“An Inspector Calls” is a play that was written by John Boynton Priestley. He uses the play as an example of what can happen if we are ignorant to the feelings of others. In the play many characters are symbolized as stereotypical social figures who state extremist social views and he uses them to exploit the bias in social class in this period. Many upper class families of the time were only concerned with individual gain and profit and it is this superfluous materialism, which Priestley tries to uncover. These character figures mirror that of particular figures in today’s society.
In this essay I will explore these comparisons and views. Firstly, Arthur Birling the father of the household who views himself as a “hard-headed business man”, a phrase which he constantly repeats in a self-complimentary manner. This phrase for him represents that he was not born in to wealth; he made his own money through business and gradually climbed up the social ladder. A fact that he ignores and emphasizes to his benefits. “That’s something this public-school-and-varsity life you’ve had had doesn’t seem to teach you” and “They worked us hard in those day and kept us short of cash”.
This represents pride that he made himself but also a small part of jealousy and resentment toward the people who were born into wealth. The feeling that he has grinded his way to the top while Royals and the aristocracy has been handed it on a plate from birth can be noted in any society or date. His part in Eva Smith’s death was a situation where she went on strike from a factory he owned this resulted in her being fired. Birling showed neither sympathy nor remorse over her death. “I don’t see we need to tell the inspector anything more. In fact there’s nothing I can tell him.
I told the girl to clearout, and she went”. The possible reason he shows no sympathy for the working class for Eva Smith, and the working class in general, is that he himself was once of a low class and thinks that he made opportunities so why can’t they. His beliefs and priorities as a businessman are the first step on the path leading up to her suicide. These views that could be shared by self-made successful businessmen even in the present day. He admires Gerald Croft’s father greatly and sees Gerald marrying Sheila being very beneficial to his business and social status.
This parallels to how he married Sybil when she was of a higher class than him and he moved in up in social status. He cites Gerald’s father as a role model and aims to achieve many of his attributes that he views as class symbols. These examples are made clear from as early on as the first lines of the book about his port “Finchley told me its exactly the same port your father gets from him”. Birling owns a similar but smaller company to Gerald and looks up to the Croft’s business “We may look forward to a time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together”.
George Croft is a sir and Birling expresses that he knows that Lady Croft looks down on the Birlings “I have an idea that your mother – Lady Croft – while she doesn’t object to my girl feels you might have done better for yourself socially” Birling then reassures Gerald that he will soon, similar to Sir George, be knighted “I might find my way in to the next Honours list. Just a knighthood, of course”. Also Birling regards Gerald himself as a social asset and he wants to obtain Gerald into his family and secretly wishes Eric were more like Gerald. “Your just the kind of son-in-law I always wanted”.
Arthur Birling is also openly and overly optimistic, decisive and dismissive. He decides about an idea instantly and dismisses any other argument from there on in. “Just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two, or a few German officers have too much to drink and begin talking nonsense” showing how he listens to someone respected or of a high social standing and believes what they say with little to no questions asked “a friend of mine went over his new liner last week – the Titanic – she sails next week – forty six thousand eight hundred tons – New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”.
Similar to the way Tony Blair would enforce opinions of George Bush – a more powerful man. Arthur’s relationship with Gerald is somewhat strange. Gerald tries to impress him by agreeing with him on every point, as one would to his new father-in-law however as Gerald comes from a higher social status bracket than Birling so he sees it necessary to impress him back. When Birling says “Rubbish! If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth”. Gerald verifies this opinion ” I should say so! but in a role reversal Gerald explains “Not if it was just after the holidays.
They’d all be broke – if I know them. ” Arthur enforces the point “Right, Gerald. ” Arthur is symbolic of a typical self-made man having got out of the gutter he sees it his duty to look down on those below and flatter those above. He believes that his rags to riches story makes him untouchable by even that of a police inspector. His whole outlook and mentality can be seen in any generation of a narrow-minded social chameleon who strives to impress and be impressive to suit his audience.
Arthur’s wife Sybil Birling was born in to her status so this causes her to have more rights than most women of this time however it can still be noticed that she is definitely under Arthur in the household but accepts this and knows her place. Early in Act one she says “I think Sheila and I had better go into the drawing-room and leave you men-” she is interrupted by Arthur. Firstly she sees that women cannot be around when men are talking business but also she is interrupted and somewhat ignored by the three men.
She doesn’t mind or say anything against them though and listens in silence through three of Arthur’s speeches. Sybil’s involvement in the suicide of Eva Smith was an incident when Eva was pregnant with Eric’s baby, she went to Sybil’s committee to appeal for money using the name Mrs Birling, due to Eric’s second name, Sybil thought Eva was mocking her and turned down her case. Sybil appears more guiltless and heartless than even Arthur “I think she had only herself to blame”.
Despite being a woman she is not the least bit concerned of Eva’s death and is constantly stubborn to the inspector who plays her into blaming the father of Eva’s child, who was she didn’t figure out to be Eric. When Sheila calls Eric squiffy, slang for drunk, Sybil Birling is shocked that a young girl knows slang phrases such as this. “Sheila! Really the things you girls pick up these days! ” Eric replies “If you think that’s the best she can do” but is interrupted by Sheila insulting him. This brief piece of dialogue symbolizes the generation gap between Sybil and Sheila.
Sheila knowing swear words bemuses Sybil. Nothing has changed today with the younger generation swearing, robbing and collecting ASBOs earlier and earlier in life. To Sybil like many present day parents it’s a shock to her system that the early ages of innocence no longer exists. Another major piece of evidence of Edwardian women’s place is just a few sentences before when Sheila brings up the time when Gerald ignored for Daisy Renton. “When you’re married you’ll realise men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all of their time and energy their business.
