Priestley uses Inspector Goole as a tool for uncovering truths in the household and un-cover the vulnerabilities of the Birling family. He also highlights the different approaches to responsibility within the household (older and younger generation) and could well represent the voice and the opinion of Priestley himself. When the inspector arrives at the Birling household he is described as making an “impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness”.
This is important because the “massiveness” and “solidity” implies that there is no getting round “purposefulness” of his enquiries. The stage directions also describe him as “looking hard at the person before actually speaking”. The hardness of his stare links in with the harder light and the sheer harshness is enough to break through the “cozy” sense of security that the Birlings had before the arrival of the inspector.
As well as being used to highlight conflicting views, stage directions are also used to create general presences about people. For example, a stage direction used for the inspector is for when he knocks on the door. The stage direction could describe the inspector just “knocking on the door” but instead we hear the “sharp ring of a door bell”. This implies that the inspector will be harsh and concise. Also that he is quite clever and it will be difficult to get around him and his enquiries as he is “sharp”.
The inspector builds relationships with individual characters through the play, and they become more defined and easier to read as the play goes on. His relationship with Birling is mainly one of argument. Birling’s views conflict the most with the inspector. The inspector does not agree with Birling’s capitalist views as he doesn’t like the way that the capitalist ideas look out for “oneself”. But the Inspector believes in the community and that everyone should work together for a common cause as it would be easier. Birling really hates the idea and describes it as being “all mixed up like bees in a hive”.
The Inspector’s relationship with Sheila is also important as it shows that not all of the family is in tune with Birling and quite on the contrary some are on the side of the Inspector. Sheila’s “new-age” opinions and views are much the same as the Inspector’s and create a team of sorts (with the addition of Eric) to dispute the facts with the others. “Sorry I just can’t help but think about this girl” Sheila says which confirms her views because as she is distressed by the death of this girl, it shows that she cares about this stranger who she doesn’t even know, and this would sit well with the community based, socialist views.
Sheila and Gerald are also used by Priestley to start the family’s downfall. They are the first relationship to break apart and they set a tone for everyone else to follow. They symbolize the secrecy and mistrust in the household as a whole. “except all last summer…never came near me”. This quote throws up the possibility that maybe all isn’t quite as it seems in the Birling family. It’s the first real time that the audience may get an inkling as to what the Birlings may really be like and I think that’s why Priestley includes it in the play.
If Sheila and Gerald who are “in love” and preparing to be married you would assume that they must be very close. But if they are to separate then I think that it’s a sign that all the other relationships and family links will also go the same way. Sheila and Gerald start the revelation of truth, and once they have put it into motion, it is very hard to stop, and hence the other members of the household suffer the same fate as Sheila and Gerald.
Priestley also uses Sheila and Gerald in the play to indicate divisions within the Birling household. Priestley uses the two characters to highlight the lack of trust between the family. The lack of distrust can be found in many instances such as when Sheila say “so you be careful” almost warning Gerald, as she seems to not believe his stories about what he was actually doing the summer when Gerald “never came near” her. This lack of trust is definitely a factor for downfall, and also is representative of the rest of the family and that there are lots of secrets hidden from everyone else that could cause havoc. Of course they eventually do as we know from act two and three where they all get blown into the open.
As mentioned before, throughout act one Priestley creates tension between the views of the two generations. All this could easily become a very big factor towards the households downfall because if the family cannot function properly as a team, then there will be a distinct lack of unity. And we know (through dramatic irony) that in the rough times ahead, unity is one of the most important things to have.
An example of tension between the older and younger generation comes at the dinner table when Eric says “Yes, I know-but still-” and his father, Birling replies “Just let me finish Eric”. This demonstrates Birling’s tendency to dismiss any ideas or concepts which are foreign to him. A consequence of this is that after a while the younger generation may start to feel that they are being oppressed by their lack of a voice or opinion. Furthermore, with the household having only one point of view, Birling’s, which we know through dramatic irony to be constantly wrong when he says “people say wars inevitable… fiddlesticks!” and “ignore pessimistic talk… you’ll be marrying at a good time” we can clearly see that the household is headed for downfall.
Eric is described at the start of the play as “half shy, half assertive” and this is because of the way that Birling treats him. His constant dismissal of Eric’s opinions, and his refusal to start acknowledging him as a young adult and not as a child, pushes him away. When the inspector arrives at the house, Eric’s views which are not even considered by his father because they do not agree with his own are suddenly seen to be normal, and not an anomaly or misfit. Eric therefore sides with the inspector and also Sheila, on whom the inspector’s views have had much the same effect.
Their conflicting views are demonstrated often in act one, like when the inspector is questioning Birling about the way that Eva Smith was discharged from his mill. In response, Birling declaims that the girls that he pulls off the side of the street to work in his factory are just resources that he exploits as much as he can by paying them the lowest wages he possibly can. Sheila replies in an almost disgusted voice that “they’re not resources to be exploited, they’re people”. This shows that Birling’s individualistic views which focus on almost nothing but self gain appall Sheila and she thinks his views wrong. This drives a wedge down Sheila and Birling’s relationship and therefore emphasizes the lack of unity between the family as a whole.
J.B. Priestly uses symbols to great effect in Act 1, for example when right at the start of the play when the family is seated at the dinner table. Towards the end of the night Birling and Gerald take a cigar and a cigarette. I feel that the smoke from them symbolizes a hazy vision, and a lack of being able to see what is about to come. Whilst they are both smoking, they are also drinking port and whisky. Both of the drinks are from a decanter, and if you look through a decanter, what you see on the other side is never what it really looks like in real life. Therefore, I think that the alcohol (and even the glassware that the alcohol is poured from) further symbolizes Birling and Gerald’s lack of foresight.
Another symbol used is the lighting in the room. At the start of the play “the lighting should be pink and intimate” this represents the Birlings feelings of security in their home, even if it is a false sense of security. This false sense of security is underlined when the inspector arrives and the stage directions proclaim that “it (the light) should be brighter and harder”. This new brighter, harder light represents the light of truth which is set to expose the Birlings and what they have all done.
So to conclude, I think that Priestley lays the foundations for an inevitable downfall right from the off. Priestley’s use of Birling is the biggest contributor to the downfall of the household in my opinion as with such a fool at the head of the household something is bound to go wrong. The lack of unity is also another enormous factor, and tension between the household before the inspector even arrives is also another important factor but I think that the foundations are definitely laid in the first few pages of the script. There is a sense of downfall right from the beginning and in my opinion, Priestley makes it more of a case of when and how it will happen, rather than whether it actually will.