy and Cliff are once more reading their Sunday papers. Now, however, in a mirror image of the opening of the play, Helena has replaced Alison at the ironing board.

Both the resolution of the conflict and the end of the play come as Alison returns, having lost both the baby and her fertility. In a scene that some critics find insufficiently motivated, Helena leaves and gives Jimmy back to Alison. The play ends with Jimmy and Alison reconciling, in part because Jimmy is satisfied that Alison’s pain has brought her more in tune with his own suffering. The reconciliation is richly ambiguous. Have Jimmy and Alison repaired a marriage worth saving, or have they simply hid from problems they cannot face and handle? The enduring quality of Look Back in Anger is that either of these readings, and more, can be defended.

Look Back in Anger Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 draws the battle lines. Helena and he are fighting for Alison, he says, and he is determined to win. Without Alison’s knowledge, however, Helena has already sent a telegram to Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, telling him that his daughter needs him. Somewhat uncertainly, Alison says that she will go home with her father. She does not tell Jimmy of her plans, but when he is summoned to the deathbed of his best friend’s mother and begs Alison to accompany him, she coldly refuses and walks out, followed by Helena, who is accompanying her to church.

When Colonel Redfern appears at the Porter apartment the next afternoon, Jimmy has not returned. In his conversation with Alison, her father shows considerable sympathy for Jimmy, even commenting that Alison seems to have learned a lot from him. He also suggests that Alison’s mother has wronged Jimmy by hiring detectives to find some way to discredit or destroy him. Alison has made her decision, however. In response to Cliff’s question as to who will break the news of her departure to her husband, she hands him a letter for Jimmy. Indicating that he does not like to see anyone suffer, Cliff goes out to get something to eat and, he says, probably to have a few drinks. The colonel had assumed that Helena would be leaving along with Alison, but, as Cliff has predicted, Helena makes excuses and remains. When Jimmy appears, he is so furious because Alison has slighted the dying woman that he does not seem to care much about her having walked out on him. He is not even particularly affected by Helena’s revelation that Alison is pregnant. Helena slaps him, but when Jimmy collapses with grief, she kisses him and pulls him into an embrace.

Several months later, Helena is doing the ironing, sweetly approving of everything Jimmy does and says. She tells Jimmy that she does not intend to go to church, and Jimmy exults at having led her into a state of sin. Cliff, who does not like Helena and obviously misses Alison, is planning to move out. Cliff and Jimmy, both in a good humor, make up a vaudeville skit, which, as usual, ends in a tussle. Helena tells Jimmy that she loves him, and, although he does not respond in kind, he is tender and affectionate toward her, even offering to take her out on the town.

Unexpectedly, Alison arrives, looking extremely unwell. Jimmy refuses to speak to his wife and leaves the room. When they are alone, the women confide in each other. Helena tells Alison that her affair with Jimmy is finished and that she intends to leave him. Alison tells Helena that she lost her baby and cannot have another. Concerned about Jimmy, Alison urges Helena to remain with him, but Helena reiterates her opinion that all is over between the two of them, in part because they are so different and in part because she cannot overcome her feelings of guilt. The women argue as to which of them, if either, Jimmy really needs. When Jimmy comes back into the room, Helena tells him of her decision. Angrily, he sweeps her possessions off the dresser and thrusts them into her arms, and she goes downstairs to pack.

Still angry about Alison’s indifference to the death of his friend’s mother, Jimmy tells Alison how disappointed he has been in her, and she collapses on the floor, begging his forgiveness. In losing the baby, she says, she has at last experienced the pain of living and so can be what he wants her to be. Tenderly, Jimmy comforts her, and, clinging together, the two promise that from now on they will protect each other in a world that is inimical to love.

Look Back in Anger Summary

Act I Summary

Act I
The plot of Look Back in Anger is driven almost entirely by the tirades of Jimmy Porter rather than outside forces....

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Act II Summary

Act II, scene 1
It is evening two weeks later. Helena and Alison are getting ready to go to church. Jimmy is in Cliff's room...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Act III Summary

Act III, scene 1
It is early Sunday evening several months later. Jimmy and Cliff are sprawled in their armchairs reading the...

(The entire section is 344 words.)