Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Discuss the ending of the play Look Back in Anger. 

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The ending of Look Back In Anger has generated a good deal of critical controversy over the years. For some critics, the ending feels somehow tacked on; an artificially sentimental final scene in a play which purports to present us with a realistic picture of human relationships.

Alison, the put-upon drudge, has returned to Jimmy after a brief stay with her bourgeois parents. Initially, it's not entirely clear why she's come back; Jimmy's always treated Alison with such utter contempt, routinely putting her down in front of Cliff and Helena. Yet here she is, a somewhat sheepish figure, thoroughly apologetic for having taken off. She literally falls at Jimmy's feet, grovelling, and begs for forgiveness. All in all, it's a pretty unedifying spectacle. It could seem that poor Alison is in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome.

There is every suggestion here that the reconciliation between Alison and Jimmy is not set to endure. After all, we only have to cast our minds back to the previous scene when Jimmy and Helena exchanged such seemingly genuine, passionate words of love. And that didn't last very long. Perhaps there is some genuine love between Alison and Jimmy, but if so, it's of the warped variety.

This play (which is supposedly realistic) ends with Alison and Jimmy retreating into their own little fantasy world; a bear and a squirrel living together in a cave, all nice and cosy, feasting on nuts and honey. Ultimately, they cannot handle life in the real world. Despite Jimmy's caustic tongue and rebellious manner, he's as vulnerable to life's "cruel steel traps" as Alison. They need each other.

For good or ill, their respective fates are now forever entwined. And as Alison has lost their baby, there's nothing else to keep them together but the own little world they've constructed for themselves to keep out the harshness and sterility of a post-war Britain, in which neither truly belongs.

But as they now play their little game with some degree of irony, perhaps there's a hint that they'll be able to face the future with a greater degree of confidence than was previously the case. It is just a hint, though, and the ending's ambiguity vitiates any neat resolution. It also guards against simplistic interpretations that suggest an unforgivable lapse into sentimentality.

According to this reading, there's no real sense of exuberance in the final scene; just a general air of solemnity as two deeply fallible human beings leave us with the faint hope, but no more, of happier times to come.

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Basic summary of Act III. Jimmy and Cliff are sitting reading the Sunday paper while Helena is ironing. They talk about an article in the newspaper and goof off for a while. Cliff says that he is going to get his own place, give up the candy stall, and find a woman of his own. Helena tells Jimmy that she has always wanted him, and that she loves him. Then the door opens and Alison walks in. She does not look well and is quite thin. The two women stand looking at one another while Jimmy leaves and begins to play his trumpet across the hall.

Alison tells Helena that she has had a miscarriage. She says that she is not even sure why she came, and that she does not want to cause problems between Helena and Jimmy. Helena tells Alison that it is over with Jimmy, that she knows that she has not been doing the right thing and that she can’t live with that. Helena calls Jimmy in and tells him that she is going to leave, and then she does. Alison tells Jimmy that she will go too. Then he berates her for not sending flowers to the funeral. Then he lightens up and talks about the old bear going through the forest of life all alone. He reminisces about the first time they met. He says, “I may be a lost cause, but I thought if you loved me, it needn’t matter,” which makes Alison cry. She tells him that she has found strength in the humility of not being able to protect her unborn baby. She is feeling low, and he comforts her.

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