Look Back in Anger

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Look Back in Anger Act 2, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The act opens two weeks later, in the same apartment. Alison is at the stove pouring boiling water into a teapot. She wears a slip and no shoes. Jimmy plays the trumpet from across the hall. The table in the center of the room is set for four, and Alison crosses to put the teapot there. The “Sunday paper jungle” is still strewn about the room. Alison crosses to her dressing table and sits down beside it to put on her stockings. Helena enters.
Jimmy’s jazz trumpet is a symbol of his suffering (jazz has traditionally been music of protest and struggle). His anguish dominates the scene even while he is not physically present. His efforts to disrupt domestic peace are certainly succeeding, though his ability to disrupt any social dynamics outside his home has yet to be proven.
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Helena is “ the same age as Alison, medium height, carefully and expensively dressed.” She has a “sense of matriarchal authority” that “makes most men who meet her anxious,” because she gives of a sense of “visiting royalty.” The stage direction identifies this as the “royalty of middle-class womanhood.” This “royalty” is so sure of its own power that it can allow men some measure of freedom, but nevertheless expects to receive respect from all people, including other women like Alison. “In Jimmy,” the stage direction says, Helena “arouses all the rabble-rousing instincts of his spirit.” She has thus far been able to defend herself from him with “strength and dignity,” though she’s getting tired of it. Helena carries a salad colander.
The contrast between Helena’s and Alison’s attire suggests that Alison has assimilated more to working class culture, while Helena retains her middle-class status. At the beginning of the previous act, Alison’s rich upbringing was apparent in this backdrop, but with Helena as a foil, we can see that Alison has shed class markers more fully than Jimmy’s tirades would have us believe. Helena’s strength comes from her class and her gender. The stage direction implies that women are tyrannical by nature—women like Helena allow men “freedom” only when they are sure that this freedom will not interfere with their power. This also speaks to Osborne’s feeling that working class men are not allowed their full masculinity.
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Alison asks if Helena “managed all right” with the dinner, and Helena says yes. She’s already cooked a lot during her weeklong stay. Alison says that it’s been “wonderful” to have another woman around to help with the housework. Helena says that it’s been fun, although she’s not used to having to fetch water from the bathroom downstairs. “It is primitive, isn’t it?” Alison says, and Helena agrees. Alison notes that Cliff, at least, takes care of himself. Helena says she hadn’t noticed that, and Alison suggests that this is because Helena has been helping her in the ways that Cliff normally does.
Helena and Alison’s shared understanding that the apartment is “primitive” shows their common class context. Although Alison might appear to be fitting into the working class apartment, she still retains some sense of scorn for it. The fact that Cliff usually helps Alison with the feminine labor points to the non-traditional gender roles in this household, and also to the feminization of working class men that the play finds objectionable.
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Alison comments that Helena has “settled in so easily somehow,” despite not being “used to” the surroundings. Helena asks if Alison is “used to” things. Alison replies that things have changed now that she’s not on her own. Alison asks if Helena has told Jimmy that tea is ready. She says that she knocked on the door of Cliff’s room, where Jimmy is playing the trumpet, but that he didn’t answer. Cliff is nowhere to be found. Alison says she wishes Jimmy would stop playing the trumpet. Helena says, drily, “I imagine that’s for my benefit.” Alison worries that Miss Drury will kick them out of the apartment for making too much noise, and says she’s glad that the landlady isn’t there at the moment.
Helena and Jimmy have strangely similar reactions to the idea of Alison’s getting “used to” things. Jimmy had previously scorned his wife as a “great one for getting used to things” when she said she no longer minds his pipe smoke, and Helena is similarly scandalized that Alison could get “used to” a situation that, to her, seems intolerable. This suggests that Alison may, indeed, be particularly prone to avoiding the conflict and “suffering” that Jimmy hopes she experiences – she gets “used” to things, rather than fully experiencing them, liking them or disliking them. Her reaction to Miss Drury (and Jimmy’s comparative disregard for the landlady) speaks again to Alison’s urge to calm the waters rather than making waves.
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Helena asks Alison if Jimmy drinks. Alison, “rather startled,” says that he isn’t an alcoholic. There is a pause while both women listen to Jimmy’s trumpet. Then Helena says the music makes it sound like he’d like to kill her. She isn’t used to seeing “such hatred in someone’s eyes,” and she finds it both “horrifying” and “oddly exciting.” Alison turns to face the mirror at her dressing table, and brushes her hair.
Helena’s statement that hatred is “oddly exciting” speaks to the fact that Jimmy’s anger is sexually attractive. It isn’t just Alison and Jimmy who feel this mixing of hatred, sexuality, and love—the fact that Helena feels this way too suggests that the couple’s volatile love might be the result of class difference rather than of a simple personality clash.
