An Inspector Calls, Social Responsibility
An Inspector Calls, Social Responsibility
An Inspector Calls was written by J. B. Priestley after the Second World War. It is set in the spring of 1912 at the Brumley home of the Birlings, a prosperous industrial family in the North Midlands. When the Inspector Goole first enters the scene, Mr. Birling is giving some ‘good advice’, as he calls it, “A man has to make his own way – has to look after himself…The way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has look after everybody else, as if we’re all mixed up together”.
Collectively, the Birlings had been celebrating, rather decadently, a celebration of Gerald and Sheila’s engagement and Mr. Birling had also been talking about there being a good chance that he will be in the next honours list. There is also an interesting point when Mr. Birling talks openly of Gerald and Sheila’s social divide, “Your mother…feels you might have done better for yourself socially [than Sheila]”. This shows that the Birlings and the Crofts, both rich families, opinion that social class is everything and cannot be overlooked.
Overall, the evening is almost entirely focused on society itself and how to ‘properly’ act in it. When the Inspector comes in, his manner is completely different and, as we find out later in the play, his opinion of society too. He is reserved, inquisitive and not afraid to ask impertinent questions to those who may be of higher social ‘standing’ than himself. Even more significance is shown later on in the play when the characters of Mr. Birling and that of the Inspector are found to be polar opposites. The set for “An Inspector Calls”
Source: Wiki Commons Whenever you refer to text in the book, remember to put in the page number so that the examiner knows you are not “making it up. ” It also shows you have more confidence in the points you are writing about. In his notes J. B. Priestley describes Inspector Goole as “a big man” but “creates an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness. ” (p. 11). The stage directions repeatedly show him “cutting through, massively” (p. 12), “massively taking charge” (p. 28), “with authority” (p. 34), “cutting in, sharply” (p. 45).
The director should take advantage of these stage directions and use them to make him seem larger than life and in full control of the situation in order to mimic the “character” of Inspector Goole, Goole behaves like a police inspector in that he remains in control, he dominates the other characters including Mr. and Mrs. Birling, who are used to dominating others and being obeyed: “(As Birling tries to protest, turns on him) Don’t stammer and yammer at me again, man. I’m losing all my patience with you people” He has no respect for them and this comes as a shock to the Birlings who are very highly respected throughout society, Mr. Birlings only reply being, “what did he say? ”, after this outburst Mrs. Birling is “rather cowed. ”
Aside from a few uncontrolled outbursts, Goole is constantly calm and unruffled and speaks “firmly” (p. 51) and “imperturbably” (p. 31). Goole is unusual and intriguing, however, in that he makes his close, personal feelings known to the Birlings. He represents Priestley’s moral view, the moral dimension of allowing others to see they can find forgiveness though future good behavior makes him different from a normal police inspector because he is more concerned with morality rather than legality.
Furthermore he is outraged and disgusted about what has been done to Eva Smith and he lets the Birlings know this throughout the play, “She died in misery and agony hating life” (p28). His language is sometimes blunt, deliberately harsh and he defies Birlings attempts to rebuke him. Goole reminds Mr. Birling that he has responsibilities, “Public men, Mr. Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges” (p. 41), this shows Goole’s feelings towards the upper class which we learn a lot more about further on in the play.
Goole is also unintimidated when Mr. Birling tries to worry him by telling him that Colonel Roberts is “an old friend of mine. ” (p. 16). The inspector, however, is unaffected and continues determinedly, refusing to be misled or diverted form his aim: to get each person to admit their part in Eva’s death, “it’s the way I like to work, “One person and one line of enquiry at a time. ” (p. 12). It is because of his unusual qualities that the audience is led to suspect that Goole is not a normal police inspector.
The Birlings also come to a similar conclusion and Mr. Birling and Gerald believe the whole affair to be a hoax. The audience is not so sure and we are left to reconsider when the phone call at the end of the play suggests the real inspector is about to arrive. This leaves us with the question that if the inspector isn’t real, then who is he? J. B. Priestley was very clever in the way he created the character of the inspector, he used Goole as a “tool” to represent his strong moral view of society and the way people think and do things.
Priestley had strong socialistic views, and firmly believed that “we are all members of one body,” he saw the world as a community where everyone should be helping each other. An Inspector Calls is an informative play with a clear moral and political message which Priestley wanted the audience to accept. He effectively used Goole to voice the views he had. Mr. Birling says the inspector was “probably a socialist or some sort of crank- he talked like one” (p. 60) This tells us a lot about what message Priestley was trying to give to the audience as he himself was a socialist.
Before the inspector tells us we are all links in the chain and we should look out for each other, the audience sees enacted before us exactly what might happen if we choose to ignore this view of society. Each of the Birlings is a link in the chain of events that lead to Eva Smiths suicide, even Gerald who has only just recently been engaged to Sheila. When Priestley, quite suddenly, reveals exactly how all the Birlings and Gerald are interconnected in Eva Smith’s suicide, he communicates immediately his message that: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. ”
This sudden revelation is very effective because it makes the audience themselves aware that even they could have brought about similar tragedies without even knowing it, or at least become aware that there are “Millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left”, meaning that there are a multitude of people in the world to whom similar circumstances have transpired, people that are so often forgotten in modern society, the audience suddenly becomes aware of these people, a revelation no doubt infinitely given weight and significance by the sudden manner that the Birling’s involvement with Eva Smith is made clear.
