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"AN INSPECTOR CALLS" By J. B. Priestly has been described as a play of social criticism. What is being criticised in the play?

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Claudia Waller 10N

“AN INSPECTOR CALLS” By J. B. Priestly has been described as a play of social criticism. What is being criticised in the play?

“An Inspector Calls” by J. B. Priestly is a cleverly written play far beyond its years, showing societies flaws in the form of its characters.

The major flaws in society were due to the division of the income of one group, to the next. To put this into context, 87% of the countries wealth was in 5% of its population – and he shows this through the Birling family, and the victim Eva Smith.  The Birling family represents the flaws; the wealthy, capitalists who live in a bubble of ignorance of the lower classes suffering, and care only for themselves. Eva Smith however represents the respectable, yet misfortunate, low-wage workers, with no welfare state to turn too. Eva is also used to show how the rich exploited the poor, and used women for pleasure.

As the play was set in 1912, fears if war were adamant and was the agenda of most small talk, which of course the wealthy – the Birling’s – were in complete denial over. As Priestly wrote this in 1945,  he has exaggerated the characters though and actions to be ominous as he for well knew what had happened after 1912. He shows this through dramatic irony, and repeats this throughout the play.

Priestly uses two main levels of criticism, first of which, is how he attacks what the Birling family represent. Of which includes unfair social privileges, and the lack of responsibility they show for Eva Smith’s death.

The second level widens the criticism as Priestly then attacks modern society with mentions of war, and refusal to accept responsibility for each other.

This is how Priestly remarkably portrays his characters – each character having a different aspect of society to bring to light.

The first of which is Arthur Birling. Priestly writes him to be arrogant, pompous and responsible only for himself; also with an overthrowing of pride and control on his family. He represents the 5%of the population I mentioned, the wealthy capitalist businessmen. Priestly does this to show the audience what awful people these capitalists can be, and that there are such people in existence. To show this, Birling says:

“Working together – for lower costs and higher prices”

Basically describing the typical businessmen; trying to gain as much profit, by giving low wages, despite the knowledge of the struggle the workers live with.

Also he has this optimistic, somewhat thick exterior, which at the time the audience may laugh about, but secretly they would have probably been the same, in the situation of speculation of war for example.

Or just ridiculously optimistic?

“you’ll hear some people say that war’s inevitable. And to that I say – fiddlesticks! The German’s don’t want war.”

Maybe so, pompous even, which would also work in hand with his ignorance of the “real world”.

Although to counteract that, it could be suggested that if Birling had been in the workers situation – as he had to work his way to the top – making it feel that he might have some knowledge of what its like. Unfortunately, this never seems to appear and reiterates Priestly point about the wealthy being, more than selfish to say the least.

In addition, the point where the Inspector is introduced is deliberately placed as previous to his entrance, Birling is discussing his views on socialism, describing them as “cranks”. Later, we are lead to believe the Inspector is in fact one of these “cranks”.

So The Inspector Calls, and begins his questioning with Mr Birling, in the dining room. Keeping the questioning in one room seems to represent the how secluded the wealthy are from the “other half” of living.

The Inspector accuses of Birling of having something to do with Eva Smith’s death, he’s in denial of everything, and tries changing the subject on numerous occasions, usually to a subject he can brag about – for example who wide range of associates or how wealthy he is. Repetitively, he tries to justify the reasons for sacking Eva and tries to turn it round so that he’s the good guy. The Inspector then tells Birling of this wrong doing, in which he replies with:

“We were in need to keep labour costs down,”

Which is the stereotypical ethos of business men of the time.

Arthur Birling maybe at the epitome of his business career, but although his exterior shows him to be non remorseful to anyone other than himself, he does care a lot about his family.

Like when the inspector starts to question Birling’s daughter Shelia, he seems to  become the father figure, protective and instinctive:

“(angrily) Why the devil did you want to go upsetting the child like that?”

From the outset, Shelia being a young woman, is of course curious of what happened to Eva Smith. She asks the inspector of many more personal details, like whether Eva was “pretty” and whether it “was an accident,” This appears to make Shelia the most naïve of the family, although she has a desire to find out as much as she possibly could. Her part in Eva’s death was simple, and Shelia thought it of nothing at the time, as:

“she was lucky to  be taken on at milwards”

So of course it wouldn’t matter if she was fired… Well, pathetic as it maybe to have someone fired because they look better in a dress then you do, Priestly does this purposefully to show the spoilt part of society.

But Shelia does not just show the naïve, pathetic part of society, Priestly writes her as to be more of a multi purpose character, also showing hope for these spoilt young citizens in the following generation, as is showed in the following acts of the drama.

