How does JB Priestley present the older and younger generations differently throughout the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ (45 mins) The older and younger generation are represented clearly from the start of the play. There are differences between the generations when concerning the characters attitudes and how much responsibility they take, this is represented, mainly when the Inspector reveals what has happened. The older generation include Mr and Mrs Birling and the younger Sheila and Eric.
Mr Birling is extremely selfish. He wants to protect himself first and then his family. He believes that socialist ideas that stress the importance of the community are “nonsense” and that a “man has to make his own way” completely contradicting the overall message of the play and creating a character that the audience severely dislike. He cannot see that he did anything wrong when he fired Eva – he was just looking after his business interests.
He wants to protect his reputation. As the Inspector’s investigation continues, his selfishness gets the better of him. He is worried about how the public will view the story in act 3. He wants to hide the fact that Eric stole money rather than deal with the issue that his son is at ‘rock bottom’ by saying “I’ve got to cover this up as soon as I can” we can see Birling’s blatant disregard to how someone that cannot get him any financial or social gain feels.
Eric on the other hand fully admits his wrong doings and accepts responsibility. Birling being part of the older generation is represented as the exact person that Priestley hates. He is completely unsympathetic towards Eva Smith and will take no responsibility for his actions as his self-important behaviour makes helps to convince himself that he has done nothing wrong this can be shown in his wife when Mrs Birling states “I think she had only herself to blame. by stating this she reiterates to the Inspector that she feels she has no involvement in the death, by stating ‘only herself to blame’ in relevance to Eva’s death is very cruel and self-centred, as she is clearly trying to revert the blame back to Eva’s herself therefore attempting to weaken herself and her families role even though she can be considered to play a large part in her death.
At the end of the play, he knows he has lost the chance of his knighthood, his reputation and the chance of Birling and CO merging with their rivals. However, he has not learned the lesson of the play: he is unable to admit his responsibility for his part in Eva’s death. Mrs Birling is described as “…her husband’s social superior”. She is a snob and is very aware of the differences between social classes.
She tries to deny things that she doesn’t want to believe a prime example would be Eric’s drinking she says at the beginning of Act 3 “you don’t get drunk” this line really emphasises the extent at which Eric is not only insignificant to the older generation but ignored. The reader is shocked by this statement as we know at the beginning of the play he is a drunk by the way he responds and sits in his chair ‘half at ease’ and it is ironic that his own mother is oblivious to it.
As they are higher class than Eva Smith they also feel as though the death is less important, as Mrs Birling states ‘Girls of that class -” this shows that she was prejudice towards the girl due to her class and her position (getting pregnant and not being married) she was therefore in Mrs Birling’s eyes not worthy of receiving any money from the charity, this is echoed when she says “I’m Mrs Birling, y’know” using a patronising the Inspector she’s reminding him of her status, showing him that she should not have an involvement because she is of a higher class than him she therefore feels she doesn’t have to take any responsibility, due to her class.
Her belittling the Inspector makes her think that she will be able to play no part in the death even though her actions have led to this, she cannot accept any responsibility and her response to Shelia stating “we killed her” is “don’t talk nonsense”, this shows the drastic contrast between the two generations whereby Shelia has a more serious context to her statement in contrast to Mrs Birling stating ‘nonsense’ as if Shelia is talking in a humour like manner. Mrs Birling’s behaviour contrasts with Sheila who admits the truth. At the end of the play she realises her own reputation within the town will be tarnished. Yet, like her husband she refuses to believe that she did anything wrong and does not accept responsibility for her part in Eva’s death.
Sheila is described as “a pretty girl in her early twenties very pleased with life and rather excited”. Although she has probably never in her life before considered the conditions of the workers, she shows her compassion immediately she hears of her father’s treatment of Eva Smith “But these girls aren’t cheap labour-they’re people”. Already she is starting to change; her sympathetic view would support not only the post-war audience at the time but also the views of Priestley. After the interrogation from the inspector she is horrified by her own part in Eva’s story, she feels full of guilt for her jealous actions and blames herself as “really responsible”.
Through-out the play she becomes more and more mature as she realises that her parents are not as lovely and proper as they make out. Her behaviour contrasts with her parents; she is aware of her responsibilities. Throughout the play we see that Mr and Mrs Birling are more embarrassed at being found out for their thoughtless treatment of Eva Smith rather than regretting what happened to her as a consequence. Mr Birling is more concerned with losing his knighthood than a young girl losing her life. Mrs Birling appears not to believe that someone like Eva, a ‘lower class’ person, could even have feelings, let alone need them taking into account. Eric and Sheila show us hope in the future generation being more benevolent.
Eric may be a drunken fool on the outside, but he did try to provide for Eva, and certainly took the Inspector’s words to heart. Sheila is comfortable in discussing and revealing the hidden faults in herself and others. She sees through the Inspector’s message that honesty, directness and sensitivity are the true values of society. But why has Birling chosen to do this? I think that it is because the play was written just after the end of the Second World War. The citizens really needed to hear the message of Priestley, the younger generation almost outgrow the older generation (whom are the cause for the wars) this instils hope to the audience that younger generation where able to change and alter their ways to make sure that the war is not re-started.