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How does JB Priestley use An Inspector Calls as a vehicle to express social and moral concerns

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‘An Inspector Calls’ was written by J. B. Priestley at the end of World War Two (1945) to express discontent regarding social barriers. The war had softened the ‘walls’ separating the classes because people were combined, working towards a shared aim. The war had brought women’s responsibility into society; the nation was bonded because of the common enemy and the Welfare State was being established, thus creating more equality. People wanted life to remain unprejudiced. Surely the war had been fought for more than triumph but for a new balance in humanity? The play therefore carries a strong political agenda.

The conclusion and moral message is to be considerate to others and distribute responsibility: which of course is a socialist motivation. The play is arranged in the pattern of an orthodox detective mystery: a standard exterior, but in fact it delivers a compelling moral theme. The drama is entirely performed in the dining room of the Birlings’ family property, in the suburbs of an industrial city: Brumley. Priestley initially detaches the audience of 1945 by use of the period costume of 1912. This ingenious ploy initially makes it difficult to identify with a specific character.

As the play continues the audience realise the setting is irrelevant and the impression, the straightforward ‘whodunit’ suggested by the title, is a complete contradiction to the actual nature of the performance. The play is really about spiritual awareness, moral learning, and recognising and taking opportunities. As the drama is set as a detective thriller, Priestley uses conventional themes to serve a moral/ social purpose. Primarily, there is a crime. The death of a working class citizen: Eva Smith. However, unlike the standard murder mystery, she had committed suicide.

The characters are introduced in their privileged setting. The audience are particularly drawn to the complacency of the Birling family, where parents dominate adult children in the patriarchal society. They aim to mention their affluence at every possible moment: which indicates they are all self-obsessed, boorish individuals. In the opening scene Birling gives an ironic speech about war. In this speech Birling’s predictions are ignorant but sound absolutely believable, immediately conveying how wrong someone who sounds confident can be. Birling says ‘we’re in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity’.

In reality Birling is shown as completely wrong: The Wall Street Crash (1929) and the Depression within a generation. ‘There isn’t a chance of war’: world war within two years and again within a lifetime. ‘In 1940… you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these capital verses labour allegations’: the General strike (1926) and continued rise of the Trade Union movement. The Titanic was described as ‘absolutely unsinkable! ‘ Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage. Although amusing, this irony encourages us to question whether any other of Birling’s statements are correct; showing Priestly is not sympathetic to Capitalist views.

The unrealistic middle-class setting is disrupted by the Inspector’s prompt arrival. He enters as if on cue to the extremely arrogant, capitalist speech Birling has just made. Birling has a definite view of life: ‘every man must look out for himself’. The Inspector’s arrival shows the contradiction to this approach in society and so; the speech turns out to be the complete opposite to the moral meaning of the play. The Inspector is to show Birlings view throughout the play as incorrect and he demonstrates how people are responsible for the lives of others.

Morally, the crime conducted by the Birling family is a murder, even if it is not done directly. Another trait of the underlying message is the victim changes her name. This is quite unusual in circumstances such as these. The audiences’ first opinion of the Inspector is that he is a social critic, aiming for equality and consequently angry with privileged people: ”You see we have to share something, even if there is nothing else we have to share our guilt” The Inspector often uses ambiguous language: – ”We often do on the younger ones” This can be taken in two ways.

The ‘we’, for collectively describing the Police force, or for perhaps describing, the force of moral guardians. Sheila makes an interesting point that one shouldn’t build a wall round oneself. This moral insight, and Mr and Mrs Birlings incomprehension makes the audience more critical of the older Birlings’ conceit. To some extent the Inspector matches the description of a usual Police Inspector. He is methodical, rather presumptuous and he interrogates. However, he is also a contrast because he seems to know the answers before he has completed the ‘puzzle’ of the typical ‘whodunit’.

The Inspector’s moral dimension makes him different from a normal policeman: he is more concerned with right and wrong than what is legal. He tells Birling ‘it is better to ask for the earth’ (what an employee might do) ‘than take it’ as Birling does. The chain of events and the characters individual tales lead on from one another, continuing the theme of joint responsibility. The power structure changes when the Inspector is present. Birling, for the first time has to let the Inspector become the authority in the household.

Unlike most mysteries, the time is continuous revealing how their lives change by the revelations of each character in turn. The play conveys how peoples’ misconduct can have a ‘knock on’ effect and hence create a situation as such. The characters realise they weren’t as intimate as they had imagined. Their relationships change and the atmosphere becomes rather sickly. For example Eric’s attitude towards Birling has always been socially prosperous but obviously not morally strong or rewarding for either of them. I believe the characters in the play are all stereotypical representations of a social class.

Eva Smith represents the working class because in the inspector’s final speech (Act three) it says: – ”Just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone- But there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, their lives their hopes and their fears, their suffering and their chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives…. ” The name ‘Eva Smith’ shows just how much she could have been anybody; in the sense that if we all work together anybody can be capable of anything. The other characters in the play are also representations: –

Birling is a limited man and is wrong about many things in the play. He is a terribly pompous, naive character, who likes to make speeches. He has a-lot of false optimism, is incredibly ambitious and socially pretentious. Priestley describes him on the stage as a ‘rather portentous man’, full of self-importance and greed. He twice mentions his far from definite knighthood as a way of impressing Gerald. Gerald Croft considers himself a good match for Sheila, he is an aristocrat who contradicts the whole moral significance of the play: by implying that if one is sufficiently respectable one is above crime.