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Helena asks if Cliff is in love with Alison. Alison “stops brushing for a moment,” then says that she doesn’t think so. Helena asks if Alison is in love with Cliff, and that they behave strangely together, “by most people’s standards.” “You mean you’ve seen us embracing each other?” Alison asks. Helena says it doesn’t seem to be happening as much since she’s around. “Perhaps he finds my presence inhibiting—even if Jimmy’s isn’t.” Alison says that she and Cliff are just “fond of each other,” but Helena says that’s nonsense—they must be physically attracted to each other, too.
Helena tries to find a logical explanation for the non-traditional dynamic between Cliff and Alison: he is in love with her. Alison doesn’t agree, showing that Helena can’t understand the complexity of their relationship. This, and the fact that Cliff feels less able to embrace Alison around Helena, implies that their non-traditional love is something that is possible in a working class context, but that upper class norms are more traditional and constricting.
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Alison confirms that she and Cliff feel some attraction, but says that it’s not a passionate feeling. They’re comfortable with each other, and don’t want “to bother moving for the sake of some other pleasure.” Helena says it’s hard to believe they’re so lazy, and asks whether Jimmy approves. Alison says, “it’s what he would call a question of allegiances.” Then she explains, using confusing and circuitous language, that all of the people that Jimmy loves or has loved in the past (even old flames) are part of the calculation that he makes in thinking about Cliff and Alison. Alison asks if Helena understands, and Helena replies by asking if Alison does. Alison says that, though she’s tried to put herself in Jimmy’s shoes, she “can’t believe that he’s right somehow.”
This lack of energy is what Jimmy finds so frustrating about Cliff and Alison’s relationship, too—he thought it showed too much complacency and too little feeling. Yet Helena’s questions suggest that she finds Jimmy’s tolerance of a non-traditional cultural standard to be a different kind of complacency. This shows their class conflict—they can’t agree on which battles are most important, even if they both object to the laziness of the relationship. According to Alison, Jimmy sees his class allegiance to Cliff as more important than his need to defend his wife against Cliff’s flirtations. Alison doesn’t share his view. She retains, deep down, a more traditional view of gender.
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Alison continues that her relationship with Cliff is a “fluke.” They get along well because of Cliff’s kind temperament. It was different with Hugh Tanner, Jimmy’s childhood friend (Hugh’s mum helped Jimmy start his sweet stall). The couple moved in with Hugh soon after Jimmy graduated from university. Alison says that the university wasn’t a prestigious one—“it’s not even red brick, but white tile.”
This passage suggests that Cliff and Alison’s relationship shouldn’t be taken to suggest that peaceful relationships across class lines are possible—Cliff is the outlier. Alison’s scorn for Jimmy’s non-elite university reminds the audience that his education has brought him only tenuous acceptance into a higher echelon of society.
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Alison says that she met Hugh on her wedding night and disliked him immediately. Jimmy was “pathetically anxious” that his friend and his wife would get along. They all got drunk on “cheap port,” and the conversation deteriorated. Alison says that she felt she was “cut off from the kinds of people [she’d] always known.” She says, “I suppose I must be soft and squeamish, and snobbish, but I felt as though I’d been dropped in a jungle. I couldn’t believe that two people, two educated people, could be so savage.” She adds that Jimmy and Hugh thought of her as a “hostage from those sections of society they had declared war on.”
Jimmy’s hope that Alison and Hugh would get along is a poignant memory. Outwardly, at least, he seems to have given up on bringing Alison into his world without conflict, believing instead that the classes will inevitably clash. The imagery of Alison as a “hostage” conforms to this view, as well. Alison’s use of the words “jungle” and “savage” again point to her scornful class-based view of how Jimmy lives.
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Helena asks what they were doing for money at this time, and Alison says that her mother had taken stewardship of Alison’s wealth after the marriage. Instead, Jimmy and Hugh started using Alison’s connections to invite themselves to parties, hoping to find money or food. Alison again uses military language to describe their expeditions, saying that they would launch “raids on the enemy.” She says she even hoped a host “would have the guts to slam the door in our faces, but they didn’t. They were too well-bred.” Hugh and Jimmy hated her friends for their cowardice—but Hugh enjoyed his role as a “barbarian invader.” Alison says that he once even got a man to give them money for rent, though they were kicked out of another party when Hugh flirted with a young girl.
The class conflict here is dramatized still further, with the working class men launching targeted attacks on upper class bastions, in an attempt to steal their resources. There is a certain simplicity to the plan that speaks to the genuine idealism that underlies Jimmy’s anger. The complicating factor is Alison. She adopts Jimmy’s values: like her husband, Alison wishes that her friends would have “guts.” Yet, she hopes this so that their plan of attack will fail (a plan that she herself helped to orchestrate). Alison has consistently chosen ambivalence rather than choosing sides in the class conflicts that arise.
