Priestly was a socialist writer. Through the characters of Mr Birling and the inspector, how does his play, ‘An Inspector Calls’ encourage the audience to see Socialist philosophy as morally right and capitalism as wrong?
‘An Inspector Calls’ is set in 1912 although it was written in 1945, after World War II so Priestly lived through both world wars which probably influenced or strengthened his belief that Capitalism didn’t work and that Socialism was the way forward.
It is obvious that Mr Birling represents Capitalism because he hardly cares when he hears the inspector say that one of his former employees, Eva Smith, has died horribly. His excuse is one of loss of profit and about his business. Capitalism is a philosophy of profit and industry: capital is another way of saying money. In Capitalism community is a word not used often: the rich are the ruling class; they have the influence and power while the working class are little more than slaves.
The Inspector represents Socialism: he has strong moral views on how there should be equality and a community. “With no work, no money coming, and living in lodgings, with no relatives to help her, few friends, lonely, half- starved, she was feeling desperate.” Priestly had Inspector Goole say this to convey his own opinion on how life was for the lower class and what capitalism put the lower class through. Throughout the play the inspector expresses his views that Capitalism does not work and how Socialism should be put into effect. Socialism is all about equal rights, the redistribution of wealth and power amongst the populous as defined by Karl Marx: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In Britain at that time there was many different types of socialism, Marxism, Christian socialism, Ethical socialism, Fabianism and Cooperatism. All the different branches of British socialism had slightly different opinions but one thing that remained throughout is that they wanted to bring equality and redistribute wealth.
Mr Birling’s character is a “heavy looking and rather pretentious looking man in his middle fifties” according to the stage directions. In the play he has an arrogant and self-righteous manner; like many upper class men he thinks he can get away with anything either through influence or money, and being upper class he has plenty of both. Perhaps I ought to warn you that he’s an old friend of mine,2 referring to colonel Roberts and using this information as a threat.
He is an ex-mayor and “still on the bench” He thinks he has certain privileges because he once held a seat of power, privileges others do not have. The audience would probably dislike Birling because their parents and grandparents were likely to have been exploited as the workers had been in the play, by such a man as MR Birling, at the time the play is set. Others would dislike Birling because either they were jealous of his lifestyle or they would see his arrogant and selfish ‘capitalist’ way of life and view as a main cause for the events that occurred between 1912 and 1945 such as the world wars, Black Thursday and the world wide depression ect.
Priestly uses Birling to say dramatically ironic things corresponding to World War I, World War II and the Titanic. For example, he states: “I say there isn’t a chance of war. The world is developing so fast that it will make war impossible.” I think he uses this to outline the point that Capitalists are self confident, arrogant and wrong. He implies that the World Wars are the consequence of Capitalism since the fundamental tenet is greed. The events that led up to World War I were based in greed: the arms race, the fight for military supremacy, empire building and the race for increased wealth, forming alliances to build power and bully other nations. Even after millions had died in the War, the victors Britain, France, America and Russia, only seemed to care about the financial cost of war. They demanded Germany should pay reparations for the damage they caused, further substantiating the view that Capitalists were greedy and loath to accept the blame for anything.
Mr Birling’s language also demonstrates the Capitalist view on community: “a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself – and his family too, of course – and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm.” This is a typical Capitalist view and it is interesting to compare with a later well-known Capitalist prime minister, Margaret Thatcher who stated that “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” This philosophy was prevalent in America at the time and leading on to the early 1930’s and was probably a major cause of “Black Thursday”, the Wall Street Crash in 1929. This is another instance of dramatic irony, as Birling says that “there’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere.”
Birling’s attitude to the working class, like Eva Smith, is that they are merely there to be used and exploited, that they are second class citizens: today’s equivalent of factory workers in the developing world. It seems that he has very little empathy for anyone and does not follow society’s golden rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Many upper class and upper middle upper class people during this time seemed to follow the rule “treat others as you are treated”. This philosophy didn’t work however because everyone treated each other like dirt which gave everyone an unfriendly attitude.