In the comings of the end of her questioning, the Inspector seems have to gathered Shelia’s typical socialist attitude. Priestley then shows the change in many ways, like when Shelia says:

“these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people”

And also when she says:

“You mustn’t try to build a kind of wall between us and that girl. If you do, then the Inspector will just break it down. And it’ll be all the worse when he does”

This shows she understands what she did wrong, and as society does change – people learn from there mistakes, and in this case, advising others. Also she shows that she’s not completely in the generalized upper class as she can see that these women of the streets aren’t the scum and meat that the upper class men  believe they are. This is more of a mature statement, and shows the change from earlier in the play, as she was so naïve. When Sheila accepts that she is partly responsible for Eva’s death she immediately runs out of the room. Naturally, this dramatic device is used to increase the audience’s tension as they try to unravel what actually happened to Eva. Later she returns, out of guilt and upset, which marks the beginning of her change.

Sheila at the start of the drama would be disliked by the audience for abusing her power and status, but will feel remorseful to her as she appears to be sincerely sorry. Priestly then changed the mood, and begins to question Shelia’s fiancée, Gerald Croft.

Gerald represents also the upper class Priestly keeps repeating, although in contrast, Gerald is a man of morals, and differs to the Birling’s due to his compassion and thought for others. In addition, he shows pity on a woman a businessman like himself would not usually be seen with – unless used for pleasure – Eva Smith a.k.a. Daisy Renton. He describes the close relationship they acquired near the beginning of act two

So Daisy Renton became his mistress, and he gave her money and a place to stay:.

“So I insisted on Daisy moving into those rooms and I made her take some money to keep her going there”

This shows that not all businessmen were as self-centred as the Birling’s, and also, as he admitted that him and Daisy were in love and that he showed genuine affection to her, also showing he’s not as shallow as them too. Which happen to be the key points Priestly was trying to criticize at the time.

At this point, the audience are building up a picture of Eva/Daisy, which would probably make them heavily sympathetic towards her character. A lower class, poor, lonely young women who did no harm to anyone had been accustomed to abuse from the upper class, the “moral” members of society, the ones with all the wealth. Shelia described her in her monologue on getting her fired:

“…she was very pretty and looked as if she could take care of herself.”

The audience would here begin to realise what kind of person she was and as throughout the drama she is described to be:

“pretty”, “lively”,  “country-bred”, “a good worker”, “intelligent”

This would heighten the sympathy felt towards Eva/Daisy, and also shows that she was just your average person, and would make the audience feel saddened and anguish against the Birling’s. Priestly criticises the upper class constantly, blaming all of the lower classes suffering on them, to reiterate the fact that the drama is about – the next generation must change.

The last awful incident which happened to Eva was to do with Mrs Birling, who you could say “finished her off”.

“As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!”

This bluntly sums up the sheer snobbery of Mrs Birling. Priestly does this to show another type of upper class – the more common ones, “posh” women who possess the highest levels of snobbery imaginable.

But what really gives Mrs Birling away – despite her confidence, and denial – is that she becomes very defensive:

“that – I consider – is a trifle impertinent, Inspector”

“In any case…”

“… but I must say that so far you seem to be conducting it in a rather peculiar and offensive manner.”

“… my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago..”

Her connection to Eva Smith? Well, Eva went to a charity committee pregnant, owning – let a loan earning – anything, and was refused of the money as the Head of the committee put it down to “silly nonsense”. Mrs Birling being Head of the committee. The irony is somewhat funny, that a charity committee could  refuse someone in need of the money they need, due to personal opinion of their class. Priestly purposefully writes this to show the audience how it was then, and how it should be changed.

She denies her cause when The Inspector asks, and denies just about everything she can to do with Eva’s suicidal.

“I’m very sorry but I think she had only herself to blame.”

The Inspector rightly has his disbeliefs over the majority of what she says, not only by the content, but also as she is overly confident and arrogant in her tone. The desire she has to impress The Inspector by showing him her intellect fails, and comes across as very naïve due to her lack of knowledge of her own son Eric.

Eric is a young alcoholic living the “varsity life” as his dad says, and Mrs Birling still denies even the fact he is an alcoholic, either through ignorance, or just to toughen her veneer. Priestly does this to show that people of her stature are oblivious of what there children, or friends for that matter (like how she didn’t know that her friend Alderman Meggarty was a well-known womanizer) obviously not being such a helpful property to have. Ironically, Mrs Birling’s main fact for refusing her the money was that it should be the father’s responsibility – and by this point the majority of the audience wouldn’t have realised the father of Eva’s child is in fact Eric. To give this away, The Inspector says:

“only a youngster – silly and wild and drinking too much”

Shelia’s shocked reaction obviously shows she knows it’s Eric who is the father, and by this the audience also realise. This cleverly placed dramatic irony intensifies Mrs Birling’s ignorance, as she appears to be completely unaware. Intensifying this further, she begins to think of punishments she believes would be fit for the father of Eva’s child:

“be made to confess publicly and made an example of”

Comical as it may be, Priestly uses her as the climax, and shows the pure stupidity of this class of people. Priestly then slowly builds up the tension in the audience, and when Mrs Birling finally realises her own son is the father of Eva’s child, she looks immediately to the door, as Eric enters.