Furthermore, this rather socialist concept and the fact that if it is ignored, “the time will soon come when, if men do not learn this lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. ” is very relevant since An Inspector Calls was released in 1945, the end of the Second World War, therefore much of the original audience might have been able to identify with the “fire and blood and anguish” because of the rather turbulent past six years.
As can be seen, Priestley uses Eva Smith as a representative character type for the forgotten of society, the millions of individuals who are ignored and shunned through a series of misfortunes, disdain from others and more likely a lack of capital or means of support, generally ‘down and outs’. The fact that a World War had just ended also emphasises the pain and anguish these ‘Smiths’ suffered and are still suffering.
Additionally, the fact that this could happen to anyone, even the very fact that it did happen, gives weight to Priestley’s views about looking out for each other, since a series of arguably negligible things lead the horrific suicide of a young girl. The Inspector as the questioner is a device used by Priestley to both convey his ideas about society and to build up dramatic tension, to make the play intriguing to the audience. One way in which he does this is the way in which he contrasts with Mr. Birling.
Mr. Birling is extremely confident and, some would say, arrogant at the beginning of the play, dismissing the possibility of a war based on his belief in progress an, ultimately, greed: “Nobody wants war except for some half-civilized folks in the Balkans”, “The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible” which, as the audience discovers later, contrasts strongly with the Inspector’s own views. Also, the Inspector arrives just after Mr. Birling had finished giving his ‘good advice’ to Gerald and Eric, that “A man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own”.
The dramatic timing here is obvious, and the two characters continue to contrast throughout the play. The Inspector’s character gains weight, charisma and power, and therefore tension is built, throughout the play. The Inspector belittles and erodes the confidence of Mr. Birling, a man that is supposedly a powerful figure, and he is brought first to self-justification in defense of his actions, then eventually to anxiety, and this too builds tension by making the audience realise the Inspector as a formidable character, his power is such that they wonder what he will do next, what his next line of enquiry will be.
One other obvious way tension is built is the way in which gradually the characters are all found to have played a part in the alleged murder of Eva Smith, though the separate showing of the photograph to each character. Obviously, if all the characters had been shown the photograph there would have been little if any dramatic tension and not much of a plot either. Finally, dramatic tension is built up through the use of dramatic irony. The audience instantly knows that Mr. Birling is wrong and his awe misguided when he talks of the Titanic: “TheTitanic… orty six thousand eight hundred tones – New York in five days…and unsinkable”. We also know he is fatally inaccurate when talking of war: “Just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two, or a few German officers have too much to drink and begin talking nonsense…you’ll hear some people say that war is inevitable”. This gives the audience and advantage over the characters and especially Mr. Birling, which also builds tension because it makes the audience more involved by them being in possession of knowledge that the characters are not. Priestley’s decision to set his play in 1912 when it was written in 1944 is an interesting one.
He does this for a number of reasons. For example, in Act 1, the beginning of the play, talks about how war is impossible “The world’s developing so fast it’ll make war impossible”. Before the arrival of the Inspector, Mr. Birling also states: “In twenty or thirty years time…in 1940…you may be giving a party like this…by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere” The audience, of course, knows this to be untrue.
In 1940 the Second World War was raging and after the war there most certainly was not “progress everywhere” and “Capital versus Labour agitations” were rife, especially in Eastern Europe where Labour (Communism) was taking hold and there would be the long lasting stand off known as the Cold War between Capitalism and Communism for many years to come. This quote, and many other extraordinary pearls of ignorance on the part of Mr. Birling, makes the audience again more involved in the play because they know more than the characters. This also gives the Inspector more credibility because he contrasts so much with Mr. Birling.
The setting of the play also allows for the Inspector to better deliver his message. Priestley uses the Inspector to communicate his ideas of socialism and social equality, and when near the end of the play he states: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other…And the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they taught it in fire and blood and anguish” The timing is crucial. Priestley communicates his message very well by setting the play in 1912 because two years later, The Great War, or World War One, occurred, and in 1939 a Second World War occurred.
The “Fire and blood and anguish” almost certainly refer to these wars, in which millions of lives were lost because, arguably, nations were acting like Mr. Birling, with greed, and ignorance to the “Eva and John Smiths” of the world. I believe An Inspector Calls to be a very effective play indeed. JB Priestley communicates his ideas and beliefs of social equality and collective responsibility through his character, Inspector Goole, who with the help of other characters in the play, shows the audience just what can happen if one chooses to ignore others and deny responsibility for one’s own actions and their consequences.
In my opinion, the showing of the photograph of Eva Smith to only one character at a time is an extremely effective way of progressing the play, ensuring smooth continuity, because it is subtle. It is probable that the audience does not, and did not, notice the possibility that the characters were being shown different photographs. So in this way, JB Priestley makes the characters believe, makes them know, that they are each implicated in the suicide of a young girl. Subsequently, when the characters realise that the murder of the girl was not, in fact, their fault, the fact that Mr.
Birling, after saying he “would give thousands, yes thousands” for Eva Smith to be alive again, celebrates again along with Mrs. Birling and Gerald Croft cements Priestley’s ideas of socialism by making clear the spinelessness of the upper class, and making clear the social divide that exists. The very fact that the characters can brush off the responsibility if the murder and ignoring that each of them actually had treated the ‘Eva Smiths’ badly is meant to shock the audience and in my opinion, this has, is and will work in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 27 October 2016
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