Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
Jimmy Porter, a twenty-five-year-old man who lives in Britain’s industrial midlands. An educated, well-read individual, Jimmy works in a factory, tends a sweet-stall he is trying to buy, and issues diatribes about British society, which he feels has denied him opportunity simply because of his working-class background. Jimmy prides himself on his honesty, but he can be cruel, as is seen in his verbal attacks on his wife, Alison, and on his friend Cliff Lewis, who lives with them. Jimmy excuses himself for mistreating Alison by insisting that she is too possessive and that she cannot understand him because she has never suffered, as he suffered when, at the age of ten, he had to watch his father die. Because he insists on complete loyalty, he feels betrayed when his wife does not accompany him to the deathbed of a friend’s mother, yet he does not see anything wrong with his having an affair with Helena, his wife’s friend. The egocentric Jimmy seems incapable of empathizing with his wife, even when she grieves over losing their baby. He takes her back only after she has completely abased herself to him.
Alison Porter, Jimmy’s wife. A woman of upper-middle-class background, she is perceptive enough to understand that her husband resents everything in her that reminds him of the social differences between them. After three years of marriage, she is miserable. The only way that she can survive Jimmy’s constant verbal attacks on her and on her family is to conceal her feelings and remain silent. Although she says that Jimmy is the only man she has ever loved, Alison so yearns for peace that, with the encouragement of her friend Helena, she finally leaves him without telling him that she is pregnant. After losing the baby, she returns to Jimmy, begs his forgiveness for betraying him, and promises that because she has experienced suffering, she can now be the kind of wife he wants and needs.
Cliff Lewis, a friend of Jimmy, also from the working classes. A gentle person, he does not have Jimmy’s fire or his wit, but he also lacks his cruelty. Cliff is genuinely fond of Alison. He shows his appreciation for her housekeeping efforts, and he tries to defend her from Jimmy’s verbal abuse. It is he, not Jimmy, who bandages Alison’s arm after she burns it. Of all the characters in the play, Cliff seems to understand best what other people are feeling. Even when Helena thinks that she hates Jimmy, Cliff guesses that she really desires him, and he alone sees through her attempts to break up the marriage. Because he so dislikes Helena, Cliff moves out when he senses that she is moving in.
Helena Charles, a beautiful, elegant actress, a friend of Alison and a member of her social circle. Helena comes to spend a few days with the Porters, but, finding herself increasingly attracted to Jimmy, she stays on, intent on driving a wedge between Jimmy and Alison. As Alison’s confidant, Helena urges her to face up to Jimmy or to leave him; meanwhile, she increases the pressure by wiring Alison’s father to come for her. When Alison walks out, Helena remains, becoming Jimmy’s mistress and his housekeeper. By the time Alison comes back, Helena has realized that the affair is finished, and with her usual dignity she goes on her way.
Colonel Redfern, Alison’s father, a good-looking man of sixty who has returned to England after spending forty years in the army, primarily in India. When Alison became involved with Jimmy, the colonel did not oppose his wife in her efforts to break up the match. When he arrives to pick up Alison, he admits that he should have taken a stronger stand and even confesses a liking for Jimmy, who has the energy both the colonel and Alison lack. In his generosity and his decency, the colonel symbolizes the best of the old order. His appearance in the play, so unlike Jimmy’s caricature of him, casts doubt on Jimmy’s clever but stereotype-based pronouncements.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697
Helena is Alison's friend, a very proper middle-class woman. She is an actress who comes to stay with the Porters while she performs in a play at the local theatre. Jimmy has long despised her, as he considers her a member of the Establishment. When she contacts Alison's father and asks him to take Alison home, Helena seems genuinely concerned about Alison. However, she seduces Jimmy and replaces Alison in the household. When Alison returns, Helena realizes that her affair with Jimmy is wrong and decides to leave.
Cliff is Jimmy's friend and partner in the candy stall business and shares the Porters' flat, although he has his own bedroom across the hall. Cliff is a poorly educated, working class man of Welsh heritage. He is warm, loving, and humorous. He genuinely loves Alison but adjusts when she leaves and Helena moves in. Cliffs first allegiance is to Jimmy. Nevertheless, ultimately he decides to go out on his own.
Alison has been married to Jimmy for three years. She comes from the solid upper-middle-class Establishment. Her father was a colonel in the colonial Service and the family lived very comfortably in India until 1947. Her brother Nigel attended Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point, and is a Member of Parliament. She married Jimmy partly as a rebellion against the proper, predictable, stultifying precepts of her class. However, she has been molded by her upbringing and it is her "fence
sitting," her lack of total emotional commitment, that provokes Jimmy's attacks. Alison is warm and open with Cliff without ever harboring a sexual attraction to him When Helena takes charge and arranges for Alison to leave Jimmy, Alison does not protest and does indeed return to her parents, their values, and the security they offer. Alison is drawn back to Jimmy at the end after she has suffered the pain and loss brought by the miscarriage of her child.
Colonel Redfern, Alison's father, is a retired army officer who served in India from 1913 to 1947. During that time he seldom spent any time in England. He represents the values and beliefs of another period, a time of British Empire. His values are those of duty, honor, and loyalty to one's country and one's class. His world ended with the independence of India. He is a reasonable man somewhat bemused by the post-World War II England. He does not approve of Jimmy, but he does find things to admire in him and even agrees with Jimmy in some instances. He does not hesitate to help Alison and does not attempt to control her.
Jimmy Porter is a character of immense psychological complexity and interest. He dominates the play through the power of his anger and language. He unleashes his invective on what he calls the Establishment (those "born" to power and privilege), the church as part of the Establishment, and his loved ones. Osborne describes him as "a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike." Critic Harold Ferrar assessed him as a man of decency and charity who is "one of life's beautiful losers," while critic Michael Coveney called him "a lovable monster with the gift of the gab and a talent for resentment." Although Jimmy has graduated from a university—albeit one with no prestige—he works with Cliff as owner/proprietor of a candy stall in an outdoor market. In spite of his tendency to sometimes cruelly insult Cliff, Jimmy genuinely likes him. His assaults on Alison are nasty and sometimes savage. He seems to be trying to force her to have a genuine response, something coming from her that is not colored by her class and upbringing. He says she is not real because she has not suffered real pain and degradation. When she leaves he is hurt but quickly adjusts. Jimmy has hated Helena for the same reasons he hated Alison, namely her social class and "proper'' upbringing. While Jimmy apparently hates Alison's mother, he seems to like Colonel Redfern because he can feel sorry for him.
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