“We are responsible for each other”, says the Inspector. How does Priestly use dramatic structures and devices to convey his message? Do you think the play still conveys an important message about responsibility for audiences today? J. B Priestly wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ just as the 2nd World War was coming to an end in 1945. The play was based in the time just before the 1st World War, around 1912.
At this time the wealthy were considered superior to the poor, all this had to change, though, during the war, as all the classes were forced to mingle together in the armed forces, evacuation centres and in air raid shelters. The play shows all the members either accepting or rejecting responsibility; in this essay I will explain this. In the opening scene of ‘An Inspector Calls’, we see a contented Mr Birling enjoying dinner whilst celebrating the engagement of his daughter, Sheila Birling, to a respectable, very wealthy young man Gerald Croft, son of Mr Birlings ‘friendly’ rival in business Sir George Croft, of Crofts Limited.
Mrs Birling and Eric Birling are also present. Mr Birling is pontificating to the younger male characters. Gerald really seems to agree with most of Mr Birling’s views on life and the future. Eric doesn’t seem to agree with his father as much though, and often can appear to be rude to his father. Speaking to his father on the issue of speeches he said ” Well, don’t do any, we’ll drink their health and have done with it. ”
Mr Birling begins to speak on the issue of responsibility, stating in his opinion responsibility has been ‘created by modern writers’, this shows he doesn’t really believe responsibility has anything to do with him, like responsibility is just something created to shake the population up a little. Just as Birling talks about responsibility, Edna informs the party that an Inspector has called. Mr Birling passed it off as something about warrant, I feel he does this mainly for the benefit of Gerald. However, Gerald offers Mr Birling reassurance, saying to him, ” Sure to be.
Unless Eric’s been up to something. ” This last comment was made jokingly, this shows Gerald believes the Inspector’s arrival is all a joke, which is quite ironic as we later find out it is something very serious. Mr Birling conveniently informs the Inspector of his place on ‘the bench’ and that he was Lord Mayor only two years ago. In doing this, Mr Birling tries to put himself above the Inspector from the offset of their conversation, as if to make the Inspector feel small and build up a wall so it’s harder for the Inspector to make any kind of breakthrough.
Mrs Birling also takes this route later on in the play when it’s her turn for questioning, Sheila warns her against it, advising her quite wisely- ” You mustn’t try to built up a kind of wall between us and that girl. If you do, then the Inspector will just break it down. And it’ll be all the worst when he does. ” This says to me that Sheila is mature and sensible; she can look at this situation and realise where her family is going wrong and try to sort out the problem sensibly, something Mr and Mrs Birling seem to have problems with.
Although the two older Birlings believe their social class voids them of responsibility for Eva Smith’s death, the Inspector attempts to make them realise how closely linked to her they were. She was employed by them and also worked in Sheila’s favourite shop. By showing them a picture (or pictures) of the girl, it made her become a real person to the Birlings, rather than just another name. I feel this is very important. If he hadn’t of put faces into the Birlings heads, they would have been able to escape guilt far easier.
Mr Birling clearly had the power to exploit his workers. Eva Smith was more or less fighting a lost cause at Birlings factory. It was Birlings she should be grateful for any job or income she already had, never mind asking for more. When Birling did sack her, it didn’t occur to him the possible repercussions that his actions could cause, a chain of events leading to the girls death. He seems to feel ‘above’ the workers, although I suppose really he is. He earns a far better wage, lives better and doesn’t endure ‘back-breaking’ work every day he works.
This of course, does not put him ‘above’ the Inspector, which is where he ultimately aims to be. However, as he is well known throughout the town, he does have some justification for a feeling of superiority, but nothing can excuse being partly responsible for a girl’s death. I started off by saying that the play opens with a contented, optimistic household really looking forward to a prosperous future. Movements are easy and comfortable; everyone seems pleased and relaxed with one another. Conversation is upbeat and pleasant, while Mr Birling offers advice and his knowledge.
