Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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What are the major themes in Look Back in Anger?

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Of John Osborne's themes in Look Back in Anger, I would single out two as having special importance.

First, the play deals with class conflict. Jimmy, though he has been to university, despises the middle-class values of his wife Alison's background. There is a self-consciousness about this, as in the works of other left-leaning writers. For example, Jimmy has much in common with several characters in George Orwell's early novels, such as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A young man like Jimmy has the potential to "make something of himself," to do much more than run a market stall. However, he chooses not to, because to do so is to "enslave" oneself to money, which is the typical thing middle-class people do.

Next, I would examine the theme of sexual morality and gender issues as they relate to a person's individuality. By our standards today, Osborne's attitude—or at least the attitude expressed through Jimmy's character—seems chauvinistic and primitive. Jimmy is abusive to both Alison and her friend Helena and treats both of them, to some degree at least, as objects. His behavior, however, is a corollary of his general rebelliousness and his resentment of "middle-class morality." Hence, his flouting of convention by starting an affair with Helena. The irony is that even this aspect of Jimmy's rebellion was seen by many as a progressive quality in the 1950's. His revolt is against conventional morality, but as stated, it also results in his demeaning women and being abusive to them. Jimmy also treats his friend Cliff as a kind of sidekick upon whom he takes out his frustrations. Altogether, even if we take into account Osborne's outdated approach to gender issues and somehow make allowances for it, we can see that Jimmy's behavior is chiefly one of displaced aggression. The demands of the system, of the establishment, in which a man is expected to subvert his individuality and independence, end up causing him to demean other people around him, both men and women. Did Osborne intended his "message" to be understood this way? Perhaps not, but from our present-day perspective, this is a valid interpretation: the unfairness of class differences and the demands of the economic system have caused a man such as Jimmy to victimize other people—his wife, his wife's friend, and his own friend—and Jimmy simply makes himself more miserable in the process.

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Alienation from society is a major theme. The main character, Jimmy Porter, was shut out of a meaningful position, even though he went to an excellent university. He was not born into "the establishment", from a family with connections. Jimmy feels alienated from Alison because she cannot feel deeply and honestly as he can. He refers to her as "Lady Pusillanimous"

Jimmy is deeply angry. He chooses to express his anger specifically at: people he loves because they do not feel passionately. He also is very angry at society because he was promised equality but, in fact, has so few opportunities. He is angry at those who are smug and satisfied in their positions of power and privelege in society.  He is angry because he is so helpless. His helplessness runs deep within him, since he was 10 years old when he watched his father die from fighting toward democracy in the Spanish Civil War.

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Comment on the theme of the play Look Back in Anger.

One of the central themes of this important play is that of alienation and loneliness, that is of course presented to us in the character of Jimmy Porter. In particular, Osborne uses him as a mouthpiece to rant about the inequalities of British society in 1956. Even though he received a good education, the fact that he attended a newer (and therefore less prestigious) university meant that he felt he was prevented from playing any significant and meaningful role in society.

Those kind of privileged positions are only available to those who have been brought up in the "right" kind of families and attended the "right" kind of educational establishments. The famous British "stiff upper lip," which refers to the Englishman's distaste of expressing any emotion, is of course expressed in the character of Alison, Jimmy's wife, who seems unable to engage fully with her emotions, in spite of Jimmy's encouragement for her to do so. Note what he says at one stage about this trait of hers:

My heart is so full, I feel ill--and she wants peace!

He rants and raves in the attempt to produce some kind of reaction, but all in vain. Jimmy is therefore a character who is profoundly at odds with society and the kind of environment in which he has been brought up thanks to his class and life chances.

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What is the theme in "Look Back in Anger"?

There are several themes in A Look Back in Anger, but I think the most obvious is class/social structures of society and how the terms that come along with them affect people and their everyday lives. Jimmy and Alison are, at first, probably pulled together by some attraction towards each other, but only to have it solidified because Jimmy envies where Alison comes from and she being upper/middle class tries to rebel against that by marrying someone "beneath" her own social class. Her parents are not pleased by Alison's choice of husband, again going back to the class theme. Essentially, the class pressures tear Alison and Jimmy apart,because Jimmy is so bitter by his own circumstances, being "less than" Alison and also by not being able to live up to his potential by using his education as a means to better himself. Jimmy is so affected by his circumstances that he is abusive to Alison verbally/emotionally/psychologically. They come to terms with their relationship in the end, but it is a far cry from being anywhere near a happily ever after ending and probably more out of a comfort issue they have grown to have towards each other.

You could also take the angle of relationships and discuss how relationships affect people's actions. You could explore Alison, her reasons for coming back to Jimmy after the abuse. You could discuss what pulls Jimmy and Helena together after Helena is one of Jimmy's least favorite people.

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What is the theme of Look Back in Anger?

As with any work of literature, there are a dazzling array of possible themes that you could identify when examining this excellent play. However one theme that to me stands out clearly is that of class differences and the conflict that this creates. Consider the main character, Jimmy. He seems to be a victim of the structure of the different classes that make life so difficult for the working class. In this world that we are presented with, getting ahead and success are dependent on things that appear to be largely out of your control, such as what kind of family you are born into. Thus it is that, although Jimmy worked hard to get a degree and therefore has a good education, the fact that he was born into the working class and went to the "wrong" university means he is limited in terms of his options. This is in sharp contrast with Nigel, who, in spite of his obvious deficiencies as a character, is a Member of the British Parliament and will obviously do well in this world.

In addition, consider the presentation of Alison's mother, who does everything she can to prevent her daughter marrying Jimmy. The only character who appears to be unmarred by the pervading class distinctions that delineate so many characters in this play is Cliff, who seems to be able to accept his own position and identity by declaring honestly that he is "common," in sharp contrast to others who struggle with their own sense of identity and rage against the way that class is used against them.

The class system is therefore presented as a divisive system that disempowers and empowers depending on the accident of birth, rather than any other basis, such as individual merit. It is this that Jimmy rages against, producing the stereotype of the "angry young man" that dominates this play.

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