“An Inspector Calls” is a play written by J. B Priestly in 1945. The play is set in the factious North Midlands industrial city of Brumley in 1912. During this period a rigid class structure existed provincial England. There was also a massive technological advance in this period. I will also discuss the role of the Inspector in the lives of a rich upper middle class family called the Birling (and Gerald Croft), all of whom are involved – to some degree – in the death of a lower class girl called Eva Smith.
I will also discuss the role of the Inspector on the audience who will watch this play and Priestly intension. The play consists of 3 acts, which take place in the dining room of the Birlings family home. Their the Birling’s are enjoying a family celebration of their daughter Sheila’s engagement when a mysterious chap, Goole, who claims to be a Inspector turns up and starts questing them about a working class women who had just died in the infirmary after drinking some disinfectant! Despite Mr. Birling’s smugness about the future, the history of Britain from 1912 onwards was far from trouble-free.
The First World War began in the 1914 and the unsinkable ship, the titanic, sank. There were mass unemployment in the depression years and the rise in fascism bought international unrest and bought fear throughout the 1930’s. In 1910s, Britain was a strong class based society. Social position was determined by birth, occupation, wealth etc. A hierarchy also existed with noble born aristocrats at the top and poor working people at the bottom. Those lower down the hierarchy had to show respect and deference to those higher than themselves.
Therefore Eva Smith had to show respect to the Birling family however they had to show respect to Gerald’s mother because she, Lady Croft, was related to the Royal family. This view is clearly challenged by Inspector Goole, because an Inspector is a working class person. During this time, just after Queen Victoria’s death, Britain was quite puritanical and Calvinistic in thought. That is they felt immoral behavior and little work or effort was bad and worth punishment or no help. They thought hard work was rewarded by money; like Mr. Birling, however if they weren’t, like Eva Smith, then it was thought that they obviously didn’t deserve them.
The idea of no one helping one another, but they should help themselves was also accepted during this period. It was felt that those higher in the social hierarchy were better people and had the right to judge others beneath themselves. The Middle class always wanted to move up, too be rich wasn’t enough – a title was also desired to be at the top. For example, in ‘An Inspector Calls’ Mr. Birling being rich wasn’t good enough, he wanted to move up by title as well, so he married Mrs. Birling an ‘upper class’ woman and they became an ‘upper middle class’ family. After Mr.
Birling has made his speech about how ‘every man should look after himself’, the Inspector mysteriously appears and starts asking them questions about a girl who had died in the infirmary after drinking some disinfectant. He controls the development of events: who will speak and when; who may or may not leave; who will or will not see the photograph . The Inspector doesn’t observe the rules of deference regarding social class hierarchy. Even Priestly describes the Inspector, when he first appears on stage, in terms of ‘massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’ (p. 11); symbolizing the fact that he is an unstoppable force within the play.
His ‘disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before speaking’ (p. 11) gives the impression that he sees through the surface appearances of the real person beneath. It also gives him a thoughtfulness that contrasts with the thoughtlessness of each character’s treatment of the girl. His role in the play is not simply to confront each character with the truth, but to force each character to admit the truth they already know. One by one he shows the photo to Birling’s and Gerald and reveals the story of each character and the relation with Eva Smith.
Some show remorse like Eric and Sheila, others do not like Mr. and Mrs. Birling and Gerald is in the middle. He works methodically through the characters present one at a time, because he recognizes that ‘otherwise, there’s a muddle’ (p. 12). The Inspector is the catalyst for the events of the play: without him, none of the characters’ secrets would ever have come into the open, for a variety of reasons. For Birling could not see that he did anything memorable or wrong in sacking a troublemaker; Sheila thought her rather spiteful jealousy of a pretty shop-assistant was not ‘anything very terrible at the time’ (p.24).
Gerald needed to conceal his involvement with the girl from a jealous fianci?? e; Mrs. Birling is too cold ever to ‘have known what [the girl] was feeling’ (p. 45) and her effect seems lost on her; and Eric had resorted to theft, which he too needed to conceal. Without the Inspector’s ‘purposefulness’, each character could not or would not have acknowledged their behavior. The Inspector has come into the Birling’s house to tell them about what they have done – and to see their reaction. One way he did this is by using emotive language to get the readers interested and for the sympathy.
He describes Eva Smith of Daisy Renton as a “pretty” and “lively” girl who died in “misery and agony – hating life”. To Mrs. Birling he says Eva/Daisy was “alone, friendless, almost penniless, desperate” and all that Mrs. Birling did was “slam the door in her face”. He also tells them that Eva/Daisy is now lying “with a burnt out inside on a slab”. It is Sheila who particularly reacts with the emotive language. But after his “… fire blood and aguish” speech everybody is affected – Sheila is “quiet crying”, Mrs. Birling has “collapsed into a chair”, Eric is “brooding desperately” and Mr. Birling “hastily swallows” a drink.