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Helena says that she can’t understand why Alison acted that way—or why she married Jimmy. Alison says that “there must be about six different answers.” For one thing, her family, and her father Colonel Redfern in particular, were “unsettled” after returning from India. When Alison met Jimmy at a party, he was sunburnt, and “everything about him seemed to burn…his eyes were so blue and full of the sun.” She says that she knew she might not be able to “bear” the relationship, but that it seemed inevitable. It was her family’s negative reaction that sealed things for Jimmy, she says, “whether or not he was in love with me.” He wanted to marry her as much as her family wanted to stop it. “Frail and full of fire,” Alison says, Jimmy fought for her like a knight in shining armor, “except that his armor didn’t really shine very much.”
Helena notices Alison’s ambivalence, and can’t identify with it. She is a character who sticks to her values, which are solidly middle class. Alison’s mention of India suggests a connection between her relationship with Jimmy and Britain’s fall from imperial power. The “unsettled” state of things, both in her home and in the country, laid the groundwork for her marriage. Alison knew that the relationship might destroy her, but still wanted it. For Jimmy, the fight with her parents was more important than love. Their relationship is “unsettled” partly because love is secondary to anger and pain.
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Helena brings the conversation back to Hugh. Alison says that her relationship with him only got worse, and that Hugh and Jimmy even disrupted some of Nigel’s political events. Then Hugh, who was writing a novel, decided to go to China, because England didn’t hold any more appeal for him. Jimmy fought with him about this, and “accused Hugh of giving up” and abandoning his mother. In the end, Hugh left for China “to find the New Millennium on his own,” and Jimmy and Alison moved to their current apartment.
Jimmy’s anger rarely takes on an explicitly political edge. Here, it does—but then Hugh abandons the cause. This seems to Jimmy a betrayal, and that fact reveals his underlying patriotism and traditional sense of family duty. Hugh goes off into the future, while Jimmy remains stuck and angry, unable to create political change in his country.
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Alison suspects that Hugh’s mum and Jimmy both blame her for the quarrel, and for Hugh’s leaving the country. She doesn’t dislike Hugh’s mother, she says, though she believes that Jimmy likes her “principally because she’s been poor almost all her life.” Alison says that, though she knows it sounds “snobbish,” she considers Hugh’s mother “ignorant.” Helena says that it’s time for Alison to make up her mind—she has a baby to think of now, and she can’t keep going on in this situation. Alison says that she’s “so tired.”
Alison here criticizes Jimmy’s view of right and wrong. He equates poverty with moral superiority, and wealth with moral corruption. Alison is right to find this simplistic, but she also proves that she does look down upon people who are of a lower class status than her. Helena’s reaction is practical: Jimmy’s morality doesn’t particularly matter to her, because she, unlike Alison, is sure of her own.
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Helena asks why Alison hasn’t told Jimmy about the baby, and Alison assures her that it couldn’t be another man’s child—“I’ve never really wanted anyone else.” Helena says that she should tell Jimmy about the baby, and that he’ll either react well, or Alison will have to leave. Alison points to the bear and squirrel on a dresser, and says that the animals represent her and Jimmy. She tells Helena that it’s a game they play, and Helena responds by looking “rather blank.” The game doesn’t seem to be working lately, Alison says. Helena asks if it’s her arrival that has made things go downhill. Alison says no—it began as an escape after Hugh left. It was a way for them to show “dumb, uncomplicated affection,” and “a silly symphony for people who couldn’t bear the pain of being human beings any longer.” She says that the creatures have died now—“they were all love, and no brains.”
Alison thinks that the baby will make Jimmy feel trapped, but Helena doesn’t understand this—she thinks that Jimmy should just accept his child and his wife. In her middle class world, values like social disruption and class conflict don’t enter into the domestic equation. Jimmy, on the other hand, thinks of his marriage partly as a battleground for the working class. Alison makes explicit the way that their bear and squirrel game allows the couple to escape into simpler affection. She implies, however, that this type of love is not strong enough to survive in the real world. She has come to believe Jimmy’s idea that social conflict must enter into personal relationships.
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Helena grabs Alison’s arm. She says that Alison must fight, or escape—otherwise, Jimmy will kill her. Cliff enters. He asks if the tea is ready. Alison says it is, and Cliff calls Jimmy, saying “hey, you horrible man! Stop that bloody noise.” Cliff asks Helena if she and Alison are going out. Helena replies, to Cliff’s surprise, that they are going to church. She invites him to come, but he offers the lame excuse that he hasn’t finished reading the papers. Cliff sits down at the table, and Helena sets the salad on it. Alison sits at the dressing table doing her makeup. Jimmy enters.
Helena urges Alison to action, as Jimmy has before. Her presence makes it clearer in this act than it was in the first that Alison has neither fully abandoned her upper class ideals, nor embraced Jimmy’s working class fervor. Cliff’s surprise that the women are going to church illuminates the way that Helena’s presence is changing Alison’s behavior—she is being pulled back to her old life of traditional values .
