Psychological & Sociological Insight in Look Back in Anger

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The Alleged Failure of The Play

      In spite of its huge success when it was first staged in 1956, Look Back in Anger has come under severe criticism. According to a critic, there is no doubt that Jimmy’s anger is vital to the economy of the play. It is his anger that gives motion to the action in the play. Jimmy’s anger has its origin in his energy which is an eternal devastating face. Jimmy has been called a frustrated artist, a repressed homosexual, a sadomasochist, a self-pitying egotist, an idealist without a cause. Yet none of this description seems to fit Jimmy. The question that arises is whether Jimmy has a hidden greatness which could turn his anger into a condemnation of the society that has ill-treated him or, is Jimmy simply a case of maladjustment? If this play is considered to be a study in sadomasochism, thus the play’s significance would be reduced. In that case, no comments by Jimmy on the contemporary society can be taken seriously. His tirades would lose their significance and become merely irrelevant and silly.

      This critic is of the opinion that the passivity of the other characters leads to weaken the play. The other characters are too feeble to support Jimmy and his anger. The author’s failure to develop the other characters leaves Jimmy unqualified and undefined. Although the portrayal of Jimmy is completely faithful to contemporary social reality, the play ultimately fails as a drama, it fails to make any significant comment on the society or about human psychology. The content of the play is reduced to Jimmy’s views.

The Superficiality of Jimmy’s Speeches

      Jimmy a frustrated and disillusioned youth is regarded by some as a mouthpiece of the post-war generation of British youth. There is no doubt that he expresses his view indiscriminately, disconnectedly and at random. Many of his utterances, revealing strong emotion of anger or indignation, are rather superficial and shallow. There is nothing very deep and profound in his speeches to be called “tirades”. He has no belief in religion. But his criticism of religion lacks depth. He ridicules the Bishop of Brambly for supporting the rich against the poor and for supporting the hydrogen bomb. But there are numerous Bishops who do not discriminate between the rich and the poor or vehemently opposes nuclear weapons. Jimmy’s denunciation of women for being noisy and for bleeding men to death is quite amusing because of its witty sarcasm. But otherwise they are quite silly and unimpressive. Jimmy himself being a big mouth and noisy talker who keeps screaming at everyone for no apparent reason, the accusation of women for being noisy is quite contradictory. He accuses women of butchering man while he himself bullies his wife constantly and ultimately leading to her going away. Jimmy’s speech often contradicts his own action. Jimmy defends his playing on the trumpet by saying that those who do not appreciate jazz have no feeling either for music or for people indirectly hinting that Alison and Helena are devoid of feelings for others. Here again, he contradicts himself as he insensitively attacks people by his cruel comments. He criticizes his wife and humiliates her in presence of Cliff by comparing her passion to that of python, “She has the passion of a python. She just devours me whole every time, as if I were some overlarge rabbit”. Thus he says to Cliff, least bothered that it will hurt Alison’s feelings. Even his attacks on the middle-class springs not from any humanitarian concern for the working class but from his deep feeling of personal grievance against Alison’s parents for having opposed his marriage with her. The attacks on Alison’s parents, brother Nigel are prompted by his personal animosity. His rhetorical speech condemning Alison’s mother may be masterpiece of sarcasm and satire but lacks any intellectual contents. Towards the end, Jimmy complains that there are no good, brave causes left in the world which also sounds hollow. The world has never run short of brave causes. Even in Jimmy’s age, there were no dearth of good causes. There was need for an organized opposition to the development of nuclear weapons. There was need for an organized opposition to Russia’s ruthlessness in its suppression of liberty. So Jimmy’s speeches lacked profundity of intellectual aspects.

The Drastic Transformation In Helena

      Despite of the superficial nature of Jimmy’s speeches, it cannot be claimed that this play fails to make any valuable and vital comments on the society and on human psychology. During the course of the play, several valuable comments are made, by different characters which stimulate as well as enlighten us. Helena makes such a statement towards the end of the play. Helena lives happily with Jimmy as his mistress after Alison has gone. Alison returns unexpectedly one day surprising everyone. On seeing Alison, Helena’s suppressed sense of right and wrong suddenly emerges to the surface when she sees Alison, looking pale, sick and tired. She even notices that Alison has lost her baby through miscarriage. Helena says to Alison: “I believe in good and evil. What I have been doing is wrong and evil”. She says that Alison’s miscarriage is a divine judgment on all of them for their sins. Then she also says that one cannot be happy when he or she has wronged somebody or has hurt somebody. So strong is her sense of guilt that Helena decides to leave Jimmy. She tells Jimmy answering him of her great love for him that she will never love anyone else the way she has loved him. Her self-sacrifice and her act of renunciation cannot but be admired. “I can’t take part in all this suffering. I can’t!” she says. Its not that she brags about herself in a lofty moral tone, her conduct levels with her speech for she leaves Jimmy very soon. The awakening of Helena’s conscience in this scene is a vital psychological fact revealing the corking of the human mind. Helena would have gone on living with - Jimmy, had Alison not returned. Alison’s return made all the difference and gave a new turn to Helena’s thinking.

