Look Back in Anger: Detailed Plot Summary

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Jimmy Porter, an Angry Young Man

      The story of the play Look Back in Anger involves Jimmy, his wife Alison, his friend Cliff, and Alison’s friend Helena. Jimmy is the central character on whom the play is based. He is a complex personality. He is keenly dissatisfied with life in general and who is unable to reconcile himself to his environment and to the people around him.

A Social Rebel

      The action of the play takes place in a flat in a town in the English Midlands. When the play first opens, Jimmy, Alison and Cliff are shown in a room in their flat. Both Jimmy and Cliff are from the working class background while Alison belongs to the upper class. The social disparity between the husband and wife is the cause of tension in their marital life. All the three are of the same age. In spite of being a university graduate Jimmy earns his livelihood by running a sweet stall in which he is assisted by Cliff. When the play opens on a Sunday evening, Jimmy and Cliff are reading the newspaper while Alison is ironing clothes. Jimmy makes a lot of fuss reading some news items and criticizes the newspaper and makes fun of the contributors. He snubs Cliff as an ignorant person and criticizes his wife for her ceaseless ironing. We can get a fair idea of his temperament in the very opening scene. He is annoyed even when the church bell rings.

Jimmy’s Criticism Of People

      Jimmy is dissatisfied with the routine kind of life which he has to lead. He complains about the monotony of Sunday and criticizes Cliff and Alison for not showing any enthusiasm for anything. Most of his comments are marked by bitter sarcasm. He especially shows his bitter wit in the condemnation of his wife’s family. He calls Alison and her brother Nigel “sycophantic, phlegmatic and pusillanimous”. He mocks at Alison’s father who, he says, was very happy in imperialist India, but who is leading a life of regret at having lost the benefits he was used to as the commander of Maharajah's army. He can never forgive Alison’s mother for having opposed his marriage with Alison and because of her higher social status.

The Bears and Squirrels Game Revives Love between the Couple

      Jimmy’s constant verbal abuse have affected the sensitive Alison. She is pregnant and so much in the tension that she hesitates to reveal her pregnancy to Jimmy. As she is pretty close to Cliff, she confides in him about her fear. Cliff admires her to disclose the fact of her pregnancy to Jimmy. When Cliff goes out for a little while, there is a tender scene between Jimmy and Alison. This scene shows that in spite of his bullying, Jimmy is basically in love with his wife. They play the game of bears and squirrels and express their love for each other. Jimmy calls Alison “a beautiful squirrel”, and Alison lovingly responds calling him “a really marvelous bear”. Alison at this moment of happiness was about to disclose her pregnancy when Cliff comes in.

Helena, Alison’s Friend will Come to Stay as a Guest

      Cliff informs Alison about a phone call for her. Helena, a friend of Alison tells Alison that she would be coming to their place as a guest. Jimmy loses his temper when he learns about Helena’s impending visit. He regards her as his natural enemy. Act I closes with the most offensive speech that Jimmy makes towards Alison. He viciously wished that something horrible should happen to Alison which would wake her up from the “beauty sleep”. For instance, she should have a child that dies, he says viciously, only that will make her more humane. He insults her in front of Cliff by describing her as a woman with the passion of a python caring little for her sensitiveness. He says that every time they make love, she devours him like an oven-sized rabbit.


Alison’s Account of Her Marital Life

      In this scene, Helena is shown to stay at the Porter’s apartment for two weeks. She has been helping Alison with the household chores which Alison appoints. Helena and Alison have an intimate conversation in which Alison tells Helena about the circumstances under which she married Jimmy. Her parents vehemently opposed the alliance but with little effect. For several months she led a miserable life with Jimmy in one of Jimmy’s friend’s houses as he was too broke to afford an accommodation on his own. She could never force herself to like Hugh who had been a crude fellow. He and Jimmy did everything to humiliate Alison. It was only after Hugh left for some foreign country that they came to this apartment where they are staying now. Jimmy had started, a sweet stall with the help of Mrs. Tanner, Hugh’s mother. Alison tells Helena that Jimmy has no idea about her pregnancy. She brushes away Helena’s apprehension that Jimmy may push her to death by his callous and verbal abuses by saying that she and Jimmy are very much in love. She tells Helena about their escape to the fantasy world where they play the bears and squirrel game. When the two women are engaged in conversation, Jimmy is loudly playing the trumpet which is the cause of irritation to both.