Eric, the last “victim”, is the one to bring the drama together. Being the father of a dead baby, it seems not so much to bother him. Probably because his relationship was made of a one night fling where he “made love to her”. Quite bluntly, this was all he wanted, obviously not wanting a relationship as he threatened to cause a fuss and jeopardise her staying at the lodgings.

“I threatened to make a row”

Although his one night fling turned into them meeting up a few more times, before Eva became pregnant. So you’re thinking, well maybe he’s not such a bad guy, he didn’t just get pregnant after meeting her once. If this was true, Priestly would have no purpose for Eric as a character, therefore, Eric says:

“I didn’t even remember – that’s the hellish thing.”

Reconciling the fact that Eric is an alcoholic. And to make things worse:

“wasn’t in love with her or anything”

Priestly wrote Eric to be like this, as he must of despised these rich, young, idle men who just used women for pleasure.

The Birlings previous to The Inspector Calling, perceived the world through tunnel vision, whether the things happening around them include them or not, in there eyes “ignorance is bliss”. The lower class, these people are seen to be the scum of “their” world, in contrast to the reality of them being harmless hard working citizens like themselves. There stereotypes ended up getting the best of them, for example, The Inspector was just another “Crank”. Anyone with a different political view to them were foolish and worthless. They care only of their wealth, their reputation, and how they’re perceived. For example, to impress The Inspector Mrs Birling becomes almost brutal when describing ways to punish the father of Eva’s child – all to show her “power” and “intellect” she so rightfully has. Even there own child’s wedding was more of a business deal. Complete moral blindness.

As The Inspector was written to shake the consciences of the other characters, and hopefully bring them into a new light of change, only a few characters I believe would end up changing.

Mr Birling – I doubt he would ever change. The arrogance and pompousness of his character would be too harsh of a wall to break so to speak. He will still be a successful businessmen, and will still treat his workers as “lower class scum”.

Shelia will change, as we have already a change from her throughout the play. She started off as a naïve young women, oblivious to the suffering such a simple thing jealousy could do to someone who she would of classed as beneath her. As the play progresses, she becomes more confident, as she knows she’s not only to blame. We can see this new found confidence as she begins to speak like The Inspector. She obviously cracked early on that he knew the whole story, and that he was going to find each and everyone of them out, and therefore began to warn them, and speak in The Inspectors tone.

“… it was simply bound to come out tonight…”

She appears to have developed into a mature, new person. She will probably now look at people in those shops, the working class, and have a totally new, perception of them.

Gerald, I’m slightly indecisive about. On the one hand, he appears a compassionate, generous young man, but on the other hand, he’s a businessmen, clever at that. He has the properties to be able to change, but whether he will or not will depend on what he does next.

Mrs Birling will never change – she’s far too proud. She’ll think over things, and may even try to change, but on the surface she’ll be the same.

Eric will still be an alcoholic, and will probably end up dead long before his time. He’ll drown his sorrows, and all thoughts of guilt in his drink, and will do that for as long as possible.

The play overall consists of generalization and stereotypes, views and contrasting personalities, change and rock hard veneers. By having one focus, Priestly successfully manages to pull such a complex point and make it simple. All that’s wrong in society can be put right, change is needed immediately. By using great techniques of dramatic irony, at clever intervals made it slightly comical, and cringe worthy due to their stupidity. The Inspector really did:

“…gave us the rope, to hang ourselves with…”

Which made the drama all the more interesting. The Inspector’s dramatic prophetic speech just before he leaves uses great dramatic irony as the closing lines speak:

“…fire and blood and anguish…”

To an audience of 1912, and of course the characters, this would have meant nothing, but because of how Priestly cleverly wrote the drama after two world wars, the audience would feel slightly upset. It was also placed at the end to make the characters feel as if that’s would happen to them.

However as the play end pretty abruptly, with Mr Birling ending a phone call and informing his family of a police officer on his way to question them about a girl committing suicide like Eva did. This leads a cliff hanger effect on the audience, which I believe is always a great way to end a play, as they would be thinking of the consequences once they’d left. I think they will all confess to what happened, if they’ve learnt there lesson that is. Otherwise it might twist to the opposite, and Mr Birling might tell he rest of his family to lie for his reputation.

The Inspector – not real? I believe he may have just been a character created to extract information and expose the faults of society to all of its audience. He could of easily been they’re guilty consciences, in human form to get the point across, but who knows?

The audience at this time would have been left feeling astounded at the sheer intellect that went into this drama, but this message could definitely be considered important today, as anti-social behaviour is on the rise, and crime rate on the increase. A totally different aspect, but could this help today’s society?

“An Inspector Calls” coursework 01/08

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