Look Back in Anger

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Themes and Colors
Class and Education Theme Icon
Suffering and Anger vs. Complacency Theme Icon
Disillusionment and Nostalgia Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Love and Innocence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Look Back in Anger, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Class and Education Theme Icon

Look Back in Anger was published in the post World War II period in England, in 1956. In 1944, The British Mass Education Act had made secondary education free for everyone in the country. This meant that whole new swaths of British society were now equipped to write about their lives. John Osborne was one of these. His play broke into a world of British theater that had previously been a polite, upper class environment, and brought a new angry energy and previously unencountered point-of-view to the stage that startled some theatergoers. We see evidence of that new class mobility, and the new reality it created, in the play. Jimmy Porter comes from a working class background, but has been highly educated. He went to a university (though not one of Britain’s finest— his upper class wife, Alison, notes that it was “not even red brick, but white tile.”) And though Jimmy went to a university, he is still stuck running a sweet stall. He has in some ways left his background behind, but he also doesn’t feel fully comfortable and hasn’t been accepted into the upper classes. He uses big words and reads the newspaper, but he sometimes has to look those words up in a dictionary, and he says that the Sunday papers make him feel ignorant.

Alison and Jimmy’s relationship is the main place where class tension unfolds. Alison comes from an upper class background very different from Jimmy’s. Both portray the struggle between the classes in military terms, focusing on the ways that these two sectors of society fail to blend. Jimmy and his friend Hugh see her as a “hostage,” and they spend time in the early years of Alison and Jimmy’s marriage going to upper class parties to “plunder” food and drink. Though Alison and Jimmy try to make their relationship work in the end, we get the sense that it’s built on shaky ground, and that they might fall back into the cycle of anger and fighting that they enact throughout the play. Alison and Jimmy may make their relationship work for now, but the divisions between them run too deep to ever fully heal. In Look Back in Anger, truces across class boundaries are ultimately brief and inadequate.

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Class and Education Quotes in Look Back in Anger

Below you will find the important quotes in Look Back in Anger related to the theme of Class and Education.
Act 1 Quotes

He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

In these stage directions, we're introduced to Jimmy Porter, a young English man around whom the play revolves. Jimmy is married to Alison Porter, but unlike his wife, he wasn't born into a wealthy family. Jimmy is often angry, although it's often hard to understand what, exactly, he's so angry about--Jimmy himself seems not to know. As the stage directions explain, Jimmy's anger is somehow "non-committal"; it's as if his anger destroys everything in its path, including Jimmy's own willpower. He's furious with England for losing its power and for abandoning the lower class; he's furious with his wife and his friends--and yet at the end of the day his fury just cancels out, leaving him right where he was to begin with.


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Pusillanimous. Adjective. Wanting of firmness of mind, of small courage, having a little mind, mean spirited, cowardly, timid of mind. From the Latin pusillus, very little, and animus, the mind. That’s my wife! That’s her, isn’t it? Behold the Lady Pusillanimous.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Alison Porter
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jimmy looks up a word, "pusillanimous," and then defines it for his friend, Cliff. Jimmy uses the definition to allude to his wife, Alison, and her supposed small-mindedness--even though Alison is in the room with them. Further, Jimmy claims that if he were to mispronounce the word, Alison would probably correct him in public.

The passage is an example of how part of Jimmy's anger stems from the fact that he is somewhat insecure about his lower-class origins. In England, speech and pronunciation are crucial to one's success in life, to a degree that many Americans would find unfathomable (as George Bernard Shaw said, "the minute an Englishman opens his mouth he makes some other Englishman despise him"). At the same time, Jimmy uses the definition of this "big word" to hurt his wife, Alison, who has been a calm, passive character so far--i.e., in Jimmy's mind, the definition "pusillanimous."

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

Everything about him seemed to burn, his face, the edges of his hair glistened and seemed to spring off his head, and his eyes were so blue and full of sun. He looked so young and frail, in spite of the tired line of his mouth.

Related Characters: Alison Porter (speaker), Jimmy Porter
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alison describes how she met Jimmy Porter years ago. Jimmy was sunburnt and red-skinned, the very embodiment of youth and vitality, with a touch of rebellion, sadness, and violence. In retrospect, it's possible to read Alison's interpretation of Jimmy's appearance as almost demonic--a sign that she should never have married him. But at the time, Alison thought of Jimmy as an ideal suitor: he was both strong and weak, masculine and frail. She thought that by marrying Jimmy, they could help one another equally. Furthermore, Alison seems to have thought of Jimmy as a symbol of rebellion against her upperclass family; Jimmy symbolized everything her stuffy, reserved parents disapproved of.

