Look Back in Anger by John Osborne

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What happens in Look Back in Anger?

In John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, the overeducated and underemployed Jimmy Porter rails against his work and life. He often lashes out at his wife, Alison, who he sees as uppity. Jimmy's anger and frustration lead Alison to move back in with her father, but by the end of the play, they manage to reconcile.

  • Jimmy runs a little candy shop with his friend Cliff Lewis. He's dissatisfied with this job and feels that he deserves more out of life.

  • His anger causes his wife Alison to leave him, at the urging of her friend Helena. Helena and Jimmy get into a fight when Alison leaves, but it turns into passion, and they stay together as a couple for several months. 

  • Alison, who has miscarried, comes back to the house. Helena, feeling guilty, reconciles with Alison and leaves Jimmy. Alison and Jimmy seem to be back together at the end of the play.

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Look Back in Anger opens on a lazy, mid-1950’s Sunday afternoon in a one-room attic apartment in a town in the English Midlands. As usual, Jimmy Porter and his friend and business partner, Cliff Lewis, are reading the Sunday papers while Jimmy’s wife, Alison, irons. As usual, Jimmy is verbally bashing everyone and everything around him, including Cliff and Alison—who seem to take his anger in stride.

What makes Jimmy so angry? To support a political reading of Look Back in Anger, critics cite Jimmy’s famous speech near the end of the play, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left,” suggesting that Jimmy’s anger comes from his disappointment that the faded Edwardian glory of England can no longer be real and felt with conviction and enthusiasm. This interpretation is supported by an earlier passage in the play in which Jimmy is quite nostalgic about the Edwardian world of Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern: “all home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms . . . what a romantic picture.” Jimmy admits that “if you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.”

In his contemporary England, Jimmy sees only political decay and the pretense of continued health. As an intelligent, articulate, and educated twenty-five-year-old, Jimmy has not been able to find work that matches his skills, so he earns a meager living running a street-corner candy stand with Cliff as his partner. Part of him reaches for more success, symbolized most eloquently in his frequent, offstage riffs on his jazz trumpet, but part of him mistrusts success because he does not trust aspiration in a country where aspiration is associated with all that is false and hollow. From his demeaning social position, Jimmy lashes out at all the self-important people around him. His anger strikes at everything associated with British bureaucracy, but, unhappily, it also overflows into mistreatment of his wife and his friend Cliff.

A more psychological and domestic interpretation of the play often points to Jimmy’s pain over his father’s death. When Jimmy was ten years old, he spent a year watching his father die. To him, the rest of the family did not seem to care, and Jimmy sees a similar lack of sensitivity in Alison. He calls her “Lady Pusillanimous” (meaning cowardly), a “monument to non-attachment,” and in one of his verbal tirades even wishes that some catastrophe would shock her out of her lethargy, even something horrible such as having a child die. This is indeed what happens,...

(The entire section is 732 words.)