Arthur Birling says: “If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward wouldn’t it? ” How does Priestley present ideas about responsibility in An Inspector Calls? In An Inspector Calls, one of the main themes is responsibility. Priestley is interested in our personal responsibility for our own actions and our collective responsibility to society. The play explores the effect of class, age and sex on people’s attitudes to responsibility, and shows how prejudice can prevent people from acting responsibly.
In this essay I am going to explain how Priestley presents the theme of responsibility and how he uses structural and language devices to do so. In Act 1, Priestley uses the character of Inspector Goole to arrive unexpectedly at the Birlings household and not only shatter the very foundations of their lives but challenge us all to examine our senses of right and wrong. His use of the Inspector opens the door to explore responsibility in this play as he one by one challenges them to reveal their guilt.
I think that the idea of the play and particularly the role of the Inspector are to try to bring the Birling family to understand that they have a moral responsibility for the death of Eva Smith, if not a legal one. Therefore it could be said that Eva Smith was simply a victim of her class and time. This point is very significant and is the basis of the entire play, to grasp it is imperative to the understanding of the play, without this, an analysis of responsibility would be far more difficult.
The inspector’s methods of investigation are to create a tension by telling the family that “a young woman has just died at the infirmary. ” After this it is much easier to get information from them. Priestley tries to make the characters seem very irresponsible because he sees them as stuck up, higher-middle class folk who only care about themselves and how they look to other families. Priestley also uses Inspector Goole to make each member of the Birling family share the responsibility of Eva’s death: he tells them, “each of you helped to kill her.
” Priestley talks about collective responsibility through the Inspector, meaning everyone in society is linked to Eva Smith. Everyone is part of “one body”, which reflects Priestley’s idea that he sees society as more than individual interest. This reflects the fact that Priestley was a socialist. Priestely wanted the characters to consider a social conscience and to embrace collective responsibility.
He adds a clear warning about what could happen if, like some members of the family, we ignore our responsibility: “And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, when they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Priestley used the Inspector to voice his views about socialism. Another way that Priestley portrays the theme of responsibility is by contrasting the views of the old (Mr and Mrs Birling) and the young (Sheila and Eric). The old are set in their ways and are completely confident that they are right and they see the young as foolish.
They will do anything to protect themselves and how others view them (their social class). They deny all responsibility of their actions and blame everyone else, for example when Mrs Birling says: “But I think she only had herself to blame”. Priestley makes the older characters seem selfish and stubborn and he contrasts this with the young by having Sheila play an important role, as the Inspectors almost “assistant”, and protesting against even her mother: “(astonished) Mother! ” – when she hears the news.
Gerald Croft is caught in the middle, being neither very young nor old. In the end he sides with the older generation, most likely because his upper-class roots influence him to want to keep the status quo and protect his own interests. This effect of having the two different ages really portrays Priestley’s views on the fact that the young and more malleable and are the future of the world, and that they are more responsible than older folk because they take on the message of the Inspector and Priestley has them understanding their roles in society.
Again, Priestley presents the theme of responsibility to the audience through the structure of the play. Priestley cleverly contrasts the characters who accept their responsibilities and those who don’t, to emphasise the fact that it is a large theme and potential problem in society. The character of Mr Birling is questioned first by the Inspector. “Still, I can’t accept any responsibility. If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward.
” Mr Birling shows in this way, that he has a lot of power to say if the workers have a steady income or not and does not care about the consequences. This quote shows how ignorant and selfish the older generation of the Birling family are and how they can’t even accept such a serious case as the death of a young girl. They just want to protect themselves from being seen as a lower-class family. By using an upper-class man who runs a factory with young women workers, it emphasises how prejudice people can be and how it can prevent people from acting responsible and taking responsibility for their actions
The next person is Sheila, who is questioned and does accept responsibility, as she isn’t selfish and understands about knowing when she has done right and wrong. This contrast emphasises the idea Priestley has about prejudice and the younger generation being more open minded and less selfish and accept what the Inspector has said they have done. In conclusion, Priestley uses the characters and structure of the play to present his ideas about social responsibility and that the younger characters in the play represent what is morally right and will shape the future.