Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Examine if the institution of marriage is attacked in Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

In Look Back in Anger, Osborne does not attack the institution of marriage. Instead, his portrayal of Jimmy and Alison’s marriage connects their numerous problems with personal factors and larger social issues. Although they temporarily separate, they reunite at the end. The resilience of their union suggests that marriage can provide a safe haven.

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John Osborne was married five times, and his first marriage ended in 1957, the year after Look Back in Anger was first staged. Alison Porter is clearly based on Osborne's wife, Pamela, and it would be rather surprising if, in his depiction of an unhappy marriage, Osborne had not drawn upon the unhappy marriage he was experiencing as he wrote.

To portray an unhappy marriage, however, is not necessarily to attack the institution of marriage. Osborne does not seem to have any positive suggestions for ways in which relations between men and women might be improved without marriage. In act 3, Jimmy's adulterous relationship with Helena takes exactly the same form as his marriage to Alison. The implication is that relationships naturally fall into this pattern whether the parties are married or not.

At the end of the play, Jimmy and Alison are reconciled, albeit uneasily, after Helena recognizes that the married woman has a superior claim. Look Back in Anger may be seen as an attack on all institutions and, more broadly, an assertion that happiness is not a possible state in which to live for any length of time. However, by the end of the play, there is at least a sense that marriage creates an equilibrium and a small degree of stability in the tumult of human relations. It is not marriage that creates the many problems between men and women, and while marriage is not a solution to these problems, it may ameliorate them to some extent.

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Look Back in Anger does not attack the institution of marriage, but it does show how it has a hard time overcoming social and philosophical differences in the case of Jimmy and Alison Porter. Jimmy is from the working class, and Alison is from the upper class, but their union is not a case of opposites attracting and coming together harmoniously. For all their attraction to one another (and the suggested sexual satisfaction they have within their marriage because of it), Jimmy and Alison resent one another. Jimmy hates how Alison's social class has insulated her from the sufferings he's had to endure as a working-class man, and Alison resents how Jimmy sees fit to emotionally torture her for that.

For much of the play, it appears that the Porter marriage is doomed to end. Alison leaves Jimmy, and he takes up with her friend Helena. However, Helena comes to resent Jimmy much as Alison did due to his behavior, causing her to leave as well. For a while, it seems Jimmy will be alone, but then Alison returns after having miscarried their child. The marriage is ironically salvaged due to their shared pain, which they decide to bear together.

This is a complicated, unromantic view of marriage to be sure, and the couple's resuming their childish "bear and squirrel" game could be seen as a psychological regression by some. However, as far as the institution of marriage goes, it is shown as more of a redemptive force by the play's end, allowing the angry Jimmy and the bereaved Alison some solace and companionship now that they more fully understand one another.

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Look Back in Anger presents John Osborne’s critical view of British working-class society in the mid-twentieth century. By looking at the problems that a husband and a wife experience, Osborne connects the personal difficulties that men and women face with the widespread social issues of the post-war era. Rather than attack the institution of marriage, Osborne implies that marital problems are often symptoms of those broader issues. For the young male protagonist, like many other British people who came of age after the Second World War, life seems bleak. A romantic, he bemoans the lack of noble causes to support.

Jimmy’s anger and dissatisfaction with his lot in life lead to hostility and disdain for those who care about him. When his abusive behavior prompts Alison, his wife, to leave him, he has an affair with another woman, Helena—despite the fact that she urged Alison to leave.

The change of partners helps Jimmy to see that the woman in his life is not the cause of his problems. He finally faces his disenchantment, which is associated with both the postwar lack of opportunities and unprocessed personal grief over his father’s death, which occurred when Jimmy was a child. Osborne inverts this loss with a new one, Alison’s miscarriage. Jimmy is now an adult who lost a child, albeit unborn. Taking responsibility for having treated Alison harshly helps him see the importance of personal choices and acceptance of life’s unfairness. As the couple ultimately decides that staying married will help both of them navigate their challenging society, Osborne seems to endorse rather than attack marriage.

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I think that marriage is shown to be complex.  Certainly, marriage is shown to house some fairly emotionally brutal moments.  Jimmy's tirades on Alison and the cruelty he displays towards her would indicate that marriage is the home for brutality.  Yet, I don't think that Osborne is attacking marriage in the drama.  

I sense that there is a redemptive quality to marriage by the drama's end.  Helena's usurping of Alison has been repudiated.  Jimmy has understood that, according to his standards, Alison has finally felt something emotional and they do reconcile.  They are drawn back to one another at the end of the drama.  Finally, marriage is shown to be where reconciliation in terms of Jimmy's hatred towards himself, the world, and those in it can be possible.  While Jimmy might do nothing but spit venom at Alison, his retreat back to his game of bear and squirrel with Alison helps to enhance how marriage is a source of redemption for his own sense of identity.  Consider when he looks at Alison and tells her, "I may be a lost cause, but I thought if you loved me, it needn't matter."  It might be a moment where marriage is shown to hold some level of potential in redeeming those who might be perceived as being beyond redemption.  Given this, I think that marrage is not attacked in Osborne's drama, but reclaimed by its end.

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