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“An Inspector Calls” is a play written by John Boynton Priestley in 1945, just after the end of World War II. Its first performance was in Moscow; its first British performance was in The New Theatre in 1946. The play is based around the suicide of a young girl called Eva Smith who committed suicide. The main characters are “Inspector Goole”, “The Birlings” a well to do middle class family and “Gerald Croft” a business associate of Mr.
In order to understand Priestley’s examination of Eva’s death, it is important to understand the historical context of the time the play was written and when it was set. In 1945 the world was changing socially, culturally and politically. People’s opinions on certain issues, for example, abortion and women’s rights, were just beginning to take shape into their modern form.
The play is set in 1912, eleven years after Queen Victoria’s death. Her death had preceded several years of weak rule by Edward VII. Edward’s hedonistic lifestyle had been a role model for the British upper middle class.
It had encouraged self-centeredness and a disregard for the struggles of the working class. The play is set in a fictive town, Brumley, similar to major towns in the midlands such as Birmingham. The years building up before World War I were very restless for many countries, especially Britain.
The lower classes were changing into a more powerful group of people for instance they were organising trade unions. The role of women in British society also was changing rapidly and the suffragettes were fighting for women’s right to vote. I think J.
B Priestley set the play in this time because he wanted to highlight the middle class’s attitude towards social responsibility, social change and their hope to maintain the status quo. One of the reasons why Eva died was because of the dismissive attitudes of families like the Birlings and their remoteness from the working class. Reading the play now or when it was written gives us the benefit of hindsight on the time the play was set. Arthur Birling’s certainty that war would never come. Russia would never rise and the Titanic would never sink, proves that his trust in the status quo was misplaced. … unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.
That’s what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that – and not a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing” The years after the play was set were filled with war and the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, demonstrating the smug ignorance and complacency of Birling and people like him. I also think that J. B Priestley wanted to highlight the massive, but closing, gap between rich and poor between the times the play was written and the time the play was set.
For example, the entire play is set in the Birling’s massive, lavish dining room with lashings of gold and silverware everywhere. This contrasts with the living conditions of the poor; as represented by Eva Smith in the play, who had lived in a “miserable back room”. This contrast would also resonate with a post-war audience coming to terms with a more democratic distribution of wealth. The play begins with The Birlings: Arthur, Sheila, Sybil, Eric and Sheila’s fianci? , Gerald, celebrating Sheila and Gerald’s engagement.
The maid comes in to announce the unexpected arrival of an Inspector Goole. Inspector Goole begins by questioning Arthur, the head of the family. “Inspector: … I think you remember Eva Smith… Birling: Yes I do, she was one of my employees, and I discharged her” This demonstrates Birling’s dismissive attitude towards employees; he is not at all embarrassed or ashamed at having sacked Eva. She had been one of his workers. He had discharged her from his employ because she and several others had organized a strike for better wages. Mr.
Birling, regarding himself as a “hard headed man of business”, refused and fired Eva. I think he fired her, not only because she helped in the strike, but also because she was a woman. The evidence above shows the attitude towards women at the time. Eva was also very hard headed and determined to get what she wanted, this probably would have made Mr. Birling resent her enough to fire her. I think this shows the general attitude towards women in the beginning of the 20th century: that they should just be tools for mans work; they did not even have the right to vote.
This contributed to Eva’s death because it sparked a “chain of events”, through each member of the family until they each shared the blame. Mr. Birling’s attitude towards social responsibility only seems to be one thing: Look after yourself and your family, forget everyone else. This is supported when he says: “But the way some or these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed together like bees in a hive” This attitude contributed to Eva’s death because, had Mr.
Birling cared at all about Eva, he might not have fired her and therefore the chain of events would never had happened. This quote also shows how he is in denial about the social changes taking place around him. Later in the play, the Inspector began to question Sheila. It is revealed that Sheila had something to do with Eva’s death and that she feels guilty about it when she “gives a half-stifled sob and runs out”. When Sheila returns, we find out that she had, earlier that year, complained to Eva’s boss in a jealous rage when she thought she caught Eva laughing at her trying on a dress.
