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How Priestley in An Inspector Calls uses the tragic death of Eva Smith to expose the misuse of power in society in 1912

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It is 1946 the Second World War has just finished and the world is reeling from 70 million deaths. The world has changed and Priestley is presenting a play about how everything was before in 1912. Priestley is about to bring to light the shocking truth of Britain’s class divide, the misuse of power in pre war Britain and society’s responsibility to ensure that the changes wrought by the war are not replaced by the past. In pre-war Industrial Britain the Birlings of this world were in control of everything, from the factories to the government.

The upper and middle classes had a complete stranglehold on the nation; they set the pay, they decided who got work, and also chose how long or hard the work was. Priestly confirms this throughout his play, an example would be “perhaps we may look forward to the time when Cofts and Birlings are no longer competing but working together for lower costs and higher prices” this is a clear cut example. “Lower costs” can be easily linked to lower pay and “higher prices” at the expense of the public and the workforce illustrating the greed of those particular classes.

It is in this world that Priestley’s play is set. 1912, the Birlings are holding a party to celebrate their daughter’s engagement the atmosphere is one of celebration and grandeur with fine wine, port and cigars. Everything is going well and the future looks bright. With Birling discussing the impossibility of war “people say that war is inevitable and to that I say fiddlesticks” and the luxury of the titanic and the fact that it is unsinkable. Both of these comments are in fact ironic as war does start in 1914 and the titanic does sink.

The happy gathering is however interrupted when an Inspector interrupts. A young woman Eva has committed suicide by drinking disinfectant. This is somewhat foreshadowed by Birlings statement just beforehand that all he needs to get a knighthood is for everyone to behave themselves and don’t get into a police court or start a scandal. This particularly gruesome death is designed to shock, the inspectors comments are to the point and matter of fact “she’d swallowed a lot of strong disinfectant burnt her inside out of course” increasing the shock felt by both the audience and the plays characters.

Eric exclaims “my God” with the stage directions emphasizing the fact this is involuntary. The play is scattered throughout with stage directions which are Priestley’s way of controlling the characters and the way they appear, they are all his creation. The death however also brings to light an element of the class and age divide very early on in the play. Both the audience and Eric are shocked by what they hear and show horror towards such a dreadful death, whereas Mr Birling’s opening speech shows how he is only concerned for himself “yes, yes.

Horrid business but I don’t understand why you would come here… ” this combined with the stage direction ‘(rather impatiently)’ shows how Birling is not shocked or worried by the death but is only concerned as to why an inspector has arrived at his house and interrupted his pleasant party. He is playing the part of the older upper class man set in his ways whereas Eric in this scene, and later Shelia, represent the new younger generation brought up with the ‘silver spoon’ in their mouth but slightly more caring and less separated from the lower classes.

Shelia the very essence of this younger middle class, initially mimics the attitude of her uncaring parents “what do you mean by saying that you talk as if we were responsible” until her own involvement in the girls death becomes apparent, and her manner changes, she begins to see the consequences of her actions ” I remember what he said how he looked how he made me feel. Fire blood and anguish”. Priestley includes this to show how there is hope of change that the middle classes younger generation can see the error of their ways and begin to show interest and even correct past mistakes.

This distance from the working class and self interest is, along with social responsibility, the main theme which runs throughout the play. Priestley had very strong political views, and was not afraid to speak his mind so much so that his radio broadcast on the BBC was cancelled because of his criticism of the government. Many of his plays were controversial and ‘An Inspector Calls’ is no exception, Priestley wanted things like public ownership of land and greater democracy, the rigid class boundaries in the early 1900s were everything he hated in society.

Thus, when the second and to some extent the first, world war changed that so radically with women being seen as close to equals, classes melding and distinctions becoming less clear, he saw an opportunity for the Britain he craved. ‘An Inspector Calls’ was his way of reminding people of the past and encouraging them towards what he saw as a better and more caring society. This is also illustrated by the character of the Inspector who to some extent represents a social conscience towards the gluttony and misbehaviour of the upper and middle classes.

