J.B.Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls

J.B.Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls

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AN INSPECTOR CALLS

COMPARE THE LIVES OF EVA SIMTH AND SHEILA BIRLING

“Property is that old fashioned way of thinking of a country as a
thing and a collection of things on that thing.” This quote is taken
directly from J.B.Priestleys late night post scripts on BBC radio in
1940, which were banned for being to critical of the governments
actions, and can be used to sum up the capitalist view perfectly. I
think this quote is made from the point of view of a capitalist who
believes that the old-fashioned belief is to think of property as
belonging the country and its people however the new belief, his
belief, is that property can belong to individual people and not to
the state or its people at all, and when a person owns his own
property he can run it any way he sees fit. This is a belief which
Priestly continually criticizes throughout his play.

An Inspector Calls was written in 1945, the year the Second World War
ended, but was set in 1911. The social climate of both years was of
great unrest as was many areas of industry in Britain and many strikes
took place all over the country much like the strike which took place
in Mr. Birling’s factory. Priestley set the play in 1911 because of
the onset of the First World War and he would be able to write the
play with the advantage of hindsight, he could also make Mr. Birling
look bad with his portentous beliefs and his promises of no war. He
may have also set the play in 1911 because at this time he was 18
years old, working as a junior clerk in a wool firm and was about to
gain his first insight into the differences between the social
classes. The people he met at this age encouraged him to take part in
their political arguments and discussions which were soon to influence
his opinions and frame the values he was to later write about. These
also led to him eventually attending university already politically
aware at the age of 25.

By writing the play 35 years after it was set, Priestley gave his
audiences the advantage of hindsight. He wanted to do something about
the injustices of society, and because only the middle and upper
classes could afford to go to the theatre, his audiences were exactly
the kind of people he was attacking. They were witnessing their own
lives on stage and for them it may not have been a very pleasant thing
to see. I believe that at the time only the middle and upper classes

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could have believed in capitalism for it does not help the poor in
anyway, in fact it acts as a means to allow the rich to get richer and
forces the poor working classes into deeper poverty.

I think that the majority of wealthy Capitalist businessmen at the
time could be generalized under the headings Selfish and Arrogant,
because at the time there were very few unions to protect workers and
businessmen had to compete with each other to stay in business. This
meant that they fought to pay less for workers and raw materials to
allow themselves the best wage and to keep up the competition with
other companies, with no regards whatsoever for the people they
employed. In Mr. Birlings words they “fight for lower costs and higher
prices” and “employers at last are coming together to see that our
interests - and the interests of capital - are properly being
protected.” In other words they did not care for the people who worked
for them; they just wanted more for less.

Mr. Birling could easily be described as all of the above, selfish,
arrogant, and pompous, and he also gave the impression of someone who
says things without thinking beforehand. There is also evidence of him
not following social laws the way a man like himself should,
especially on page 2 where he says “Good dinner Sybil. Tell cook from
me”. He shouldn’t have said this because this would mean talking to a
member of the working class, but this was made worse by the fact that
he was the host of a dinner party where a very important guest, Gerald
Croft, was present. It is apparent that Mr. Birling was not born into
that class, perhaps he worked his way upwards through his successful
business, as it takes a harsh word form his wife to remind him of what
he should and shouldn’t do.

One of his many awful features is to constantly think that he is
always right regardless of anything that is going on around him which
may be proving him wrong and he displays this on page 7 when he is
talking to Gerald and Eric. He says “The Germans don’t want war,
nobody wants war except some half civilized folks in the Balkans…there
isn’t a chance of war,” and “ in 1940 you’ll be living in a world that
will have forgotten about these capital versus labour agitations and
these silly little war scares.” However we all know that both of
these quotes are historically inaccurate. The first quote tells us
that many businessmen like Mr. Birling didn’t believe that there was
going to be a war taking place so soon but as an audience we know that
not long after the First World War took place. The second quote is
very similar with Birling trying but not succeeding in correctly
predicting the future of the country. Again as an audience we know
that the Second World War broke out and that these two wars were to
change the social climate in Britain and begin the breakdown of the
social classes.

The First World War brought many changes to British society. All men
of every class were sent to war regardless of wealth of power and this
probably would have included men like Gerald and Eric, who were either
sent straight to the front lines or else made to work on the home
front. The middle and upper classes were now having to rely upon the
working classes who managed to do there jobs better as they were used
to manual labour, and the higher classes began to see the lower
classes in a new light. Even higher class women would have had to
work…women like Sheila, especially with her new found social
conscience, may have been involved in nursing.

After the war people felt that they wanted more from life and so they
did not want to go back and do hard, low paid menial jobs such as
cooks, maids and servants. This started the decline of the big houses
and estates as well the structure of the social classes.

