The play “An Inspector Calls” is one that contains many broad themes, and one of these is that of morality. Morality manifests itself in many ways throughout the play, on a small scale in the individual case of the Birlings and Eva Smith, through the Inspector, and as a constant undercurrent running through the entire play, alongside other social issues like class, love and responsibility. The play also contains varied attitudes towards morality, which adds to the depth and universal message that it carries.
One of the key situations in which attitudes to morality vary is the divide between young and old within the Birling family. Arthur Birling, the self-proclaimed patriarch of the family, takes a hard line towards morality. This is illustrated even before his or his family’s involvement in Eva Smith’s death is revealed, as he is shown to be a “hard headed practical man of business”, proclaiming that “a man has to look after himself and his own”.Order now
His attitude to morality is also highlighted by his attitude to responsibility, shown in his quote “you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else… a man has to mind his own business”. This idea is furthered when he is revealed to have a part in Eva Smith’s death. Upon being questioned by the Inspector, he says that “I can’t accept any responsibility”, and continues with “If we were all responsible for everything that had happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it”?
These quotes show that Mr Birling’s concept of morality is that everyone is responsible for just themselves, and that morally no one person is capable of affecting another. Mr Birling’s attitude towards morality is further revealed once the extent of his family’s involvement in Eva Smith’s demise is revealed. His main concern is not that of Eva Smith’s life or affairs, but whether the honourable name of “Birling” will be tarnished by the events surrounding her death. For example, when Sybil is revealed to have turned down aid for Eva Smith, Birling is most concerned with “the press pick(ing) up on it”.
Furthermore, after the full extent of his family’s roles to play in the tragedy, he is not concerned with the consequences of their actions, but that “I was sure of a knighthood”, both of these quotes showing how his moral attitude is one of self preservation, that the rights and wrongs of an event can only be attributed t0 him if they reflect well on him- something that morally opposes him or his attitude is irrelevant. This attitude is echoed by his wife and class superior, Mrs Birling.
Mrs Birling’s moral groundings are clearly revealed whilst under interrogation, but like her husband’s they are shown up even further after the tension is relaxed by the departure of the Inspector. One of her first lines under interrogation, “We’ve done a lot of work helping deserving cases” shows an air of arrogance about her, as she suggests that she has the right to morally discriminate against those that she considers to be “below” her, showing moral prejudice.
When the extent of her doings are revealed, “She came to you for help, at a time when no woman could have needed it more… ou not only refused it but used your influence to see that the others refused it too”, shows that she, like Birling, has no real concept of collective morality, only considering how things will impact on her, with no regard for motive or the moral and physical well-being of others and how she can affect it. More importantly however, her moral attitude is reflected by the other Birling senior of the play, which can, and is interpreted by Priestley as showing how morally out of touch the older generation are.
This is especially true when their attitudes to morality are compared with those of the younger generation- most notably Eric, and firstly Sheila. As soon as Sheila hears of the death of a girl, she is immediately saddened, and almost sorry for the event before she is even aware of her complicity in the chain that leads to Eva Smith’s death. Examples include “Oh, how horrible” and “(rather distressed) it’s just that I can’t help thinking about this girl”.
This shows a much more reasoned and knowledgeable attitude to life and morals than Birling, and this is highlighted in her response to her own part in Eva Smith’s demise- her sacking from Millward’s. Sheila is clearly remorseful for her own part in Eva Smith’s death, shown by lines like “I felt rotten about it at the time” and “If I could help her now, I would”. This shows Sheila is morally in touch, and realises that basic moral standards apply to anyone, whatever class or situation they find themselves in.
However, her moral reasoning is more developed and vital to the play when not referring to herself, but more to those around her. Sheila’s moral application in terms of the others intertwined in the case is raised consistently following her own interrogation. This is most clearly raised in the scenes following the Inspector’s departure, as is common with the other characters- the release of tension being used by Priestley effectively to develop the story further.
While the senior Birlings consider the fact that the Inspector was in fact not an Inspector makes a difference to what they have done, Sheila can see past this. She says that “Everything we said that happened had happened” and “You began to learn something. Now you’ve stopped”. This shows that Sheila can see past basic fact, and knows that morally, whatever the final consequence of any poor conduct, the conduct has still been poor and therefore cannot be condoned.
