When talking about masterpieces in English theater, John Osborne´s “Look back in anger” must be mentioned. Kenneth Tynan, critic for The Observer in 1956, claimed the play to be “the first totally original play of a new generation” (Bond, 1999). The main character, Jimmy Porter, breaks the mold of the “knight in a shining armor” and brings on scene the “angry young man”. Behind Jimmy´s fiery, outshining monologues stands his friend Cliff and his wife, Alison. Some critics define Alison as a submissive figure, victim of Jimmy´s rage. But this assumption impedes us to discover another reality behind her silence. In this essay I argue that Alison is not really a passive character and how the couple is just evading reality with the figures of “the squirrel and the bear”.
Emine Tecimer quotes from Austin E. Quigley: “Jimmy’s attacks on Alison repeatedly focus on what he perceives as her lethargy, her timidity, and her readiness to accept whatever comes her way” (Quigley, 1997, cited in Tecimer, 2005: 14). Before moving on, let´s develop these ideas around Alison. Both her actions—leaving everything she knew for Jimmy— and some pieces in Jimmy´s discourse— “Oh, it’s not that she hasn’t her own kind of passion. She has the passion of a python.” (Jimmy, Act I, p. 37)— demonstrates a passionate, loving and sacrificed woman. What may appear as lethargy could be tiredness from evading her husband´s outbreaks and avoiding confrontation; but why does she act this way? Afolayan, in “Poetics of Anger in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Femi Osofisan’s The Chattering and the Song.”, quotes: Luc Gilleman sees her inactions as participatory. He states that “the provocation – withdrawal interaction pattern in Look Back in Anger appears to be “complimentary” in that one of the partners reacts with the complimentary behavior of submission to the verbal attacks of the other.” [Denison 78]. In fact, Gilleman contends that “Alison’s withdrawal is secret provocation …” (Afolayan, 132). Certainly, this might be true in a subconscious level; Cliff says something that might corroborate that idea: “Cliff —I’m wondering how much longer I can go on watching you two tearing the insides out of each other.” (Cliff, Act I: 28). Nonetheless, those dense silences may not have a defensive purpose.
Alison is a middle-class woman; therefore, she has been taught to keep her composure on every situation, which means she must keep her emotions for herself. Moreover, that is a continuous reminder of her “posh” origins; for Jimmy, Alison is a symbol of the middle class that he resents. Her numbness could be a reminder of his mother as well, who looked after Jimmy´s father (after he came back from war and died) without ever complaining —he always blamed her for not caring enough—. Hence, Alison is in a complicated position; she is between her family and everything she has learned; and her love to a passive-aggressive Jimmy. She ends up taking an inactive position, as she regrets it almost at the end— “I don´t want to be neutral” (Alison, act III: 95)—. Even though Alison manages to stay calm, Jimmy´s fury and continuous judgement overwhelms her. Besides, she still loves her husband and has no desire to upset him back: “I pretended not to be listening – because I knew that would hurt him, I suppose.” (Alison, act I: 28). She is unable to “take his suffering away from him”, for she knows “he´d be lost without it” (Alison, act II: 54). In the end, this lead her to silence. Whenever she is alone with Cliff, Helena or her dad, she speaks and gives us a cold glance of her despair; but when Jimmy appears, his monologues charged with bitterness overshadows anything she might argue. The majority of her few words to him are related to mundane or real things, not to his complaints— “Oh – I haven´t read it yet” (Alison, act I: 11)—. She only manages to raise her voice in front of him when she assumes a maternal role: “Alison—Look out, for heaven’s sake! Oh, it’s more like a zoo every day!” (Alison, act I: 15) and when she has reached her limit of pain at the end.
We should make a stop here and discuss the relationship between Cliff and Alison. To many critics and readers, there could be an affair between them. Even Helena, Alison´s friend, find their relationship as “a little strange- by most people´s standards” (Helena, Act II: 47 ). It is true that they are bonded by a mutual feeling, but not for themselves: they both love— and suffer— Jimmy. Alison needs a confident: she has separated from her family and friends while taking her husband’s attacks every single day; Cliff becomes a support in real life and a counselor— I’ve never heard you talking like this about him. He’d be quite pleased.” (Cliff, Act I, scene one: 30)—; she takes care for him as well. They give each other strength to resist both Jimmy and reality. Time is moving, the world is changing; henceforth, the personages have decided to trap themselves into the routine of “just another Sunday evening” (Jimmy, act I, scene one: 17). Jimmy is aware of the changes and injustices that seem to menace his world, as well as the numbness of those who surround him. As a result, he resists and defends himself from a “pretty dreary” time: the “American Age” (Jimmy, act I, scene one: 17); he intends to wake everyone up. Alison just evades Jimmy´s words and resigns to her new reality (both personal and social), because she has “burnt her boats” (Alison, act II, scene one: 47). This is ironic: it was that “fire” in Jimmy, this sense of life, danger and passion he emanated, that attracted her. His attachment to the past (a one-man battle) and her negative to follow his path only widens the bridge between them. Ironically, the only time when they can be themselves is when they escape the real world and become the bear and the squirrel, then “everything just seems all right suddenly” (Alison, Act I, scene one: 34). By evading reality, Jimmy and Alison break down the walls of social classes and allow themselves to be naïve, playful, natural, even to set free their lust, just like animals.