To Birling profit is everything and he would rather sack people that lose profit: “Well it is my duty of course to keep labour costs down.” He also puts himself above others and is trying to keep what’s his: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people they’d soon be asking for the world.” At the time, most of the country’s wealth would have been shared amongst a very small proportion of the populace: most people would have been very badly off. The redistribution of wealth is one of the main aims of Socialism compared to the Capitalist idea that it’s every man for himself. But Birling relied on the workers, he relied on them to be desperate so they would work long hours for little pay in his factory. So he profited on their hardships, he would be described as a bourgeois as defined by Karl Marx and Friedrick Engles in the Communist manifesto.
Birling tries to intimidate the Inspector into dropping the case by asking: “How do you get on with our Chief Constable Roberts? “showing that he knows people in high places. By using this method of intimidation Birling shows he has little empathy with the Inspector who is only doing his job. He also seems to have a disregard for justice and the law.
Because of his time as mayor he believes he can get away with anything he wants. This is being hypocritical and cowardly. It was his jurisdiction as mayor to uphold the law and bring justice, it is obvious that while mayor Birling was content to see that law were followed by others while keeping a blind eye to friends and relatives if any such incident should have occurred. At this point the audience would probably feel anger and shock at Birling because he has the nerve to try to dodge the law. Unfortunately for him the inspector isn’t buying it, this would give the inspector more respect from the audience due to his strong will and opinion that no one is above the law.
In 1912 image was more important than quality or character – society turned a blind eye to what went on behind closed doors such as mistresses as long as outward appearances were maintained. Birling wants to climb the social ladder and seems to expect it as his right: he says to Gerald that he expects to become a knight soon. He sees himself as “a sound, useful party man” who will achieve honours if he can “keep out trouble during the next few months.” He says this as a joke, but ironically, the Inspector enters almost immediately afterwards and informs them they are involved with a suicide. Birling didn’t expect to be involved with anything disreputable, meaning he was sure that he would get the knighthood. Throughout the play Birling uses a number of tactics to try and dodge the blame, such as, lying, blaming others, making excuses, threatening the inspector and then when everything else failed he tried to bribe the inspector. Nothing Birling could do would put off the inspector’s investigation. At the end of the play getting a knighthood seems almost impossible for Birling.
When told that Birling had a part in Eva’s death, he refuses to take responsibility: he is trying to find a way to keep hold of the prospect of his knighthood. This shows his greed. When he finds out the others’ guilt he tries to minimise his responsibility. When it is apparent that the inspector wasn’t a real inspector, he is relieved that there is still a chance of him becoming a knight. He also regains his arrogant and self assured composure. He then turns on the so-called inspector, who he calls a “crank” He then blames the inspector for ruining their dinner party, rather than accept he did something wrong and change the way he treats the lower classes. He also turns on the others – “Eric, I’m absolutely ashamed of you.” – attempting to shift the blame away from himself. Here the audience would probably find Birling’s attempt to hide behind his son a selfish and spineless act: it underlines the view that capitalists are self-centred and lack courage.
Birling’s views are completely different to those of Eric and Sheila. Where he wanted to avoid the blame, they wanted to accept it and learn from it. They are the next generation with their new ideas and new ways of thinking in contrast with Birling who stands for conserving the traditional ways, the ways he grew up with. In some ways this is a struggle between the old and the young. Perhaps Mr and Mrs Birling grew up with the belief that if there is no tangible evidence to an incident then there is no need to accept the blame. Through the young ones Priestly is trying to say that things need to change in society. He symbolises this by having the children say it, the next generation, the ones with no previous experience, rather than the parents who “know what’s best” and have little imagination and are too used to the old way of doing things.
I would imagine that the Inspector is a tall, dark and mysterious figure that has an aura of authority. In my eyes he would be old, between fifty and sixty, this would make him seem full of wisdom and make him more respectable. His purpose is to be the pivot of the play, linking every event together. He is someone to be idolised; he is omniscient; he seems to know the facts already and is simply giving everyone the opportunity to confess.
