Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger Summary and Analysis of Act II - Scene I (Pages 50 - 63)


Jimmy tells the group that he has made up a song entitled “You can quit hanging round my counter Mildred ‘cos you’ll find my position is closed.” He begins to sing the verse. It’s a song about how he is tired of women and would rather drink and be alone than have to deal with their problems. He turns to Helena and tells her that he also wrote a poem, one that she will like because “It’s soaked in the theology of Dante, with a good slosh of Eliot as well.” It is entitled “The Cess Pool,” and Jimmy says he is “a stone dropped in it....”

Helena confronts him and asks him why he must be such an unpleasant person to be around all the time. Jimmy becomes delighted that she has taken his bait and continues to goad her on. He sees Alison dressing in the mirror in the corner of the room and asks her where she is going. She tells him she is going to church and Jimmy is genuinely surprised. He asks her if she has lost her mind. “When I think of what I did, what I endured to get you out -- ...” Alison bursts into anger at this, sarcastically telling Jimmy that she remembers how he rescued her from her family so that she would never have to suffer with them again.

Jimmy then goes on a rant on Alison’s mother. He tells how “There is no limit to what the middle-aged mummy will do in the holy crusade against ruffians like me.” He is trying to prod Alison into anger. He recounts how Alison’s mother was suspicious of his long hair and how she hired detectives to watch him. Cliff tries to calm the situation, but Jimmy tells him that fighting is all he’s good at now. Jimmy accuses Alison of having been influenced by Helena, that “genuflecting sin jobber....” Helena tries to tell Jimmy to back off his anger, but this only makes him more eager to fight. He tells Alison that her mother should die and that when the worms eat her they’ll get a bad case of indigestion for their troubles. He looks at Helena and asks her what is wrong and she tells him that she fells “Sick with contempt and loathing.” Jimmy tells them that one day, when he is done running his sweet-stall, he will write a book about everyone in the room, a recollection of their time together “in fire, and blood. My blood.”

Helena asks why Jimmy is being so obstinate. She asks him if he thinks the world has treated him badly and Alison interjects, telling her to not take away his suffering because “he’d be lost without it.” Jimmy tries to figure out why Helena is still staying with them since her play finished eight days earlier. He believes that she is up to no good and trying to influence Alison in some way. He tells Helena that the last time she was in a church was on their wedding day. They had had to sneak away to a church where the vicar didn’t know Alison’s father so they could be secretly married. Her parents, however, found them anyway and were the only people in the church when the two were married. Jimmy tells Alison that Helena is nothing but a cow and, further more, a “sacred cow as well.” Cliff tries to tell Jimmy that he’s gone too far, but Jimmy doesn’t listen.

Jimmy then gives a monologue on Helena’s life. He says that she is “an expert in the New Economics -- the Economics of the Supernature.” Her type has thrown out “Reason and Progress” and look towards the past, the Dark Ages, to find a way around the dark problems of the twentieth century. Her spirituality, he ways, cuts her off “from all the conveniences we’ve fought to get for centuries.” She is full of “ecstatic wind....” Helena calmly tells him that she will slap his face and, sensing a challenge, Jimmy rises and starts to slowly move his face towards her. He asks her if she’s ever watched someone die. She starts to move away, but he makes her face him. He tells her that if she hits him and tries “to cash in on what she thinks is my defenceless (sic) chivalry by lashing out with her frail little fists, I lash back at her.” He asks her again if she has ever seen someone die. She answers “no.” Jimmy then proceeds to tell her about how he watched his father die for a year when he was ten years old. His father had come home from the war in Spain where “certain god-fearing gentlemen...had made such a mess of him, he didn’t have long to live.” Jimmy recounts how his family had abandoned the old man and only Jimmy had been there to listen to his father’s ramblings; “the despair and the bitterness, the sweet, sickly smell of a dying man.” He tells Helena that “I knew more about -- love...betrayal...and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life.” Helena rises, tells Alison that it’s time to go, and exits.

Jimmy addresses Alison in a whisper. He wants to know why his suffering means nothing to her. He calls her a “Judas” and a “phlegm” and, finally fed up, Alison throws a glass across the room where it shatters. She tells him that all she wants is peace and goes to the bed to put on her shoes while Jimmy continues to rant. Jimmy responds that “My heart is so full, I feel ill -- and she wants peace!” Jimmy asks which of them is really the angry and disturbed one. He turns to Cliff and tells him that he wishes that he would try loving her so he could know the difficultly of it. He tells Alison that he wants to be there when she comes groveling back to him. Helena enters with two prayer books and tells Jimmy that there is a phone call for him. Jimmy exits.

