In the play An Inspector Calls, there is a great deal of information concerning the situation of England in 1912. Priestley has used various methods to show the audience, such as making certain characters mouthpieces; the roles of certain characters are important as well. In this essay, I am going to explore and evaluate several of these techniques. Priestley has used Inspector Goole as a way to convey the nature of 1912 in England. The character of the Inspector is somehow out of place in the era the play is set in. His name is a homophone of the word ‘ghoul’; this suggests that he is a mysterious or even supernatural character.
One of his purposes in the play is to act as a catalyst for the exposure of the Birling’s household’s immorality. He does this by several methods, such as interviewing each person individually to create pressure. He also keeps reminding the household of Eva Smith’s death in detail. One example of this can be found in Act 1, page 11, where he tells the family of Eva’s death. At the end of the sentence he adds, ‘Burnt her inside out, of course”- revealing gruesome detail. This is to increase the guilty conscience of the family, which partially works. Both Sheila and Eric were horrified whilst their parents just said it’s none of their business.
His view on society is very different to Mr Birling’s conceptions. In Act 3 page 56, he states that “We don’t live alone…We are responsible for each other.” He means that everyone needs to look after each other, no matter what class they’re in or what political view they have ( such as supporting socialism or capitalism). This is very different from Mr Birling’s views as he feels that “…a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own…”, which is exactly the opposite of Inspector Goole’s thoughts. The Inspector also says that if mankind does not learn their lesson, it will suffer in “…fire, blood and anguish.” This probably implies (with hindsight), the two major world wars that are looming in the future. Overall, the Inspector not only makes the Birlings confess their involvement in Eva’s death but act as a mouthpiece for socialists at that time.
The character of Sheila is created by Priestley to represent the new and next generation of people. She is different to the previous generation (her parents) due to her alternative view of the lower classes. Here she represents those who sympathises the people of the working class. An example of this can be found in Act 1, page 19, Sheila makes a remark about how the young women of the working class are treated. She exclaims, “But these girls aren’t cheap labour-they’re people.”
This quotation shows that she has empathy for these people and regards them as equals, unlike her parents. She feels that she had a part to play in Eva’s death and accept the facts, unlike her parents who are ignorant and deny any connections with the girl. Sheila also represents many new attitudes and behaviours for women at that time. Firstly she has stopped supporting and sticking up for her parents, whereas in that era, it is common for children to follow and respect their parents. She shows us this by constantly interfering with her parents’ words of denial towards the inspector. In her case, she rebels thus showing the reader a new ‘breed’ of more independent women that were showing up in Britain.
Another area she could represent is the rise of feminism at that time. In the beginning of the play she is shown as a spoilt and self-centred young girl. In the wake of Eva Smith’s death she changes those attitudes into a more shameful and responsible manner. This change of personality represents the new attitude adopted by certain members of the public about the attitudes in which the lower class were treated in 1912 England.
Another factor she shows about 1912 England is the new idea of marriage. Here, she decides to pull out of her engagement with Gerald. This is seen in Act 2 page 40. She says just before she hands back his ring, “But just in case you forgot-or decide not to come back… you’d better take this with you.” This act shows the idea of women having more freedom and say over marriage in that era. Data from the past have shown that the divorce rate and cases of unhappy marriage were common in 1920s.
The after dinner speech of Mr Birling on pg 6 and 7 shows us a great deal about the nature of 1912 society in England. The main reason why Priestley wrote this sequence was to empathize the factors he criticizes about the upper-class in 1912 such as they were old-fashioned and snobbish. Here, Mr Birling talks about new technology and new attitudes in society. Most of the speech contains his opinions and views; these represent the attitudes of the upper class at that era. Ironically, most of his statements turn out to be false. An example of this is his conception of the ship, the Titanic. In his speech, he states that the ship was “unsinkable” whereas with hindsight, the ship did actually sunk when it hit an iceberg. As Priestley wrote this play in 1945, he already knew of the disaster.
The attitude of Mr Birling symbolises the pompous and arrogant belief of the rich upper class. One other comment he makes is his prediction of the future, which will have “…peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere – except of course in Russia.” This is also partially ironic as there is no peace and prosperity in the world in the future, but only two World Wars in the future. The Great War will start 2 years after the suppose setting of the play (around 1912). He correctly predicted the dark times in Russia, such as its revolution that successfully overthrew the Tsars.
This remark shows the reader about the rise of socialism and communism in that era and how the upper-class rejected and hated its ideology-due to the fact that everyone was regarded as equal in wealth and having no class system. We can see that Mr Birling’s remark about Russia is quite offensive due to the reaction of his wife; who responded by saying “Arthur!” Additionally this makes it sounds like Mr Birling has just spoken a very personal opinion to everyone. In the speech, he also mentions his dislike for left wing sympathisers, in which he mentions two famous individuals- H.G Wells and Bernard Shaw. This was the era that saw a rise of works that comment on politics and there was a greater deal of freedom of speech.
The main plot of this play is about the apparent death of Eva Smith. The character of Eva Smith in the play represents the lower working class of that era. Her name implies that she belongs to this class due to her surname. The name, “Smith”, is a very common British surname, thus crediting her as a normal citizen. Her Christian name, however, is unique; the name “Eva” is quite similar to the name “Eve”. Eve is also the name of the first woman created by God according to Biblical teaching. This may show she is one of the first women to rebel and go on strike. In a wider sense, it can represent an era where the lower class started to speak out more and become more active. In 1912, this was very unusual, as the protest was run by women (who had no rights whatsoever). Eva can also represent more than one person.
Near the end of the play in Act 3, pg 56, Inspector Goole comments, “One Eva Smith has gone- but there are millions and millions of Eva Smith…”. This implies that there are many like her in the world who are also in a position similar to hers. Eva also had worked in a brothel as a prostitute; also know as “the woman of the town”. The thought of visiting such areas were seen as morally wrong but many upper class people still do, such as Aldermand Meggarty (who was a very respectable man working in the town hall). After she is kicked out by Mr Birling from the factory and by Sheila from the shop, she turns to
Gerald for help. Here, she becomes his mistress, which was seen as unsuitable upon that era; although certain people did have them but did not publicly admit it or refuse to talk about the matter. Her involvement with Eric produced another moral panic, the thought of having sex before marriage-, which was seen as a taboo. All of these actions were against moral standards at the time but there were some who regularly practice them anyway. This is why Priestley has created the character of Eva- to use her actions as a symbol of all the immorality the upper-class were secretly hiding and to expose them to the audience of the play.
Overall, there are two themes in which Priestley tried to bring out to the audience; one is that there was a lot of hypocrisy contained in the upper-class. They make disdainful comments on acts such as one having mistresses and sex before marriage whilst some indulge in these practise themselves. Another theme in this play he points out is the treatment of the class system. The story of Eva Smith reflects on the attitude the rich had on the poor in the era, which caused a great deal of inequality. Priestley put some of his own views in the play with the most important one as being everyone has to look out and support one another, which is leaning towards the idea of socialism (a popular ideology in the 1910s).