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Jimmy says that “anyone who doesn’t like real jazz, hasn’t any feeling either for music or people,” and sits down at the table with Cliff and Helena. Helena says that’s “rubbish,” and Jimmy says she’s just proved him right. They briefly discuss Webster’s banjo playing. Then Cliff asks Jimmy if he can borrow a paper, and Jimmy snaps that he should buy it himself. Then he asks why Cliff would want it, given that he has “no intellect, no curiosity.” Cliff agrees that he is “nothing,” and Jimmy responds that Cliff “ought to be Prime Minister,” if he has a high-faluting intellectual thought such as that.
Jimmy embraces jazz as a working class art form, and voices his opinion that working class people are more in touch with the real, emotional side of life. Webster, the only one of Alison’s friends who he considers worthwhile, also accesses this emotion through music. Jimmy turns around immediately, however, and claims the mantle of the educated man, taunting Cliff for being both too ignorant and too high-faluting. The exchange typifies Jimmy’s strained relationship to his own education and how to it placed him in a position that is stuck between working class and middle class.
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Then Jimmy launches into another attack on Alison’s friends, while Cliff and Helena eat their meal and don’t respond. He says that her rich friends “sit around…discussing sex as if it were the Art of Fugue” (a musical composition by Bach). The stage direction notes that Alison and Helena’s “silent hostility” has made him combative, and that though he “looks cheerful,” his voice suggests otherwise. Jimmy says that Cliff is “too anxious to please,” and then he offers Helena tea. She thanks him, and he pours. He says that Cliff will end up “evil minded and vicious.” Helena takes the full cup of tea and thanks him again. Jimmy says that Alison’s friends are, among other things, “pusillanimous.” Helena asks if Alison will have her tea, and Alison says she “won’t be long.”
Here, Jimmy argues that Alison’s friends’ high education keeps them from understanding earth-bound pleasures like sex. He suggests that Cliff is like them in his desire to keep the peace. He thus rejects both his wife’s absent friends and his own friend at the table, leaving himself socially isolated—Jimmy values his ideals over people. Helena’s calm politeness during Jimmy’s outburst recalls the high-class composure that Jimmy detests in Alison, and shows Helena’s strong belief in the value of politeness.
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Jimmy says he’s thought of a new song, one that is from the perspective of a prostitute turning away a customer named Mildred. He asks if Alison likes it, and she says that she does. Jimmy tells them all the lyrics, which discuss the prostitute deciding to give up on her work. It includes the refrain “just pass me the booze.” Cliff agrees that it’s good. Jimmy says that he wrote a poem while at the market the day before. He says that Helena will like it—“It’s soaked in the theology of Dante, with a good slosh of Eliot as well.” (Dante wrote the famous epic poem The Divine Comedy, describing hell, purgatory, and paradise. T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948 and was a poet whose famous works include The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.) Jimmy calls his poem “The Cess Pool.”
Jimmy counters Helena’s politeness by acting overly bawdy and brash. Yet he also paints himself as an intellectual, a person who composes music and writes poetry on the fly. He quotes famous authors like Eliot and Dante, but then writes a poem with a very earth-bound name (“The Cess Pool”) thus differentiating himself from Alison’s friends, who compare sex to classical music. This speech also calls to mind Osborne’s project with the play itself. He takes a formerly high-class art form—drama—and fills it with realistic, working class content. Jimmy’s poem, like Osborne’s play, might be a legitimate political statement—while also reflecting the particular and possibly limited worldview of its creator.
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Helena asks why Jimmy is being so “unpleasant,” “offensive,” and “tiresome.” Jimmy “roars with laughter,” and teases Helena for being stuck up, like the Oscar Wilde character Lady Bracknell. Then Jimmy’s “curiosity about Alison’s preparations at the mirror won’t be denied any longer.” He asks if she’s going out, and she says that she is. He asks where, and she rebuffs him. Then she sits down at the table. Helena says that they are going to church. Jimmy, like Cliff, is “genuinely surprised.”
Lady Bracknell is a stuffy old Victorian woman from Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, so Jimmy’s comparison suggests that he finds Helena old-fashioned. He sees himself as a modern man, and people like her as outdated. His curiosity about Alison speaks to the intense and often uncomfortable nature of their love. Though he has been trying to ignore her, he fails.
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Then Jimmy lets fly an attack against Helena, saying that this is a cheap trick to win Alison to her side. He turns to Alison, saying that he’s sick to think how much he endured to get her out of her parents’ house, only to see her go back to Helena. Alison sees that an explosion is coming, and responds sarcastically, saying that Jimmy rescued her on a “charger,” and that she’d still be “rotting away at home” if he hadn’t. Jimmy calms down when he hears Alison getting riled up, and says that she’s not too far off—though the charger was “off white,” Alison’s mother had effectively locked her daughter up in a castle.