One day, when I’m no longer spending my days running a sweet-stall, I may write a book about us all…and it won’t be recollected in tranquility either, picking daffodils with Auntie Wordsworth. It’ll be recollected in fire, and blood. My blood.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Alison Porter, Cliff Lewis, Helena Charles
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy is an interesting character because he embraces art and literature, yet sees most traditional literature as being feminized and weak-willed. Here, he tells Alison and Cliff that one day he'll write a book about his experiences, into which he'll pour his own blood and tears. The book, he insists, will be violent and energetic. He contrasts it with the works of the poet William Wordsworth, who wrote about nature, daffodils, and other supposedly "timid" topics. Jimmy sees himself as a potentially great, perhaps Modernist author, and yet he seems not to have the drive or the initiative to write a novel. He's too busy being angry with his friends and his wife.

Where I come from, we’re used to brawling and excitement. Perhaps I even enjoy being in the thick of it. I love these two people very much. And I pity all of us.

Related Characters: Cliff Lewis (speaker), Jimmy Porter, Alison Porter
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Helena tries to understand how Alison and Jimmy's relationship can survive while they're constantly fighting with each other so vehemently. Cliff, who's living in the house as well, explains to Helena that Jimmy and Alison manage to get along in part because they fight so much, not in spite of it. Cliff explains that Helena's confusion about Alison's fighting is the result of her upper-class background: in a working-class family, like the one Cliff grew up in, people fought all the time to solve their problems. While such a way of life might seem violent and unorthodox, it's probably more emotionally honest than the other extreme, the one seen more commonly in upper-class environments; i.e., a way of life in which people never have fights of any kind, but just swallow their anger and resentment.

Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

I think you may take after me a little, my dear. You like to sit on the fence because it’s comfortable and more peaceful.

Related Characters: Colonel Redfern (speaker), Alison Porter
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Osborne gives us a better idea of why Alison is so timid and meek in her interactions with the other characters. Alison visits with her father, Colonel Redfern, who remembers how she came to marry Jimmy. Alison saw herself as rebelling against a corrupt system of society by marrying someone from outside her social station. And yet she didn't entirely commit to her rebellion. Instead of cutting off all ties with the Colonel and the rest of her family, Alison continued to communicate with them, and seemed not to get along well with Jimmy. The Colonel sums up Alison's weakness by claiming that she prefers to sit on the fence, halfway between the the upper-class and the lower-class.

The Colonel's observations are surprisingly frank: he seems to fault his own daughter for not cutting off communication with him. Furthermore, he seems to blame himself for his daughter's inability to commit fully to anything: her weakness was once his weakness. In all, the Colonel is one of the most complicated characters in the novel; like everyone else, he's a biased witness, so we have to take his opinions with a grain of salt, but he gets to the heart of what's wrong with Alison's way of looking at life in a way that no other character, including Jimmy, can.

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

I don’t want to be neutral, I don’t want to be a saint. I want to be a lost cause. I want to be corrupt and futile!

Related Characters: Alison Porter (speaker), Jimmy Porter
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic passage, Alison finally shows some of the emotion that Jimmy has been craving throughout the play. For the most part, Alison has been shy and closeted, at least around her husband. But here, she shocks everyone, including Jimmy, with a sudden, terrifying emotional outburst. She screams that she has no desire to be neutral and more. Instead, she wants to express her emotions and her visceral humanity, just as Jimmy does. Because Alison has recently had a miscarriage, she now finds the despair and the anger to scream out at the universe. Like Jimmy, she's come to see the world as an unfair, painful place--and just like Jimmy, she wants to strike out against the word, even if she knows that her attempts will always be "futile."

Jimmy has spent the entire play trying to get Alison to show some emotion--i..e, be sincere with him--and now that she's finally shown emotion, Jimmy can barely look at her. (It's characteristic of Jimmy that he gets exactly what he wishes for, and then realizes it's not what he thought it would be.) The passage represents, in short, a moment of catharsis for Jimmy and Alison: a sudden outburst of pain, grief, and fury. While Alison's cathartic outburst might be painful, it's also reparative. Because she's let out her long-repressed emotions, Alison can hopefully come to live her life more honestly now. The main ambiguity of the ending, however, is whether Alison and Jimmy have really changed their lives, or if Alison's outburst is just part of an endless cycle of repression, catharsis, and more repression.