An inspector calls Essay
An inspector calls
How does Priestley use the Inspector to create a sense of impending doom for the Birling family in act one of An Inspector calls? There are several themes portrayed by certain characters including responsibility, community, guilt, egocentricity and denial. They are key ideas in Priestley’s play An Inspector calls, and contribute to the general sense of imminent trouble. There is a great deal of contrast with regards to social events and historical context between the time the play is set in, 1912 – Pre World Wars, and the first staging of the place, post World war 2, 1945-46 (disputed).
This difference is what fuels many ironic statements throughout Act one, mainly by Mr Birling (one example of this is his speech on page 4). The class Hierarchy also plays an important part in the play, as the Birlings are upper-middle class, and Act One conveys this impression of the stereotypes of class very well. The Impact of the staging suggests a money-orientated ‘posh’ lifestyle surrounding the family, which the audience would generally disapprove of because of the economic slump and more lower classes present post World War 2.
The Birlings are an almost aristocratic family and they look down on any one who is below them in the social hierarchy. Priestley uses the inspector as a key dramatic device and moral conscience to ‘teach’ the Birlings moral values and the themes discussed earlier. There are many emotive metaphors one can link to the idea of war in the play, such as ‘fire blood and anguish’. Furthermore Priestley may have written this detective thriller play set in Edwardian England in an industrial city to convey the message “Learn from your mistakes so it doesn’t happen again” referring to the world wars.
Who is the inspector? No real person of interest, more something like a personified bad conscience of guilt and internal voice. The play opens with an ‘intimate’ celebration of Gerald and Sheila’s engagement. Priestley presents the audience with a calm, family and celebratory mood at the beginning of Act One’s first scene. This is clearly shown in the stage directions ‘the lighting should be pink and intimate’. The adjective ‘intimate’ may suggest a mood of relaxation, cosiness and self-involvement.
This contrasts to the set as being described as ‘not cosy and homelike’ implying something is out of place in the atmosphere, which may suggest presage to looming mess and confusion. It also contributes to the foreshadowing of the inspectors entrance (as one would expect contrast later in a play) when the lighting is described as ‘brighter and harder’. The comparative adjectives ‘brighter’ and ‘harder’ both suggest the mood turns focused and may imply an intensification of the already tense atmosphere caused by the dramatic effect of the inspector’s entrance.
Moreover this use of lighting hints at the foreshadowing of the ‘trouble’ that the Birlings will come to turns with. Priestley presents Mr Birling in a very arrogant and negative light to the viewers. An example of this is Mr Birling’s toast on page 4, when he talks about his view regarding the engagement of his daughter. ‘Perhaps we may look forward to a time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing… – For lower costs and higher prices’. This shows Mr Birling’s possible key objective and may suggest Mr Birling is materialistic, as that is how he finished his speech, pressing more emphasis on money and profit.
This is an example of his totalitarian obsession with money, and is likely what caused the idea of Eva Smith’s loss of job, and eventual death, exposed by the inspector. In addition, the focus on reputation and honour are key factors in presenting Mr Birling as a corrupt, self-obsessed, and acquisitive businessman, obsessed with his image. ‘I gather there is a very good chance of a knighthood ‘ … so don’t get into police court or start a scandal’ his suggestion of a ‘knighthood’ may indicate his need of representation within his social class; as a righteous citizen, showing the Birlings have high hopes within their society.
Mr Birling appears to use his social status to acquire respect and nobility from Gerald. It is also ironic that he asks his family not to ‘get into police court or start a scandal’ since that is exactly what appears happens in the play, and this can ironically foreshadow the future events. His obsession in keeping his image, and his attitude toward lower classes is what makes him reluctant to disclose details concerning and regarding his company, ‘Birlings and Company’, to the inspector.
This defensive attitude, this ‘wall’ is what he inspector expects and retaliates against. By doing so he makes the family feel uncomfortable as if there is something worse to be revealed, adding to the sense imminent disaster in this Act. Furthermore, Mr Birling’s strict view on life is another probable cause for the unfolding of the events. The fact that Mr Birling says ‘ – that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own – and-‘ shows his self-obsessed and uncaring side, which makes the audience feel uneasy.
At this point, at the pinnacle and point of Mr Birling’s speech, the doorbell sharply rings interrupting him. This has a substantial dramatic impact as Mr Birling was likely to say ‘family’ and, ironically, the inspector’s supposed aim is to teach him and his family community responsibly, as if the inspector wants to say ‘community’ by ringing the doorbell, and, by using hindsight, one may assume this foreshadows the inspector’s intentions. Also, the inspector’s entrance is considerably significant, as it adjusts the mood and alters the atmosphere.
His entrance invokes a sense of apprehension which is built on later on in the play, starting the sense of impending doom of the inspector’s interrogation because no one would expect anyone to come to the house this late, unless it concerned something very important, urgent or a combination of the two. His first words are ‘Mr Birling? ‘ simply inquiring to if it is Mr Birling he is talking to. This may imply the inspector wants to cut to the chase and start the inquiry, to the annoyance of Mr Birling, as he wants to butter him up and get it over with.