Jimmy sets himself up as a rescuer, showing the idealism that he feels about his role in the class conflict. Alison turns this back upon him sarcastically, suggesting that she thinks this is a perverted version of a classic love story. Jimmy himself recognizes that it’s not a traditional story of valor—the charger was “off white.” This reflects his inability to find a valiant cause to hold on to, a situation that contributes to his general disillusionment.
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Jimmy says that he knew from the moment he met Alison’s mother that she would stop at nothing to keep him from her daughter. He compares her to a “rhinoceros in labor,” whose “bellow” makes male rhinos run away and “pledge celibacy.” Yet, he says he “under-estimated her strength.” Hoping to shock Helena, he says that Alison’s mother is as “rough as a night at a Bombay brothel, and as tough as a matelot’s arm.” (A matelot is a sailor.)
Jimmy’s offensive language ratchets up a notch when he speaks about Alison’s mother, suggesting that his dislike of her may be misogynistic as well as idealistic. Here, he suggests that her motherly protectiveness makes her sexually unattractive, and that her un-ladylike “roughness” makes her comparable to a prostitute.
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Jimmy gives an example of Alison’s mother’s dirty tactics of motherly protection. She jumped to terrible conclusions about Jimmy due to his long hair, and had him watched by a private detective. She did all this so that Jimmy couldn’t “carry her daughter off” on a horse decked with “discredited passions and ideals.” “The old gray mare that actually once led the charge against the old order” could hardly carry Jimmy’s weight, he says, and gave up when he loaded Alison on her back, too.
Jimmy mocks Alison’s mother’s suspicion of him, but he has been equally suspicious of Alison, snooping in her handbag and reading her letters. His morality isn’t actually superior to that of this upper class character. Jimmy’s statement that his mare gave up under Alison’s weight suggests that his quest to improve his working class lot is failing, and that this is largely due to his marriage.
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Jimmy asks Alison if Helena has really won her back. Helena cuts in—“You’ve no right to talk about her mother like that.” Jimmy says he has every right, and, of Alison’s mother, says, “that old bitch should be dead.” Then he asks Alison to confirm his statement, and asks why she doesn’t come to her mother’s defense. Cliff gets up from the table and tries to stop Jimmy from continuing, but Jimmy pushes him away, then “sits down helplessly, turning his head away on to his hand.” Jimmy says that Alison wouldn’t come to his defense, either, if someone were attacking him. Then he begins to picture Alison’s mother dead, and being eaten by worms. “What a bellyache you’ve got coming to you, my little wormy ones…she will pass away, my friends, leaving a trail of worms gasping for laxatives behind her.”
Calling Alison’s mother a “bitch” and painting a vivid, disgusting picture of her worm-eaten corpse seems to show unbridled hatred rather than a moral or political statement. Yet, Jimmy wants Alison to defend her mother, and her husband—the insult is also a test of his wife’s moral fortitude. This moral purpose is muddied, however, by Jimmy’s personal hatred of Alison’s mother, and the word “bitch” adds an element of gendered hatred, as well. Jimmy cannot be said to be purely an idealistic social crusader. His “helplessness” in the midst of his slew of insults shows the self-defeating nature of his anger.
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Jimmy smiles at Alison, who is still at her dressing table, and “hasn’t broken.” Helena is the only one who meets his gaze. She says that she feels “sick with contempt and loathing.” Jimmy says that when he’s out of the sweet-stall business, “I may write a book about us all. It’s all here. Written in flames a mile high.” It won’t be a peaceful poem of the type that “Auntie Wordsworth” (referring to poet William Wordsworth, who wrote The Prelude, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” and other poems). Instead, “it’ll be recollected in fire, and blood.”
Again, Jimmy plays up his education and intellect. Yet he also rejects the feminization that he sees in Wordsworth, who was famous for his meditations on nature. Jimmy plans to write about social situations, which are his primary concern and a primary cause of his pain. Like “fire,” Jimmy’s vision of his life can both give energy, and consume or damage people.
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Helena decides to try “patient reasonableness,” and says that a little thing like going to church doesn’t merit all this fuss. Jimmy says that if she can’t understand that, she isn’t so “clever” after all. Helena says to Jimmy, “you think the world’s treated you pretty badly, don’t you?” Alison cuts in, “Oh don’t try and take his suffering away from him—he’d be lost without it.” Jimmy “looks at her in surprise,” but then keeps his focus on Helena.
Jimmy insult about Helena’s cleverness suggests that his bravado about his own intelligence is overblown. Alison’s statement that Jimmy would be “lost” without his suffering shows her clear understanding of the fact that the anger that he often directs at her is something that he needs. It gives him a sense of purpose and direction that he otherwise has no way to find.
