“If men will not learn that lesson, they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. ” This is an extremely powerful quotation that the Inspector leaves us with. Without a doubt these words are very true. In 1914 World War One began and all this fire, blood and anguish became reality. Britain had entered a four-year war that would have an unimaginable effect on her people. Thousands of towns, cities, homes and businesses were destroyed. Millions of people, men the majority, died horrific deaths.
Limbs blown off in explosions, bodies burnt alive in scorching heat, shells blasting, bombs lighting up the dark night, poison gas smothering trenches – trapping screaming victims below its green deadly surface. One can only imagine the pain, agony and shear devastation and lost of human life. The war ended in 1918 and much of Europe including England was left destroyed. For people like Mr. Birling it was time to rethink. Is it every man for himself? Is community nonsense?
This could be one function of the Inspector; to get the Birlings, especially Mr.
Birling, to care for others and accept responsibility before it is too late. Only twenty-one years later in 1939 another war broke out in Europe. World War Two lasted for six years, an extra two years of fighting the enemy. In 1945 the war ended. In that same year ‘An Inspector Calls’, the play that I will be analysing was written. John Boynton Priestley the author set his play in 1912, before these terrifying events.
This is very significant in order for his play to work effectively, as the themes included in the play are one way or another, directly related to this time and the years and events that will follow.
‘An Inspector Calls’ covers very clearly a variety of different themes and ideas that Priestley is concerned about in society. He uses the Inspector as the main character, or one could say a tool, to express these themes and ideas to the audience.
The sort of ideas Priestley is concerned about in society and is trying to ‘show’ are the aspects of: responsibility, community, lies and truth, honesty and self-deception, equality, social snobbery and double standards. I will be covering these aspects and indeed many more as I progress through this assignment. What inspired Priestley? What made him write ‘An Inspector Calls’ and why set it before World War One? The answer lies in his life before the year of 1945. To answer these questions we must first establish and be aware of the following background information.
The Edwardian times seemed to be a very exciting and secure time for Britain and many of her people. She was quickly advancing in industry and technology. Her armed forces were also growing and obviously she was extremely wealthy. For the people living in the upper class society times were good however millions were not having such a good time. For the millions struggling there seemed to be no hope, there was no legislation to save workers from exploitation which of course was occurring in factories all over the country and no Welfare State to support these living such a poor life if times were very bad.
The Inspector (Priestley in one sense) could see that this is not the right sort of society and that it had to change otherwise severe consequences would follow. The play is based around this Edwardian society and the Inspector tries his best to cover these important issues and express them to the Birlings in order to make them see what it is like for the other people, not just their breed.
Priestley was born into a middle class family and did not suffer like the lower classes, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean he did not know what was going on or how these people felt. Priestley as a young man spent four years on the battlefield fighting against the Nazi enemy in World War One. During this war Priestley on numerous occasions, narrowly escaped death, this period in his life allowed him to look at life differently and without a doubt he was directly influenced by these experiences.
These four years were the platform which he could build upon. Now with his ideas Priestley needed a suitable date to set his play, the most appropriate date was the year 1912. By specifically choosing to write ‘An Inspector Calls’ after World War Two and by including the material he has done and indeed the Inspector, Priestley could very effectively attract and hold his audience, as many of them felt the way he did and had lived through the wars and shared his experiences.
As a result of the wars everyone was brought together. Everyone united as one country and worked together to defeat the Nazis. The children were brought together by evacuations, the women working in factories to produce uniforms and war goods for their men were brought together and of course the men on the battlefields fighting together managed to build a strong relationship among themselves.
As a direct result everyone learnt to look after one another and to care for each other, reflecting the fact that; “We are all members of one body. ” as the Inspector would say. The audience now more aware could look at certain characters i. e. Birling and see how wrong he actually is. How does the Inspector represent and present Priestley’s central themes or ideas could one say? First I shall establish what Priestley’s central themes actually are.
His central ideas are the aspects of: responsibilities – the responsibilities people can and cannot accept, personally and socially; community – the environment people are living in and how it affects them; lies and truth – can certain people tell lies and get away with them easily and how some people can tell constant lies whilst some cannot even tell one; honesty and self-deception – can people be honest or indeed cannot, if so how can they without being affected in any way, how can they deceive themselves; equality and social snobbery – why do some people believe they are superior to others and party; double standards – how and why do the men act differently and have different rights than the women and why are they considered less affected by bad news.