The inspector is the key character in the play, he controls both the pace and tone of the play. He controls the dialogue, choosing who the play will focus on. He also chooses the tone whether a character is portrayed to the audience as hard, uncaring or remorseful. For example the inspector can decide who he wants in the room “then I would prefer you stay” to Gerald page 13. The stage directions also indicate that the actor should deliver this line “gravely” he is both controlling the tone and which characters the play focuses on (Gerald).

The Inspector also in some senses resembles Priestly himself, he often criticises the unjust way Eva is treated. For example “there are a lot of young women living that sort of existence in every city and big town in the country, Miss Birling if there wasn’t factories and warehouses wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labour. Ask your father. ” This is a clear ‘dig’ at society and Mr Birling, a view that would almost certainly be shared by Priestley.

Another interesting link is the way in which the inspector and Birling are similar, they both are very strong characters with a lot of influence and strong opinions, one being an Inspector and the other a wealthy upper-class business man involved in politics and with a potential knighthood. However, they are at complete odds with each other with utterly different views on society, this could very well represent the old and the new school of thinking from Birling representing 1912 “a man has to mind his own business and look after his own” and the inspector 1946 “we don’t live alone.

We are members of one body”. Priestley through the Inspector and his play brings to light the misuse of power in society during the 1900’s. After interrupting the family celebration the inspector quickly reveals that the family is involved in the young woman’s suicide and begins to reveal just how deep their involvement goes. The Inspector begins with Mr. Birling the calculating businessman who it turns out fired Eva for “having far too much to say”. He had fired her for wanting a raise from twenty two and six shillings to twenty five shillings.

She was left without a job and no way to look after herself as with no family to support and unlike Shelia she is totally dependant on her earnings and Birling thinks this is perfectly reasonable. Priestly is careful here to portray, to the audience Eva as the victim of corporate greed and social unfairness thus further embedding his underlying messages. In response to Eric saying “you could have kept her on instead of throwing her out” he reply’s “Rubbish! “.

Another case of the differences between the two generations and between father and son. This links again in with class and the misuse of power, Mr Birling had complete control over Eva’s pay and therefore her quality of life yet when her and her colleges ask for a small pay raise he thinks it is totally acceptable to fire them and even believes them to be “trouble makers” he goes as far to be delighted in the fact that they have just come back from the holidays and thus have no money.

This is a clear misuse of power and position in society, he is using tyrannical lordship of his workers to ensure no criticism or “having too much to say” The unjustness of this is further highlighted by the audiences introduction to the lavish lifestyle led by the Birlings with their fine port and cigars, the small change in pay that would make a huge difference to Eva’s lifestyle would have very little effect on theirs. Next, the Inspector and Priestley move on to Sheila.

Like Eric she is also shocked to hear of Eva’s tragic death “oh how horrible” and again like Eric quick to disapprove of her father “I think it was a mean thing to do. Perhaps it spoilt everything for her”. He again sticks up for himself with “Rubbish! ” Shelia’s involvement is brought into the play much more slowly than her father’s coming in at page 17. It is page 20 before the inspector brings up the customer complaint at Milwards. Here is the point where Shelia misuses the power granted to her through her privileged place in society and the wealth brought with her parent’s position.

Through her jealousy of the attractive Eva, a dress that “wasn’t right for her” “suited” Eva and in her jealous “fury” Shelia tells the manager “that if they didn’t get rid of that girl, I’d never go near that place again and persuade my mother to close her account”. Priestley uses irony in that this jealousy felt by Shelia is completely unfounded, she has everything that can be bought with a position in society and a wealthy family and Eva is poor with nothing and no one to her name.

This clear spiteful and uncaring use of power is unexpected from a girl who shows horror at the suicide, criticises the uncaring father and who the audience is beginning warm to. But none the less the misuse of power is there, she has got Eva fired. Her “wonderful stroke of luck” was over thanks to Sheila’s jealousy and unthinking callousness. This contains a message linked to responsibility and thinking before you act but also another jab at the classes, the middle class Sheila did not spend a seconds thought over what might happen to Eva not even realising how her power could so radically change another person’s life for the worse.

She saw it as her right to treat others as she pleases, they barely cross her consciousness. Priestley in ‘An Inspector Calls’ uses the characters and the plot to illustrate how class and the misuse of power were rife in the 1900’s and sends a message to the audience that things are better now that is behind them and leaves them with a parting warning “And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, when they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

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