It is interesting to see how they adopt contrasting characteristics of these animals in reality (out of the game) without being aware. Let´s ignore their casual physical resemblance to the animals and focus on their temper. Most of the time, Jimmy is attacking anyone, just like an angry bear does when in danger or pain. However, when he plays with Alison, another side of his personality comes out: “tenderness” and sweetness. He is no longer a beast, but a teddy bear that one is compelled to love. And how does Alison mirror the squirrel? She is usually evading Jimmy´s attacks; yet, she remains still, like a statute —or a toy—. Only some few words let him know she is there, at least in body — “Oh, give it to him, Jimmy, for heaven´s sake! I can´t think!” (Alison, act I, scene one: 10)—. In the game, she comes out from her impassiveness (Claire Bloom´s representation of the squirrel is excellent to see a cheerful Alison with “crazy eyes”). The game reaches its climax when the innocence becomes lust and the two lovers become one in a passionate instant. Although Jimmy is constantly showing his annoyance, it only hides his real emotions, which means he is not completely authentic either. The fury in Jimmy is nothing but a cover: to his nostalgia—the glorious time of England is coming to an end, while America gains power, invading politics and culture—; his resentment for the opportunities he could never get (unlike Nigel, Alison´s brother) because he is nothing but an educated working-class man and to his many struggles to have a fairly decent “life”, being “a young man without money” (Jimmy, act II, scene one: 59 ), not as Alison´s family and friends. He “learnt at an early age what it was to be angry- angry and helpless”, (Jimmy, act II, scene one: 58) by experiencing his father´s death; he feels rejection as well, thinking that for the love of his life he is nothing but “a dirty word” (Jimmy, act I); and he has nobody to share those feelings with.
Furthermore, Jimmy is also a victim of social pressures related to gender. For a heterosexual man, crying would be inappropriate. He has been deprived of his right to mourn aloud. Thus, he must choose between being an inexpressive gentleman or a rebellious man. His decision affected him and everyone he knew and loved, especially Alison. Another key aspect to consider Alison´s actions in the play is her pregnancy. For her, having a baby was not an option— “It’s always been out of the question. What with – this place, and no money, and oh – everything. He’s resented it, I know.” (Alison, act I, scene one: 29)—. This, as well as Helena´s arrival and subsequent “advices”— “But you can’t go on living in this way any longer” (Helena, act II, scene one: 46)— helped her to leave. Right after the stroke of Hugh´s mom, Jimmy was so demoralized that he even allowed himself to be vulnerable and ask for help “I need you…to come with me” (Jimmy, act II, scene two: 62). In spite of this, Alison was no longer able to help him: she was about to leave him and pass through her own process.
Only one person stayed to face the coming storm: Helena. She was not afraid of being there when Jimmy came back devastated and saw Alison´s note, she was there, as always with “strength and dignity” (Introduction, act II, scene one: 40); that note was actually a big hit for him, yet he used once again his anger as a pivot to blame Alison: “She couldn’t say ‘You rotten bastard! I hate your guts, I’m clearing out, and I hope you rot!’ No, she had to make a polite, emotional mess out of it!” (Jimmy, act II, scene two: 90). Yet, Helena was able to confront his anger and that attracted him. He finally could share his emotions with someone and satisfy his desire, all at once. During their short relationship, she managed to “settle in so easily somehow” (Alison, act III, scene one). Still, Jimmy always loved and desired his wife above all— “There’s hardly a moment when I’m not – watching and wanting you.” (Jimmy, act I)—. Once Alison had lost her baby, she reached the bottom: she was alone. She came back hating herself; she was starting to connect with her feelings, and letting them out— “You sound as though you were quoting him all the time.” (Helena, act III, scene one: 89). At last, she found something to relate with her husband in a deeper, real, human level (besides sex): pain and sorrow. She was ready to be “a lost cause” like Jimmy. Helena loved Jimmy, but she could not “take part- in all this suffering” (Helena, act III, scene two).
Alison Porter is a more complex character than people think. Their story may seem as that of an abusive husband and his martyr wife; but it is actually the tale of two broken lovers trying to find themselves. Behind a mask of no emotions, hides a sorrowful woman trying “to be a saint” (Alison, act II); behind a mask of malice, hides a misunderstood man. The only glances of happiness and authenticity Alison enjoys are those when Jimmy and herself join hands and escape reality in animal forms; in their world, there are no social standards or judgmental looks, just a bear and a squirrel, “all love, and no brains” (Alison, act II, scene one: 47).
Bond, P. “Look back in anger by John Osborne”. World Socialist Web Site, September 14, 1999. Web: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/09/look-s14.html (Accessed April 10, 2017). Falak N., Anila J. “An analysis of identity crisis of Osborne´s character ‘Jimmy Porter’ in Look back in Anger”. Brithish Journal of English Linguistics, September 2015. 20-24. Web: http://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/An-Analysis-of-Identity-Crisis-of-Osborne—s-Character—-Jimmy-Porter—-In—-Look-Back-in-Anger—.pdf (Accessed April 9, 2017). F. Afolayan, B. “Poetics of anger in John Osborne´s Look back in anger and Femi Osofisan´s The Chattering and the song”. British Journal of English Linguistics, 2012. 123-141. Web: http://www.bjournal.co.uk/paper/bjass_5_1/bjass_05_01_13.pdf (Accessed April 8, 2017). Osborne, J. Look back in anger. London: Faber and Faber, 1957. Tecimer, E. “The analysis of the theme of anger in John Osborne´s plays: Look Back in anger, Inadmissible evidence, Watch it come down”. Middle East Technical University, july 2005. Web: https://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12606208/index.pdf (Accessed April 9, 2017).