Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Look Back in Anger Summary

Look Back in Anger is a play by John Osborne in which the overeducated and underemployed Jimmy Porter struggles to control his anger, resulting in him lashing out at his wife, Alison.

  • Jimmy runs a candy stand. He is dissatisfied with this job and feels that he deserves more out of life.

  • At her friend Helena’s urging, Alison leaves Jimmy. After Alison leaves, Jimmy confronts Helena, and the two move in together and become a couple.

  • Alison, who has miscarried, returns to the house. Helena, feeling guilty, reconciles with Alison and leaves Jimmy. Alison and Jimmy decide to repair their marriage.

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Last Updated on November 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1016

Look Back in Anger is a play by English playwright John Osborne, first published and performed in 1956. The story focuses on a young married couple named Jimmy and Alison Porter and their friend and flatmate, Cliff.

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The story opens with Alison, Jimmy, and Cliff in the living area of their Midlands flat. Jimmy and Cliff are sitting in armchairs reading newspapers, and Alison is ironing by the kitchen. Jimmy starts to complain about the newspaper and before long has embarked on an abusive tirade against the other two. Alison and Cliff respond, but they do so with exhaustion—this is a regular occurrence in their home, and Jimmy is often this volatile. The argument escalates, and the ironing board is toppled in the fray. The iron hits Alison, burning her, and she tells Jimmy to get out of her sight.

Cliff tends to her burn, and Alison tells him that she’s pregnant. She hasn’t told Jimmy about it yet, she reveals, and he encourages her to do so. The two share an affectionate kiss, and Jimmy comes back in, indifferently telling them they look ridiculous kissing each other.

Cliff leaves, and Alison starts to tell Jimmy about the pregnancy, but they’re interrupted by a phone call. Alison’s friend Helena is at the nearby train station and needs to stay with them for a few days while working nearby. Jimmy is displeased, telling Cliff that he dislikes Helena severely. He and Alison argue, and he tells Alison that he wishes something bad would happen to her so she’d have to grow up a little bit. As an example, he suggests that maybe she could have a baby and the baby could die. Alison, upset, is unable to respond to this.

Two weeks pass, and Helena is still at the flat. As she and Alison prepare dinner one night, the two women complain about Jimmy, and then Helena asks about Cliff. She’s noticed that he and Alison are very physically affectionate, and Alison says it’s innocuous—the two find a physical but non-sexual comfort with each other, and the dynamic works for all three of them. Much better, she notes, than her dynamic with their former flatmate, Jimmy’s cruel friend Hugh.

As they discuss the relationship, Helena becomes increasingly more shocked. When Alison tells her friend she’s grown very tired of it, Helena implores her to leave for her own safety. Jimmy’s abuse will only escalate, she insists.

Cliff and Jimmy enter for dinner, and Alison and Helena announce that the two of them are going to church after the meal. Jimmy is upset by this, and a long, fraught argument ensues. Jimmy insists that none of the rest of them know anything about life, because they haven’t known the loss he’s known.

The men eventually exit, and Helena reveals to Alison that she’s contacted her father about the state of her marriage. He’ll come take her home the next day, she promises. Alison agrees. Before they can leave for church, Jimmy returns. He’s very distraught—Hugh’s mother, of whom he is incredibly fond, has had a stroke. He prepares to visit her, asking Alison if she’ll go with him, and she says no and goes to church instead.

The next day, while Jimmy is visiting Hugh’s mother, Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, comes to collect his daughter. As she packs her things, the two talk about Alison’s marriage. She is surprised to hear empathy in her father’s words when he talks about her husband, and he expresses regret that they tried to intervene when the young couple was courting.

Cliff enters to say goodbye to Alison, and the two embrace. She gives him a letter for Jimmy, and he promises he’ll look after him for her. Alison and Colonel Redfern leave. Helena has an appointment the following day and is unable to join them.

Alone, Cliff and Helena speculate on what Jimmy will do next. Disinterested in being present when Jimmy gets home, Cliff goes out for a drink and leaves the letter with Helena. When Jimmy returns, he already knows that Alison has left—he arrived just in time to see Colonel Redfern’s car drive away with Alison in the passenger seat.

Helena gives him the letter, telling him there’s something else he should know, too: Alison is pregnant. Jimmy responds indifferently, ranting instead about how he has just spent hours watching someone he loves die. His temper escalates, and Helena slaps him. After a moment, the two begin to kiss passionately as the curtain falls.

Several months later, Jimmy and Cliff are once again seated in their armchairs bickering about the newspapers they’re reading. Helena irons near the kitchen, and Jimmy’s commentary again escalates to abuse toward the other two. Helena leaves for a moment, and Cliff tells Jimmy he plans to move out and maybe look for a partner of his own.

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Jimmy starts ranting about women, and Helena returns. She hands Cliff the shirt she was washing for him, and he thanks her and exits. Helena and Jimmy exchange romantic words and start planning to go out but are soon interrupted when Alison steps through the door. Startled, Jimmy leaves.

The two women talk, both apologetic and deferent to each other. Alison apologizes for returning, and Helena deflects, insisting that she is the one who transgressed and should be apologizing to Alison. It’s revealed that Alison miscarried, and Helena tells her she thought Alison’s loss was a judgment from God on Helena and Jimmy’s relationship. She is leaving him, she announces.

Jimmy enters, finding out about the miscarriage for the first time. To Helena’s horror, he barely reacts to the news. She goes downstairs to pack her things, leaving Alison and Jimmy alone. They argue briefly, and then Alison collapses in her grief, crying about the lost baby. Jimmy pulls her up, and the two speak sweetly and romantically to each other before embracing.

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