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Analyse and compare the roles of two characters in An Inspector Calls By J B Priestley

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  • Category: Character

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An inspector calls was written in 1946. However it was set in 1912. I think this tells us that the time of which is was written is very significant. As at this time in particular the emphasis on classes in society was very much more than it was later. The play is set in a fictional industrial town called Brumley. It is a typical town where factory owners where able to offer much needed employment and run things exactly how they wanted. J B Priestly offers us an insight to this and also shows us what the social class difference meant to one particular family.

The play is all set in the family dining room. The Birlings are a rich family and very high up in society. The dining room is described as ‘substantial and heavily comfortable, but not cosy or homelike’ This really shows the richness of the house and the how grand everything is, but how nothing is ‘relaxing’ like a normal family home is. I think this reflects the families inner tensions, but very outward comforts.

In this essay I am aiming to analyse and also compare to very contrasting characters from this play. One of which is in the older generation and the other, a younger member of the family. I have done this as within the family there is also classes, younger adults/children were not allowed as much open opinion as the adults. This will be interesting to compare. Also their opinions on subjects raised will be interesting to analyse according to their generation.

Priestley’s initial description of Mrs Birling describes her as ‘a rather clod woman’ this implies that she shows little emotion, and definitely not much love towards others. It sets an impression of a person in your head as mean, or angry inside, which I think is good. And also as I read through the play I agree that ‘cold’ is the best adjective to describe Mrs Birling. Also it tells us about her social superiority to her husband. This means, she is from a higher class family than Mr Birling. This suggests she is the head of the marriage, and a very strong minded and independent woman.

Sheila is described as ‘a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited’ This makes the reader feel happy for her, we think a young girl happy and excited, that’s a refreshing difference to her cold hearted mother. And also it implies that she shows her feelings and has a different outlook on life.

In the first scene of the play the curtain goes up and the whole family are sitting round a large formally laid dining table. They are celebrating the engagement of Sheila and Gerald. At the head of the table and at the other end is Mr and Mrs Birling. I think this is significant as it shows how they believe that the most superior people sitting at the table go at the head at either end. This also suggests that within the family they have set places at the dining table. Which shows they are a family of routine, or pattern and like everything to be just so. Also that they like they’re meal times to be structured and orderly.

This is also shown in the style of dress that they are wearing at the meal. But also this shows us that they cannot be comfortable in their own home. And as if, amongst each other they are on show. So therefore this implies there are tensions between them, and possibly competition.

Before the inspector arrives, Mrs Birlings behaviour is aloof, but you can tell that she is starting to feel more relaxed and is enjoying herself as a result of the engagement between her daughter and Gerald. But even this shows us that she gets happiness out of knowing her daughter is marrying a wealthy man and is going to also follow her childhood to be wealthy and high up in society. So this shows Mrs Birling only finds comfort in money and class.

However Sheila shows a very different type of happiness, with using expressions like, ‘oh- it’s wonderful!’ to emphasise her feelings. And seems very excited and happy about the love her and Gerald have, but also for the ring her fianc� had produced. This does show a similarity between her and her mother, with the love for material wealth and money. But she does give an over all impression of real happiness and shows this a lot in her speech, whereas her mother only shows it in her facial expression.

It is in this happy and not-so tense atmosphere that the inspector arrives. Mrs Birling and Sheila are in the drawing room, whereas the gentlemen are still drinking whisky and smoking cigar. This also shows the separation between not only class, but also sex in the year it is set in. Gerald and Mr Birling welcome him and are the first to be told about Eva Smiths suicide. After Mr Birling realises his involvement with the suicide and has owned up to what he was to do with it Sheila bursts into the room, without realising the inspector is present.

Mr Birling therefore tries to keep her out of the situation as she is only young. So again, this is showing another separation, this time with age. But when she finds out she is very distressed. And starts to ask many questions about her, and why the incident has come about. Sheila discovers her fathers involvement with the death of the girl and becomes even more upset at it.

The inspector moves on then to the involvement of Sheila herself. She is told that the girl got taken on at MIllwards, but was then let go as a customer complained. At this, Shelia feels that she played a major part in the death of Eva Smith. The inspector confirms it to Sheila that the girl was someone she knew by showing her a picture of a young girl. However, Sheila is the only person who sees the picture, strangely he produces another picture to show Mrs Birling, and also fooling her into thinking she knew the girl. This is because the inspector has produced two different pictures of people the family would have recognised so they are now thinking that they, the family as a whole played a big part in the suicide of Eva Smith.

Once Sheila has seen the picture she looks distressed that she recognises the person and runs out of the room sobbing.

She then returns later, looking as though she had been crying for a time. From this point on we see a huge difference in Sheila’s character. She is no longer fun loving, happy and excited, she is guilty and depressed because of this. It is after her return that she admits her involvement as she was the one that instigated her form her job. She now seems a lot more mature than before and seems to be more deep thinking. However also we see a different side to this also; we see that within her character there is a bad-tempered and jealous side, which before she was not showing whatsoever.

In act two Mrs Birling is fetched into the room by her husband to meet the inspector. She comes into the room smiling and sociable. This almost shows that she was acting calm to try and hide her involvement to secure her respected class in society. Sheila tries to warn her mother not to ay anything that she would later regret, but Mrs Birling pays no notice to her daughter’s comments and treats her like a child, then continues to say whatever she likes. After this we notice she becomes very aloof again. But Sheila again tries to warn her mother, but even on this second time, Mrs Birling treats her like a stupid child and believes that everything she says is helping the situation. However it is definitely not. She talks to her children as though she doesn’t know them at all, showing her ‘cold’ disposition. Also getting it across that she probably is very hard to get on with. This is because most people have strong relationships with their children at least, so Mrs Birling is most definitely extremely hard to get on with.

Also to add to this part of the play, we see irony as the stolen money was actually taken by her own son, which she doesn’t realise at the time. But she still finds it easy to condemn the thief.

When the family realise that there was no death and that the whole thing was a set-up Mrs Birling and Sheila display a very different kind of behaviour. Mrs Birling is relieved to find that is wasn’t real and has learnt nothing form the experience. Whereas the ‘younger’ member of the family- with supposedly less knowledge than the elder, sees a good lesson to be learned. However as much as she tries to show her elder relatives the importance in this, Mrs Birling especially finds it impossible to see. This shows how even though the younger generations had a lot of new views and knowledge, the elders refused to accept the lesson as useful and meaningful.

At the very end of the play there is a dramatic twist when they find out that there had actually been a death after the incident had happened. Showing that before when all these guilty feelings concluded to mean nothing, members of the family thought nothing of it and ignored the fact that even though there actions had lead to nothing, they were still wrong. But now that something happened, everything changed and Mrs Birling’s behaviour returned to how it was before.

In this play we see J B Priestley’s great ability to create reality and then almost immediately strip it right away. As here he starts with a simple family gathering and throughout the play gradually strips it down and down, until we are left with a very unrealistic ending.

However, even though it is not very believable it has definitely got a useful message. Priestly aims to show that it shouldn’t matter what ‘rank’ of society you are classed into, we should help each other and look out for one another. In this he uses the inspector as the social conscience and hopes that his very powerful play will show how everything changes once mindless actions are given a dramatic effect.

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