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In An Inspector Calls, J.B.Priestly exposes the social mores of society, more specifically the conflict between the rich and the poor. The five characters are typical personalities of pre WWI society: Birling is stubbourn, and wants to ‘get into’ the middle class, and show his worth; Mrs. Birling is a snob, blinded by her sense of self-importance and her husband’s success; Shiela has a good heart, but her jealousy causes her to act out against Eva Smith, which she may not have been able to do, had she not been such a good customer at Milwards; Eric drinks and is a womaniser; and finally there is Gerald, whose sense of duty and wealth causes him to leave the woman who loves him, because she is poor. In this essay, rather than refer to all these characters and their situations, I will refer to Arthur Birling, his wife, Sybil, and Gerald.
Mr. Birling refuses to accept the fact that he may have done something wrong. “I don’t see where I come into it… Rubbish! If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth… quite justified… only did what any employer might have done.” This is because he is stubborn, and afraid of a scandal. He is pretentious, and has worked his way up, so feels he has to prove his worth. We can see this from his comments to Gerald at the start of act one. “Finchley told me it’s exactly the same port your father gets from him… I like a good cigar… just a knighthood of course… benefit of my experience.” He wants to be respected by the social class that he feels he now belongs to.
Another typicality in pre WWI society was cheap factory labour, and J.B.Priestly shows this through Mr. Birling. “it’s my duty to keep labour costs down… (the strike was a) pitiful affair… (she was) a good worker… she had to go… cheap labour.” He uses Eva Smith, and many other girls, as cheap labour, and as we can see, he shows little, or no care for his workers, which, again, shows his attitude, ergo the attitude of the rich, towards the poor.
Mrs Birling is pompous and affected, with double standards. Her husband’s success has made her as self-involved and eager to prove herself as him. “I did my duty… I’ve done nothing wrong… I was perfectly justified… a lot of silly nonsense… elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position… he didn’t belong to her class.” She is the chairwoman of a charity that gives out money to poor young women, which makes her feel good about herself, however, she seems to feel no remorse for turning away the exact kind of person she is supposed to help. Mrs Birling is expressing views that were not uncommon in pre WWI society – to her, the poor have no feelings or scruples, and the idea of Eva refusing money, simply because it was stolen, is ridiculous.
Eric’s social class has a lot of bearing on the situation as well. Had he been working class, Eva may have found it easier to accept his money despite the fact that it was stolen. This shows the conflict of the classes – not only were the poor badly treated, but also the rich and the poor had to deal with personal conflicts. The rich, as we later see in Gerald’s case, and the poor, as in Eva’s, both had to deal with the knowledge of their social boundaries, and it was very difficult to break out of that social conditioning.
Gerald is a big-business man, and is considerably better-off than Mr and Mrs Birling. For example, we learn early on the his mother and father are “Sir and Lady Croft”, and it is obvious from the way Mr Birling acts self-importantly, as we saw earlier, when around Gerald. Mr Birling introduces him to the inspector as if it might have a large impact on him. “Perhaps I ought to explain first that this is Mr Gerald Croft – the son of Sir George Croft – you know, Crofts Limited.” Mr Birling obviously wishes to either intimidate or impress the inspector with Gerald’s ‘rank’, or social standing in society.
Gerald’s tie with Eva is quite different to those of Mr and Mrs Birling, as he shows at least some compassion towards her, and makes her feel better for a time, yet it is still his social conditioning and wealth that lead him to leave her. “My God!… I’ve suddenly realised that she’s dead… (Eva) was desperately hard up and at that moment was actually hungry… she hadn’t a penny… I made her take some money to keep her going… I became the most important person in her life… I broke it off definitely.” This is exposing yet another problem in pre WWI upper class society.
In conclusion, J.B.Priestly exposes the social mores of society by using the inspector as a mirror of the family’s past, and he introduces a typical upper-middle class family as a microcosm of pre WWI society – the five members of the family all show some aspects of life then, and although it is unlikely that they would all be found in the same family, they are a good representation of the aristocracy of the period as a whole.