The play is set in Edwardian England and aims to expose the social criticisms of the time. Just before World War 1, with the Titanic, an apparently unsinkable ship, ready to set sail, on her first voyage in a few weeks, which as we now know, did actually sink. This possibly showing the upper class’ arrogance, that they were far superior to any other person. The play begins with the Birlings’ celebrating the engagement of Sheila their daughter, to a wealthy young man, Gerald Croft.
The Birlings’ appear to be a reasonably joyful family but they are so involved 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 a cheerful mood. 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 involved with themselves to care about other people. One of the most obvious points that Priestly criticises about us as humans, is that everyone wants to pass the blame onto other people, which is mirrored by the Birlings’ who all pass the blame for Eva’s death onto someone else when they are questioned. They all make actions without thinking, but then start to regret it. The first person to start off Eva Smith’s cycle of misfortune was Mr.
Birling, when he sacked Eva from her job at his factory because she lead a group of girls who asked 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, that his workers are in his power to do as he says and it is his ‘duty’ to get rid of the workers that cause trouble, or potentially start something that may osculate into something far worse. Mr. Birling’s attitude demonstrates perfectly how selfish, and unsympathetic the upper class at the time were. Even though he has more plenty of money, Mr.
Birling still tries to keep the running costs of the factory down and obviously doesn’t place much value on the workers he employees. He was selfish by trying to keep money within the family. Priestly criticises this aspect of human nature, that we ‘can’t accept any responsibility’ for other people, or for our own mistakes. Although Mr Birling says that he cannot 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 got a job at Milwards, but also got fired from there. After an encounter with Mr. Birling’s daughter; Sheila. Shelia was jealous of how pretty Eva was, when wearing a hat, and complained to the manager, saying that Eva had been rude to her. Sheila admitted to the inspector that she had acted very childishly and 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, and was therefore not able to stand up for herself.
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 only able to have Eva Smith fired, simply 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, appropriately, the attitudes of the people in higher classes towards those in lower class’. Mrs. Birling, is the head of an establishment that helps women who are in distress, but she only does it so that she is seen to be giving something back into society, this is purely because she is trying 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, without knowing, used Mrs. Birlings’ name, Mrs. Birling, appalled by the girls’ cheek, decided not to help her.
She was dismayed that ‘a girl of that status’ would imagine to use the name Birling. Mrs Birlings lack of regard for people shows that she can only be the head of the establishment because all she wants is power, not because she cares for people, and is consequently not worthy of this role within the establishment. Mrs Birling is a prime example of women during this period. Similar to her husband, 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 as she so wishes.
When the inspector questions Mr Birling, he keeps trying to show his status and use this to keep him out of trouble. A good example of this, is that Mr Birling repeatedly tells the inspector about his contacts within the police force. Mr Birling 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 quite obviously thinks rather highly of himself, and that his contacts with other persons makes him far more superior than any other person, and this will keep him out of harms path.
Another theme within the play is appearance – more than anything, Mr. Birling was worried about there being a ‘public scandal,’ and doesn’t want everyone to know about their visit from the inspector. He does not seem particularly bothered or uneasy about the death of Eva Smith. Similarly, Mrs. Birling refuses to consider that Eric could even drink, and only believes what she wants too. Within the Birling family there is a lot of lying going on. Firstly, Eric lies to his mother so that he can get out of the house to fulfil his drinking urge. Mrs.
Birling fails to acknowledge to herself that there is anything wrong with Eric, as she is frightened that it could 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 concerned about 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, so she forgives him for being honest about it when questioned, rather than trying to cover it up.
Near the end of the play, the Birling’s learn, via a phone call, that Inspector ‘Goole’ does not really exist, and that a girl did not really die. Instead of learning from what the inspector had taught them, they decide to forget about what they did to the girl and commemorate. Here Priestly is highlighting the point that often people do not learn from their mistakes. The most significant message Priestly is trying to convey is that that there are those in honoured positions in society who have power, and abuse it.
Priestly uses the Inspector as a guide, to help pin point our conscience to make us aware of this misconduct. The privileged people in society often take advantage of those with a lower status or those of less importance than themselves, such as Eva Smith who was a working class girl trying hard to make a living. But was being used as more of a tool rather than a human to make money for the person who would abuse there power, by discarding her when she became of no more use to them. Priestly is trying to show that this is what will continue to happen in society 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 and see that a full circle had taken place, that an uncaring society had helped each other to survive the devastation of wars and worse. This emphasises on the point of how significant it is that we care for each other and do not just think of ourselves, but instead help others who are in more need than ourselves.
The play is unquestionably a social assessment, criticising the class system, the attitudes of the rich towards the poor, the way society tries to shift blame to others and the insincerity of people. Society puts on a disguise, that Inspector Goole broke down, by exposing the Birlings’ to make them realise and aware about the effect their actions had towards other people and making them aware that in reality and effect, everyone is equal, no matter of social standing or role in society.