She threatened to withdraw her family’s account with Milwards the shop Eva was working in at the time. We learn that this has contributed to Eva’s death because the Inspector explains that this was “the last real steady job she had”, all because of Sheila’s jealousy of this prettier, younger girl. Thus continuing the chain of events. We next discover the involvement of Gerald Croft in Eva’s demise. After Sheila had confessed, the Inspector mentioned that Eva had changed her name to Daisy Renton; at hearing this Gerald immediately gave himself away by reacting in a startled way.
It is revealed that Gerald had an affair with Eva the previous summer. He met her in a bar of ill repute, being harassed by another respectable man. When he found out that Eva had no money and was living in a “miserable back room”, he felt compelled to be the hero and let her stay in one of his friend’s houses. They had fallen in love, but, inevitably, it had not lasted. Not only were there the differences in social class and power but Gerald was involved with Sheila as well. To end his affair with Eva, Gerald had given her some money and she went away to “some seaside place”.
This contributed to Eva’s death because it pushed her slightly further towards the edge emotionally. She was already emotionally fragile and now it was getting even worse for her. When Gerald says: “I became at once the most important person in her life” it shows Eva’s dependence on others and her weakness without them. Gerald left a small amount of money for Eva to get on with, when these funds ran out, it probably contributed to the feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness that contributed to Eva’s death. As the play progresses we learn of Sybil’s role in Eva’s death.
Sybil Birling, in my opinion, is a perfect example of the arrogance, toffery and indifference of upper middle class women to people like Eva. Sybil cares of nothing but her social status which she clearly shows when she denies Eva aid from her charity; this action shows that Sybil only does charity work for the social status it creates for her. When Sybil says: “She was claiming elaborate feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl of her position” it shows that Sybil Birling thinks that women of a lesser social status have less of a right to feelings and emotions than she does.
This contributed to Eva’s death because if Sybil did not think so hypocritically and arrogantly then Eva would have been accepted by the charity organization and she may never have committed suicide. I think that Eric Birling’s actions played a major role in Eva’s death, but one may argue that his actions are not as driven by socially pervasive attitudes as the other characters in the play. For example, Sybil Birlings clear belief that she is better than anyone of a lower class is a pervasive attitude, but Eric abandoning Eva is the type of thing that often happens in relationships.
Eric, along with Sheila, is part of a new generation of people that care less about social status and more about others, so maybe J. B Priestley wanted to show that social conventions themselves were changing to fit the new generation. On the other hand, you could argue that Eric would have been far less likely to abandon a girl of his own social class, and that in this regard his treatment of Eva was typical. Eric contributed to Eva’s death because her pregnancy could have affected her mental health, causing depression which continues the chain of events.
The prospect of becoming a single mother may have been overwhelming because of the way unmarried mothers were stigmatized at that time. Although we learn that Eva has in fact killed herself; through Priestley’s exploration of each characters role, we discover the large part that social and political factors have played in her demise, and how, to some degree, each of them carries some responsibility for the tragedy, even if they refuse to accept it. In conclusion, I believe that above all, the massive gap between working class and rich people was responsible for the tragic stories of people like Eva Smith.
The rich people of the time gave no hint that they cared for the classes below, Mr. Birling and Mrs. Birling did not care that what they had done to Eva caused her suicide, they were much more concerned with retaining their wealth and social status. Sheila and Eric, on the other hand felt guilty about what they had done demonstrating that perhaps their generation had a better attitude. J. B Priestley cleverly used the “whodunnit” genre to explore social attitudes, class differences and their consequences for people like Eva Smith and The Birlings.
The most telling statement in the whole play is when Inspector Goole says “One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still out there”. This quote sums up J. B. Priestley’s opinion that things like this happen everyday, but individuals cannot abrogate their responsibilities. The play addresses multiple issues of importance such as morality, social responsibility, highlighting the political and social changes in the 20th century. “Everything we said had happened, really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done”.