I think these two characters (as well as Mrs Birling) represent the upper class and perhaps, the capitalists. Sheila, Birling’s daughter and Gerald’s fiance is more perceptive than the other characters and she has the potential to develop a moral conscience, which is conveyed when she first senses the abnormal power of the inspector. Progressively throughout the play Sheila develops from an inexperienced juvenile, into a modern woman with the power to make her own decisions. She has a reformed attitude, her expectations alter and she looks upon her life from a different perspective.

She doesn’t want to return to the false routine as the other characters suggest. Eric, her brother also understands who the inspector is and why he came. He is less formal than the others; he drinks and appears somewhat preoccupied with his own problems. Mrs Birling is the conventional wife, a patronising prejudiced being that refuses to see things the way they actually are. There is also a maid Edna, who plays a minor role. She is almost a trophy of the Birlings prosperity. The Inspector’s conviction treats the family of their moral blindness and quite literally opens their eyes.

The Inspector always administers the opportunity of confession and with this he gives a personal judgement telling them that they are responsible for the death of Eva Smith. The Inspector’s views are concluded in a visionary speech: that ‘we are members of one body. We are responsible for one another’. As well as speaking directly to the cast he appeals to the audience of 1945 not to repeat the behaviour that has led to ‘fire, blood and anguish’ of two world wars. He morally lectures them about their crime. His words are philosophical and are always relevant.

He is almost preaching a homily to them. In his final speech and accordingly the central message of the play (act three) he uses apocalyptic language to suggest the consequences of their behaviour. The final speech of the Inspector says we need to learn to be less selfish or there will be a revolution because of our combined actions. Sheila is appalled by his accusations but has the strength to repent, revealing her new identity as an independently thinking woman. However, the arrogant confidence of Mr and Mrs Birling is shaken but remains unchanged.

Sheila and Eric have both achieved the reformed characters promised by the Inspector, and Sheila asks her family to follow her example. Mrs Birling, only having condemned her son minutes ago, stupidly misses the point yet again and doesn’t even try to understand Sheila’s new behaviour and undermines her suggestions. Eric is in a state of shock and sits quietly contemplating his mistakes. This situation conveys how the new generation are supposedly morally mature in comparison with the older of the cast who still don’t comprehend their quite obvious responsibility.

Gerald re-enters and has taken on the supremacy of the Inspector as he has discovered that there is no one called Inspector Goole on the police force. Even the Inspector’s name indicates his genuine identity: a ghoul is a spirit which takes fresh life from corpses, and the point that Eva Smith’s death is the cause of the Inspector’s existence is certainly debateable. If not an Inspector, then what is he? In my opinion he is the personification of the characters’ suppressed or non-existent consciences, a super natural, God like being.

The cast now splits into two parties: – the ones who want to cover up this ”messy business” for fear of public scandal that could potentially ruin their reputations. The other party have taken on the responsibility for their actions: the exploitation of another human being. Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald are outraged by this and completely dismiss their guilt to focus on this ‘Impostor’. Eric fully understands why the inspector visited and says: – ”Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her.

Its still the same rotten story whether its been told to a police inspector or someone else. ” However the elder characters cannot understand Sheila’s and Eric’s insistence that there is something to be learnt, and are crucially relieved that they have avoided the scandal. Birling even says (when he feels that he has won) ”there’s every excuse for what both your mother and I did-it turned out unfortunately, that was all” Sheila is also aware and has the same opinion as her brother. Her parents frighten her because not only did they not understand the central message of the play; they begin to mock the Inspector as well.

They begin to return to the start after a short investigation, concluding ”that it was all somebody’s idea of a joke”. Sheila will not consider this. She comprehends that by their wrongdoing they have caused a death. She can’t even conceive starting again. They have all had the equal opportunity to learn and confess to their mistake. Gerald and Mr and Mrs Birling appear to be amused with the ”hoax” as they call it, whilst Eric and Sheila are well aware of the consequences of their actions. They are the only two who have fully understood the depth of their behaviour.

Sheila frantically pleads with the other characters to feel remorse for their actions but with no success, she admits defeat. The phone rings and they are told to expect the call of an inspector. All had not fully learnt the lesson and so must face their fate: of which the Inspector warned them. Only two of five people had learnt the moral message, and so the play ends leaving the audience to speculate about how this moral lesson can be applied to their own lives. The majority of the characters had missed the whole point of collective responsibility and therefore, in my opinion have got what they deserved.

In a conventional mystery, the plot gets clearer and clearer until the conclusion where the murderer is revealed. Here, there is an inspector; we take him to be an inspector. There is a crime. We expect a conclusion, a ’round up’ of the events that have occurred. But at the very end, we realise everything we have taken for real and unfeigned is not. In a typical detective drama, a single culprit separates the guilty and the innocent. Here, this does not apply; and this conveys the need for joint responsibility in this sort of crime; and as a result is very significant in every society.

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