This is again an example of the divide between youth and age, with Birling and his wife feeling that “this (the fact that the Inspector was a fake) makes all the difference”, highlighting the moral naivety of the Birling seniors, and thereby emphasising the moral strengths of the younger. The other main example of Sheila’s moral perception is that of truth and honesty, particularly in the dialogue preceding Mrs Birling’s interrogation. She often interjects early on, seemingly unnecessarily, for example “no mother, please! ” and “I feel you’re beginning all wrong”.
However, she explains her stance further on in the scene, with “You mustn’t try to build up a wall between us and that girl… the Inspector will just break it down”. The Inspector then confirms Sheila’s fears- “She’s right”. This perception of truth and honesty contrasts not only the moral empathy of the young with the more apathetic feelings of the older, but also their knowledge and perception of the world around them- another example being Birlings speeches of “There’s no chance of war” and suchlike, which shows how out of touch he is.
Of course, Sheila is not the only younger Birling, and Eric takes a similar moral stance. Despite his arguably most condemnable involvement in Eva Smith’s death, Eric is also much more acutely aware of moral and general principles than the older Birlings, although it is important to remember that the “well made-play”, as “An Inspector Calls” is described as, is topical, and in 1912 and also 1946, the principles of labour versus capital and the workplace were not as developed as today, showing Eric as having a futuristic and perceptive view of events.
This is shown when he challenges Birling’s reasoning for sacking Eva Smith. Birling says “If they didn’t like those rates they could go and work somewhere else… It’s a free country you know”. Eric however, responds with “Not if you can’t go and work somewhere else”, and continues this attitude with “He could have kept her on” and “Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages”l, highlighting that he feels Birling had a choice, a moral choice, and in his opinion, took the wrong one.
Eric is also shown to have moral sensitivity alongside Sheila in the closing scenes of the play, saying that “It frightens me the way you talk” in referring to Birling and Sybil’s attitude that everything is fine if there is no suicide or inspector. This is furthered when he states “He was our police inspector alright”, showing that Eric feels that morally the Birlings are in the wrong, despite the fact that events have seemingly come out all right, for them at least, which Eric clearly feels is irrelevant.
He furthers this idea with “so what, the girls still dead, no one’s bought her back, have they”? His views on moral responsibility are also highlighted in the play. When Mrs Birling says to him “I’m ashamed of you”, he replies with “I don’t blame you”, showing that he accepts moral responsibility for what he has done, and feels that his family should too. However, morality and its issues are not discussed alone within the Birlings- the title character of the play is also a key figure in this debate.
Even before the Inspector enters, it can be interpreted what his views on morality are. As the doorbell rings to signal his entrance, it interrupts Birling’s own views and perceptions on morality and responsibility, signifying that there is to be a new dominant view in the household- and so it proves. The Inspector presents his own views in a way that is much simpler than Birlings- simply through the questions he asks and how he responds to the answers we can see what he feels- it takes Birling speeches of gross proportion to put across his point.
One of his first key lines “It’s better to ask for the Earth than to take it” shows that he has a universal perception on morality, and this is continually revealed throughout his dialogue. After Birling reveals his part in the affair, the Inspector reveals his first example of moral empathy- “it would all do us a bit of good sometimes if we tried to put ourselves in the place of these young women counting their pennies”. Another example is, when referring to criminals, “I wouldn’t know where to draw the line”.
This shows that the Inspector feels morality and the right and the wrong go far beneath simple actions- and this is furthered by his reaction to Eric and Gerald’s parts in the death of the girl. They both tell a similar story- Gerald saying “I guess I didn’t feel about her as she did about me” and Eric, “I wasn’t in love with her or anything”. To someone with shallow moral perception, these stories may seem identical, and equally condonable or condemnable.
However, in the final scene of the play, the Inspector credits Gerald with “at least (you) had some affection for her and made her happy for a time”, but in stark contrast says that Eric “just used her… as if she were an animal, a thing, not a person”. This disparity in moral opinion between two very similar events shows just how deep the Inspector’s moral attitude goes, and that motive and context are just as important in moral discrimination as the simple actions that bring about the consequences. The Inspector’s views on morality are furthered and deepened in the final acts of the play- in one very small section of his final speeches.
