Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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How does John Osborne present the character of Cliff in Look Back in Anger?

In Look Back in Anger, John Osbourne presents Cliff as Jimmy's compassionate, easygoing foil and a voice of conscience.

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I would argue that Cliff is presented as the antidote to Jimmy. While Jimmy is angry, Cliff is calm. While Jimmy is prone to throwing around verbal abuse, Cliff is a peacemaker. Cliff is warm, humorous and has a loving nature. This creates a stark contrast with Jimmy's coldness, anger, and dissatisfaction with life. Cliff has a working-class background, as opposed to Jimmy, who has a better education behind him.

Cliff's calm temperament enables him to take the constant jibes thrown his way by his "friend" Jimmy without becoming upset or taking them personally. I would also describe Cliff as a hopeful character who, unlike Jimmy, does not allow his thoughts to be controlled by angst and distress about the state of modern England.

Cliff is presented as a good friend, both to Jimmy and Alison. His tolerance of Jimmy's ongoing displays of rage and his willingness to work with Jimmy in his candy stall business show that he is Jimmy's friend. His ongoing efforts to protect Alison from her husband's sharp tongue and callous ways show that he is, without doubt, a fantastic friend to Alison.

Despite the fact that at various points, one gets the impression that Cliff has feelings for Alison, he never acts on these feelings or behaves inappropriately. Cliff is presented, from start to finish, as a gentleman.

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Cliff is presented as the kindest, most sensitive character in the play. In many ways, he is Jimmy's foil. Where Jimmy is loud and aggressive, Cliff is quiet and gentle. Where Jimmy is misogynistic, Cliff treats women tenderly and with respect.

The difference between the two men is most aptly illustrated when it comes to Alison, Jimmy's long-suffering wife. Jimmy treats Alison with contempt, mocking her constantly and seeking to provoke her any way he can. Cliff is close friends with Alison and tries to defend her from Jimmy's callous behavior and insults. When Alison burns herself, Cliff helps her bandage the injury, showing his concern for her. However, Cliff never crosses the line when it comes to Alison by trying to turn their relationship into a sexual one due to his respect for Jimmy.

Overall, Cliff is the most opposite to Jimmy in his contentment with his lot. He does not rage at the unjust system as Jimmy does. Perhaps this is because unlike Jimmy, he never attended a university and so keenly felt the injustice of the English class system, but regardless, he is an easygoing, gentle man who provides the play with a voice of conscience, most exemplified when Alison leaves Jimmy and Jimmy proceeds to take up with Helena instead. Cliff may not have Jimmy's wit or passion, but he does have more empathy.

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Cliff is very much a foil to Jimmy Porter. This means that he provides a contrast to the main character, highlighting certain qualities and character traits in the protagonist. Cliff is a much more likable character than his friend. For one thing, he lacks Jimmy's bitter rage. He also seems much more comfortable in his own skin and in his surroundings. His generally easygoing nature and acceptance of life contrast sharply with Jimmy's hard-bitten cynicism.

But perhaps this is due to a subtle difference in their respective class backgrounds. Although Jimmy Porter is often presented in the relevant critical literature as a working-class character, it should be noted that very few working-class people in 1950s Britain actually went to university as he did.

Furthermore, Jimmy refers to Cliff as a "ruffian," hardly a word one associates with working-class Britons then or now, and which savors of a certain snobbery on Jimmy's part. Perhaps his bitterness is largely derived from his reduced circumstances. At any rate, the character of Cliff is deeply symbolic of the vast majority of the working classes in 1950s Britain, who were largely happy with their lot. This cozy contentment presents Jimmy with a convenient target for his pent-up frustrations.

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When the character of Cliff is introduced at the beginning of Act I of Look Back in Anger, he is described as "a soothing, natural counterpoint to Jimmy." Like Jimmy, he is a working-class man who tries to better himself by reading serious newspapers, but he lacks Jimmy's anger. Cliff constantly tries to convince Jimmy to treat Alison kindly, and when she burns herself ironing after Jimmy pushes Cliff, it is Cliff who bandages her arm. In Act II, Scene I, Cliff tells Helena he has served as a "no-man's land" between Alison and Jimmy. He has kept the peace between them because he loves both of them.

In addition to serving as a peacemaker, Cliff subtly serves as the voice of conscience in the play. He knows that Helena is trying to break up Jimmy and Alison's marriage because Helena wants to be Jimmy's girlfriend. Cliff also decides to leave the flat once Helena takes up with Jimmy and Alison leaves. Cliff won't stay around because he senses that what Helena has done is immoral. In this way, he represents morality in the play. 

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