Alison’s Mother and Helena

      Cliff and Jimmy join the two women and Jimmy begins to talk in his usual offending and crude manner. Criticizing things and people in general. Jimmy’s condemnation of Alison’s mother makes Helena sick. Jimmy feels especially annoyed on hearing that Alison had defied him by willing to accompany Helena to the Church. Jimmy makes some mocking and humiliating remarks about Alison, Alison’s mother not sparing even Helena who threatened to slap him if he did not stop his offensive talk. Jimmy hits back saying, that if she slaps him he will not hesitate to slap back in return. Jimmy asks Helena if she has watched anybody dying. When Helena gives a negative reply, Jimmy gives a pathetic account of his experience of watching his father die at the tender age of ten. That experience taught him more about love betrayal and death than Helena and the likes of her would know all their lives. However, Jimmy’s moving account produces no effect on Helena, Alison or Cliff.

Helena’s Telegram to Alison’s Father

      Helena is shocked at Jimmy’s behavior of Alison. She advises Alison to leave Jimmy in order to teach him a lesson. She tells Alison that she can not go on living in that way in her pregnant condition, jimmy will dive her to death. Concerned with Alison’s well-being Helena secretly sends a telegram to Alison’s father to come and take away his daughter. She tells Alison about it later on and insists that Alison should leave Jimmy and go away with her father.

The News of Mrs. Tanner’s Illness

      Jimmy receives a call from London to inform him about Mrs. Tanner’s illness. She has suffered a stroke and has been admitted to a London hospital in serious condition. Jimmy decides to go to London to see the dying woman and asks Alison to accompany him. Alison ignores his requests and goes away with Helena to the Church. Jimmy is so hurt by Alison’s refusal that he drops to the bed and buries his face beneath the sheet.


Col. Redfern, Alison’s Father Arrives

      The next evening Alison’s father Col. Redfern arrives at the Porter’s apartment after receiving Helena’s telegram. Col. Redfern does not approve of his daughter’s decision to leave Jimmy. He warns her that she is taking a big step. He holds himself and his wife is responsible for Jimmy’s attack on Alison and his family. He admits his mistake of opposing Alison’s marriage with Jimmy. He admits that Jimmy has rightly described him as “just one of these sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that cannot understand why the sun is not shining anymore”.

      He then explains to his daughter why he feels that the sun does not shine anymore. He held a high position of authority as the commander of a Maharajah’s army till India’s liberation from Britain. But now after coming back to England he feels unimportant and unwanted. His life in India has vanished like a dream. He wanted his dream to continue forever. He is disillusioned as everything has changed.

Alison’s Departure

      Alison is ready to live with her father. Helena who Alison believed would be accompanying her announces much to the surprise of Alison that she would stay on for another night as she has an important appointment the next day. Alison gives Cliff a note to pass on to Jimmy Cliff is distressed to know about Alison’s decision and suggests that she herself should tell Jimmy about it. After Alison had left Cliff gives the note to Helena and goes out of the house saying that he would not be able to see Jimmy hurt.

Helena’s Change of Attitude Towards Jimmy

      Jimmy enters in a furious mood. He says that he had sat by Mrs. Tanner’s bed side for eleven hours and then she died. Helena gives him Alison’s letter. He is enraged after reading the letter where Alison mentions that she will always have “a deep, loving need of Jimmy”. He bluntly asks Helena what she was doing. He seizes her by shoulder and asks her to get out of the house in a threatening manner. At this Helena slaps his face savagely. But surprisingly the very next moment she kisses him very passionately.


Everything as Usual

      Several months pass. A Sunday evening once again and the whole sitting in identical to the opening scene of Act I. Jimmy and Cliff are reading Newspaper, Jimmy is reading out some news and criticizing people. Alison’s personal belongings are replaced by that of Helena. And even Alison's place in the household has been taken over by Helena, who just like Alison is weaving clothes, Cliff and Jimmy are engaged in a mock fight like earlier.