Mr. Birling believes that a man should make his own way in life, stands on his own two feet and should only look after himself and his family. He says; “… a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself and his family too, of course… community and all that nonsense… a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own-“.
This quotation clearly expresses Birling’s feelings about community, he believes it’s nonsense, and he doesn’t seem to care for others, only blood relatives and his wife. The audience now looking back to this attitude may well have thought like that before the war but probably have a totally different view after. The Inspector arrives and talks about community, he somehow manages to ‘predict’ (hence his name Goole – supernatural quality) the future and so his view on community is just like the audiences only that he is in the year 1912 whilst the audience are in the year 1945. This is an example of forward thinking and because many members of the audience felt like Priestley he could try to persuade them to take his point of view.
This is a very good example of a deliberate attempt made by Priestley to get the audience thinking about this attitude of Birling’s and the past, maybe even Priestley himself thought like this before the experiences of the wars. Priestly enables the audience to use their hindsight to reject Birling’s opinions because Priestley has made Birling say the Titanic would not sink; “… the titanic… and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”, and there would not be a war “… Nobody wants war… there’s too much at stake these days… nothing to gain by war”, and we as the audience know he is wrong on this, we therefore also reject his other views and thus accept the Inspectors point of view as a result.
Mrs. Birling is another example of someone who will not admit personal responsibilities. She clearly does not want to accept any responsibility for the death of Eva Smith. A quote that shows this; “… father of the child, its his responsibility”. We can clearly see that Mrs. Birling is trying to blame the death onto someone else and we begin to gather an image of this woman in our imagination. Another quote that backs up this view is; “I accept no blame for it at all”. Again Mrs. Birling is refusing responsibility. The audience know that everyone is responsible for one another because they have been shown this through the Inspectors comments.
The Inspector talks about social responsibilities. Although Eric and Sheila do show signs of this the Inspector is the one who stands out the most. He says just before he leaves; “One Eva Smith is gone – but there are millions more Eva Smiths and John Smiths… all intertwined with our lives… We are all members of one body… what we do affects others”. This quotation is very important. The Inspector says these words because he is very aware of the fact that war will occur in the future which will cause the people no matter what position in society or class to come together, everyone will be responsible for one other, there will be no superior individuals.
The audience will most certainly agree with the comment as they too just like Priestly have lived through the wars and are very much aware of the changes that are going to happen. The upper class community at the time was very formal. There were successful businessmen and their very snobby wives who were totally dependent on their husbands business. There were frequent dinner parties where these upper class people met, and obviously their conversations were dominated by business. The Inspector enters on the stage during one of these parties. The upper class people were very shocked to find out if someone in their community ‘misbehaved’; it was more likely to be a lower class person who did so. Mrs.
Birling shows this when she discovers that someone she thought was a respectful citizen actually frequently abuses young women, she says; “(staggered) well, really! Alderman Meggarty I must say, we are learning something tonight”. This quotation with the direction ‘staggered’ shows that Mrs. Birling is clearly shocked and amazed that this man is carrying out these activities on young women and also she is ignorant of the activities that are happening in the upper class society. Imagine the Inspector being a sharp object i. e. a pin and the Birlings are being protected by an invisible shield i. e. a bubble that only contains ignorance and what ever they want it to contain, the Inspector pops this bubble and the truth about the world rushes in.
The Birlings are pretty much so ‘protected’ from the terrible world and the Inspector is pouring these terrible facts onto them, exposing them. This could be another function; to present the facts to the Birlings, to make them see the truth about the real world and so learn from what they are doing. The Inspector manages to expose some of the characters double standards, Mrs. Birling being a good example. She says to her daughter Sheila; “… Girls of that class” in response to an opinion of Sheila’s, one which shows signs of sympathy towards Eva.
Mrs. Birling also says; “.. As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money! ” in response to one of the questions the Inspector asks, showing that Mrs. Birling is an upper class snob who could not possibly have feelings or consideration for other classes of people. She believes she is so much better and more superior to others, she is totally stuck up, mocking others from her over hanging, protective bubble. When the war ended especially the First World War everyone including people like Mrs. Birling, were ‘refreshed’ i. e. reminded that humans are one species and there is no reason why some of them should feel or believe that they are more superior to others. The war if you like was a warning or indication of some sort from somebody and was a deliberate event to make society realise what it has become.
