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‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.’ How far does this quotation sum up Priestley’s aims and concerns in An Inspector Calls?
Priestley’s aim in An Inspector Calls was to send out a message to the audience about the ways in which the upper and working class treated each other during the early to mid 20th century and the importance of the effects this brings about which leads to the matter of being responsible for each other and how we are all the same as individuals. The quotation strongly sums up his message which is particularly shown through the role of Inspector Goole because it is arguably thought that Priestley has used the Inspector’s character as an alter ego to express his socialist views against a family such as the wealthy Birlings, although characters such as Sheila and Eric Birling soon prove support towards Priestley’s views.
By judging the character of Inspector Goole and the way he treats the Birlings, we as the audience learn that he is in fact not a Police Inspector, because his assertive and impatient manner isn’t what a wealthy middle class family or anybody would expect from him. For example, in Act 3 the Inspector says to Mr. Birling, ‘Don’t start on that. I want to get on,’ which implies he has no respect for them despite their social status and it also implies he is in hurry, but there is no reason for any Inspector to rush because usually he would take all the time he needed.
It was also his foreknowledge of Eva Smith’s death which made us question who the Inspector really was in the play because since the Inspector came in to interrogate the Birlings, Eva had always been alive as Gerald had called up the infirmary asking about the death after the Inspector had left, ‘No girl has died in there today. They haven’t had a suicide for months.’ More importantly, it was the confidence in the way the Inspector talked and how much he knew about the death before which made it seem as if he knew that Eva was going to commit suicide. The Inspector could probably have supernatural powers or he could be from the future to avenge Eva’s death, but either way he is a very mysterious character.
Therefore, it does not make a different what the Inspector was, because the main purpose of his role in the play is to make the Birling family realise their responsibilities in society by forcing them to confess their experiences when they disregard the need to think of others – “You have no hope of not discussing it, Mrs. Birling.” This is why he said in his last speech, “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” It is Priestley’s way of warning the audience that there is a society in where we are all responsible for each other.
Mr. Birling is a British conservative man and like Margaret Thatcher, he believes ‘there is no such thing as society,’ and this clearly opposes Priestley’s message. However, Priestley has used dramatic irony to create a negative first impression on Mr. Birling – “I say there isn’t a chance of war. The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible.” When we hear this as the audience, we learn that Mr. Birling is a fool who is not to be trusted as his opinions are very wrong, because the play is set in 1912 but it was first presented in 1946 so by then two world wars had occurred.
From this, we can tell that Priestley wants the audience to have a low opinion of the Birlings and Capitalist politics because he believes that the society in which the Birlings represent is unfair and will lead to horrible conflicts. He has shown this by making the Birlings feel guilty and be at fault for the whole situation. This is why he downplays the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Birling and Gerald Croft because they are of the older generation who all share the same capitalist views in life, for example, Mrs. Birling does not accept any responsibility for Eva Smith – “I accept no blame for it all,” and this phrase brings out her stubbornness, ruthlessness and impertinence.
None of the three particularly want to accept responsibility because they are afraid of a ‘public scandal’ which would result in a fall down the social ladder. We can tell because Gerald is continuously trying to prove the Inspector wrong – “don’t you see, there’s still no proof it was really the same girl. How do we know she was really Eva Smith or Daisy Renton?” Then Mr. and Mrs. Birling agree and so they continue to find reasons to back him up – “The whole damned thing can have been a piece of bluff.”
These phrases represent how after the Inspector’s presence, they still have not learnt anything which gives an even more negative response from the audience because it shows they are so blinded by the wealthy life they live in. However, as the audience we can try to view them as ‘members of one body,’ because the Birlings are only classified as people in the upper class since they are wealthy and this is what concerns Priestley because if we take the title away we can view them as ordinary people with disagreeable personalities, so it makes no difference who they are.
Priestley introduces Karl Marx’s theory through Eric and Sheila Birling, and the theory is about the ideal class where everybody is one and the same. This is more evident in the role of Sheila Birling because she changes and develops the most throughout the play into a type of person which Priestley hopes the majority would follow and understand.
Firstly, when Sheila first described her time at Milwards & Co. with Eva Smith she said, “If they didn’t get rid of that girl, I’d never go near that place again.” This is an example of the type of action Priestley does not approve of because it illustrates how wealthy people think they can easily mistreat people like Eva Smith, particularly if it’s for minor reasons – she was “in a furious temper.” This is also Priestley’s way of saying to the audience that people who work in very minor jobs or are a lot poorer should still be treated with respect.
Nevertheless, Sheila starts to recognise and regret her mistakes – “If I could help her now, I would/ I’ll never, never do it again to anybody.” This response is the same with Eric Birling who also realises that what he did to Eva was wrong – “It’s what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters.” This change of behaviour shows us that upper class people can change for the better which demonstrates how they are just like everybody else and this proves Priestley’s point in the quotation where ‘we are members of one body.’
After the Inspector left, we get the impression that Sheila is a lot more reasonable and mature than her parents and Gerald Croft, because they are not used to receiving anything but respect due to their way of living. To change things, Priestley has made Sheila and Eric become examples of the new emerging generation of a more social behaviour towards life, and this change is proven near the end of the play where Sheila talks back against her parents and takes back the respect she has given them – “I’m not being childish. If you want to know, it’s you two who are being childish – trying not to face the facts.”
Like the Inspector, Sheila repeatedly reminds her family how they are responsible for people like Eva Smith – “Between us we drove that girl to commit suicide/ But that won’t bring Eva Smith back to life will it?”
Priestley was a supporter of the Labour party, and he frequently made broadcasts on the radio about the merits of socialism which we can see are strongly reflected in this play. We can tell that Priestley’s concerns come across via the role of the Inspector because they both have the same point of view which is why the quotation ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other,’ sums up his message. He does not tell us who the Inspector is but I believe Priestley did this intently so that the audience could be the judge and reach their own conclusions about his identity.
He has proved it possible through characters such as Sheila Birling that people can change to fit in. Priestley’s concerns are even relevant in today’s society where there are still people who need to be aware of their behaviour towards others around them which therefore, is concluded by the quotation from the Inspector’s last speech.