‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play written in 1942 about a retrospective time just before the First World War. This was at a time in history when the industrialists had extensive power, and the working classes were destitute and disadvantaged. Through the play, Priestly sends a political message about society, criticising many things. The play begins with the Birlings’ celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft, a wealthy, well bred young man. The Birlings’ appear to be a reasonably happy family but they are so wrapped up in themselves that they fail to notice that anything that is going on around them until an inspector calls.
Inspector Goole cleverly visits the family while they are celebrating the engagement in high spirits. This could signify that the upper classes are too busy having a good time and not thinking about the rest of the world, that they have to be brought back to reality by something ‘horrible’ happening; in this case, the death of Eva Smith, a working-class girl. This demonstrates that Priestly is criticising the upper classes for being too wrapped up in themselves to care about other people.
One of the most obvious things that Priestly criticises is that everyone wants to pass responsibility onto other people, mirrored by the Birlings’ all passing the blame for Eva’s death onto someone else when they are questioned. They all did things without thinking, but later regretted it. The first person to start off Eva Smith’s cycle of misfortune was Mr. Birling, who sacked Eva from her job at his factory because she lead a group of girls to ask for a pay rise. Mr. Birling told the Inspector, ‘Eva Smith was one of them. She’d had a lot to say – far too much – so she had to go.’ This shows how expendable Mr Birling thinks his workers are, and so he uses his powers to do his ‘duty’ and get rid of the workers that cause trouble.
Mr. Birling’s attitude demonstrates perfectly how selfish, and unsympathetic people are. Although he has more than enough money, Mr. Birling still tries to keep the running costs of the factory down and obviously doesn’t place much value on people. They wanted a good life and were selfish by trying to keep money in the family. Priestly criticises this aspect of human nature; that people ‘can’t accept any responsibility’ for other people, or for their own mistakes. Although Mr Birling says that he can’t accept responsibility, he seems to know that it is perfectly possible that he does hold some responsibility. He says, ‘If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward.’
After being sacked, Eva had found a job at Milwards, but also got fired from there after an encounter with Mr. Birling’s daughter; Sheila. She was irrationally jealous of how pretty Eva was, and complained to the manager, saying that Eva had been rude to her. She acted in a very childish manner and she had not thought of the consequences of her actions, regretting it later. Sheila was able to get Eva sacked because of her position in society, whereas Eva, who was of a lower class than Sheila, was not able to stand up for herself because she did not have enough power. Sheila abuses her superior position in society for petty reasons. Priestly is trying to convey the message that we all have a collective responsibility for everyone else, by saying that if the Birlings’ had not have done the things they did, Eva may not have committed suicide.
Status is another important issue raised in the play. Sheila was able to have Eva Smith fired basically because she was of a higher class than Eva. In 1912, when the play was set, class was a major issue among society and everyone was placed in definite class boundaries. Mrs. Birling says, “I don’t suppose for a moment that we can understand why the girl committed suicide. Girls of that class-“, displaying, aptly, the attitudes of the people in higher classes towards those in lower class.
Mrs. Birling is the head of an organisation that helps all women in distress, but she only does it so that she appears to be putting something back into society because she wants to look like she is a caring, upper class woman. When Eva was pregnant, she went to Mrs Birling’s charity for financial aid. Eva unwittingly used Mrs. Birlings’ name, and Mrs. Birling, horrified by the girls’ nerve, decided not to help her. She was disgusted that ‘a girl of that status’ would presume to use the name Birling. Her lack of regard for people shows that she is only the head of the organisation because she wants power, not because she cares for people, and therefore she does not deserve this position. Mrs Birling is a prime example of women during this period. Like her husband she is deliberately blind to anything she does not wish to see. She believes that she is superior, due to wealth and thinks this qualifies her to be respected, held in awe and make judgments on people’s lives
When the Inspector questions Mr. Birling, who repeatedly tells the Inspector of his contacts within the police force. He tries to show his status, hoping that this can save him from trouble. For example, he says, ‘I ought to warn you that Colonel Roberts is an old friend of mine, and I see him fairly frequently,’ which sounds as if he is trying to blackmail the inspector into leaving. He obviously thinks of himself as above other people because he has so many contacts, and hopes that this will get him out of any trouble. Another theme in the play is appearance. More than anything, Mr. Birling was most worried that there would be a ‘public scandal,’ and doesn’t want everyone to know about their visit by the inspector. He does not seem particularly concerned or upset about the death of Eva Smith. Similarly, Mrs. Birling refuses to believe that Eric could even drink, and only believes what she wants to.
There is a lot of lying going on within the Birling family. Firstly, Eric lies to his mother so that he can get out of the house to satisfy his drink craving. Mrs. Birling fails to admit to herself that there is anything wrong with Eric as she is afraid it might ruin her or her husband’s reputation. The Inspector says that, “Public men, Mr. Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges.” Mr. Birling is so wrapped up in not ruining his good reputation that he needs someone to tell him this. Gerald also lies to Sheila about his affair with Daisy Renton, but because he is honest about it when the Inspector asks him, she forgives him. Perhaps if they had all been honest with one another, they would not have had so many disputes
At the end of the play, the Birling’s learn that Inspector Goole doesn’t actually exist, and that a girl did not really die. Instead of learning from this experience, they forget what they did to the girl and celebrate. Apart from Sheila, and Eric to a lesser extent, they continue on as normal, trying to forget what they have all learnt. Here, Priestly is commenting on how people do not learn from their mistakes.
The most significant message Priestly is trying to convey is that that there are those in privileged positions in society who have power and abuse it. Priestly uses the Inspector as a device symbolising our conscience to make us aware of this misconduct. The privileged take advantage of those weaker than themselves, such as Eva Smith who was a working class girl trying to make a living. Through those in power she was used more as an object than a human being until she was of no further use, and then discarded. Priestly wanted to show that this will continue to happen if we do not learn from our mistakes.
Between the years when the play was set and the play was written; 1912-1945, the country experienced World Wars, unrest, Depression, the atomic bomb, fascism and the Holocaust. By 1945 it was possible to look back with hindsight and see that a full circle had taken place: an uncaring society had helped each other to survive the devastation of wars and worse. This emphasises how important it is that we care for each other and don’t just think of ourselves, but help others who are weaker than ourselves. The play is undeniably a social critique, criticising the class system, the attitudes of the rich, the way society tries to shift blame to others and the hypocrisy of people. Society puts on a faï¿½ade, and Inspector Goole broke down the Birlings’ grand exterior to open up their eyes, making them aware of reality and showing them that in effect, everyone is equal.