Cliff, a Comment On Human Psychology

      Cliff, inspite of his passivity and negligible role in the action of the play is considered to be a significant comment on human psychology. Though he has a minor role as far as the action of the play is concerned, he is more like a catalyst than an active reagent. Easy and relaxed to the point of lethargy is a natural counter point to Jimmy. He serves as a balm to Alison, making life tolerable for her in Jimmy’s one-room apartment. He possesses the virtue of solidarity which Jimmy finds lacking in either Alison’s and Helena. Cliff is presented as an antithesis to Cliff bringing out Jimmy’s negative qualities by contrast. His attempt to preserve peace at the Porter’s household is really admirable. His attachment to both Jimmy and Alison is appreciable. Despite his theatrical insignificance, he is a very memorable character.

Some Significant Comments of Psychological Importance

      Colonel Redfern, Alison’s father on whom Jimmy mocks at as, “one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining anymore” speaks rather wisely and thus widening our knowledge of human psychology. Contrary to our expectation we find him a wise father who is full of concern for his daughter’s welfare. He admits him and his wife’s mistake of having opposed Alison’s marriage with Jimmy. Taking an impartial stand he says that he feels Jimmy has certain amounts of rights on his side, hinting that his anger has some valid reasons. He accuses his daughter for taking a neutral stand. He reprimands Alison for saying that perhaps Jimmy had married her only out of revenge. He says that he cannot understand motive of revenge as a reason for anybody’s marriage and always thought that love is the basis of marriage. He softly warns his daughter that in leaving Jimmy she is risking a big step.

      Another such comment comes from Jimmy who points that Alison must suffer in order to understand. She must, he says, for instance, have a child which should die. Suffering is essential to bring about maturity in persons which will enable him to get a proper perspective about life and its problem. Jimmy’s account of his early experience of his father’s death illustrates the effect of suffering on the mind of a young child. His early experience had as he claims taught him more of love, betrayal and death then Helena would know all her life.

The Reconciliation

      Suffering has a chastening effect, the concrete example of which is illustrated at the end of the play. Alison has had a miscarriage, Jimmy’s wish has been fulfilled as he wanted her to suffer this misfortune. She has come back looking pale, sick and tired. Jimmy now forsaken by Helena, who had become his mistress in Alison’s absence finds himself alone “like the old bear, following his own breath in the dark forest”. Both are now left alone, and both need companionship and both tamed by their respective suffering. Hence the reconciliation is not arbitrary on the part of the author, it is not his deliberate attempt but purely logical and convincing. The very ending of the play is significant comment on human psychology, and enlightens our minds. The tension in Jimmy-Alison’s marital life is a clear example of how disparity of social status between the partners ruins a marriage or ultimately leads to its collapse. The reconciliation shows how suffering makes a person humble and also reveals the universal truth how every human being craves and yearns for companionship or an emotional attachment in the vast universe is indispensable for human beings and a source of comfort and consolation.

Psychological and Sociological Implications

      According to a critic, the play Look Back in Anger, has some wider psychological and sociological implications. The hydrogen bomb is mentioned twice in the play, but its pervasive effect upon the moral tendencies of the entire generation can be felt. The Soviet Union had manufactured the hydrogen bomb, ending the Western nuclear monopoly giving momentum to the arms race, which in turn put the future of mankind at peril. Protest against insensitivity and hypocrisy in the Church and state has also been a more or less constant feature of Western civilization. Jimmy’s complaint in this context is quite relevant because of the distinctive tone. His complaints has a underlying tone of contempt that belongs to the post-war generation. Another critic is of the opinion that this play has been regarded as a harbinger of the New Left, of anti-apartheid, and of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Jimmy’s remark “nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm” also has its psychological and sociological significance.

University Questions

Consider Look Back in Anger a psychological and sociological play.
It has been alleged that Look Back in Anger fails to make any significant comment about society or about human psychology. Give your own view.
Analyze the psychological and sociological aspects of play Look Back in Anger.
Consider the psychological and sociological implication to the play Look Back in Anger.

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