He first recounts the chain of events theory that is running throughout the play, showing that moral actions and consequences can be linked- in total contrast with the denial of the senior Birlings. He states “The girl killed herself, and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her”. He then moves on to each character in turn and morally questions them, as he did in his investigation. He shows that despite events being similar, the extent of their morality, for better or for worse, can vary immensely. An example is that of Eric and Gerald, as previously mentioned, and also that of Birling and Sheila.
He says to Birling, “You started it… you made her pay a heavy price for that. And now she’ll make you pay a heavier price still”, but to Sheila, simply “you helped”. As with Eric and Gerald, these are two extremely similar events, but morally the Inspector sharply distinguishes them. His highlighting of how Eva Smith will now make Birling “pay” also shows the extent of his attitude to morality- it will remain long after the actions and consequences have passed. This is furthered by “I don’t think any of you will forget”.
His final speech also contains references to this. He says that “their (millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths) lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do”. This shows the moral linking and consequence that the Inspector is shown to believe in, the cause and effect similar to they way in which he interrogates the characters and describes the girl’s death. Morality also manifests itself in combination with other key themes of the play, and one of these is that of responsibility.
Throughout each character’s response to interrogation, and the Inspector’s treatment of them, morality and responsibility come up side by side. When Birling is questioned, he says that “If we were responsible for everything that had happened to everyone we’d ever been involved with, that’d be very awkward, wouldn’t it? ” This shows the lack of responsibility and acceptance held by Birling, but also the lack of moral perception- the fact that an action does not have an immediate consequence either way does not make it morally wrong or right- it is the outcome that matters, as in the view presented by the Inspector.
Moral responsibility as a whole is also a key theme- Sheila accepts that she “behaved badly” and that “(she) feels responsible”, combining the two themes, as she does consistently and perceptively throughout the play. The contrasting views on responsibility between Birling and the Inspector are also related to this, as they directly correspond with their contrasting views on morality. Birling repeatedly refers to himself as a “man of business”, and makes outlandish statements like “a man must make his own way” and “look after himself and his own”.
In contrast, the Inspector states that “we are not alone” and “we are responsible for each other”. These intertwine with their contrasting views on morality- the Inspector empathises with the girls in a similar position to Eva Smith, “… put ourselves in the position of those young women counting their pennies”, while Birling states that “he’d give thousands… “. Naturally one would assume this to be to bring her back, but Birling’s moral standards are such that it is more likely to solve her own skin.
Therefore, morality and responsibility are linked cleverly by Priestley, adding to the “well-made” feel of “An Inspector Calls” and furthering the universal message that can be drawn from it. Finally, the issue of morality alongside status or class is also highlighted by Priestley in “An Inspector Calls”. This is mainly presented in the Inspector’s methods of attempting to bring some closure and moral respect for Eva Smith.
Whilst he seems to fail in his approach to the senior Birlings, highlighted by their carefree attitude and moral naivety after he has left, “This makes all the difference” (referring to the fact there is no death), he seems to succeed in his attempts with this in the younger Birlings, with Sheila stating that “if I could help her now, I would”, and the Inspector brings this feeling about in her by changing the idea of status- “You used the power you had… to punish the girl”. He also uses description of her in a positive light, “pretty”, “had a nice little promising life”.
He does a similar thing with Eric- his line that “(Eric) used her as an animal… a thing… ” cause him to feel “The girl’s still dead, isn’t she”. He in fact effectively compares her favourably to the Birlings, the fact that “she had done no harm” while the Birlings had clearly harmed her. All of these points show that morality must extend to class, at least in the eyes of the Inspector, and that it is all consuming and not restricted from social band to band- his interpretation might be that no one can be ostracised from the effects of morality, however they reflect upon them.
In conclusion, Priestley presents morality in many diverse contexts and guises in “An Inspector Calls”. He uses the social themes of the time that are still relevant today, such as responsibility and divisions in society, to emphasise the importance of morality, and how important it is in life. He also shows how perceptions and principles of morality vary from person to person, and how these ideas can link together, despite being relatively disparate in some cases. Therefore, he presents attitudes to morality through a small scale, with his “An Inspector Calls”, to hold a universal message that can, and must, influence anyone.