Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Examine the character of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger by John Osborne.

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Jimmy Porter is one of the most challenging antiheroes to come out of the twentieth-century theater. He is a frustrated man: though highly intelligent, the rigid English class structure prevents him from procuring a job worthy of his talents, as those are still reserved for those born into families with middle- or upper-class breeding. He is stuck selling sweets at the market and playing jazz part-time.

Jimmy also experiences great trauma from losing his father at a young age. He felt disconnected from the rest of his family and felt that no one else cared. Sitting by his father as he died left a major scar on Jimmy's psyche and left him without much in the way of direction.

Despite his justified resentment of the class system and his emotional wounds, Jimmy unleashes his anger on those who do not deserve it, especially people who are vulnerable, like his wife, Alison. From what is seen in the play, Alison has done extremely little to vex Jimmy: she is faithful to him, attracted to his sexual charisma and intelligence, and sticks by him despite his bad behavior, but Jimmy berates her for the sin of being from the upper class and for being unwilling to break ties with her snobby parents. He even claims that he wishes she would miscarry a child (not knowing she is pregnant) just so she could appropriately suffer and understand his own pain.

One problem with Jimmy is that he does nothing to change his life in any way, small or large. He is not politically active and does not try to engineer social change as an activist would, though his anger and energy would make him suited for that (Helena says he should have been born during the French Revolution for this reason). He stews in his anger, only making himself all the more impotent in making a break.

Another problem is that he is so self-absorbed in his own suffering that he declines to notice others in their suffering, such as Alison in her isolation or Helena in her frustrated dreams of being an actress. He feels that he is the only one to have ever known pain and therefore that he is unable to truly connect with others. He assumes that Alison has had a cushy life and takes her stiff upper lip in the face of his abuse to mean that she must have no sense of feeling or zest for life at all. Ironically, Jimmy is becoming the snob he accuses his wife of being, in that he assumes she is less "alive" than he is.

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Jimmy Porter has an enormous chip on his shoulder. An intelligent man from a working-class background, he's reduced to selling sweets from a market stall in order to make ends meet. To make matters worse, his upper-crust wife, Alison, acts as a constant reminder of the rigid class structure of 1950s Britain, a class structure that keeps the likes of Jimmy firmly in his place.

Despite increased prosperity, and despite more young people from working-class backgrounds going to university, the top jobs in society continue to be reserved for the upper classes. And this makes Jimmy a very angry young man indeed. He looks about him and sees a society in stasis: a society held back by the creaking old Establishment, as represented by his father-in-law, a retired colonel in the British Army.

And yet despite all his anger, Jimmy does nothing to change his life. He's one of those people who simply snipes from the sidelines without doing anything that might make things better. Though he doesn't come out and say so outright, one gets the impression that this rankles with Jimmy deep down. And this only adds to his frustration and impotent rage.

Angry at the system but unwilling to do anything about it, he consoles himself with lashing out at society as well as at his wife, whom he leads an absolute dog's life.

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Jimmy Porter is a part-time jazz musician who makes a living selling candy at a stand. He is from the working class and resents the elite horribly, but he is also conflicted about his beliefs. He married Alison, who is from the upper class, but he resents her and treats her badly. His treatment of his wife is abusive, and he does not seem to care when he finds out that she is pregnant. He seems to detest his wife's friend, Helena, but he winds up having a passionate affair with her.

Clearly, Jimmy is a bundle of contradictions. He is passionate about progressive politics, but he treats his wife like a slave, which might seem contrary to being progressive. He hates the elite, but he chose to marry Alison. He seems hateful, but he plays the tender game of bears and squirrels with Alison in the end and makes up with her. Jimmy is filled with rage, but what he's angry at seems to be a moving target. It's clear that Britain, as it's currently configured, is not to his liking. It isn't clear what kind of world, if any, could make him happy—or whether he just prefers to dwell in misery. 

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Jimmy's character in Look Back in Anger  is the "angry young man."  

Jimmy is upset at the world around him.  He feels he is denied his rightful place in British society because of his working class heritage.  He finds phoniness repugnant. It is in a world that says that the class system is gone, but still operates under it. Jimmy cannot accept that someone of his talents is left to occupy a sweet stall.  He sees social barriers such as class as the reason why he cannot be more in life, obstacles that prevent him from being able to "make it to the top."

Jimmy rails against the lack of authenticity in human interactions.  This can be seen in his attacks on Alison, in lines such as, “Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings, and that we're actually alive.” Jimmy's abuse of Alison is predicated upon the idea that she does not know what it's like to suffer and experience pure pain.  For a large portion of the drama, he sees her as an extension of the false world around him.  

These help to explain how Jimmy feels he is misunderstood.  He believes that no one can fully "get" him.  When he says, "My heart is so full, I feel ill—and she wants peace," Jimmy's frustration is evident.  He believes that his own background of having seen his father die has helped to create a perception of realty that no one is ever going to fully understand: "You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it.''  The angry, forlorn condition that Jimmy has carried from his childhood goes very far in defining him in Osborne's drama.

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