Last Updated on February 3, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
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 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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925
Alienation and Loneliness
Jimmy Porter spoke for a large segment of the British population in 1956 when he ranted about his alienation from a society in which he was denied any meaningful role. Although he was educated at a "white-tile" university, a reference to the newest and least prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the real power and opportunities were reserved for the children of the Establishment, those born to privilege, family connections, and entree to the "right" schools. Part of the "code" of the Establishment was the "stiff upper lip," that reticence to show or even to feel strong emotions. Jimmy's alienation from Alison comes precisely because he cannot break through her "cool," her unwillingness to feel deeply even during sexual intercourse with her husband. He berates her in a coarse attempt to get her to strike out at him, to stop "sitting on the fence'' and make a full commitment to her real emotions; he wants to force her to feel and to have vital life. He calls her "Lady Pusillanimous" because he sees her as too cowardly to commit to anything Jimmy is anxious to give a great deal and is deeply angry because no one seems interested enough to take from him, including his wife. He says, "My heart is so full, I feel ill—and she wants peace!"
Anger and Hatred
Jimmy Porter operates out of a deep well of anger. His anger is directed at those he loves because they refuse to have strong feelings, at a society that did not fulfill promises of opportunity, and at those who smugly assume their places in the social and power structure and who do not care for others. He lashes out in anger because of his deeply felt helplessness. When he was ten years old he watched his idealist father dying for a year from wounds received fighting for democracy in the Spanish Civil War, his father talking for hours, "pouring out all that was left of his life to one bewildered little boy." He says, "You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it.''
Apathy and Passivity
Although Alison is the direct target of Jimmy's invective, her apathy and passivity are merely the immediate representation of the attitudes that Jimmy sees as undermining the whole of society. It is the complacent blandness of society that infuriates Jimmy. When speaking of Alison's brother Nigel, he says, "You've never heard so many well-bred commonplaces coming from beneath the same bowler hat." The Church, too, comes under attack in part because it has lost relevance to contemporary life. For Helena it spells a safe habit, one that defines right and wrong for her—although she seems perfectly willing to ignore its structures against adultery when it suits her. Jimmy sees the Church as providing an easy escape from facing the pain of living in the here and now—and thus precluding any real redemption. Of course, Jimmy has also slipped into a world of sameness as illustrated by the three Sunday evenings spent reading the newspapers and even the direct replacement of Alison at the ironing board with Helena. Deadly habit is portrayed as insidious.
Jimmy comes from the working class and although some of his mother's relatives are "pretty posh," Cliff tells Alison that Jimmy hates them as much as he hates her family. It is the class system, with its built-in preferential treatment for those at the top and exclusion from all power for those at the bottom, that makes Jimmy's existence seem so meaningless. He has a university degree, but it is not from the "right" university. It is Nigel, the "straight-backed, chinless wonder" who went to Sandhurst, who is stupid and insensitive to the needs of others, who has no beliefs of his own, who is already a Member of Parliament, who will "make it to the top." Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, is not shown unsympathetically, but her mother is portrayed as a class-conscious monster who used every tactic she could to prevent Alison from marrying Jimmy. The only person for whom Jimmy's love is apparent is Hugh's working-class mother. Jimmy likes Cliff because, as Cliff himself says, "I'm common."
While Jimmy harangues everyone around him to open themselves to honest feeling, he is trapped in his own problems of social identity. He doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. As Colonel Redfern points out, operating a sweet-stall seems an odd occupation for an educated young man. Jimmy sees suffering the pain of life as the only way to find, or "earn," one's true identity. Alison does finally suffer the immeasurable loss of her unborn child and comes back to Jimmy, who seems to embrace her. Helena discovers that she can be happy only if she lives according to her perceived principles of right and wrong. Colonel Redfern is caught out of his time. The England he left as a young army officer no longer exists. Jimmy calls him "just one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can't understand why the sun isn't shining anymore," and the Colonel agrees. Cliff does seem to have a strong sense of who he is, accepts that, and will move on with his life.
A contemporary reading of Look Back in Anger contains inherent assumptions of sexism. Jimmy Porter seems to many to be a misogamist and Alison a mere cipher struggling to view the world through Jimmy's eyes.
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