Another function of the Inspector is to try to warn the Birlings that if society will not change then war will follow. Priestley himself is using the Inspector as a tool to do this. Each character in the play has an individual personality and of course their personal view on different matters will be very different from others, in one sense each of the Birlings can represent each member of an upper class society. Some characters tell lies whilst others admit the truth straight away. In my view Eric and Sheila are very alike and are the sort of people who would admit to the truth straight away with no hesitation although Sheila is more honest. Gerald and Mr. and Mrs.
Birling seem to me to be a little more difficult to get the truth out of. The Inspector very cunningly manages to get a confession or something with significance out of all the characters one way or another, for example he leaves Sheila and Gerald to talk alone whilst he is listening to the conversation and waiting for that key confession. Sheila and Mr. Birling say their part in the role of Eva Smith’s death with little persuasion, although Mr. Birling needs to be convinced occasionally. Quotes that show the characters lying, telling the truth, being honest or being deceiving are (Gerald lying); “And I have already told you – I was awfully busy at the works all that time”.
We later discover that Gerald was actually having an affair not working at his works. Gerald clearly is feeling nothing when he says this even though he is lying to his fiance and deceiving himself. Sheila shows honesty and responsibility when she confesses that she got Eva Smith sacked from Milwards. She does not hesitate and takes responsibility for her role in the death of Eva Smith. The quotes that show her honesty is when she says; “(miserably) so I am really responsible? ” this quotation is showing that Sheila is felling guilt for her participation in the death of Eva Smith. Also; “… I’m trying to tell the truth”. This quotation is showing that Sheila is someone who is honest, kind and caring unlike her mother.
The Inspector has in one way done a good thing by introducing this news, he has made the Birlings, Sheila in particular, realise that things terrible do happen, for example the suicide of Eva Smith, and if you have been responsible somehow then you should accept the consequences that await. Sheila explains what happened freely, and throughout she shows signs of guilt. Sheila is an honest person unlike her fiance Gerald who needs persuasion to admit his role in the death. Mr. Birling being a businessman like Gerald has similar opinions (these two characters represent all upper class businessmen) and so when the Inspector and Eric try to make Mr. Birling feel responsible he obviously tries to blame it onto the girl and Gerald backs him up. The quote that shows this is when he says; “Rubbish! If you dont come down on some of this people they will soon be asking for the earth”.
Gerald replies “I should think so! These quotations show that Mr Birling’s honest opinion is to be tough and harsh to the employees if they ask for more so that you do not show weakness. It also shows that he feels strongly about this as he has used said this view in a loud manor (exclamation mark shows this). Is this view wrong? Should he be saying this? Priestley is trying to get the audience thinking about these aspects he is concerned about and he uses the Inspector or numerous occasions very effectively to get these views out of the characters. Mrs. Birling as I mentioned before doesn’t want to accept responsibility for Eva Smith’s death. When the Inspector asks her questions, she could be considered a liar as she says; “… I’ve done nothing wrong – and you know it”. Mrs.
Birling has done something wrong however she cannot admit it this quotation is showing that she is in fact lying. The Inspector is using what the characters have done in the past to question against them and to see how much they can tolerate, he in one way ‘ winds them up’ by going against what they think is right. There are frequent examples throughout this play that show that the men are ‘more able’ to accept bad news. Mr. Birling and his wife try to protect their young daughter from the suicide on numerous occasions one such occasion is when Mr. Birling says to the Inspector; “(angrily)… there is not the slightest reason why my daughter should be brought into this unpleasant business”. Mr.
Birling does not want his daughter to be exposed to the horrible truth of life, at least not at the moment. Again there are examples throughout the play that show that the men are more likely to have a sexual relationship before marriage and it is considered natural, unlike for the upper class women who are not allowed or presumed not too. Priestley doesn’t believe that women should be protected we can tell this because he uses the Inspector who says in affect that there is no reason why Sheila should not hear the truth. He says to Sheila when Mr. Birling tells her to run along; “No, wait a minute Miss Birling”, in other words he wants Sheila to be involved in the conversation.