Sheila encourages her mother to ‘drink to their health’ while Gerald offers his congratulations to Birling as they chat. The audience however, realise that Mr Birling isn’t all that knowledgeable as he talks about the impossibility of war, but war broke out only two years after the play was set, something the audience would know, this is quite a large piece of dramatic irony and is made quite obvious. There is also another piece of dramatic irony quite close in the play to this. Mr Birling mentions in passing the Titanic, describing the ship as- Forty six thousand eight hundred tons – New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. That’s what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that. ” This is very ironic, as it is widely known that the Titanic sunk on her maiden voyage, and although it was thought at the time the Titanic was unsinkable, it never did make it to New York in ‘five days’ like Mr Birling described. The audience would recognise this instantly as dramatic irony and also realise Mr Birling often doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.
When the Inspector arrives and goes through his line of questioning, talking to one person at a time, often quite sharply, he seems unaffected by the way Mr Birling reacts, especially to the questioning of his daughter on the day of her engagement. Sheila accuses the Inspector, quite politely, of talking as if they were responsible for Eva Smith’s death, which early on comes as a shock to her. Birling, quite swiftly, cuts in- ” Just a minute, Sheila. Now, Inspector, perhaps you and I had better go and talk this over quietly in a corner. This shows he thinks he can somehow ‘control’ the Inspector, like he has some kind of power over him, obviously thinking he can dictate where and how the investigation is carried out. We learn later that the Inspector is and always was in complete control. Sheila acknowledges this later, stating, ” He made us confess. ” Mrs Birling denied it happened to her, but by then the damage had already been done. I think the main reason Priestly shows the Birlings so contented is so we can really see the contrast when it all goes wrong.
Otherwise we may not appreciate the changes fully. I don’t think it really matters that the Inspector may have been phoney, or that they may have all committed their parts against different people really matters. The point Priestly makes is that the Eva Smith story still could have come to a fatal ending, and that there are thousands or girls out there like Eva Smith, that this could be happening to. Mr and Mrs Birling try to find ways to excuse their actions, using the points I have just mentioned.
However, they have no real bearing on proceedings as everything that the Inspector said happened did actually happen, so really it matters little and the two elders should accept their share of responsibility. They do not, though. Arthur and Sybil, also Gerald in a smaller way, try to laugh off the incident, attempt to think no more of it. Sheila and Eric on the other hand accept their share of guilt. But as the play draws to a close, Arthur receives a phone call making him aware of a girl’s death at the Infirmary, and that an Inspector is on his way to ‘ask some questions’.
This leaves the dumbfounded Birlings with the prospect of their whole ordeal being re-run and the audience to decide and predict the forthcoming happenings to the Birlings. It’s obvious that the families’ speech and tones become very different during the Inspectors questioning. Mr Birling changes from a contented man to an aggressive, abrupt and intolerant character. Eric and Sheila become a lot more emotional, which is understandable, but also more mature and sensible, which is more surprising. This may be a reaction to the actions of their parents.
While there father tries to use his so-called social position and power to void himself of responsibility for Eva Smiths death, the two children realise this is wrong and doesn’t work against the well prepared and knowledgeable Inspector. Gerald becomes nervous and ‘readable’, as both Sheila and the Inspector could tell very easily he had known Daisy Renton. His instability is probably a new side of his character to Sheila and one she probably doesn’t admire. I think Priestly uses the return of characters very wisely. He uses valid reasons for them to leave and then on their return they find themselves more involved all of a sudden.
Eric returns to find his mother has been digging his proverbial grave for him, stating- “Secondly, I blame the young man who was the father of the child she was going to have. If, as she said, he didn’t belong to her class, and he was some drunken young idler, then that’s all the more reason he shouldn’t escape. He should be made an example of. If the girls death is due to anybody, then its him. ” This last sentence is particularly interesting. Little does she know, in a clear piece of dramatic irony, she is naming her own, upper-class son, as the main carrier of responsibility for Eva Smiths death.
Although later she attempts to redeem herself by saying things such as ‘Eric isn’t like that’. It’s quite clear she has a limited knowledge of the outside world and closer to home happenings. This point is backed up when Alderman Meggarty is mentioned as a drunk and general layabout, which seems common knowledge among the party and the Inspector, but Mrs Birling sees it as a ‘revelation’ and says ‘we are learning something’, Sheila replies ‘ Everyone knows about Big Joe Meggarty,” this says to me Sheila is more aware and awake to the happenings than her blinkered mother.