Britain in 1912 and 1945
In 1912 Britain was very different place from how it is now.
- British society was firmly divided along class lines. Those with the most money had the most power. The Labour Party was formed in 1906 to represtent the interests of the working class.
- Only men who owned property could vote. Women weren't allowed to vote in national elections at all. Women's lives were far more controlled by their families and husbands than today.
- There was not as much government help for people in need as there is today. This is why charities like Sybil's were so important.
Things had changed by 1945-but there were still big problems
- Britain was still divided by class, but by 1928 all men and women over 21 got to vote.
- There were still conflicts between business owners and workers.
- From 1930 a global economic slump known as the Depression hit many British industries. This caused an increase in unemployment and workers faced terrible poverty.
There were expectations of middle-class families in 1912
- Family members were expected to know their role, and be content with their position - the parens were in charge of the family, and the children were expected to be obedient and unquestioning.
- 'Gender roles' were well defined for wealthy middle class:
- Men were expected to:
- work to support their 'perfect' family
- protect women - especially their wives and daughters
- Women were expected to:
- marry into money so they didn't have to work
- plan parties, visit friends and have children. They didn't do jobs like cooking/cleaning
- Men were expected to:
- However, working class families had very different roles. Many had jobs in factories or worked as servants.
The Birling family seems fairly normal...
- The Birlings want everyone to believe that they're the perfect family
- The gender roles are clearly defined - the ladies 'withdraw' to let the men talk about 'male' stuff.
- But there's tension bubbling just under the surface:
- Mrs Birling keeps correcting her family's social mistakes.
- Eric laughs out of turn and acts oddly.
- Sheila teases Gerald half playfully, but also "half serious", about last summer.
...but something's not right
- The clear hierarchy at the beggining is destroyed by The Inspector's arrival.
- Without their parent's influence, Sheila and Eric can think for themselves.
- Sheila doesn't know whether she'll marry Gerald any more. She needs time to decide for herself.
- Eric says his mother doesn't "understand anything" and that Birling's "not the kind of father a chap could go to" for help
- The family is a mess, and Sheila and Eric refuse to "go on behaving just as we did". They don't want to pretend any more. The parents no longer have any authority over their children.
Class drives the plot and shapes the characters
- Priestly designed the characters to put across his message.
- The message is about social responsibilty so class plays a central part in the plot.
- The characters in the play represent the classes - and Priestly challenges their views and behaviour in order to challenge the class hierarchy.
There was a class structure in the 20th century
- Working Class - Had all the hardest jobs and little money (Eva/Daisy)
- Middle Class - Owned facories or were profesionals. Had plenty of money and control (Birlings)
- Upper Class - Inherited loads of land and money. Were often Lords and Ladies. (Gerald)
The class system meant the lower classes struggled
- The class system could make it difficult for those lower down
- Priestly portrays the upper classes as having a limited sense of social responsibilty
- Priestly suggests that the higher class systems didn't question the class system as it worked for them.
The Birling think class is all that matters
- Birling's biggest concern about Eva's death is that he won't get his knighthood because there will be a "public scandal".
- Birling thinks his positions of authority make him more important. He'd been Lord Mayor and an Alderman (Council member) for many years, and now he's a magistrate who sits in courts and dishes out justice.
- He uses Gerald to promote his social class - he asks him to hint to his parents that he's expecting a knighthood, and he's also very pleased that his daughter is marrying into higher class.
- Sybil Birling is a leading member of Brumley Women's Charity Organisation. This group's supposed to give money to desperate women, but Mrs Birling's only involved for the social status.
Priestly thought class shouldn't matter
- Priestly uses the play to reveal the unfairness of the class system - he uses the Birlings as exaggerated caricatures of all the bad qualities he thougth the ruling classes had.
- The play isn't just about one family's scandal. It shows how Priestley saw society. Priestley presents the Birlings' arrogant behaviour and selfish attitudes as common to the middle classes.
- Priestley presents the working class as victims of the class system - although Eva/Daisy's story is unique, the miseries she suffered were probably quite common. Eva Smith could have been anyone.
How people act isn't just about class
- Eva/Daisy is expected to have low morals, but she refuses to accept stolen money even when she's desperate.
- The Birlings think that class is all that matters, but Priestley is trying to present the opposite view. He suggestss that class only clouds people's judgements, and people should be judged by what they do, not by what class they're in.
- By presenting Sheila and Eric as having changed at the end of the play, turning against the views of their own class, Priestley's saying that class isn't all that matters - individuals can break out and choose to act differently.
Young and Old
The older generation are old fashioned
- Priestley presents Mr and Mrs Birling as having very traditional views - they think that they know best, that the children should be seen and not heard, and they don't like their auhority to be challenged.
- They represent the views of the ruling class.
- By questioning their old-fashioned personal views, Priestley also questions their obsession with social class - he's suggesting that the whole class system is out of touch and needs to be reformed.
The younger generation are different
- Some are ambitious, determined and motivated - Eva/Daisy "had a lot to say - far too much". Her courage is the main reason Birling sacked her.
- The younger generation are shown as challenging the authority of their elders. This threatens Birling, who tells them they'd "better keep quiet".
- Because the younger generation learn their lesson, there's a chance for an equal and fairer society in the future.
- Eric at the end is standing around as if he wants nothing to do with his parents. Sheila stands by him. By the end of the play they're no longer controlled by their parents.