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Jimmy asks why Helena is still around, given that her play has already finished up. Helena says that Alison asked her to say, and Jimmy asks what they are “plotting.” Jimmy tells Alison that she doesn’t believe “in anything,” and asks why she is letting Helena “influence” her. Alison begins to show signs of stress, covers her ears with her hands, and says that the word “why” is “pulling [her] head off.” Jimmy says that he’ll continue to use it, and turns to Helena to tell her that the last time Alison went to church was on her wedding day.
Alison’s strong negative reaction to the word “why” speaks to the fact that she doesn’t understand her own actions. She is still stuck between truly accepting her husband’s world, and staying in her own. Helena’s presence is bringing that conflict slowly to its climax. Church has become a flash point for Alison’s allegiance—with Jimmy, she avoids it, but with Helena, she doesn’t.
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Jimmy says that on that day, they were in a hurry to marry—it seems hard to believe now. They avoided the city registrar because he was a friend of Colonel Redfern’s, and chose a vicar who was less likely to know Alison’s parents. But Colonel Redfern and Alison’s mother found out nonetheless, and came “to watch the execution carried out.” Jimmy had drunk beer for breakfast, and picked a stranger at the bar for his best man. Alison’s mother looked like a dead rhino, he said, and Colonel Redfern looked as though he was “dreaming of his days among the Indian Princes.” He says that he can’t remember the wedding after that, except throwing up later in the vestry. Helena asks Jimmy again whether he’s done talking yet.
Jimmy did not take the wedding seriously, further showing the ways that his values diverge from the traditional values of people like Alison’s parents (who apparently feel it would be improper not to show up for ceremony, even though they disapprove). The fact that Jimmy doesn’t remember saying his vows suggests that the marriage was more about his fight with Alison’s parents than it was about marrying Alison herself. Jimmy’s sense that Colonel Redfern was nostalgic for the colonial past while watching his daughter marry a working class man dramatizes the idea that Jimmy and Alison’s relationship signals the end of a certain era of British history. In modern times, Colonel Redfern is no longer a “prince,” and his precious daughter marries a working-class man like Jimmy.
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Jimmy asks Alison if she’s going to be swayed by Helena. Her friend, he says, is “a cow.” Cliff says that Jimmy has gone too far, but Helena says that he should go on. Jimmy accuses Cliff of defecting to Helena’s side, too. He says that Helena will “make it pay off,” because she is “an expert in the New Economics.” Continuing to use economic language, he says that the era of Reason and Progress is over, and that old traditions and beliefs are getting more valuable. “The Big Crash is coming,” he says, so people should go to Helena’s side to avoid disaster. “Helena and her kind” have overrun Britain, he says. “They spend their time mostly looking forward to the past.” The “Dark Ages” seem to her the lightest time, and she lives in her own “soul,” “cut right off from the ugly problems of the twentieth century altogether.”
Jimmy’s use of economic language to describe Helena’s worldview suggests that he sees her as an embodiment of the social and political forces in Britain that are trying to erase the plight of the poor and the working class. He accuses her of living in a way that denies reality, and bringing Britain back to the “Dark Ages.” This is, more broadly, his critique of society. He thinks that the powerful forces in England are disconnected to the struggles of people like himself, and intent upon preventing progress.
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Helena says, calmly, that if Jimmy weren’t so far away, she’d have slapped him. Jimmy asks Helena if she has ever seen somebody die. She begins to stand, and he tells her not to move. She sits. Jimmy says that death “doesn’t look dignified enough for you.” Helena says that she’ll slap him if he comes close, and Jimmy replies that he isn’t a gentleman, and has “no public school scruples about hitting girls.” If she slapped him, he would slap her back. Helena says that this doesn’t surprise her. Jimmy responds that he hates violence, and that’s why, “if I find some woman trying to cash in on what she thinks is my defenseless chivalry by lashing out with her frail little fists, I lash back at her.” Helena asks if that’s “subtle, or just plain Irish?” Jimmy smiles, and says that they seem to understand each other.
Helena has previously shown little inclination to respect or obey Jimmy, so the fact that she sits when he tells her to suggests that his statement about seeing someone die comes across as more powerful and true than his previous tirades. His reminder that death isn’t “dignified” is powerful evidence for his belief that politeness isn’t connected to the real things in life. As is often the case, however, his legitimate moral statement begins to mix with misogyny when he scorns Helena’s “frail little fists.” He says that this is about his working class moral outlook—he doesn’t have the politeness that those who went to fancy “public schools” would have. Yet Helena sees through him, noting that this might be about a “subtle” moral critique, but it also might be “just plain Irish”—a scornful and classist (and even racist) way to say that it might just be about Jimmy’s natural inclination towards belligerence.
