What is the significance of Osborne's use of symbols in Look Back in Anger?

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kimfuji | College Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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The play was revolutionary in its time because it broke out of the subjects that were usually dealt with in plays of that time.Two images are striking throughout the play: Alison silently ironing and Jimmy talking to himself.  Alison represents conformity while Jimmy represents transgression. Osborne's character, Jimmy, is unusual, in that, he speaks in ways that no one else does but everyone else thinks, eliciting intense feeling in us who watch the play or read it. It's like the two main characters are opposites and their fighting represents two opposing positions: making meaning through conforming in society or seeking the truth in life through a headon collision.

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, is about just that: anger. Whether you are talking about Jimmy, Alison, Cliff, or Helena, the reader can’t escape that theme. This is true even in regards to the symbols of the play. In addition to the symbols above, I would like to mention the symbolism corresponding to a couple of very important sound images in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger: the bells and the trumpet.

While both the bells and the trumpet symbolize intrusion, the former symbolizes the intrusion of the Christian church and the latter symbolizes the intrusion of Jimmy’s control (or Jimmy’s presence). First, the trumpet sound is significant in that Jimmy, himself, plays that instrument and, further, the music played upon the trumpet is jazz music. Jazz music, of course, is known for breaking free of former convention and exerting its own control. The entire play takes place in a small apartment and, because there are times when Jimmy isn’t in this apartment, it is through the sound of his jazz trumpet that he can still control the actions (or at least insert himself) in that small space of the play. Secondly, the church bells are also heard often within the walls of the small apartment. They are a symbol of the church’s power over human life and, specifically, over the lives of the people living in the apartment. Even further, the church bells are heard no matter what is going in the small space. This shows that the church is oblivious to the emotions running high in people’s lives. Even worse, the church doesn’t care at all whether people are looking back in anger or feeling peace. This symbol, of course, leaves a negative impression of the church on the reader.

In conclusion, it is important to understand how sound images can, in fact, be used as symbols. Images are simply ideas that stimulate one of our five senses as human. Just because something as simple as the ringing of church bells is a sound image doesn’t mean that it is limited to the literary technique of imagery.  As you can see from this explanation, the sound image itself can stimulate our senses as well as represent something else. In this case, the two represent Jimmy’s presence (the trumpet sound image) and the power of Christianity (the bell image).

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