An Inspector Calls John Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Priestly had grown up into his father’s circle of socialist friends; he saw women and men, rich and poor, all working together. After the First World War women returned to being housewives, the typical life that the perfect woman was expected to lead. This greatly influenced Priestly’s writing because he didn’t agree with that way of life.
In 1940 Priestly presented a popular BBC radio programme ‘Postscripts’, but his show was cancelled after the government decided Priestly’s views were too ‘left-wing’ (i. e. socialist). This may have influenced the audience’s expectations of the play because they already know that Priestly wants to spread the idea of socialism, to convince people to live in equality. He found himself surrounded by “People who read a great deal, cared a lot for at least one of the arts, and preferred real talk and hot argument to social chit-chat. ” J. B.
Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls in 1945 towards the end of the Second World War, but he set the play in 1912, this was just before the First World War began. An Inspector Calls expresses the wrongness within society and also the division or ‘barrier’ of the classes. In 1912 society wasn’t equal – people with more money and from a higher class had more power. Priestly used the inequality of 1912 as a setting to ‘hold a mirror’ to society, to show them how they once behaved. The actual story is about a police inspector who turns up at the Birling’s house in Brumley with news of a woman named Eva Smith who committed suicide.
Throughout the evening the Inspector indicates that the family’s actions caused the death of Eva. Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft were celebrating their engagement; everyone was in a delightful mood. But as the Inspector slowly unravels the events of the suicide, the mood in the Birling’s household starts to get increasingly disturbed. There were expectations of higher-class families in 1912. Family members were expected to know their role, and be content with their position – the parents were ‘in charge’ of the family, they were supposed to work and support it. The children were expected to be obedient and unquestioning.
Their elders pushed them into marrying into money, having children and following in their footsteps to create the ‘ideal’ family. The Birling family represents the typical family you would see in that era; it includes a wide range of stereotypical characteristics, each representing a particular portion of society. Sheila Birling is a “pretty girl in her early twenties” and she is “very pleased with life. ” Even though she seems very ‘playful’ at the opening of the play, she has had suspicions about Gerald when she mentions “last summer, when you never came near me. ” This might suggest that she is not as naive and as she first appears.
Arthur Birling is a “heavy looking, rather portentous man… With fairly easy manners but rather provincial in his speech. ” He is the father of Eric and Sheila. Mr Birling was more overjoyed about Sheila’s engagement to Gerald because Gerald’s father had always been a rival in the business industry, rather than his daughter’s happiness; he says “Perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are working together. ” He also strongly believes that “a man has to make his own way. ” Implying that he is selfish and business-minded. Sybil Birling is Arthur Birling’s wife.
She is obsessed with etiquette and her status within society. When Mrs Birling is being interviewed by the Inspector, she shows no emotion and gives very cold, short answers to his questions. She also seems to be shocked with the way the Inspector speaks to her as she says “I beg your pardon! ” This is because Mrs Birling is used to be treated as a person of authority, and she looks down on people as no one is ‘higher’ than her. Eric Birling is also in his early twenties. He is described as “not quite at ease” and “half shy” this gives the audience the impression that he’s ‘half’ a man, that he is not ready to walk in his father’s footsteps.
Eric is absent for much of the play; he left the dining room in Act One and left the house in Act Two. It seems as if Eric is always running away from his family and his problems. In the Introduction to Act One, it says “All five are in evening dress. ” This is where the contrast between the younger and older generations does not exist. Both Sheila and Mrs Birling are wearing formal dresses, and Mr Birling, Eric and Gerald are in dress. Therefore the generations are seen as equal. They are also all representing the higher class, meaning that they will have similar manners and attitudes.
At the moment, there are no huge differences between the two generations. Throughout the play Mr Birling constantly ‘highlights’ the line between the two generations by using authoritative language like “young people”, “youngsters”, “my girl” and “my boy” when addressing the younger members of the family – Eric, Sheila and Gerald. By using words like this Mr Birling is ensuring that he is known as the head of the family, and that everyone else is below him. Status is important to Mr Birling and he wants to make sure that his reputation is highly regarded within his family and society as a whole.
If Mr Birling is seen as a high powered business man it may also help his business, which will bring more power to the family, moving them up the hierarchy in society. At the end of the play Mr Birling also says “the famous younger generation – who know it all” this could mean that the older generation think that the younger generation are arrogant, that they think they know all there is to know. The older generation won’t take kindly to this because they are more experienced as they have been here longer, whereas the younger generation won’t have seen enough of the world yet to be able to voice their opinion in those times.
