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An Inspector Calls Themes

Read about the common themes in An Inspector Calls in our theme analysis and examples of student work.

War

The shadow of World War hangs over the play. Priestley himself served in the 1st World War, the play was written during the 2nd World War and, when the play was first being performed in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, the audience would be aware of the threat of a 3rd World War. When the Inspector warns of “fire and blood and anguish”, there is no doubt what he means. The play makes connections between the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable within society and the impending dangers to civilisation itself. Mr Birling’s prediction of a peaceful 1940 is deliberately absurd; for Britain, once France had requested an armistice with Nazi Germany, this was the lowest point of the war, a nation on its own facing defeat.

Responsibility

The Inspector’s mission is to make the characters accept responsibility for their actions in relation to Eva Smith. He arrives at the precise moment when Mr Birling is preaching a principle of individualism: ... “A man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own.” The Inspector clearly contradicts this view when, in his final speech, he states: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” His message has a real impact on Sheila and Eric- the younger generation. Priestley cannot have known that Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister throughout the 1980s, would uncannily echo Mr Birling’s words when she famously proclaimed “There is no such thing as society.” She said that in 1987; Priestley died in 1984.

Gender Roles

Mrs Birling holds a traditional view of marriage for her daughter, Sheila – a suitable marriage is what all young women should aim for. She takes no interest in Mr Birling’s business and is blissfully ignorant of her son’s drinking. Sheila shows much more independence of spirit in relation to her fiancé, Gerald. The ways in which both Gerald and Eric exploit Eva Smith sexually reveal the powerlessness of women – especially if they were poor – at the time. Women over 21 could not even vote until 1928! For girls like Eva a fall into prostitution was a very real prospect. With almost no access to birth control her pregnancy would be all too common, as would be her suicide.

Symbolism

When the National Theatre in London famously revived the play in the 1990s, their stage set made clear the play’s symbolist intentions. The Birlings’ house stood at the back of the stage surrounded by children of the future, who were sitting in judgement on their actions. By the time of the Inspector’s exit in Act Three the house has collapsed into rubble. The Inspector could therefore be seen as a kind of time traveller. H.G. Wells, who wrote The Time Machine in 1895 is mentioned in Act One. It is Sheila who first senses that the Inspector seems to know everything. The National Theatre version showed him quite clearly coming from the future to judge the past. Indeed no crime can be investigated. The only criminal, strictly speaking, is Eva herself, since suicide was illegal in 1912. It is the moral consequences of people’s actions that the Inspector is concerned with. Setting the play in 1912, the year when Titanic sank, is Priestley’s way of ridiculing the idea of inevitable human progress without moral improvement. His first audiences in Blitz-shattered London would have clearly understood his message. The play is not therefore a straightforward detective thriller. It should be viewed symbolically, not naturalistically.