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Jimmy says that Helena hasn’t answered his question, and she replies that she has never seen anybody die. “Anyone who’s never watched somebody die is suffering from a pretty bad case of virginity,” Jimmy says. He loses his “good humor” as he falls into a memory. When he was ten, he said, he watched his father die for a year. He had been fighting in the (Spanish Civil) war in Spain. He was wounded in battle, and Jimmy knew that he would die. He says that he was “the only one who cared,” and turns to look out the window. The rest of the family was embarrassed, he says. His mother “was all for being associated with minorities, provided they were the smart, fashionable ones,” and his father’s conviction that he should fight for democracy in Spain was not well-received by society at large. Jimmy says that his family sent money every month, “and hoped he’d get on with it quietly, without too much vulgar fuss.”
Jimmy’s criticism of Alison’s virginity takes on a different meaning here, when he suggests that “virginity” means one hasn’t suffered. This gives us an idea of his vision of sex, which he must see as partly an act of suffering. British soldiers who fought in the Spanish Civil War did so for idealistic reasons, and Jimmy bemoans that lack of idealism in his own generation. His father and others like him had the chance to fight for important causes, but that also caused them grave suffering; Jimmy’s generation cannot be ignorant of the costs involved, and has thus lost some sense of innocence. Jimmy’s mother had the “fashionable” values that he derides in Alison and Helena, so this gives us an idea of the psychological origin of his outlook—which involves, again, both scorn for a woman in his life, and a valid critique of upper class complacency.
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His mother may have pitied his father, Jimmy says—but she didn’t care as he did. “At the end of twelve months,” he says, “I was a veteran.” He learned through that experience “what it was to be angry—angry and helpless.” He claims, “I knew more about—love…betrayal…and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know in all your life.” The group sits silently. Then Helena gets up and says that she and Alison should go to church. Alison nods, and Helena leaves to get her things.
Jimmy himself ties the origin of his anger to “helplessness,” further driving a sense that his vitriol is partly about frustration, rather than about arguing for a just cause. Yet, his statement that he learned hard lessons at ten years old seems also to be legitimate. Helena and Alison deny him the pleasure of a response.
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Without looking at Alison, Jimmy asks why she lets people do these things to him, when, he says, “I’ve given you just everything.” Jimmy’s voice has weakened. “His axe-swinging bravado has vanished, and his voice crumples in disabled rage.” He says that Helena is taking Alison away, and his wife is “so bloody feeble” that she’ll allow it to happen. “Suddenly,” Alison flings her cup to the floor. She looks at the pieces, and at Jimmy, and then crosses the stage to put on a dress. “As she is zipping up the side, she feels giddy, and she has to lean against the wardrobe.” Eyes closed, Alison says, “all I want is a little peace.”
Jimmy’s emotional pain, and his belief that he has given Alison a good life, shows that, in his mind, he treats her this way out of love. His rage is again “disabled,” powerless. Alison’s emotional break, and her statement that she just wants “peace,” show that his love of passion and suffering has had the effect of pushing her away. At the same time, it shows that Alison really may be closed off to passion and suffering. She just wants things to be easy.
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Jimmy is “hardly able to get his words out.” “My heart is so full, I feel ill—and she wants peace!” Alison puts on her shoes. Cliff moves from the table to an armchair and looks at a paper. Jimmy has regained his composure slightly, and says that people find his yelling objectionable, “but that girl there can twist your arm off with her silence.” He says that Alison callously ignores his feelings. “One of us is mean and stupid and crazy,” he says. But is it him, “standing here like an hysterical girl, hardly able to get my words out?” Or is it Alison, “sitting there, putting her shoes on to go out?” Jimmy turns to Cliff, and says that he should try loving Alison. Then he goes over to watch Alison rummaging for her gloves.
Jimmy is emotional to the point of discomfort, but, as we have seen many times before, he prefers this to “peace,” which he translates as upper class complacency. Jimmy argues that he might seem crazy, but Alison’s silence could make her the crazy one, too. This is one of the arguments that the play has been taking seriously. Though Jimmy’s anger makes him seem unhinged, he also has flashes of real ideological clarity. Alison, the calm one, is also occasionally shown to be a coward. The play suggests that some iconoclastic thinkers might be personally distasteful, as Jimmy often is.
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Jimmy says that Alison might want to return to him someday. When that happens, he says, “I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing.” Helena enters with two prayer books in her arms. Jimmy says that he hopes to someday see Alison’s “face rubbed in the mud.” There is a short pause, and then Helena tells him that there is a phone call waiting for him. Jimmy says that can’t mean anything good, and exits.
The fact that Helena witnesses only Jimmy’s angry statement that Alison’s face should be “rubbed in the mud” parallels the way that upper class observers often see only the ugly side of Jimmy’s anger. The two prayer books symbolize the upper class respectability that Helena brings with her.
