Priestley wrote this play to send a message to the people. During the Second World War, the people had united to fight one common enemy. This unity was what he wanted us to understand and believe in. He wanted to give everyone a choice. Should we go back to the way it was before the First World War, when everything was based on class and where an individual had to look solely after themselves, and no one else, or should we move forward, walk into a society where everyone looks out for each other, where we are all equal and we work together?Order now
He wanted people to choose. He demonstrates the difference with the older generation representing the society where you care for only yourself, and some of the younger generation represents a new society where we care for one another. Although the play was written after the Second World War, J. B. Priestley set it in 1912, even before the First World War. This was because he wanted the audience to have the benefit of hindsight, which is used to discredit Mr. Birling’s pronouncements in the opening scene.
When Mr. Birling, the head of the family and a respectable business man, talks of things that the audience knows is wrong, (such as his opinion of the “unsinkable” Titanic) we begin to doubt Mr. Birling’s opinions, because we already know that the Titanic does, in fact, sink. In the time Priestley set his play, King Edward VII was on throne. During this time, women were still seen as lower class citizens, and were now fighting for the right to vote. This fight was called the suffrage movement.
There were two main parties fighting for the vote: the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) who believed in petitions and very peaceful demonstrations and the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) who believed in fighting the violent way, by catching the eyes of the public and press. The women fought for this privilege because of the way they were treated back then. All throughout history, women have always been the properties and the inferior being to men. They wanted the right to vote, so they can undo other unfair laws against women.
But despite the peaceful and non-peaceful approaches to the vote, women were still considered unstable and not responsible enough to vote. It wasn’t until World War I, when all the men had to go out and fight in the war, that women got the chance to prove themselves. As all of the men had gone to war, there was no one left, apart from the women, to do the jobs such as a munitions worker to provide the men with weapons. With the war, the suffragettes ceased their campaign to help the country fight, and in doing so, showed their worth and peacefulness to the men.
It was decided after World War I, that women above the age of 30 were allowed to vote. This was the first big step to women’s freedom. But during 1912, women had not yet won the right to vote, and were still being treated as the lower class, especially those of working class like Eva Smith. Sheila Birling has never actually been exposed to the world of labour, hardship and starvation. She has led a comfortable life as the daughter of a middle-class business man. The opening notes describe her as a ‘young girl’, even though she is in her early twenties.
This makes us feel that she is childish and not pay much attention to her, until she has ‘grown up’. We enter the world of the Birlings at a celebration, of Sheila and Gerald Croft’s engagement. Sheila, of course, is ‘very excited’ with this. Mrs. Birling (Sybil) is the mother of the family and wife to Mr. Birling. She is Mr. Birling’s social superior. She was married into a lower class than herself, because of the insufficient funds in her account. She is described as a ‘rather cold woman’, which shows that she is quite snobbish and tries to hide her emotions.
She is a traditional woman, who believes that a woman’s place is at home, to look after the husband and kids. But despite the way her ideals work, she is not at all close with her children, as we later find out that she hardly knows any of their secrets. She is about fifty years old, and her ideals and opinions have already been set. Priestley uses the age differences between the young and old as a technique to contrast the old customs and a new direction. Eva Smith is an absent character throughout the play. We never directly see or hear her.
All we have to acknowledge this significant character is the memories from the Birlings’ and the Inspector’s words. Eva Smith is not as fortunate as Sheila, although they are of the same age range. Eva was born into a lower class family, and has had to work to provide her own living. Priestley created this character for the audience to relate to, to have sympathy for and to recognise that the way we trial others can have profound consequences. As the daughter of a middle-class business man, Sheila has lived a life of comfort, ease and luxury.