Jimmy Porter, a twenty-five-year-old man who lives in Britain’s industrial midlands. An educated, well-read individual, Jimmy works in a factory, tends a sweet-stall he is trying to buy, and issues diatribes about British society, which he feels has denied him opportunity simply because of his working-class background. Jimmy prides himself on his honesty, but he can be cruel, as is seen in his verbal attacks on his wife, Alison, and on his friend Cliff Lewis, who lives with them. Jimmy excuses himself for mistreating Alison by insisting that she is too possessive and that she cannot understand him because she has never suffered, as he suffered when, at the age of ten, he had to watch his father die. Because he insists on complete loyalty, he feels betrayed when his wife does not accompany him to the deathbed of a friend’s mother, yet he does not see anything wrong with his having an affair with Helena, his wife’s friend. The egocentric Jimmy seems incapable of empathizing with his wife, even when she grieves over losing their baby. He takes her back only after she has completely abased herself to him.
Alison Porter, Jimmy’s wife. A woman of upper-middle-class background, she is perceptive enough to understand that her husband resents everything in her that reminds him of the social differences between them. After three years of marriage, she is miserable. The only way that she can survive Jimmy’s constant verbal attacks on her and on her family is to conceal her feelings and remain silent. Although she says that Jimmy is the only man she has ever loved, Alison so yearns for peace that, with the encouragement of her friend Helena, she finally leaves him without telling him that she is pregnant. After losing the baby, she returns to Jimmy, begs his forgiveness for betraying him, and promises that because she has experienced suffering, she can now be the kind of wife he wants and needs.
Cliff Lewis, a friend of Jimmy, also from the working classes. A gentle person, he does not have Jimmy’s fire or his wit, but he also lacks his cruelty. Cliff is genuinely fond of Alison. He shows his appreciation for her housekeeping efforts, and he tries to defend her from Jimmy’s verbal abuse. It is he, not Jimmy, who bandages Alison’s arm after she burns it. Of all the characters in the play, Cliff seems to understand best what other people are feeling. Even when Helena thinks that she hates Jimmy, Cliff guesses that she really desires him, and he alone sees through her attempts to break up the marriage. Because he so dislikes Helena, Cliff moves out when he senses that she is moving in.
Helena Charles, a beautiful, elegant actress, a friend of Alison and a member of her social circle. Helena comes to spend a few days with the Porters, but, finding herself increasingly attracted to Jimmy, she stays on, intent on driving a wedge between Jimmy and Alison. As Alison’s confidant, Helena urges her to face up to Jimmy or to leave him; meanwhile, she increases the pressure by wiring Alison’s father to come for her. When Alison walks out, Helena remains, becoming Jimmy’s mistress and his housekeeper. By the time Alison comes back, Helena has realized that the affair is finished, and with her usual dignity she goes on her way.
Colonel Redfern, Alison’s father, a good-looking man of sixty who has returned to England after spending forty years in the army, primarily in India. When Alison became involved with Jimmy, the colonel did not oppose his wife in her efforts to break up the match. When he arrives to pick up Alison, he admits that he should have taken a stronger stand and even confesses a liking for Jimmy, who has the energy both the colonel and Alison lack. In his generosity and his decency, the colonel symbolizes the best of the old order. His appearance in the play, so unlike Jimmy’s caricature of him, casts doubt on Jimmy’s clever but stereotype-based pronouncements.