He is in control throughout the whole play. In addition, he is Priestley’s mouthpiece on the ideals of Socialism. Priestly uses the inspector to advertise socialism, because people who see the play will like the inspector and would think “if the inspector is a socialist then it must be a good thing.” It is like with western films when the hero of the film is seen smoking so everyone who saw that film has a cigarette and pretends to shoot bandits. With all the films with heroes smoking, smoking looks cool. Priestly used this method to advertise socialism.
The Inspector encourages the audience to sympathise with Eva Smith by making everyone, the characters in the play and the audience, understand her point of view. He pulls the audience in by stating: “A girl died tonight, a pretty lively sort of girl, who never did anybody any harm, but she died of misery and agony, hating life.” He then explains how she lost her job at Mr Birling’s factory and then went on to lose her shop job for seemingly no reason. She then became someone’s mistress but the relationship ended; she became a prostitute, fell pregnant, sought help, refused help and then died of drinking disinfectant. The way the Inspector describes Eva’s death, highlighting their joint responsibility, shows to the audience that the capitalist way of thinking ends up harming others. Most people could relate to or sympathise with Eva so this brings more people away from capitalism and towards socialism.
The Inspector is in control and he and the rest of the characters know it. He says very little compared to the others but he can get them to confess just by asking simple questions or statements to keep them talking: “Very awkward.” “Go into what?” “Why?” his shows his control because he can get the other characters to confess or talk without him talking extensively. The inspector asking one-worded questions seems to indicate that he himself already knows the answer and he just wants the Birlings to know exactly what they have done and wants them to reflect on their guilt and realise the pain they have made another go through.
He calls on morals to justify courses of action: “You see we have to share something. If there is nothing else we’ll have to share our guilt.” This suggestion of shared responsibility could be seen as a reference to the Allies in World War I and how they failed to share the guilt; instead the Axis was blamed and was made to pay reparations. This statement conflicts with the Capitalist notion of keeping to oneself and shows and it cold possibly imply that capitalism was to blame for ww2 due to the Allies and the Axis not sharing the blame for ww1. The Inspector also says: “Sometimes there isn’t as much difference as you think. Often if it is left to me I wouldn’t know where to draw the line.” This is in response to Birling saying that they are “respectable citizens and not criminals”. Here the Inspector is saying that the idea of outward respectability doesn’t work and that respectable citizens – respectable in Mr Birling’s terms meaning socially superior – can and will be convicted of any crimes they might commit.
In the Inspector’s final speech he apportions out the blame to the Birlings. For the last time he explains “Eva Smith’s gone” and derides them that they “can’t even say ‘I’m sorry, Eva Smith'”. In the speech he makes the point that everyone should look after each other and stick together: “We are all one body.” In the conclusion he further emphasises this point by saying, “One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and hopes of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and do.”
This sums up Priestley’s socialist views because this is the foundation on which socialism is built, everybody working as a whole. The inspector talks about the Eva smiths and John smiths, “suffering” and talks about their “hopes of happiness”, this hints at the workers being oppressed by the upper and middle class. He uses the recent memory of the horrors of World War I and looks into the future at World War II to emphasise his view that they were a consequence of not embracing Socialism.
The purpose of the play is obviously to show the audience of 1945 that Capitalism is wrong in many ways. By referring to contemporary events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the World Wars and the class system, Priestley encourages the audience to pay attention to his views. He also wanted the Birlings of the world to stop and think about their place in the wider community, people’s rights and world peace rather than a life driven by greed, selfishness and refusing to take responsibility. The end of the play helps capitalists to stop and think because it shows that taking Capitalism to its logical conclusion of every man for himself has very real consequences: it encourages them to look at society as a whole and consider the bigger picture.
The relevance of the play for today’s audience is that Britain and the US, two of the worlds superpowers, are Capitalist countries and yet there are still wars and battles being fought over greed and selfishness and the thirst for power. A recent report by the United Nations found that the richest 2% of adults own more than half of the world’s household wealth, while the poorest half own less than 1%. It seems that the world still isn’t learning the lessons it should: perhaps we should heed Karl Marx more when he said that “Society is not made up of individuals” and balance our pursuit of a better life for ourselves with working for a better world for everyone.