Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger Summary and Analysis of Act III - Scene II


When the curtain rises on the second scene, it is only moments later and Jimmy is in Cliff’s room playing his trumpet. Helena is pouring Alison a cup of tea. She picks up Jimmy’s pipe and places the ashes in a tray. Alison comments on how one has to get used to Jimmy’s smoking. Helena gives her the tea to help her feel better. Alison tells her that she feels mad for coming, that even as she was buying her train ticket she couldn’t believe that she was making the trip to this place. She tells Helena that she came “to convince myself that everything I remembered about this place had really happened to me once.” In despair, Alison cries out that Helena must want her a thousand miles away.

Helena tells her that this is not the case and that she has more right to be here than she does. Alison tells her not to bring out the rule book that “even I gave up believing in the divine rights of marriage long ago...They’ve got something different now -- constitutional monarchy. You are where you are by consent. And if you start trying any strong arm stuff, you’re out. And I’m out.” Alison tells Helena that she knows she’s done something wrong by coming to their apartment and doesn’t want there to be a breach between her and Jimmy. Helena tells her that she believes her and that it is Alison that should chastise her for her behavior. Alison protests that “you talk as though he were something you’d swindled me out of...” and Helena responds, “you talk as if he were a book or something you pass around to anyone who happens to want it for five minutes.” Helena admits that she knows what she is doing is wrong, but that at least she believes in right and wrong.

Alison asks her if the reason she called for her father those months ago was because she was in love with Jimmy. Helena tells her it is true. Alison says it was difficult to believe at first but that then she understood. Helena says that she has discovered what is wrong with Jimmy -- “he was born out of his time.” Alison agrees. Helena continues that Jimmy belongs “in the middle of the French Revolution” and that “he’ll never do anything, and he’ll never amount to anything.” Alison adds that he is “an Eminent Victorian.” Helena then tells her that things are over between her and Jimmy. She still believes in good and evil and she knows she cannot continue to live in this way with him. “It’s quite a modern, scientific belief now, so they tell me,” she says. “And, by everything I have ever believed in, or wanted, what I have been doing is wrong and evil.”

Alison begs her to stay because Jimmy will have no one. Helena tells her she can do what she wants, but that she’d be a fool to return to Jimmy and that he’ll find someone to take care of him like “one of the Renaissance popes.” She tells Alison that seeing that she lost her baby is “like a judgment on us.” Alison again begs her not to leave and Helena begins to yell at Jimmy to stop playing the trumpet so loudly. She demands that Jimmy join them.

When Jimmy enters he sees Alison. There is a cold concern in his voice as he asks if she needs something from being ill. Helena begins to mention that she’s lost the baby, but Jimmy stops her and tells her he knows what has happened. Jimmy begins to gain authority in the room when Helena stops him and begins to tell him that she’s leaving. She tells him that she sees that what they are doing is wrong and that, though she loves him, she can’t take part “in all this suffering.”

Jimmy speaks in a “low, resigned voice.” He tells them they are both trying to escape the pain of being alive and that one cannot fall into love “without dirtying up your hands.” He tells her that if she can’t mess up her “nice, clean soul” than she should give up the idea of life “and become a saint.” As Helena leaves, Jimmy leans against the window and cries, “Oh, those bells!” Alison begins to leave but Jimmy stops her. He tells her she denied him something when she didn’t send any flowers to the funeral. It’s an “injustice...The wrong people going hungry, the wrong people being love, the wrong people dying!”

He wonders if he is wrong to believe that there is “a kind of burning virility of mind and spirit that looks for something as powerful as itself,” like a bear that looks for its own herd. He asks her if she remembers the night they met. He tells her he admired her relaxed spirit and that he knew she was what he wanted. He realized, however, that one has to tear "your guts out” in order to relax and that she’d never worked in her life for anything. Alison moves to the table and cries silently.

Alison cries out that none of it matters. She wants to be “a lost cause” and “corrupt and futile.” She tells him when she lost the child she wished he could have seen her, “so stupid, and ugly and ridiculous. This is what he’s been longing for me to feel...I’m in the fire and all I want is to die!” She tells him she is “in the mud at last!” Realizing her pain, he stops her and kneels with her. He tries to comfort her and then, with a “mocking, tender irony” begins to tell her that they’ll be together as a bear and a squirrel. He tells her he’s “a bit of a soppy, scruffy sort of a bear” but that he’ll protect her from the cruel traps even though she’s “none too bright.” She laughs a bit and then softly adds, “Oh, poor, poor, bears!” They embrace as the curtain closes.


The second scene of the Third Act brings closure to the emotions and confusion that the characters have felt up to this point. Cliff has decided to leave. His motivations are not completely understood; he claims that things have simply changed too much for him, though it may also be the case that his realization that Jimmy will never change no matter which woman he is with has worn him down. It could also be that he realizes his relationship with Alison is over. Cliff moves on in his life; Jimmy does not.

Alison and Helena come to a deeper understanding of Jimmy and his motivations. Helena claims that she sees Jimmy as still being stuck in “the French Revolution,” meaning that his extreme emotion and turmoil seems to bring anarchy to his life and to the lives of those around him. Alison has a slightly different view; she understands him as an “Eminent Victorian,” meaning that he is chiefly nostalgic for an idealized past. Alison realizes this judgment on her husband is an echo of the previous conversation she held with her father. In both cases, Alison comes to understand Jimmy’s life is lived in the suffering he experienced at the death of his father.

Helena’s conclusion at the end of the play establishes her as the moral compass of all the characters. The audience was meant to question her morality at the end of Act II and in this act Alison becomes her interlocutor. Alison tells her on the one hand that she should not feel guilty for staying with Jimmy while on the other hand her questions and reassurance makes Helena reevaluate her decisions. In the end, it is her sense of wrong-doing -- stealing Alison’s husband from her -- that makes her leave to start her own new life. This morality is represented by the church bells that ring throughout various scenes of the play and which ring at the end. With her renewed sense of right and wrong Helena represents an alternative to the subjective meaninglessness that Jimmy projects onto the modern world. Helena retains her moral center.

In this final scene, Jimmy’s power over the other people in his life is contrasted with his helplessness. Alison begs Helena to stay with Jimmy precisely for the reason that he will have no one to care for him if she leaves. The images of earlier scenes -- of Alison or Helena ironing -- take on a different meaning now. They were participating in such domestic activity not because Jimmy forced them to do so, but because they feel a tenderness for a man who is ultimately helpless. Helena is able to let this tenderness go as she leaves; Alison is not able to forget Jimmy.

This leads to the play’s end. Alison makes Jimmy realize she has become the person he wanted her to be. In Act I, Jimmy berated Alison as something less than a human being because she had not gone through the kind of suffering that he had once gone through at the death of his father. Now, with the death of her unborn child, Alison tells him that she understands suffering. Jimmy’s ultimate reaction to this news, and to Alison herself, is left unexplored. Their immediate reaction, however, is to return to their game of bear and squirrel. They now both understand, even if not consciously, that the only way to escape the suffering of the real world is to create a fantasy world that is just as powerful and stable. This is Osborne’s ultimate statement with the play: the only way for people of modernity to truly understand and cope with the world around them is to create fiction. As a playwright, this is the course that Osborne himself has charted with Look Back in Anger. His fiction, no matter how realistic, is a diversion from the rest of the world.