Look Back in Anger
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.”
Related reading: My Problem With Her Anger
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 strictures 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. Note: There are comments associated with this question. See the discussion page to add to the conversation.