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Helena asks if Alison is ready to leave, and whether she feels all right. Helena says that she is shocked to think of how hard things will be for Alison during her pregnancy, and how it’s all due to “these men.” She turns to Cliff, and berates him for sitting there and doing nothing. Cliff agrees: “I just sit here.” Helena asks what’s wrong with him. Cliff says that he may not agree with Jimmy, but that doesn’t mean that he’s on Helena’s side. Her presence has made things worse in the house than they’ve ever been. It was always a “battlefield,” but his presence has meant that the couple can stay together. “Where I come from,” Cliff says, “we’re used to brawling and excitement.” He adds, “I love these two people very much. And I pity all of us.” Helena asks if he is including her in that statement, but keeps speaking to avoid giving him the chance to reply.
Helena draws the battle lines according to gender, not class—Alison’s problem is “men.” Cliff, on the other hand, suggests that it is indeed a matter of class. He confirms that Jimmy’s way of speaking is partly a result of his class upbringing, and that Cliff himself doesn’t find it offensive, given their shared context. He seems resigned to the fact that love entails conflict. He expresses pity, which seems to be an overall pity for the human condition. Cliff’s resigned attitude, and his love for both Jimmy and Alison, suggests that he doesn’t see their fights as a problem to solve in the way that Helena does.
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Helena tells Alison that she has sent Colonel Redfern a wire, telling him to come pick up his daughter the next day. Alison responds, her voice “numbed and vague”: “Oh?” Helena springs into action. She says that she felt that she had to do something, and then says, “gently,” “you didn’t mind, did you?” Alison says that she doesn’t, and thanks Helena. Her friend asks if she will go with her father when he comes, and Alison says, after a pause, that she will. Helena is relieved. She says that Colonel Redfern will arrive around “tea-time” the next day. She hopes that Alison’s departure will cause Jimmy to “come to his senses, and face up to things.”
Alison reacts to Helena’s extreme gesture with the “vague” attitude that Jimmy detests. Helena’s past tense statement that Alison “didn’t mind” shows a desire to avoid conflict (she doesn’t ask about Alison’s feelings in the presence, but assumes her retroactive approval). Alison’s decision to leave seems to come from a sense of inevitability. As Jimmy fears, Helena is indeed in charge. This is beginning to have real, potentially disastrous, effects for the couple.
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Alison asks who was on the phone. Helena says it was “Sister somebody.” Alison speculates that it was a hospital, as Jimmy is unlikely to know anyone in a convent. She says they should get going. Jimmy enters, and Cliff asks if he’s all right. To Alison, Jimmy says that the call was about Hugh’s mum, who has had a stroke. After a “slight pause,” Alison says that she’s sorry. Jimmy sits down on the bed. Cliff asks how bad it is, and Jimmy says that it sounds like she’s dying, and that it “doesn’t make any sense at all.” Cliff asks if there’s anything he can do. Jimmy says he should call a taxi. Cliff gets up to do this, then asks if Jimmy would like him to come to London. Jimmy says, “it’s not for you to go,” given that Cliff had hardly known Hugh’s mum. “Helena looks quickly at Alison,” who says nothing. Cliff exits.
Cliff springs into action in a moment of conflict, asking what he can do to help, and calling Jimmy a taxi. Alison, who actually knew Hugh’s mum, can only apologize repeatedly. Though they at times have similarly unemotional responses to Jimmy’s tirades, Cliff holds up much better under strain here than Alison does. We are meant to dislike Alison in this moment—she seems as emotionally callous as Jimmy often says that she is. Cliff’s different reaction shows that Alison’s behavior is due to cowardice, and not to a peace-loving nature.
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To Alison, Jimmy says that he remembers Hugh’s mum’s reaction to their wedding photo. She rhapsodized over how beautiful Alison was. Alison is standing by the dressing table with her back to him. He asks for his shoes. She kneels to hand them to him. Looking at his feet, he asks if she’s coming to London with him. He says, “I…need you…to come with me.” Jimmy meets her gaze, but Alison turns away and stands. The church bells begin to ring. Helena watches. Finally, Alison crosses to pick up the prayer book. “She wavers, and seems about to say something,” but then turns towards the door. In a soft voice, she says to Helena, “let’s go.”
Jimmy’s admission of weakness is the emotional climax of this scene. He has allowed himself to become fully vulnerable, and to admit that he relies on Alison. This could be a moment of affection and love between them, but Alison remains emotionally closed. The church bells call her away with their respectable appeal—she follows, and returns with Helena to her old life, leaving Jimmy alone. In this moment, it is Alison, and not Jimmy, who is an aggressor.
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Alison and Helena exit. Jimmy “looks about him unbelievingly,” rising to lean against the dresser. The teddy bear is nearby. Jimmy lifts it “gently,” then throws it to the floor, where it makes a “rattling, groaning sound.” Jimmy falls onto the bed, his face in the covers.
The bear symbolizes Jimmy himself. He and it fall at the same time, full of immense suffering and disbelief. The fact that he flings it to the ground himself suggests the way that he welcomes suffering, however painful it may be.
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