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.
Gender Theme Icon

During World War II, many British women had stepped into new roles in the labor force. After the war ended, most were expected to move back into their traditional roles in the household, but many still held jobs outside the home. The play takes a conflicted view of gender that parallels these shifting dynamics. On the one hand, Jimmy’s angry, destructive, and typically masculine energy drives much of the action and dialogue. On the other hand, women are given agency, and female characters act in their own interests, independently of men (most notably, both Alison and Helena leave Jimmy).

Femininity in the play is highly associated with upper class-ness, and masculinity with lower class-ness. This leads to clashes between the genders that also have an economic dimension. Sticking to conventional gender roles means sticking to the propriety and politeness of British society (which also means acting along with your class role). For example, in stealing Alison away from her family to marry her, Jimmy took on the traditional male role of a “knight in shining armor.” But, Alison says that “his armor didn’t really shine much,” subverting this traditional gender role by adding a class dimension to it. Jimmy was almost heroic, but not quite. There is clearly something attractive in Jimmy’s virile, lower class masculinity, as first Alison and then Helena are drawn to him sexually. Yet there is something destructive in it as well, as both also end up leaving him. Further complicating the gender dynamics, women, too, are portrayed as having a destructive power over men. Jimmy says he’s thankful that there aren’t more female surgeons, because they’d flip men’s guts out of their bodies as carelessly as they toss their makeup instruments down on the table. He likens Alison’s sexual passion to a python that eats its prey whole. At the end of the play, he says that he and Cliff will both inevitably be “butchered by women.”

The muddled gender roles in the play add to the sense of realism that made it such a sensation when it was first performed. Characters defy social convention. Alison disobeys her parents to marry Jimmy. Helena slaps Jimmy at the very start of their affair, and later walks out on him. An unmarried man (Cliff) lives with a married couple. He flirts with Alison, but Jimmy doesn’t particularly mind. The fluid and shifting gender roles in the play reflect the more fluid realities of post-War British society, portrayed for the first time in the traditionally staid and upper-class medium of theater.

Gender ThemeTracker

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

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

When you see a woman in front of her bedroom mirror, you realise what a refined sort of butcher she is…Thank God they don’t have many women surgeons! Those primitive hands would have your guts out in no time. Flip! Out it comes, like the powder out of its box. Flop! Back it goes, like the powder puff on the table.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Alison Porter
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy continues to berate his wife, even while she's performing the most banal of tasks--here, for instance, Jimmy makes fun of Allson for the way she applies makeup to her face and does the ironing, suggesting that Alison, and all woman for that matter, are incompetent when it comes to using their hands.

Jimmy's tirade is a veiled defense of his own masculinity. Jimmy constantly tries to distinguish himself from weak, fragile women like his wife--his speech reinforces some of the classic female stereotypes (they don't know how to do physical work, they're no good with their hands, they're weak, they could never be surgeons). By distinguishing himself from his wife, Jimmy implicitly tries to make himself a figure of importance--even though it's pretty clear by now that he's not.


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Alison: He actually taunted me about my virginity. He was quite angry about it, as if I had deceived him in some strange way. He seemed to think an untouched woman would defile him.
Cliff: I’ve never heard you talking like this about him. He’d be quite pleased.

Related Characters: Alison Porter (speaker), Cliff Lewis (speaker), Jimmy Porter
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Alison and Jimmy didn't have sex before they were married, despite Alison's family's fears that they had. Indeed, Alison was a virgin before she married Jimmy--a fact that she confesses to Cliff in this scene. Cliff says that Jimmy would be happy to hear Alison talking about him so frankly: such talk would fit his notions of "real talk" and "really living." Alison agrees with Cliff, and yet shows no signs of deciding to talk to Jimmy--the alienation between Alison and her husband continues.

The discussion of Alison's virginity would have been shocking to the play's first audiences--and yet here, the point of the speech is how un-shocking it really is: there's a fundamental incompatibility between Jimmy's notions of sex and Alison's notions of sex, which would go away if only Jimmy and Alison would be frank with each other. But Alison seems too afraid and spiteful, and Jimmy seems like too much of a bully, to have a frank conversation about sex.

She’ll go on sleeping and devouring until there’s nothing left of me.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Alison Porter
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy concludes Act I by claiming that Alison is eating him alive. In an uncertain modern-day environment, Jimmy doesn't know what to make of his own life: he's unsure what path to take, who to love, etc. In his frustration, Jimmy takes out his anger on his wife, Alison. And yet Jimmy hypocritically claims that it's Alison who's emasculating him, preventing him from living the life he deserves. Jimmy's comments are clearly self-serving: it's easier for him to be an underachiever and blame Alison than it is for him to try to succeed and fail on his own.

The image of Alison devouring Jimmy alive is important for the rest of the play, because it reinforces the fact that Jimmy thinks of himself as a victim, through and through. Even when he has psychologically abused his wife to the point where she can barely open her mouth Jimmy thinks of himself as the repressed, devoured one.

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.

I rage, and shout my head off, and everyone thinks “poor chap!” or “what an objectionable young man!” But that girl there can twist your arm off with her silence.

Related Characters: Jimmy Porter (speaker), Alison Porter
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jimmy tries to find the words to express his feelings. He's full of hatred and rage, but can't explain what, exactly, he finds so hateful. Here, however, Jimmy explains that he can't stand the double-standard in his society. People pity him and condescend to him because he's angry al the time, and (implicitly) because he seems like a working-class figure. And yet Alison's passivity in the face of other people's suffering is accepted as a more "natural" kind of behavior. Jimmy argues that to be silent in the face of other people's suffering (whether those other people are the working classes in general, starving people around the world, etc.) is a truly insane reaction.

The passage is one of the best pieces of evidence for the idea that Osborne, even as he mocks his protagonist, doesn't entirely disagree with him. Jimmy is an abusive man, and yet he seems to understand the problems of the world more clearly than Alison does: he refuses to turn his back on other people's poverty, alienation, etc. The passage is also a great example of why John Osborne was known as one of the "Angry Young Men" of England during the 1960s: his writings used angry, unbalanced protagonists to critique what he saw as the injustices of the modern world.