You’ll have to get used to that just as I did”. This shows that perhaps Sybil’s mother has taught her that it is acceptable for men of this social class in some ways cheat on their wives with penniless prostitutes indicating that Arthur like Alderman Meggarty & Gerald Croft has also spent time with various companions that Sybil has ignored. Sheila replies “I don’t believe I will. So you be careful” although she is joking there is a serious message being spoken. That the new generation of women will not accept this.
This rise of women’s power continued and continues today. Twenty-six years after the book was set woman were granted to the right to vote, fifty-one years after that there was a female prime minister and even today in 2008 the possibility of a woman becoming president, the most powerful position in the world, is a strong one. Sheila is a typical young woman in any generation undermining and rebelling against her parents. Rebelling is quite a strong word though for light drinking and knowing a couple rude words.
Sheila’s portrayal in An Inspector Calls is probably the most easily definable, she represents the new generation whose views inevitably disagree with their parents and elders in general. Although how much she is really grownup only comes obvious when the inspector arrives before her behaviour is cheeky at the worst “I’m sorry, Daddy” “Yes, go on, mummy, you must drink our health”. These statements later turn into “mother, I think it was cruel and vile”. Speaking openly to her parents something that’s unheard of by a daughter to her father in the day and age.
Her involvement with Eva Smith happened the second longest time ago in the family for when Eva Smith was sacked from Arthur Birling’s company she got a job in a respectable clothes shop where Sheila and Mrs Birling attended quite regularly. On one of their visits Sheila wanted to try on a dress that Eva Smith, currently the shop assistant, had looked good in. When Sheila looked bad in it, Eva did the faintest of smirks, which was the straw that broke the camels back and enraged the embarrassed Sheila, who told the shopkeeper to have her fired.
Sheila felt the guiltiest of the family although her actions towards Eva Smith were not particularly noble in comparison to Eric and Gerald’s long-term problematic relationships; Sheila was hardly the meanest of the family. However with her being that of the new generation her views to the working-class were much more open and humane therefore imagining being in Eva’s shoes and being overwhelmed these simple acts of unkindness that could drive someone to the edge and possess them to killing themselves in such a painful and horrid manner. “No, no please!
Not that again I’ve imagined it enough already. ” Eric is the son in the Birling family and, like Sheila, his actions strongly vary from that of his parents. Eric is a renowned drinker, between Sheila and Gerald at least. Even in act one Eric is constantly drinking the port and making rather random outbursts. “Yes I remember” “what do you remember asks Birling a confused Eric says “nothing”. Eric’s involvement in Eva Smith’s death was probably the most serious out of the whole family, he slept with her, got her pregnant and tried to keep her afloat by stealing his fathers money.
Eric did not claim to love her but he did like her. In the present day young, rich and foolish children of wealthy men will gallivant around sleeping with working-class women and prostitutes in clubs intending on no repercussions whatsoever. Eric symbolizes a young man, once again from any generation, with too much money who will happily go out drink and meet women especially while his rich parents are none the wiser. Eric’s a bit of a jack the lad but his parents, Sybil in particular, haven’t noticed his hobbies. When Sybil accidentally blames Eric for the death of Eva Smith.
The reason she is fooled is that Eva said he stole and drank too much. Sybil had no idea that her only son was capable of actions of this preposterous nature. “(shocked) Eric! You stole money? ” “No, of course not. He’s only a boy. ” Eric’s relationship with all the family members can be recognized in any typical family. His dad preaches to him, his sibling rivalry with Sheila and his mother thinks he’s an angel. Gerald’s involvement with Eva Smith although being similar to Eric’s was much less derogatory.
He put her up in a house and respected in simple ways by talking about her life. You know, it wasn’t disgusting. Gerald is really the odd one out of the younger generation displayed in this book because a lot of his views are similar to that of George Croft and Arthur Birling rather than Eric and Sheila. Although he did take in a mistress, Arthur and George you gather wouldn’t greatly object to “you must understand that a lot of young men-“, he still treats her properly despite her class. Something Sheila doesn’t object to as she said, “at least you’ve been honest. And I believe what you told us about the way you helped her at first.
He follows Birlings path in the way he goes about his business but he does feel very regretful and guilty for what he did to her. Despite not actually having done anything negative to her at all just the fact that he was with Sheila at the same time being unfaithful made it unpleasant. Gerald represents someone who has been strongly influenced by his father and inherited his mentality despite the generation gap. However from his peers he doesn’t show a particular disgust for lower classes as is implied about Lady Croft. A figure from an upper class background exposed to the working-class in a relationship could appear in any generation.
Priestley used Gerald as the missing link between Birling and Sheila’s views. In “An Inspector Calls” Priestley uses the inspector as a crusader of the working-class. You gather the impression Priestley himself was a socialist and a lot of his views are expresses through the form of the Inspector. You feel a lot of the Birlings are intimidated by the Inspectors impolite manner and ghostly image. In conclusion JB Priestley placed the characters very carefully to fulfil the needs of the social statement he embarked on in “An Inspector Calls”.
They are extreme versions of a stereotypical character designed to emphasize the roles of gender and class. Things that Priestley himself blatantly objected to. These characters probably still existed when the play was made in 1946 however more interesting is that even after the play was first performed, sixty years after in fact, is that these characters and extreme antisocial views are present and popular in modern day society. This is why “An Inspector Calls” is still ever popular and still flooding schools and classrooms today.