J.B. Priestley’s intention in writing ‘An Inspector Calls’ was to make sure that Britain did not repeat the social mistakes of it’s past.
J.B. Priestley had lived through both the World Wars, and had seen the class barriers eroded with the passing of each one. Throughout his life, he had been an active socialist, making his message clear through his writings and speeches.
He was a patriotic man, and his many plays reflect the love of his homeland, as much as they do his social and political ideas. Both of these parts of his personality were shown in the weekly talks he made on BBC Radio during the Second World War.
The First World War resulted in the start social change and the start of the breakdown of the barriers between the classes. In 1926, the General Strike marked a new era of workers rights, showing what the sheer numbers of workers all over Britain could do. In 1930, the great depression had done more to level off the social boundaries as old, rich families’ savings were suddenly worth nothing.
The Government at the end of the Great War had promised “A country fit for heroes” to encompass the needs of returning soldiers looking for work and housing. This had never happened, and millions of people were unemployed, and maimed or wounded soldiers had no disability coverage.
Part of the scheme to make Britain “fit for heroes” was to give everyone the vote, not only the middle and upper classes. This only poorly compensated for the unemployment, recession, strikes and hunger marches that were to follow the war.
J.B. Priestley wanted something more than this at the end of the Second war. The Labour party had risen in power since the working classes could now also vote. They now offered a “Welfare state” which would provide free healthcare, unemployment benefits and money for those who needed it most.
This is what J.B. Priestley wanted when he wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’, to show the British public that they should not repeat the mistakes of the past – he wanted audiences to realise they are equal to each other and must look out for each other, no matter what their background.
J.B. Priestley said, ” We have to fight this great battle, not only with guns in the daylight, but alone in the night, communing with our souls, strengthening our faith that in common men everywhere there is a spring of innocent aspiration and good will that shall not be sealed”.
In 1945 the Labour party received a landslide victory over the conservatives who had won the war. This showed that the need for change was well learnt by those who had suffered and fought together in the wars. There was indeed a “spring of innocent aspiration and good will” that could not be sealed.
The message that J.B Priestley was trying to communicate is reflected in the personalities and actions of the characters within the play. Such as Mr Birling, who thinks of himself as a “Hard-headed businessman”. He is the owner of a factory in Brumley, and works his employees as hard as possible for as little money as possible. He is representative of the middle classes of that era, who shows little regard for anyone in the lower classes. As he says to Gerald, before the Inspector arrives, his main aim is simply to maximise profit and that means, “working towards lower costs and higher prices”.
The most important speech that Mr Birling makes is when he is announcing his happiness about Sheila and Gerald’s engagement, in Act 1. He says what a good time it is for them to be marrying in. He mentions the impossibility of war with the Germans, and how technology will provide new advantages to travel, giving the “unsinkable” Titanic as an example. To a 1945 audience, seeing the play for the first time, this would seem ludicrous, but they may have realised that remaining complacent in a time for action applies to them as well, namely in the vote for Labour and the Welfare State.
The lessons in Mr Birling’s personality are not to be complacent, and to realise that people must change their ways, for otherwise they will have to learn to change in a much harsher way later on. When Mr Birling is berating his children about their behaviour, after the Inspector has left, he seems the most worried about losing his place in the next honours list, and therefore his chances of a knighthood.
Mrs Birling is much like her husband; she also refuses to change her views regarding people of the lower classes. She is so steadfast in her views that she goes so far as to ask for her son to be punished so that she can escape the blame.
The younger members of the group, Sheila especially, learn that they must change the way of thinking that led Eva Smith to her death. Although Sheila committed one of the lesser acts that contributed towards Eva Smith’s death, she feels the most guilty for her actions, and says she will be less selfish in the future. Eric feels equally guilty, although his actions were more serious, and it is evident that he will never forget his actions.
Gerald feels more sad than guilty about his actions, because he truly loved Daisy Renton, but he does not actually mention that he will not do that kind of thing again, however by his action of “going out to be alone for a while” and the regretful way in which he speaks, it seems unlikely that he will act with that kind of conduct again.
It is the Inspector who is the main vehicle for J.B Priestley’s ideas in the play – He makes a large amount of moralistic comments on the actions of the other characters, or about the social circumstances that led Eva Smith to her death.
Most of the Inspector’s comments are directed to Eric and Mr Birling, as he sees Eric as mainly responsible for Eva Smith’s suicide. Mr Birling tries to defend his and his family’s actions throughout the play, and the Inspector responds with moralistic and socialistic comments. His comments to the older Birlings are more socialistic than the comments he makes to the younger characters, which are more moralistic. This is because J.B. Priestley was putting across two messages to his audiences, when the play was first shown at the end of 1945. He was saying to the younger members of his audiences, as he was saying to the younger characters in the play, ‘Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past’. The older characters and people in his audiences he advised to change their views on society, for if it did not change, it could not get better.
This quote from the Inspector sums up J.B. Priestley’s intention in writing ‘An Inspector Calls’, it is the one the Inspector makes, just before he leaves.
“But just remember this: one Eva Smith is gone, but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, and their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone; we are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come, when, if men do not learn this lesson, they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish. Good Night”
In this quote the Inspector sounds more like a biblical prophet than a police inspector. He uses dramatic speech to emphasize his points. Instead of saying, “…We are responsible for each other. The time will soon come when…” he says “And I tell you that the time will soon come, when…” This tells the audiences that he is about to say something important. In the last line, he says, “They will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” The Inspector emphasizes the fire, the blood and the aguish, by putting “and” between them. This would remind his audiences of the horrors of the world wars.
J.B. Priestley’s aim in writing this speech for the Inspector was to sum up what had been saying throughout the play. He was telling people that the class barriers that had caused so much suffering in the past should not continue to do so, as humans should have learnt by now that they are all equal to each other.
“And their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone; we are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”
He is also saying that everything we do affects other people, not only ourselves, and that class barriers do not stop actions from different classes from overflowing into other classes. This is what the plot of the play shows. Mr Birling, Sheila and Mrs Birling, help Eva Smith to suicide through actions that at the time seemed innocent or justified to them.
The “fire and blood and anguish” J.B Priestley refers to are the First and Second World Wars. In 1945, when ‘An Inspector Calls’ was first shown, his audiences would obviously remember the Blitz, and some of them may have fought in one or both of the wars. They would not want a repeat of the past.
However the “fire and blood and anguish” taught the soldiers fighting together a vital lesson – they were all equal. They could all be killed.
The stage directions in the play also show some aspects of J.B Priestley’s personal views. The beginning stage directions, when describing the lighting say that it should be “warm and personal”, and when the Inspector arrives, the lighting should be “hard and bright”. “The warm and personal” light shows that the family are feeling safe, secure in their views and beliefs, as is emphasised by Mr Birling’s speech near the beginning of the play.
The lighting gets “harder and brighter” when the Inspector arrives, possibly signifying that the characters are being, or will be, exposed as having contributed to the death of Eva Smith.
J.B. Priestley wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ with the intention of provoking people into realising that change must come, and that people are all equal, and deserve to be treated as such.