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In An Inspector calls, how do your chosen characters react to the visit of the inspector

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An Inspector calls was written by J B Priestly in 1945, just after the Second World War. Born in 1894 in Bradford, John Boynton Priestly gained fame for his book The Good Companions, written in 1929. He is well known for incorporating his own views into his books to put across messages to his readers. In An Inspector Calls, he displays his attitude towards socialism, using the Inspector as a means to do so. In this essay, I will aim to investigate what effect he has had on the characters and their reactions towards him. The characters that I have chosen to investigate are Arthur Birling, a prosperous factory owner, and Sheila, his daughter.

Arthur is shown in the play to be an arrogant man and very ambitious. In the play, he represents the typical businessmen: rich and unconcerned with anything other than his affairs. Priestly included him into his play to show the disregard he had for the lives of his inferiors, and to criticise society and the huge difference between rich and poor. His daughter Sheila is, at the start at least, the conventional daughter of a rich person. She is spoilt, and in her encounter with Eva Smith is shown to use her social position to get what she wants.

She is perhaps the most affected by the Inspector, ‘It seems you’ve made quite an impression on our daughter’, and is the moral character in the play. Priestly uses her to show the readers what lessons can be learnt and how society should be. Also, when Inspector Goole leaves, she takes over the ‘role’ of being the voice of Priestly in the play. At the start of the play, they are all enjoying a relaxing evening and celebrating the engagement of Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of a rival businessman and member of a higher social class; we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings… re working together for lower costs and higher prices’.

Here we can immediately gain some idea of the ambitions of Mr Birling. By marrying his daughter to Gerald, he can not only get rid of a rival and increase profits, but also be marrying in to a higher class, which, as we shall later see, is part of his aim to be accepted by people ‘above’ him. However, Mr Birling is aware of the fact that Gerald’s mother is unhappy with her son’s marriage, and craftily informs him of the prospect of him being on the next year’s honours list.

Sheila Birling is an excited young girl, born into a rich household and ‘Very pleased with life’. When the inspector arrives, she is most affected by the manner of the inspector and is the cleverest in the family, in that she realised the inspector was bound to find out everything sooner or later. The first person to be interviewed is Mr Birling. We can see from the answers he gave that he is an arrogant man, and he does not accept his faults. Mr Birling is a person who is disorientated in terms of current and future events.

He dismisses the prospect of war ‘the Germans don’t want war’, and insists that it is the right time to settle down and enjoy life ‘we’re in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity. This means that business is going good, and his business will bring more profits and reduce costs (see previous quote). However, as the rich get richer, the gap between them and poor people increases, and in the society that this book was intended to portray, and written in, this is already happening. J B Priestly uses his book as a means to communicate to people the problems of that society, and, through Sheila, how we can learn from this and improve it.

Another quote that depicts Mr Birling’s character is ‘the way these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else’. This shows that he is uninterested in the welfare of others and only cares for himself, and Priestly uses him as an example of how stereotypical this image of businessmen at the time was. At the start of the interview, Mr Birling begins by exercising his ‘authority’ on the Inspector. The quote ‘I was an alderman for years – and lord mayor two years ago’ ‘ illustrates his pride and reputation and also shows us that he is warning the inspector not to say anything that may make him angry.

Although nobody is above the law, we learn from this that Birling is under the impression that wealth and reputation gives him power, and by also mentioning his friendship with Colonel Roberts who is superior to the Inspector, he is confident that whatever wrong he has done, he can get away with it. At first, Mr Birling tries to reject any accusations made of his contact with Eva Smith at all, answering with vague statements that may or may not connect him with the girl. He states that he has a large company which employs hundreds of workers, so why should he have any connection with any single one?

However, when Inspector Goole points out the fact of Eva Smith going on strike in a bid to attain higher wages, he is forced to acknowledge his links with her and tries to defend himself, ‘ she’d had a lot to say – far too much – so she had to go’. In doing so, he is doing the very thing Sheila later warns her mother not to do: don’t build walls between you and the inspector, he’ll just go and break it down. Later on, though, he is forced to admit his role in the death of Eva Smith, yet still denies any responsibility ‘ still, I can’t accept any responsibility’.

We can see now that Mr Birling is perhaps afraid of the inspector, and the damage this enquiry has done to his reputation. His denial is seen as a way out, and he defends himself by saying I did what anyone else in my position would have done. This again is used in Priestly’s favour – it demonstrates how rich businessmen would act if their profits were at risk, even though Eva and her associates were only asking for a small rise. The reactions of other characters to Mr Birling are also important when analysing his character.

At the start of the play, he is liked by the others and is not seen as Later in the play, however, when Sheila is interviewed, we see a very different type of character. Although at first we see her as a snobbish and spoilt girl who abuses her position, we see that she acknowledges her acts and accepts her responsibility, unlike Birling, and we feel as an audience that we can sympathise with Sheila. When the Inspector shows her the photograph, she is very shocked and immediately regrets her actions.

Here we can see the reaction that should have been made by Mr Birling, and this strengthens the view that Sheila is or represents how society and the people in it should behave. We learn much of Sheila’s character even when she isn’t being interviewed, which tells us that she is responsible enough not only to learn from her own mistakes, but to warn other people not to do the same as her too. We can clearly see her sense of morals; ‘these girls are not cheap labour – they’re people’, and she realises that she has changed since the visit of the inspector: ‘ (to Gerald) You and I are not the same people who sat down to dinner’.

Contrary to all this, we gain no impression of her character being like this before the inspector arrives, so we can logically assume that she was greatly influenced by his visit, unlike Mr Birling, who, near the end of the play reverts to his usual self, as if nothing happened ‘ (To Birling) You don’t seem to have learnt anything’. This conflict of characters is used by Priestly to show the large difference between his view of how society should be and how it actually is. As the other characters are interviewed, we gain more knowledge of these two characters from their interventions of the Inspector’s enquiry.

Regarding Mr Birling, Eric’s quote ‘ You’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’ shows us the hidden attitude of other characters towards Mr Birling. We then learn about Sheila, and find that that not only is she prepared to admit her faults, she also appears keen and anxious to change her behaviour in the future, ‘I’ll never, never do it again’, and she is aware of her responsibilities towards others who are less fortunate than herself and which is the impression of society that Priestly wanted to promote.

Using this information, we can see how the characters changed after the arrival of the inspector. After he has gone, we see that Mr Birling is ready to accept that the inspector was a hoax. However, as a perfect example of pride coming before a fall, he is forced to rethink his views when a telephone call arrives in an exact replication of that at the start of the story. Sheila on the other hand maintains her views on learning from her mistakes and argues ‘if it didn’t end tragically then that’s lucky for us, but it might have done’.

She feels that no matter if the inspector was real or not, they still had plenty to do with the girl Eva Smith, and should have learned from their actions. This is a striking contrast to her father, though at the start of the play we find them quite similar – two very rich people, father and daughter, enjoying life; both having used their positions to get what they wanted, and both had some connection with the death of Eva Smith. Now, we see that Sheila has changed, and become regretful and less arrogant.

What is interesting about her character is that she reacts to the Inspector’s visit very quickly – almost as soon as she sees the photo. Mr Birling, however, maintains his stance right up to the end, ‘Inspector, I’d give thousands – yes thousands’, which shows that he firmly believes that money can sort out life’s problems, and Priestly uses these tactics to shock the reader to realising that society cannot succeed when people like Mr Birling influence it, and great reforms are needed before society can be made better for all, which is the message J B Priestly wove into his books.

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