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The play was written at the end of the Second World War. However, it was set in 1912. Priestley expresses his own views about society of 1912 through the characters. During these pre-world War 1 years, there was a divide between the rich and poor. Attitudes such as the poor’s struggle to work and survive; profit, greed and privilege of class; double standards and the lack of responsible attitude from those in power, were thought acceptable. Economic success, power and money-making took priority over humanity. The consequences of this attitude can be seen in both of the World Wars. Priestley is telling us that we are not learning lessons from history; an example of this is the Birling family who had been given a second opportunity to get it right.
Mr Birling is a well-fed man of high class. He was Lord Mayor so thinks he has power and influence over everyone below him, even the Inspector. Mr Birling represents the high-class men of the Edwardian period. He is only after his knighthood which will put him even higher in status. He believes that there is ‘one set of rules for the rich and another for the poor’. He is a factory owner and treats his workers inhumanely. He is very conservatively and does not believe in a community.
When worker’s like Eva Smith had a strike so that they could get higher pay, only because the money they were getting was not enough for their bare essentials, he ignores them and stops the strike. He found out that Eva smith had organised it so he sacked her. His family are kept isolated from the rest of the world and his wife, Mrs Birling as well as himself treat their children as children even though they are at the age of twenty and above. They do not want them to know about the ‘real’ world but they do not realise that their children are not naï¿½ve like themselves. Priestley conveys to everyone through the character of Mr Birling how selfish and hypocritical the high-class men were during the Edwardian period.
Sheila Birling, Mr Birling’s daughter, is also a rich young lady who is engaged to Gerald Croft. We know that she is rich as she shops at Milwards where she uses her power to sack a worker, Eva Smith, because of jealousy. This was all possible for her to do because of her status. However, she is much different from her parents (the older generation). When the Inspector tells her how she was also part of Eva’s death taking place she changes unlike her father, mother and fiance.
She begins to feel for the poor and feels sorry for Eva, acting as if she knew her. She can put ‘two and two together’ unlike her mother and we can infer from this play that she will not turn out to be like her mother as her mother is very naï¿½ve. In addition, at the end of the play she has learnt her lesson whereas no one else has except her brother. Priestley shows the audience that the younger generation are more impressionable and that they had feelings for the poor and they could accept what was wrong and what was right and they had the capacity to change.
Gerald Croft who was engaged to Sheila is also of high status. He is a clever man who thinks everything out carefully. He was very involved in Eva’s life but unlike the others he made Eva happy for once in her life. He met her at the palace Bar and took her to the County Hotel and let her stay in a flat. He gave her money and began to have feelings for her and both of them fell in love. He kept her as his mistress which many men in the Edwardian time did. He was very affected by her death and had to leave the house to take a walk which is when he got time to think. They went to palace bars often which is where some men like Alderman Meggarty took advantage of women. It was very common during the Edwardian times for the rich men to do this.
Mrs Birling is also a well-fed, rich woman of high status who is described as socially superior to Mr Birling. She chairs a woman’s charity where women come to ask for help and benefit. She is responsible for the last step of Eva’s death, as she did not offer her help when she needed it the most. This was all because she had used the name Mrs Birling that had offended her. She is not careful of what she says to the Inspector, an example is everything she says about the man who got Eva pregnant and how he is fully to blame and totally responsible. She is a nave women who does not even know about her own son’s well being or that people like Alderman Meggarty harass women in palace bars. She thinks that she is always right and calls the Inspector “impertinent” which shows us what she feels of everyone in her surroundings. Priestley intended to get across this character as a selfish, snobby and small-minded woman so that the audience would not feel empathy with her.
Eric Birling is a heavy drinker and is a regular in the palace bar. He cared for Eva and tried to help her. He tried to do what was morally right even if he did not accomplish it. He is like his sister Sheila; they both still felt that they had done something wrong during their life even if it did not result in a girl’s death. Priestley shows through the characters of both Eric and Sheila that the younger generation during the Edwardian period were the ‘better’ generation as they were not so ‘up-tight’ about themselves and had feelings for the unfortunate.
The Inspector is one of the characters that I feel Priestley conveyed to the audience very well. He is someone who feels a lot for the poor and is prepared to do everything that is right for the less privileged. He is a very clever man who manages to get all of the people present to admit what they did by opening the characters’ personalities. He gets straight to the point and emphasises many times that they all helped to kill Eva and gets it ‘marked’ in their heads so that they will not forget it. He makes them all feel shocked and extremely guilty by his statements especially when he made his speech near the end of the play when he was about to leave: “…If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish…”
Through the inspector, we can see that Priestley wants to get across the socialist philosophy of the time that some people like the inspector himself believed in. He believed that everyone should look after everyone else and that everyone should live like a community and help everyone else socially. He says: “… and remember there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths, still left with us…”
Here it can be seen that he still telling them that they can still try and improve the conditions and their attitudes towards the poor and less fortunate as there are still many of them. However the majority of them did not learn from this and faced the consequences. Edna is the maid of house. Priestley shows that the higher class kept maids. He shows us the poorer people of the country. She can be said to be very lucky as she has a place to live unlike many people. It is very unlikely that she would have got much to eat even they were having a celebration.