Look Back in Anger

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Disillusionment and Nostalgia Theme Analysis

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.
Disillusionment and Nostalgia Theme Icon

Look Back in Anger is the archetypical play of the “angry young men” movement in British theater, which was marked by working class authors writing plays about their disillusionment with British society. In Osborne’s play, we see this in Jimmy’s sense of political emptiness. Jimmy complains that, in the Britain of the 1950s, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left.” Helena observes that he was born in the wrong time—“he thinks he’s still in the middle of the French Revolution.” Jimmy’s angry fervor is out of place in modern society, and this leaves him feeling useless and adrift. Other characters also feel a sense of nostalgia for the past, but for different reasons: they long for an era characterized by a leisurely life for rich Britons and greater worldwide power for the British Empire. Many of these themes of nostalgia revolve around Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, who had served in the British army in colonial India. Jimmy says that Colonel Redfern is nostalgic for the “Edwardian” past — early 20th century England, before World War I, when things were supposedly simpler and more peaceful.

In the end, the play argues that the characters’ disillusionment is legitimate. Post-war Britain was marked by a stagnant economy and declining world power, partly due to the fact that it no longer had many lucrative colonies around the world (India, where Colonel Redfern served, gained its independence in 1947). The play argues that these factors have left the country’s young people adrift and disempowered. Jimmy’s anger is therefore justified. Both Jimmy and Colonel Redfern, from their different places in society, have nostalgia for a time when Britain was more powerful on the world stage. The passing away of Britain’s imperial power is thus painted in a negative light—and though Look Back in Anger voices a revolutionary social critique of class conditions in England, it stops short of criticizing Britain’s exploitation of its colonies. Instead, it argues that the decline of the empire has led to the disenfranchisement of the men of Osborne’s generation, and gives those disenfranchised citizens a strong and angry voice in Jimmy Porter.

Disillusionment and Nostalgia ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Disillusionment and Nostalgia appears in each scene of Look Back in Anger. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Disillusionment and Nostalgia Quotes in Look Back in Anger

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

I hate to admit it, but I think I can understand how her Daddy must have felt when he came back from India, after all those years away. The old Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting. All homemade cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms…What a romantic picture. Phoney too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still, even I regret it somehow, phoney or not. If you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Alison Porter, Colonel Redfern
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jimmy looks at a notice for an upcoming concert, at which the music of the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams will be featured. The mention of Vaughan Williams makes Jimmy think of Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, who had previously complained that modern life "isn't what it used to be." Colonel Redfern is unabashedly nostalgic for England's Edwardian age--i..e, the age when England still controlled a huge chunk of the world's people and resources, and the British Empire hadn't yet collapsed upon itself.

Jimmy has previously been hostile to the Colonel's worldview, claiming that nostalgia is a childish, sentimental emotion. Here, however, Jimmy seems to sympathize with the Colonel, and understands his genuine desire to go back to the past, when life was surely better. The passage illustrates the paranoia and self-contradictions of Jimmy's worldview: for Jimmy, there are no rules or prohibitions except "aliveness." Thus, Jimmy can simultaneously believe that nostalgia is an evil, and yet feel nostalgia himself--the rules don't apply to him.


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I can’t think what it was to feel young, really young. Jimmy said the same thing to me the other day…I suppose it would have been so easy to say “Yes, Darling, I know just what you mean. I know what you’re feeling.” It’s those easy things that seem to be so impossible with us.

Related Characters: Alison Porter (speaker), Jimmy Porter
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alison is alone with Cliff, her husband's friend. Alison describes the feelings of loneliness and nostalgia she's often felt. But she also explains that her husband, Jimmy, has felt the same sorts of feelings. Instead of offering her husband comfort, Alison has pretended not to know what Jimmy is talking about. It would be easy for Alison to comfort her husband, but she refuses to do so.

The passage indicates that the toxic relationship between Jimmy and Alison might not be a one-way street: Alison seems to deny Jimmy love in the same way that Jimmy denies her love (though "who started it" remains unclear). The passage reiterates the importance of nostalgia to the characters' lives: they're always thinking about the vanished past, even if they feel guilty for doing so. In the present, the tragedy of "happy couple" is that they're really not so different from each other, but because of failures of communication, they remain constantly at odds and unhappy.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

I always believed that people married each other because they were in love. That always seemed a good enough reason to me. But apparently, that’s too simple for young people nowadays. They have to talk about challenges and revenge. I just can’t believe that love between men and women is really like that.

Related Characters: Colonel Redfern (speaker), Jimmy Porter, Alison Porter
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Colonel Redfern tries to understand what goes on between Alison and jimmy. Alison insists that she continues to love Jimmy, and Jimmy says the same about Alison--and yet from the Colonel's perspective, they just fight all the time, and aren't compatible in the slightest. Alison explains that their fighting is a part of their love: it's because they love one another that they're so good at getting under one another's "skin." Furthermore, Alison's love for Jimmy is partly the result of her desire to rebel against her parents and her own background; love, by itself, is too simple to explain why she's married to Jimmy.

The Colonel's reaction to Alison is fascinating: instead of denouncing her for staying married to an angry man, he throws up his hands and admits he can't understand his daughter. He reminisces about the "good old days," in which people married for love and love alone (pretty strange to hear the elder character in a play talking  about marrying for love as a phenomenon of the past--usually it's the other way around). Colonel Redfern, one could say, is a stand-in for the audience itself (most people who saw this play would have been shocked by the idea of Alison's angry marriage to Jimmy). Redfern doesn't understand the marriage, but he comes to accept it.

You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it. Something’s gone wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?

Related Characters: Alison Porter (speaker), Jimmy Porter, Colonel Redfern
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Alison, who's usually quiet and noncommittal about her feelings, sums up the relationship between Jimmy and Colonel Redfern succinctly. Jimmy is angry because he sees his world as staying "the same"--nothing is changing for the better for the lower class--while the Colonel is sad because the world has changed so much since he was a young man--Britain is no longer a global power, and the "good old days" of colonialism and Edwardian manners are gone. Both the Colonel and Jimmy blame each other for the world's problems, and yet they're both the world's victims.

Alison's observations show that she's a good observer of human nature, and that, during her long periods of silence, she's listening very closely to her husband and father. Indeed, Jimmy seems furious with life for being static: he feels emasculated and isolated by the sameness and homogeneity of his life. Colonel Redfern, on the other hand, is nostalgic for his youthful days in India--days that he couldn't possibly recreate now that India has fallen out of British control.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Cliff Lewis
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Jimmy insists that there are no more "good, brave causes"--all the great political causes of the world were fought for in the 30s and 40s, leaving the young men of the 50s and 60s to a dull, morally ambiguous life. Jimmy, who's obsessed with fighting and "real life," wishes that he could fight for a pure political cause of some kind, but no such cause presents itself to him. His father fought in the Spanish Civil War, and Jimmy has spent the succeeding years wishing he could fight in a war of his own. Jimmy is so irrationally nostalgic that he pines for danger and violence, if only to break up the suffocating sameness of his life with Alison (and now Helena).

As many critics have pointed out, however, Jimmy has made up his mind much too soon--in the years immediately after Osborne's play was released, "angry young men" could fight for or against all sorts of great causes, such as nuclear disarmament, the war in Indochina, civil rights for women and minorities, etc. Jimmy isn't unfulfilled--he's just not looking hard enough.