It may also show that the main reason the inspector is here is Mr Birling, and he may directly implicate Mr Birling just by asking a simple question, even though we know that is not true later on in the Act, the audience is still unaware. This adds to the uneasy, nervous atmosphere caused by his entrance. The stage directions clearly intensifies the mentality and superiority of the Inspector, as he ”creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity, and purposefulness’.
The sense of anxiety, interest and uneasiness rises at the sudden impact of a police inspector’s entrance, just spelling trouble, and the fact that it is late at night implies deep trouble for the Birlings and Gerald. Moreover, the inspector makes the family ask him questions rather than the other way around (as one might expect with an inspector, as that is his job, to ask questions) and he intentionally withholds details and information from the family to use their curiosity to implicate themselves.
For example when Eric tries to get out of the interrogation as he says he feels uneasy, the Inspector tells him he should stay there, and wait’s for Eric to ask ‘Why should I? ‘ and replies with ‘It might be less trouble. If you turn in, you might have to turn out again soon. ‘ This answer could simply state the impracticality of Eric turning in yet his answer may also be ironic because he will implicate Eric in a number of ways, revealing Eric is in more trouble than he previously thought, possibly because he stayed.
This may be because the inspector is trying to ‘teach’ them a lesson, and he does so by ‘Inspecting’ the family and he gathers and uses the information he derives from the reactions of the characters, in this case Eric. By telling Eric to stay he makes not only the characters but also the audience feel uncomfortable, and this further builds on the apprehension and mystery surrounding the inspector, adding to the sense of impending doom in the Act. Moreover, Mr Birling is trying to get the interrogation over with and refuses to believe he is involved.
For example, Mr Birling’s reaction when he realises he’s not the only one involved, but also his family, is quite significant. He said ‘If id’ known that earlier, I wouldn’t have called you officious and talked about reporting you’ and may imply that Mr Birling is relieved that he isn’t involved, but the fact that it’s any better for him that his family is involved, is quite disconcerting for the audience because it shows he is more self-involved and egocentric, as he cares more about himself than his wife and children.
The statement may also imply that, in the point of view of Mr Birling, his temper got out of hand when he talked about calling him officious, and he now regrets what he said either because he was just worried about himself and looked for an excuse to show his remorse to show himself in a more positive light, or because he feels he needs to protect his family, and that his calling the inspector ‘officious’ he may have offended him and this could negatively change the inspector’s view of the family, which may lead the inspector do or act unsympathetically towards them, and by explaining his actions he could avoid impending trouble.
In addition, Priestley presents Sheila as being part of the audience. He does this by using her as a dramatic device, as the inspector. But in contrast to the use of the inspector as a dramatic device to be the voice of moral value, Sheila may be used to represent the ear, or audience to absorb Priestley’s lessons. For example the inspector talks about Eva Smith ‘not exactly’ going on the streets, Sheila enters, as if her entrance represented the audience’s curiosity toward Eva. Sheila immediately inquires ‘what’s this about streets?
‘ Leading into her involvement in the supposed suicide of the character Eva Smith by making her ask the questions and him using emotive language. Finally he shows a photograph, which may or may not be the character Eva Smith, to Sheila and she instantly exposed herself with the person on the photograph’s involvement. The inspector feeds on this and uses it to implicate her further. This gives an impression of the inspector’s superior knowledge To the Birlings and builds on the sense of impending doom in the Act. Adding to that, the family, especially Sheila, feel there is no point in lying because the inspector knows the truth.
The family, and event he audience, might wander why the inspector asks the questions if he already knows the answers? The answer to that may simply be he wants to find out he credibility and honesty of the family but I think its deeper than that. It could be Priestley’s intention of teaching audience, through the play, moral responsibilities and values by showing the social flaws at the time. An example of this is the discussion of the inspector between Gerald and Sheila at the end of Act 1 revealing Gerald’s connection with Eva Smith (Daisy Renton) and Sheila’s reluctance to lie to the inspector.
This shows how deep the dramatic impact of the inspector really is, as was foreshadowed earlier in the Act concluded by the entrance of the inspector right before the curtain falls leaving a dramatic cliff-hanger at the fall of the curtain. Finally, Priestley was a soldier in the First World War, experienced many of the harsh realities of war; which may have motivated him to write this play. He wanted to express his beliefs through a character. So he created the inspector as his image to convey his scepticism and criticism toward anti-socialist upper-class arrogance represented by the Birlings.
Priestley’s use of the inspector as a dramatic device and Sheila’s representation of the audience promoted and got across his views throughout the play and especially in Act One. He created the sense of doom for the Birlings to show what happens to such attitudes represented by the family, because as we know, the war would have had a devastating impact on them. The mood of the act started out intimate and casual and slowly evolved to tense and disquieting because of the inspector’s interrogation and even by him simply being there. What J. B. Priestley wanted to tell the audience through the play and through the inspector was ‘…
One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smith still left with us… We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. ‘ I didn’t much like the play, but I did enjoy the subtleties and casual metaphors that made me think. To conclude, I think it is a piece of literature that was significant at the time, though I think a different piece which would’ve evoked more interest would’ve been a better choice to analyze. I hope you enjoyed reading it more than I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Subject: An inspector calls,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 July 2017
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