Author: Anonymous Submitted: 04.01.09 Word Count: 1344
With particular reference to two characters of your choice, discuss how J.B Priestley uses characters to present the theme of responsibility in An Inspector Calls.
The play ‘An Inspector Calls’ is used by J.B. Priestley as a door to open the minds of his 1945 audiences to the faults that he saw in society; the lack of responsibility people felt towards each other. The play is set in 1912 when a quarter of the globe was coloured red, denoting the vast and powerful empire that was Britain. The upper and middle classes led such a lavish life of luxury that the Edwardian era is now infamous for its elegance, ostentation and extravagance. Men such as Arthur Birling, who is portrayed by Priestley as the stereotypical capitalist, thrived in this society. Yet, despite the illusions of security, this was an epoch full of hypocrisy, prejudice and exploitation. There was a huge divide between the upper and lower classes. Many strikes during the 1900s and food shortages created political tension. In contrast to that, the play was written and published in 1945, just after World War II. The people had united to fight one common enemy but the country was once again in disarray. Priestley uses this time difference effectively. He implies that in order to move forward and to rebuild the country the way forward is socialism.
Priestley creates a character to whom the individual can relate and therefore shows us and the Birlings how our ignorance of our responsibilities to people such as Eva Smith, will lead to our demise in “fire, blood and anguish.” The two characters I have chosen to compare maintain two very different attitudes towards their responsibilities; they are Arthur Birling and the Inspector.
Priestley uses the stage directions to show how the Birling family are cold, distant people and how capitalism has corrupted them as a family. Their house is “not cosy and homelike”. The colour and brightness of the lighting which is first described as “pink and intimate” depicts a warm and joyful atmosphere. However, the audience gets the impression that it is just a screen covering up secrets and that they are in fact looking through ‘rose-tinted glasses’; all is not what it seems. This is confirmed when the Inspector appears and the lighting changes to a “brighter and harder light” where it gives the impression of exposure and the revelation of truth and faults. Priestley has created an element of mystery about the Birlings. The audience are therefore slightly wary of them.
Initially, Arthur Birling dominates the play; however, as the plot develops the Inspector becomes the principal character. This role reversal parallels Priestley’s ideals; he wants the capitalists, represented here by Birling to step down and the socialists (the Inspector) to take control.
Dramatic irony is used to promote the Inspector yet mock Birling. In a speech at the beginning of the play, Birling proudly states that “as a hard-headed businessman” he thinks that “there isn’t a chance of war” and that the Titanic is “absolutely unsinkable”. With the play written and performed after two World Wars and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, Priestley makes the audience think that Birling is a fool, whereas the Inspector, who states in his final speech that “they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish”, indicating that there will be a war, is elevated by the use of dramatic irony. This makes the audience believe the socialist views of the Inspector instead of the ‘foolish’ capitalist views of Mr Birling.
Priestley uses the juxtaposition between the Inspector and Mr Birling to further the audience’s anti-Birling feeling. The Inspector talks about how “we are members of one body” and that we “are responsible for each other”. However, Mr Birling makes a speech about how “a man has to make his own way” and how “a man has to mind his own business and look after himself”. As Birling had just stated that a war is impossible the audience are inclined to disregard his words as nonsense. Here Priestley also makes use of timings. The Inspector enters just after Mr Birling has made this speech, as if to discredit everything Mr Birling has just said.
Birling is again ridiculed by the Inspector, a representative of socialism. The dialogue between them shows this, as the Inspector repeatedly twists what Birling says, showing that he is the voice of truth. For example,
“Inspector: I’m sorry. But you asked me a question.
Birling: And you asked me a question before that, a quite unnecessary question too.
Inspector: It’s my duty to ask questions”
The juvenile comebacks with which Birling answers the Inspector’s challenges, reinforces the audience’s almost pitying dislike of Birling and convinces them further of his bad politics and principles.
The Inspector is a mouthpiece for Priestley’s views. He makes it seem as if socialism is the best way to live. He does not use euphemisms; instead he uses graphic imagery in order to shock the Birlings into giving him information: “she’d swallowed a lot of strong disinfectant. Burnt her inside out of course”. He emanates a feeling of omniscience, super natural qualities and an almost ghostly presence. His name, Inspector Goole, indicates this as Goole sounds like “ghoul” and Inspector sounds like “spectre”.
The Inspector’s God like qualities inspire the audience’s trust and having gained this Priestly uses the Inspector to ‘correct’ the capitalists and makes a strong statement in favour of socialism in his final rhetorical speech. He states that for “Eva Smiths and John Smiths”; the stereotypical members of the lower class, there is a “chance of happiness” in socialism. He also makes the audience realise that they are “members of one body” and that it is their responsibility to help people like Eva Smith. Otherwise, as the Inspector implies, “they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish”. This almost acts as a threat to the audience and helps them to recognize their interdependency with the lower classes. The language chosen by Priestly intimidates the audience; the reference to war is used specifically by Priestly to warn the audience, who were still recovering from a war.
The Birlings symbolise the seven deadly sins; Mr Birling being greed for sacking Eva Smith, just to save a few shillings, or pride for boasting about his wealth and high status. Mrs Birling could represent wrath for being angry with Eva Smith over calling herself ‘Mrs Birling’. Sheila could be envy for being jealous of Eva in Milwards, and Gerald could be lust for having an affair with Eva. The fact that they can be identified as sins shows how Priestley emphasises the immorality of capitalism and the Birlings initial attitudes to responsibilities.
Priestley uses cliff-hangers to create tension and keep the audience listening, such as at the end of the play, when Birling answers the phone to find out that a second inspector is on his way to question them as what they thought was just a hoax was in fact true; a girl had been brought into the hospital having swallowed some disinfectant. Ending the play on this cliff-hanger makes the audience want to pay more attention and keeps them thinking about the play’s meaning.
Priestley uses the class divide between the Birlings and Eva Smith, to show that the rigidity of the class system is incompatible with his views on community and responsibility. The fact that a meaningful message is represented would indicate that An Inspector Calls, as well as being a murder mystery, in the way that Priestley uncovers the story of the death of Eva Smith, is also a moralistic play. Priestley shows the audience how not to live their lives, using characters to demonstrate this. ‘The moral of the story’ is still relevant today’s society. J.B.Priestley applies many dramatic devices and the portrayal of extreme characters in An Inspector Calls, to portray his political views, using an upper class, Edwardian family to do so.