Look Back in Anger Themes
The main themes in Look Back in Anger are alienation, anger, and class.
- Alienation: Jimmy Porter is an overeducated, underemployed man who feels alienated from the establishment.
- Anger: Jimmy's anger pervades the play, as he frequently lashes out at his wife and his business partner.
- Class: Much of Jimmy’s anger arises from the class struggle in England in the 1950s.
Last Updated September 8, 2022.
Alienation is an important theme in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Jimmy Porter, the main character of the play, typifies the overeducated, underemployed worker. He lives in an attic flat with his wife, Alison, and his business partner, Cliff Lewis, with whom he runs a candy stall in an outdoor market. It is 1956, Britain has lost its soul (according to Jimmy), and they are living in an "American age" that has left men like Jimmy Porter behind. He feels alienated from the Establishment, the upper-crust of British society, which has shut him out of the most lucrative jobs because of his class. He graduated from a "white-tile" university, one of the newer and least prestigious universities in Great Britain, so his education, as good as it ended up being, doesn't mean much to the British Establishment. He also feels alienated from his wife, Alison, whose father is a colonel and whose brother is now a member of Parliament. He regularly berates Alison, characterizing himself as the only thinking person in the household. He has even given her a nickname: Lady Pusillanimous. This nickname emphasizes both Jimmy's intelligence (via his vocabulary) and Alison's timid nature. It also suggests that at least part of Jimmy's alienation stems from his behavior, not his socioeconomic status, and that he might have an easier time connecting with people if he treated them with respect.
Jimmy Porter's anger dominates the play. This theme is pervasive, affecting the plot, the characters, and the tone of the entire play. In the first act, Jimmy's anger causes him to lash out at his wife and his business partner, Cliff, calling them boring, stupid, and unambitious, in large part because they don't share his rage and frustration. Like many working-class men, Jimmy feels overlooked by the Establishment, shut out by polite society, and relegated to menial jobs where he is underutilized and underpaid. His socioeconomic status makes it impossible for Jimmy to get ahead, which understandably causes him to resent the Establishment. He lashes out at his wife, Alison, because she is a part of that upper class, having descended from a well-to-do family. Her father is a rich colonel, and her brother Nigel is a member of Parliament. Jimmy sneers at their accomplishments, summarily dismissing Alison and her entire family as thoughtless, stupid, self-involved people. He says all this in hopes of getting a rise out of Alison and instigating a fight. Jimmy likes conflict. He wants Alison to suffer, because then she will understand where he is coming from and why he is so angry. At the end of the play, after Alison has a miscarriage, Jimmy is satisfied that she has suffered enough, and the couple reconciles. The reader is left to wonder if Jimmy's anger has dissipated or if it will continue to destroy his marriage.
Much of Jimmy's anger stems from the class struggle in England in the 1950s. Jimmy attended what he calls a "white-tile" university—one of the newest and lowest-ranking institutions in Great Britain. Though it is clear from Jimmy's diction and his reasoning skills that he has received a good education, he has been shut out of the jobs he deserves because of his socioeconomic status. Having come from a working-class background, Jimmy finds it impossible to make the upper-class connections that one needs to get ahead. He blames the Establishment for relegating him to the life of a candy purveyor—a position he considers beneath him. This kind of class conflict still exists today, and Jimmy's anger is more relevant than ever, given the increasing stratification...
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of the rich and the poor.
Jimmy Porter spends a lot of time talking about education in relation to social class. Specifically, he rants about how, even though he went to college, he didn't go to the "right" college, which means he doesn't have access to the "right" jobs and the "right" people. In effect, the Establishment has rigged the education system so that only the people who graduate from certain universities can get ahead in life. One great example of this is Nigel, Alison's brother, who attended Sandhurst, an elite university where he made the connections necessary to become a member of Parliament. Nigel is described as a "straight-backed, chinless wonder" who doesn't care about others and doesn't deserve his position. This makes Jimmy bitter, and this in turn leads him to lash out at Alison, criticizing Nigel and the rest of her family. He thinks she has been unfairly blessed in life, just as he has been unfairly maligned by the Establishment. This is one of the primary causes of his anger.