‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play written by JB Priestley in 1945 and set in 1912. Priestley demonstrates his concern with moral responsibility and his beliefs in Socialist values through the character of the Inspector, whom he uses as a mouthpiece throughout the play. He voices his opinions on these issues using this technique, and they are shown by the way the Inspector deals with the Birling family and are exemplified by the obstacles to social harmony in which the Inspector has to face before coming to a suitable and justifiable conclusion.
The play was written in 1945 – within a week of World War Two ending – but set in 1912, when Britain still had its Empire and was doing very well financially. The time span between the two dates is Priestley’s way of expressing a feeling of urgency he thought necessary to pass on to society after the events of 1945. Although the war had ended, society in Britain in 1945 was still experiencing the hardships that it had brought. New books were printed under the wartime economy regulations, continuing the shortage of paper and therefore resulting in the books being expensive – too expensive for any working class person to purchase.Order now
However, in 1912 some things were different. Society did not have the burden of the war hanging over their heads, but life for the poor did not differ much from 1945. Edwardian society was strictly divided into social classes; below the very rich were the middle classes, such as doctors, merchants, shop workers and clerks. After that came the craftsman and skilled workers, and at the very bottom of the social ladder was the largest class of all – the ordinary workers and the poor, many of whom lived below the poverty level. The men of industry treated their workers harshly and their pay was extremely low. As a result of this, strikes became frequent as the workers demanded better working conditions and higher pay.
Priestley hoped that in writing ‘An Inspector Calls’, people could look back on events with hindsight and learn from the mistakes that society had made. He primarily wrote the play for a middle class audience about the working class, and how the Birlings and Gerald Croft were all involved in making a young working class woman’s life a misery, and consequently driving her to suicide.
The Birlings are a typical upper class family – they look down on those who are socially ‘beneath’ them, such as the Inspector, yet look up to those ‘above’. Mr. Birling puts this specific idea into practice frequently. Although arrogant, he knows that he is lower down the social scale than his wife, as well as Gerald’s family. However, he is aware of the difference in social class, and accepts them – “Don’t blame her. comes from an old country family – landed people and so forth – so it’s only natural.”
At the beginning of the play, the Birlings are celebrating their daughter’s engagement to Gerald Croft – the son of Arthur’s business competitor. Immediately the impression is given that love isn’t just the only force bringing Sheila and Gerald together; in fact, it seems that Mr. Birling is more interested in a new business proposal than his daughter’s happiness: “You’re just the kind of son-in-law I always wanted. Your father and I have been friendly rivals in business for some time now … you’ve brought us together”.
This interesting concept indicates that although Sheila and Gerald may appear to be in love to those not close to them, Mr. Birling’s business plans may have been the initial reason they decided to join together in holy matrimony. This is a key reason why the Birling family needed the input of the Inspector to realise their actions were not morally correct; the outcome is that Gerald admits to having an affair while apparently being “awfully busy” at work over the summer. Thus, feelings and secrets are revealed that probably never would have been if the Inspector had not interrupted their celebrations.
Apart from being more interested in securing a business deal than his own daughter’s joy, Arthur Birling is a very shallow and obstinate character. As a man he is callous – when he hears about Eva Smith’s suicide he merely takes it in his stride: “it turned out unfortunately, that’s all”. He is also just as heartless as an employer, depriving Eva of her job and throwing her out of his factory. Mr. Birling appears to have a selfish attitude towards life – only ever thinking of himself, and then his family: “A man has to make his own way – has to look after himself – and his family too, of course”.
His arrogant belief that he ‘knows’ comes across as laughable (to theaudience and reader) when he expresses his confidence in issues that the society of 1945 have experienced. For example, when he talks about the “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” Titanic and dismisses the threat of war – “I say there isn’t a chance of war”, it is ironic that these things actually come to pass, and the reader and audience are aware of it, therefore projecting Mr. Birling as a hypocrite. It is therefore implied that it is tragic to have someone as stupid and narrow minded as him in such a position of power.
Although Mr. Birling thinks of himself quite highly, his views on moral responsibility are strictly unjust; he has no conscience, and dismisses any suggestion that he should show remorse towards his employees – “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth”. As well as this, the only person he feels he should help when they are in need is himself – and money is the way to do it. His only show of sorrow for Eva’s death is momentary, and again routes from money – “Look Inspector – I’d give thousands – yes, thousands”. Overall, Birling is a gluttonous, egotistical, pompous, insensitive, complacent, cowardly and stupid man who throughout the play is presented as hopelessly incapable of learning the moral lesson taught by the Inspector.