An Inspector calls at first glance begins as a detective ‘whodunit’
thriller but then turns out to be a story of values and morality. We
find that a girl, Eva smith, has committed suicide however there were
people to blame for pushing her to that extreme. Although we know that
no-one has killed her we find that many people share a moral
responsibility for her death.

The main character of the play is Eva smith yet she never appears in
the play except through the Birling family’s memory of her and the
diary that she left behind, and if it wasn’t for that diary, the
Birling family would have no idea of the suffering they caused this
girl. Her character is used to represent the masses that are the
working classes and on page 56 the inspector says “…there are millions
and millions and millions of Eva smiths and john smiths still left
with us” and this could show that the use of the most common name in
Britain, Smith, as her second name may be used to symbolize that she
is just normal working class girl.

The shape of the play is a circular, spiral-like shape which fits in
with the message the play is trying to convey. The play begins with
the family feeling very relaxed and complacent, until the inspector
arrives and they begin to feel more tense and uncomfortable. The play
then ends with the Birlings again feeling relaxed and complacent after
finding that the inspector is not real, until they get a phone call
telling them about the inspector that is about to arrive. If the play
were to continue it would have gone in almost a complete circle except
for the fact that Sheila and Eric have changed and there will be a
different inspector this time around. If the elder Birlings still have
not changed by the time the new inspector leaves then someone else
will come and challenge them as they begin to relax. Priestley is
showing that these inequalities are not just going to go away and they
will keep going on and on and on until everybody in society changes
their morals beliefs and values.

There are three very clear places where Priestley could have ended the
play: around the middle of act 3 when the inspector leaves after
announcing his prophecy, after Gerald returns to the Birling household
and they discover that the inspector was not real and then also the
real ending of the play when the Birlings are expecting another police
inspector. This creates suspense for the audience as does the
cliff-hangers at the end of each act. At the end of act 1, the
audience s left wondering how Gerald knew Eva smith, at the end of act
2 the audience has just witnessed Mrs. Birling discovering that her
son had gotten Eva pregnant after condemning him to public
embarrassment, and she also in effect played a part in the killing of
her own grandchild, and at the end of act 3 Mr. Birling has just
received a telephone call form the police telling him that a police
inspector is on his way to ask questions regarding a girls suicide.
The audience is always left wandering at the end of each scene and the
tension builds up as the Birling family, a microcosm of society at the
time, is put under the microscope for all to see.

The purpose of the inspector is to present us with Priestley’s own
ideas and beliefs, to act as the voice of all socialists and represent
their views, which are direct contrasts to the capitalist beliefs of
the elder Birling family members, and to give the audience a view of
society at the time. During the play the inspector continually sides
with Eva and the less fortunate working classes, for example on page
20 he says “it would do us all some good if sometimes we tried to put
ourselves in the place of these young women counting their pennies in
their dingy little back bedrooms.” Here Priestley’s view uses this
quote to tell the audience what life was like for these young girls
when no one was around to help them, however many people, like Mr.
Birling, didn’t agree with this socialist belief and actually thought
that this poverty was a good thing because it taught people their
rightful place in society, and as the inspector says on page 19 “there
are a lot of young women living that sort of existence in every city
and big town in this country. If there weren’t, the factories and
warehouses wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labour.”

The inspector makes very snide comments much to the annoyance of the
elder members of the family and clashes with them very frequently. For
example after Mr. Birling says “if you don’t come down harshly on some
people, they’d soon be asking or the earth” he says “they might. But
after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.” Also when
Mr. Birling comments on the ‘nasty mess’ the inspector makes of their
evening meal, he says “that’s more or less what I was thinking earlier
tonight when I was in the infirmary looking at what was left of Eva
smith.” These quotes also reinforce the imposing character of the
inspector and his harshness towards unrepentant characters. Also on
page 56 the inspector says “we don’t live alone. We are members of one
body. We are responsible for each other.” However on page 9 Mr.
Birling says “a man has to make his own way – has to look after
himself – and his family to of course…you’d think everybody has to
look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like
bees in a hive community.” These two opinions are the opposites of
each other and coincidentally this is where the inspector makes his
first appearance. The inspector also reinforces his belief on 29 when
he says “You see we have to share something. If there’s nothing else
we have to share our guilt.”

The inspector predicts the on come of the First World War in his
departing speech on page 56, he says “the time will soon come when, if
men will not learn they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.”
This gives the inspector a very surreal supernatural quality which can
also be found in his name ‘Goole’ which can also be spelt ‘Ghoul’, an
evil spirit, and this can be taken as a hint for something darker. At
then end of the play we discover that the inspector does not actually
exist, but if he is not real then he is symbolic. He is the collective
conscience of what the Birling knows about them but will not admit.
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