After Sheila mentions not seeing Gerald all summer, Mrs Birling tells Sheila that business men will have to spend a lot of time away from their partners, she tells her: “You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had. ” This implies that Mrs Birling married not for love or happiness, but for money and power. She knew she would have to deal with the drawbacks of marrying a businessman, but she carried on anyway because she cares more for her social status. Unlike Sheila, Mrs Birling of the older generation clearly thinks it’s acceptable for men to be away from their partners for a majority of the time.
It shows a lot of signs of male superiority, and the fact that men of the family can pretty much do what they want. Sheila doesn’t seem so inclined to think this way so this shows quite a big difference of opinion between the two generations. Priestly demonstrates this through how the two speak about the subject of marriage and how quickly Mrs Birling dismissed her daughter’s complaints. Over the dinner table Sheila tells Eric “You’re squiffy” meaning ‘you’re drunk’. She’s hinting at Eric’s alcohol problem, which the rest of the family doesn’t know about yet.
Her playful language is something only Sheila and Eric really understand, the younger people in the audience will understand this too and realize Eric’s alcoholism. But to the older people in the audience the characters of Sheila and Eric are immature and pointless. This will make Eric and Sheila’s journey throughout the evening have an even bigger impact on the audience as they did not expect them to have such an important role in the play. Mrs Birling’s reaction to this is “What an expression Sheila!
Really the things you girls pick up these days! ” Mrs Birling doesn’t understand the slang that the younger generation uses and expresses how ridiculous she thinks it is. By saying “you girls pick up these days” she gives the impression that she thinks all girls are the same, that they conform because she says “girls” as a group, not just Sheila. By saying “these days” Mrs Birling is saying that in a time before this, girls may have been more ‘mature’ or ‘formal’ with their language whereas now they are making up slang words like “squiffy. This is also shows that Mrs Birling, representing the older generation, is happy to stay in the old-fashioned way of life, like it is at the moment – that ladies should behave in a particular manner. Whereas Sheila represents the younger generation who are evolving into a newer, more equal, way of life where the social, gender and age boundaries aren’t as harsh. Once the Inspector starts questioning the family, he produces a photograph to each one of them, to confirm whether they know the girl (Eva Smith/Daisy Renton) or not.
When the photograph is shown to Mr Birling, his reaction is “(Birling) stares hard, and with recognition, at the photograph. ” The way Mr Birling reacts shows he has no real emotions towards this girl; he just simply says “She was one of my employees. ” He doesn’t imply that he cares at all; it suggests that Mr Birling doesn’t think he has any part in the death of Eva/Daisy because he doesn’t seem bothered at all. Whereas when Sheila is shown the photo, she “looks at it closely, recognizes it with a little cry, gives a half-stifled sob, and then runs out. Sheila’s reaction is much more dramatic, as she is overcome with emotion just by looking at a picture of the girl. This shows that Sheila feels a lot guiltier towards the death rather than Mr Birling. She seems to accept that she was a part of it because she opens up to the Inspector, telling him everything she knows. However, Mr Birling is very reluctant to say anything to the Inspector. This shows contrast between the two generations because Sheila doesn’t mind showing her true feelings towards the photograph, whereas Mr Birling doesn’t want to seem weak – so he acts very blunt and emotionless.
The unity of time and place implies that the play is in ‘real time’. It shows Sheila and Eric’s journey within three hours, they go from childish to mature and they learn from the Inspector’s visit. Priestly’s main goal is social change – as he is socialist. If Sheila and Eric can change so much in such a short space of time then so can society; which Priestly’s wants. It also means that the older generation have got to the point where it’s too late for them to change, because they won’t embrace change. They prefer their ‘cosy’ life as well-respected adults.
Once Mr Birling finds out that a girl didn’t die he says “the whole thing is different now. ” Meaning that because nobody actually died he doesn’t see anything wrong with what he did (firing Eva Smith), whereas Sheila and Eric learned from it all whether anyone died or not. After that Sheila said “I’m frightened”, she’s scared that if her parents can deny everything, that what they did, their son for getting Eva/Daisy pregnant, then what other responsibilities could they deny, could they even deny Sheila herself?