Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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He is 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. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.

Osborne’s colorful character description of Jimmy in the introduction to act 1 foreshadows two very important components of the forthcoming narrative. His use of the phrase “cheerful malice,” seemingly an oxymoron, highlights Jimmy’s unsettling volatility—Jimmy is incredibly abusive to his friends and lovers, often for sheer sport, but he’s also capable of enough charm to keep them in his life. If there were nothing redemptive about him, those who suffer his abuse would simply abandon him. This push-pull dynamic is evident throughout much of the play and is ultimately responsible for Alison’s return to him.

When Osborne suggests that Jimmy’s level of vehemence is akin to being noncommittal, this, too, is foreshadowing something notable to come. Jimmy’s monologues are always impassioned, and always informed by historic injustices and perceived slights, but they’re never about any one thing in particular except for Jimmy’s own emotional state. He switches from subject to subject, leaping from one problem to another, but never arrives at an overall thesis. The rant exists for the sake of building his anger’s inertia, never for an actual point.

Well, that was where I found myself on my wedding night. Hugh and I disliked each other on sight, and Jimmy knew it. He was so proud of us both, so pathetically anxious that we should take to each other. Like a child showing off his toys. We had a little wedding celebration, and the three of us tried to get tight on some cheap port they’d brought in. Hugh got more and more subtly insulting—he’d a rare talent for that. Jimmy got steadily depressed, and I just sat there, listening to their talk, looking and feeling very stupid. For the first time in my life, I was cut off from the kind of people I’d always known, my family, my friends, everybody. And I’d burnt my boats.

This quotation, from Alison to Helena in act 2, scene 1, reveals a number of important things about the relationship between her and Jimmy, and about the particular dynamics of his abuse. It reflects a vignette in which Jimmy’s attitude toward her is objectification, a “toy” to introduce to his friend and confidant. By allowing his friend to treat her poorly and refusing to stick up for her, a precedent for Alison’s passivity had been set that would prove not to be challenged for the rest of the relationship.

When Alison notes at the end that she had “burnt her boats,” this, too, is an ominous sign—as Alison became more enmeshed in her relationship with Jimmy, she also became increasingly isolated from her other friends and loved ones. This isolation, coupled with her now-ingrained passivity in response to Jimmy’s behavior, has kept her from being able to seek any help or fulfillment outside the household. This limitation is borne out when Helena’s presence is what finally allows Alison to confront her situation. Helena is one finally reconnected link from Alison to the outside world, which eventually becomes two links when she brings Alison’s father in.

Mummy has always said that Jimmy is utterly ruthless, but she hasn’t met Hugh. He takes the first prize for ruthlessness—from all comers. Together, they both came to regard me as a sort of hostage from those sections of society they had declared war on.

This quotation from act 2, scene 1, highlights two important rifts underlying the tensions in the Porter household: estrangement from Alison’s family and the couple’s difference in socioeconomic backgrounds.

For Alison’s mother to consider Jimmy “utterly ruthless” is for her to consider him completely cruel and irredeemable and to resent his introduction to the family. During this conversation, Alison confirms this dynamic and laments this separation. Later, when her father comes to take her home, it’s evident that this relationship has been almost fully severed—though she and Jimmy have been married for four years and her family lives within driving distance, her father has never seen her house before.

Their socioeconomic differences, too, create a point of significant tension in the Porter marriage. From his many tirades, it’s clear that Jimmy resents the upper class as a general concept. From his behavior toward Alison and his remarks about her family, it’s also clear that he resents Alison herself as a personified embodiment of that concept.

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