Look Back in Anger Summary and Analysis
by John Osborne
Act II - Scene I (Pages 39 - 49)
Act II opens two weeks later. Alison is boiling water for tea on a Sunday afternoon. The newspapers are again spread out across the floor of the attic apartment. Alison is only wearing a slip and as she begins to dress, Helena enters. Helena is described as the same age and build as Alison, but with a “sense of matriarchal authority” that “makes most men who meet her anxious, not only to please but impress....” Jimmy is vehemently opposed to her in every way. Though she always retains her dignity in the face of Jimmy’s assaults, “the strain of this is beginning to tell on her a little.”
Helena places a bowl of salad on the table. Alison expresses her gratitude for her help in the last couple of weeks. She tells her it’s been nice to have another woman around to help around the house. When Helena is there, “Everything seems to be very different....” Jimmy is in Cliff’s room playing his trumpet very loudly. Alison worries that Mrs. Drury is going to kick them out of the apartment. Helena notes that even his trumpet playing sounds angry. She believes that Jimmy’s anger is “horrifying...and oddly exciting.”
Helena changes the conversation to Cliff. She asks Alison if they are in love and Alison denies it, though she does admit that their affection towards each other is a “relaxed, cheerful sort of thing, like being warm in bed.” Helena asks if Jimmy notices their affection, and Alison tells her that the situation isn’t easy to explain. Jimmy demands allegiance from those around him; allegiance both to himself and to the things he believes in as well as the things from his past. He even expects Alison to be loyal to his past girlfriends. Alison admits that, though she’s tried, she just can’t feel the way that Jimmy feels towards some people and some things.
She tells Helena the story of their first few months of marriage. Without any money or jobs, they went to live with Hugh Tanner, a friend of Jimmy’s. Alison and Hugh could tell immediately that they didn’t like each other. Hugh was even more angry and insulting than Jimmy and Alison realized that for the first time in her life she was cut off from all the people in her life. Her mother and father had made her sign over all her money and assets when she married Jimmy because they believed him to be “utterly ruthless.” Her brother, Nigel, had been running for Parliament at the time and so didn’t have the time for anyone but his constituents.
Alison tells her about the months they lived with Hugh. They would go and crash the parties of the wealthy families they had known in London. They would invite themselves in and help themselves to all the food and drink and cigars of the party. Out of all the parties they crashed, only one family kicked them out when Hugh tried to seduce a young girl. These old money families were too polite to turn them away and, besides, Alison believes they felt sorry for them. She recounts to Helena the first time that she and Jimmy met at a party. It had been soon after her mother and father returned from India. Because they were distant, she immediately gravitated towards this young man. “Everything about him seemed to burn, his face, the edges of his hair glistened and seemed to spring off his head, and his eyes were so blue and full of the sun.” She believes that because her family distrusted Jimmy he did everything he could to take her from them and marry her. After a few months, Hugh decided that he wanted to move overseas in order to work on his novel. He believed “England was finished for us, anyway.” Jimmy did not want to go and told Hugh that he should not leave his poor, frail mother, but Hugh decided to leave anyway. A bitter fight broke out between the two of them.
Helena changes the conversation and tells Alison that she must either tell Jimmy that he is going to be a father or else leave him. Alison points towards the stuffed squirrel and teddy bear in the corner of the room and tells Helena that those animals represent the two of them. She tells her about the game they play in which she pretends to be a squirrel and he pretends to be a bear. “It was the one way of escaping from everything...We could become little furry creatures with little furry brains. Full of dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other.” Helena warns that she must fight Jimmy or else he will kill her. Cliff enters.
Cliff yells to Jimmy to come in and get his tea. Cliff asks Helena and Alison where they are going, and they tell him they are going to church. They invite him, but he stammers and tells them that he hasn’t yet read the papers. Jimmy enters and begins bantering with Cliff. He asks him why he would want to read the papers since he has no intellect or curiosity and is nothing but “Welsh trash.” Cliff, with good nature, agrees. Jimmy then turns his venom towards Alison’s friends and family, those “old favourites (sic), your friends and mine: sycophantic, phlegmatic, and, of course, top of the bill -- pusillanimous.”
Helena Charles is introduced. She is, in many ways, the opposite of Alison, though both share a common upbringing. Helena is upper class and self assured while Alison is working class and tired. Alison lacks Helena’s sophistication because of her relationship with Jimmy, though she had once had it. Like Alison, Helena takes on a domestic role while with the Porters, but the audience sees that she is not a domesticated female figure. She works as an actress, a profession which leads her into a certain bohemian kind of lifestyle.
Alison’s line that “things seem to be very different” when Helena is in the house foreshadows a conversation that will have consequences later on. It is ironic that Alison tells her that things are different here and that she means it in a good way. Cliff will later utter a similar phrase yet he will mean it negatively. It is an example of the way the men of the play seem to feed off of and find normalcy in Jimmy and Alison’s contentious relationship. The women, on the other hand, find a lack of peace, a motif that both women experience after their relationships with Jimmy.
In attempting to explain her relationship to Cliff, Alison actually proves how Jimmy is partly right in his assessment that both of them have not found a way to truly live, embracing a slothfulness to their lives instead. Alison suggest that while their relationship is both emotional and physical, they are too comfortable in the way things are between them to be consumed with any real passion towards each other. Jimmy, it would seem, also suffers from this emotional slothfulness, though he would not admit it, since he does not seem to want to summon the emotion of jealousy. The audience is left to wonder if Cliff feels the same way about Alison as she feels towards him.
In this part of Act II, Alison explains to Helena why she is with Jimmy. This scene allows Osborne to explore the idea of masculine chivalry in the twentieth century. Alison uses her stories of meeting Jimmy and the party crashing that she, Jimmy, and Hugh undertook as an allusion to English folklore. In Alison’s telling of the event, Jimmy becomes a knight in shining armor, though Alison admits his armor never shone very brightly. He is alternately noble while charming and courting her and then barbaric in storming the gates of the refined culture of Alison’s family’s friends. Jimmy is thus linked to a British past even though he continually alludes to the fact that the past is gone.
It is in this scene that Alison explains the symbolism of the bear and squirrel. It is ironic that Alison explains their game as an “unholy priesthole of being animals to one another,” since it is arguable that in their normal relationship Jimmy often expresses his emotion in wild animalistic ways. She explains that by taking on the persona of these stuffed animals they both are able to have “dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other.” Their games of squirrel and bear show how the only way that both can truly love each other is to completely detach themselves from the world. It is also an expression of a lost childhood that both share. The conditions of their real lives is often too much to bear, and so the game offers a time of retreat into a childishness that neither had growing up.
Look Back in Anger Essays and Related Content
- Look Back in Anger: Major Themes
- Look Back in Anger: Questions
- Look Back in Anger: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Osborne: Biography
- Look Back in Anger Summary
- About Look Back in Anger
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Act I (pages 1 - 25)
- Summary and Analysis of Act I (pages 26 - 38)
- Summary and Analysis of Act II - Scene I (Pages 39 - 49)
- Summary and Analysis of Act II - Scene I (Pages 50 - 63)
- Summary and Analysis of Act II - Scene II
- Summary and Analysis of Act III - Scene I
- Summary and Analysis of Act III - Scene II
- The Kitchen Sink Drama: Perspectives and Criticism
- Related Links on Look Back in Anger
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
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- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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