Helena turns on Cliff now and asks him why he does nothing when Jimmy is so angry. He tells her that, though things are always bad, they have been worse since she arrived. He tells her that most of the time things are like “a very narrow strip of plain hell. But where I come from we’re used to brawling and excitement.” He tells her that he loves both Alison and Jimmy very much and that he pities everyone involved.

Helena tells Alison that she has sent a wire to Alison’s father to come and get her. She asks if Alison will agree to leave Jimmy and return home and Alison says that she will. Alison seems numb and distant and Helena knows that she must take charge of the situation. Jimmy enters solemnly. He tells Cliff that Hugh’s mom has had a stroke and is dying and that he must leave to go see her. Cliff leaves to make arrangements for Jimmy’s trip. Jimmy becomes nostalgic and remembers how Hugh’s mother had gushed over how beautiful Alison was after they had been married. Jimmy tells Alison that he needs her to come with him. Church bells ring and Alison stands in the middle of the room, undecided on whether to leave with Helena or stay with Jimmy. She walks over to the table and picks up her prayer book and leaves. Jimmy, stunned, leans on the chest of drawers and picks up the teddy bear. He throws it across the room and then falls on the bed, burying himself in the covers.


Alison’s declaration that she is attending church with Helena is one of the only times in the play that Jimmy expresses genuine surprise and shock at his wife’s actions. Even when she leaves him and withholds the information from him that she is pregnant, it is apparent that those are all things he can accept because it fits into the portrayal that he has of her in his mind. Going to church, however, is not one of those things. In fact, Jimmy equates church going with Alison’s past, a past that like a knight in shining armor, he rescued her from.

Alison’s church going also relates to the issue of allegiances that she discussed with Helena earlier in the act. Jimmy, she tells Helena, is a fiercely loyal man. He expect that those in his life will also be loyal to the same things, whether it is the political viewpoints he takes or his previous lovers. By going to church, Jimmy considers this a breach of allegiance to him and this proves to be a justification for his further vicious humiliation of her.

This part of Act II also allows Osborne to demonstrate Jimmy’s misogynistic viewpoints, some of which it is alleged Osborne personally shared with his character. His attacks on Alison’s mother are the best demonstration of this in the play. Jimmy is particularly cruel to older, upper class women. Alison’s mother is the archetype of such a character. Jimmy hurls insults at her and ends his rant in a grisly depiction of her death. It is revealed here that Alison’s mother took extreme steps, including hiring a private detective, to try and stop Alison’s relationship with Jimmy. This seems to have been the catalyst for Jimmy’s extreme hatred of all women like her mother.

Jimmy then turns his hatred towards Helena and begins to attack her character and her worldview. Because she is churchgoing and seemingly respectable, Jimmy accuses her of living in a dark age. Here, Jimmy claims to hold an understanding of the world that Helena and most everyone else in the world does not hold. He understands that traditional morality has no meaning in the modern world. At best, Jimmy understands the church to be simply a puppet of political and social power; the audience is reminded of Jimmy’s mockery of church figures through the Bishop of Bromley in the first act. At worst, the church has become irrelevant.

To demonstrate this irrelevance of morality, Jimmy confronts Helena and dares her to slap his face. He tells her that he has no chivalry now and will hit her if she hits him. Helena is forced to make a choice: either slap his face in a moment of violence and abandon her moral center or abandon her sense of bourgeois feminist pride by letting him attack her. In the end, Jimmy does not give her a chance to choose because he moves the conversation deeper. He asks her if she has experienced death. In this way, Jimmy is attempting to make Helena just like Alison; a stupid girl that has never been through suffering and so cannot understand what it means to truly live.

The audience then learns of Jimmy’s own personal suffering, of how he watched his father die at a young age and how his family did nothing to help him. It is this early case of suffering that haunts Jimmy and allows him to feel both superior to others and to long for a more real way of living. Since neither Helena nor Alison have suffered in this way, Jimmy believes that they have not truly been born into the world. This is ironic since it is Alison who suffers most under Jimmy’s cruel moods. The end of the scene makes suffering a central breaking point between Alison and Jimmy. With Hugh’s mother on her deathbed, Jimmy cannot handle her suffering alone and begs Alison to come with him to visit her. Alison, knowing that her father is coming to pick her up the next day and taker her away, chooses to go with Helena. It is a choice for a world that Jimmy feels is unreal in some way and he is devastated by her choice.