Cliff’s Decision to Leave

      Cliff decides to leave the sweet stall and start something on his own. He reveals his decision to Jimmy and Helena. He also expresses his desire to marry and settle down. Both Jimmy and Helena are upset by his decision. Jimmy praises Cliff as a loyal, generous and a good friend in front of Helena.

Jimmy’s Attack on Women

      Jimmy is of the opinion that there is no good and brave cause in the present-day world. All good causes according to him came to an end in the thirties and forties of the century when Jimmy had been a child. Jimmy criticizes the fairer sex because they always try to blind men to death. As man ‘has no alternative they allow women to exploit, persecute and butcher them’.

Alison’s Unexpected Return

      A tender and loving scene between Helena and Jimmy takes place. Jimmy appreciates Helena for showing her affection for him. They get physically intimate and he pleads her to make sure that nothing goes wrong between the two. She assures him of her love and says that she always wanted him. He makes a suggestion that he will close down the sweet stall and start a new life. Just then the door opens and Alison comes in.


Alison Regrets her Coming Back

      On seeing Alison, Jimmy goes out of the room without speaking to her. Alison apologizes to Helena for coming back as she has no right to interfere in Jimmy and Helena’s life. Helena however replies that Alison had every right to come here as she was Jimmy’s wife. Alison says that she had lost faith in everything including the sanctity of marriage and says that a marriage can survive only if the two partners can adjust themselves to each other. If a woman tries to dominate over her husband she is sure to be discarded like herself.

Helena Admits Her Guilt and Decides to Leave Jimmy

      The sudden arrival of Alison seems to affect Helena’s mind. She realizes that she has been wrong in living with Jimmy as his mistress. Though she had been living in the “mad house” for several months, she never has forgotten the difference between right and wrong. She was all the time conscious of her sinful act. She then makes one interesting comment on Jimmy. She says that she has found out what is wrong with Jimmy. According to her, Jimmy was born out of his time and there is no place for people like him any longer either in sex or politics or anything else. Helena is determined to end her relationship with Jimmy and to get out of the house. She says that more, not even Jimmy could make her believe that she had been right in living with Jimmy as his mistress. Besides both she and Jimmy are poles apart belonging to two different world. She notices that Alison had a miscarriage and lost the baby and she interprets it as a divine judgment on them all as a result of wrong doing.

Jimmy Condemns Helena

      On Helena’s calling Jimmy comes inside the room and notices Alison’s appearance and understands that she has a miscarriage. But he does not show any sign of grief. When he learns about Helena’s determination to leave, he is anguished and sadly comments that everyone wants to escape that pain of being alive. He condemns Helena by saying that love demands courage and strength which she lacks. A woman like Helena who wants to maintain a nice and clean soul cannot lead the life of senses and so should become a saint.

Jimmy’s Complain Against Alison

      Just after Helena leaves, Alison too gets ready to go but Jimmy’s voice stops her. He complains for not sending any flowers to Mrs. Tanner’s funeral and has hurt him. He reveals that though he possesses tremendous energy of mind and spirit, yet he is lonely. Recalling his first meeting with Alison he says that he admired her “relaxation of spirit” when he first saw her. He discovered only after marriage that she did not possess that quality. In order to have that quality, one has to suffer.

The Reconciliation

      Jimmy’s words bring tears to Alison’s eyes and admit that her attitude was wrong. It was wrong on her part to be ventral and seek the life of a saint. She now wants to a “lost cause” like him, and wants to be “corrupt and futile”. She reminds him about her miscarriage and says that his wish to see her suffer some misfortune has been fulfilled. Now he can have the satisfaction that she has gone through a painful experience. Raising her face towards Jimmy she says that she is in mind, groveling and crawling. She then collapses at his feet. For a moment Jimmy stood frozen and then takes her in his arms. He asks her not to cry and reminds her of the bears and squirrels game which they used to play so often. The playing of the game marks the final reunion of the two.

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