John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is a play of complex relationships, dealt with a wide range of subjects – social, political, religious and literary, including class snobbery, intellectual snobbery and the power of the US. But these public issues gradually recede into the background and the play becomes a domestic drama of sexual relationships. And the most powerful impression of the play is that of its undaunted scathing misogyny and sexism – the first, the hatred of women by men, being expressed in the speeches and attitudes of Jimmy Porter, and the second, sexism, the stereotyping or prejudice against women is inherent in the orientation and trajectory of the play.
Jimmy Porter displays a blatant hatred for women in the play. He displays an alarmingly traditional outlook when it comes to women and his relationship to them. His relationship with Alison is that of a domineering bully demanding blind adherence to his thought patterns and way of life. Jimmy’s anger is directed towards Alison not only as an individual but as a representative, not of the entire upper class, not just of women, but of upper class women. Through his tirades he attacks not only her family and the establishment; he attacks all the women of the world.
In the play Jimmy tries to win Alison’s allegiance to his vision of life but feels that she ‘has betrayed him by coming over to him in marriage while remaining mentally and spiritually in the world of her parents’, a society that Jimmy hates. Thus, Jimmy’s defeatism and despondency governs his relationship with Alison. He demands an unquestioning allegiance and a complete surrender from Alison, which, till the end, she is unable to give. It is not just a cultural gap or class barrier which divides them; Jimmy demands complete loyalty from Alison not for her bourgeois origins, but primarily because she is a woman. Alison is aware that no woman can meet Jimmy’s demands. As she tells Helena, Jimmy needs an impossible amalgam of a mother, lover, loyal wife and an intellectual partner:
He wants something quite different from us. What it is exactly I don’t
Know – a kind of cross between a mother and a Greek courtesan, a
henchwoman, a mixture of Cleopatra and Boswell.
Jimmy’s anger is a complex response to life, a tirade against society and its women that have apparently betrayed him. There is, of course, an involvement of this question with such social questions as the class system. Alison describes Jimmy’s invasion of her upper class world as part of the class-war he is waging, with his wife as a hostage. There is also buried in Jimmy’s psychology a fear of sexual relationship. In his image of Alison as a python swallowing him alive is the infantile fear of losing his identity in the act of love.
As for Alison, she is the ‘monument to non-attachment’, ‘Lady Pusillanimous’. In Jimmy’s view, ‘that girl there can twist your arm off with her silence’. Yet in the course of the play we see that Alison is not a cipher. She is not the Lady Pusillanimous of Jimmy’s description. Her silence in the face of Jimmy’s persistent provocation is a form of protest, as is evident from Jimmy’s furious reactions to his failure to break through her aristocratic reverse and provoke her to retaliate. Jimmy desperately not, to make Alison create a scene but fails to dent her shell.
For Jimmy Porter, Alison is simply a trophy he had won – the victory of a working-class man over the bourgeoisie. It is rather difficult to comprehend whether love was ever the foundation of their relationship. Jimmy views her as a feather is his cap and keeps no stone unturned to make it clear to his audience.
Alison is fully aware of Jimmy’s imperfections as well as the drawbacks of marrying him. When she describes her love-hate relationship with Jimmy, she mentions being attracted to him for his going “ into the battle with his axe swinging around his head frail, and so full of fire,” and admits that she had “never seen anything like it,” but she sadly concludes that it is “the old story of the knight in shining armour – except that his armour didn’t really shine very much”. Despite her generally passive position with Jimmy, Alison realises that this “spiritual barbarian” suddenly threw her down and away from her previous “happy, uncomplicated life” into the “challenge of marrying him”. It is precisely this high degree of the characters’ receptiveness in the play that makes affective resonance successful
Moreover, Alison’s perseverance whilst living with Jimmy involves a commitment script that is based on “courage and endurance to invest and bind the person to long-term activity.” It also involves magnifying the positive affect in such activity by absorbing and neutralising the various negative costs of such committed activity. Such unswerving commitment, in fact, implies the acceptance of any negative affects, as well as the convoluted promise of reward for the suffering. Representing this scenario, Alison endures Jimmy’s emotional abuse, his pipe’s foul smell, and his verbal tirades. She brawled with her parents for weeks over Jimmy until she decided to cut herself off from them, from her friends, and everyone just to be with him ‘for better or for worse.’
In the play we see Jimmy has clear memories of several people who exited him in the past – Alison’s friend Webster and his former girlfriend Madeline. The reason, he alludes, that these people understood him was precisely because they understood his need for a more enthusiastic mode of living. Jimmy’s anger is a result of his inability to excite similar feelings in the people around him.
Alison and Cliff’s affectionate relationship is also revealed in the play. It is a strange relationship because the two seem to have a close physical connection – they often touch and hug – yet this does not seem to inspire any jealousy or emotion in Jimmy. This relationship between the three shows how Cliff’s character is integral to Jimmy and Alison’s relationship with each other. Alison is able to get the affection that she desires from Cliff while Cliff also provides the masculine friendship and confidence that Jimmy desires. Jimmy seems to unconsciously understand that the two will not consummate their affair because of the very malaise.
In his refusal to behave like a gentleman, Jimmy plays the role of the working class, virile, male to perfection, attracting Helena from the very beginning, for she confesses to Alison that she finds him ‘oddly exciting’. Jimmy also hurls vitriolic tirades against Helena at the slightest provocation. Helena with her upper middle class background and religion provides a target for Jimmy’s tirades against the Christian concept of sin. But unlike Alison, Helena does not allow Jimmy to use her as a punch-ball. She dares to take on Jimmy and threatens to slap him in spite of his threat that he is not above physical violence. She carries out her threat and exposes Jimmy’s vulnerability. However, her involvement with Jimmy is partial and limited. Helena does not want to get burnt, as Jimmy demands, to go through the ordeal of pain, which for Jimmy is an essential test of commitment to life.
Alison, in Look Back in Anger, physically cries at the end of the play, yet throughout the play she is carrying the white woman’s burden, as Jimmy puts it, of sustaining all the negative affects imposed on her by Jimmy that cause her distress-anguish. She is melancholic, yet determine to survive, which explains why her main script is commitment/ limitation-remediation. She redeems herself through suffering. She has to lose something precious to be accepted into Jimmy’s world. She loses her child to become a mother to Jimmy.
By the end of the play, Alison’s friend Helena, a momentary contamination, and Cliff, an effective buffer and counterpoint to Jimmy, disappears from the Porters’ madhouse. Helena was a source of triangular rivalry to Jimmy; she temporarily threatens his abilities to control Alison. However, after Alison leaves, Jimmy takes Helena as a counteractive lover, rather than a passive wife. Cliff is dis-enchanted by Helena’s presence in Jimmy’s life, even though it made Jimmy relatively calmer. Moreover, Helena is a source of contamination for Jimmy; she imposes herself on his house, plans for Alison to leave, and above all, she physically attacks Jimmy by slapping him. The gentle Cliff could not accept Helena as a substitute wife for the aggressive Jimmy, because this can disrupt Alison’s commitment script. Cliff is responsible for neutralising the negative as much as he can when he sees them both tearing the insides of each other out. Similarly, counteractive, contaminating, confusing, and intimidating Helena could not compensate for Alison’s passivity because that would interrupt Jimmy’s nuclear script. Therefore, Jimmy and Alison both need each other to resume their manifest scripts. Jimmy needs the constant fuel from the calm Alison rather from the potentially aggressive Helena. Unsurprisingly, the play ends with their much-needed reunion.