Young and Old
Gerald's the oldest young man around
Gerald's closer to Sheila and Eric's age than he is to Mr and Mrs Birling's, but he's a young man who's already old in his attitudes. He's a younger version of Arthur - shallow and stubborn:
- His marriage to Sheila is for business reasons.
- He agrees with Birling that Eva/Daisy had to be fired.
He doesn't learn anything:
- When he's found out to have ditched Daisy/Eva, he doesn't seem to feel guilty.
- At the end, he thinks his engagement's back on: "Everything's all right now, Sheila".
The fact that Gerald is one of the younger generation but remains unchanged suggests that a more caring future isn't inevitable - people can choose whether to change or not. Priestley is also making a criticism of the upper classes, that they're set up in their ways and therefore unlikely to change.
Men and Women
The women and men start out as stereotypes
- They're supposed to be obsessed with "pretty clothes", shopping and weddings - Sheila gazes adoringly at her ring and asks, "is it the one you wanted me to have?".
- They're protected against "unpleasant and disturbing" things.
- Sheila gets Eva sacked because of pride, vanity and jealousy - stereotypically female traits in the play.
- Sheila is accused of being hysterical - a state often associated with women at the time.
- They're preoccupied with work and public affairs - e.g. "the miners came out on strike".
- Gerald feels it's his duty to rescue Daisy/Eva from the womanising Alderman Meggarty.
- Gerald is allowed to sleep around before his marriage. Sheila isn't. Arthur says that even in his day they "broke out and had a bit of fun sometimes".
Men and Women
The young women challenge the stereotypes
Eva/Daisy and Sheila try to rebel and break out of the roles that society has given to them.
- Eva/Daisy questioned the decision of her boss instead of queitly accepting it.
- Instead of relying on a man to save her, Eva/Daisy refused to accept Eric's stolen money.
- Sheila interrupts and challenges everyone at different times, apart from The Inspector.
By the end the stereotypes are turned upside down
- As the play develops Birling, Gerald and Eric get weaker, while Sheila gets stronger. Priestley does this to challenge the audience's view of women at the time.
- Gerald's rejected by Sheila, and Eric is revealed to be nervous and lazy, with a drinking problem. Birling suffers to most - the whole night has slowly undermined his authority. He's "panic-stricken" as he speaks the final line - a very different man from the one at the beginning.
- Sheila starts stating her own opinions, not those she is 'supposed' to have - "That's what's important - and not to wheter a man is a police inspector or not". She's learnt to think for herself.
The characters' views are challenged.
Mr Birling: thinks that community responsibilty is "nonsense". The interest of business are more important than workers's rights.
Mrs Birling: believes that they have no responsibility to the working class - her prejudices are so ingrained that they can't be changed.
Sheila: realises that getting Eva/Daisy sacked out of spite was irresponsible - but she didn't do anything about it at that time. The Inspector challenges her to improve her behaviour.
Eric: realises too late that his selfish actions were responsible for ruining Eva/Daisy's chances of improving her life.
Social Responsibility is The Inspector's main focus
- His final speech is clear and to the point - it's a summary of his lesson about responsibility.
- The Inspector wasn't trying just tyring to make the family feel guilty for Eva Smith, but to make them aware of the difficulties faced by all the "millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths"
The play reveals a lot about Priestley's socialist ideas
- Priestley was a suporter of socialism - his plays promote social responsibility.
- An Inspector Calls tries to make the audience question not only their social responsibility, but also how responsible they are for their actions.
- The audience are already wary of Birling's short-sighted opinions, so when he criticises socialism, the audience are more inclined to disagree with him. In a way Priestley uses Birling to promote socialist ideas:
- During his speech at the start, Birling says that the whole world will have "peace and prosperity" except "Russia". Russia became a socialist state in 1917, and Priestley was interested in seeing how successful this was in creating greater equality for the Russian people. The first production of An Inspector Calls was held in Moscow in 1946.
- Birling attacks George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, who were well-known socialist writers during that time - just like Priestley in 1940.
The style is like an old morality play
- Morality plays were religious plays wriiten in the late middle ages. They tried to teach people how to behave and were warnings against the dangers of sin.
- An inspector Calls follows the same kind of idea as these morality plays - it points out everyone's sins, and tries to get them to confess and repent.
- This play is different from the old morality plays, because it doesn't follow Christian ideas. The moral judge isn't God, it's a police inspector. Priestley makes his morality non religious.
- The Inspector represents temporal law - but in the end it turns out that it's not a legal issue - it's a moral one.
There's something odd about The Inspector
- Sheila says she had an idea "all along" that "there was something curious about him" and questions the supernatural side of the whole thing - she asks what he was, not who he was.
- His origin is uknown, and he appears omniscient - they didn't tell him anything he didn't already know. It seems unbelievable that a real inspector would know so many details.
- Priestley deliberately leaves questions about The Inspector unanswered, as it increases the mystery and the feelings of tension within the play (p. 20)
The important thing is to learn the lesson
- In the end, it doesn't matter who The Inspector is. He teaches the Birlings a lesson - what matters most is how they react to it and which of them learns from it.
- Gerald, Arthur and Sybil decide it was a hoax. They're relieved that The Inspector was a fraud - they think they've been let off the hook.
- Sheila and Eric waver slightly when they find out there was no suicide, but they've learnt the important lesson - even if their story didn't have a tragic ending it might have done.
- Sheila and Eric hold true to their moral instincts - even when they're given the opportunity to pretend it never happened. The others, however, act selfishly and never take responsibility for their actions.
Learning About Life
Some people never learn...
- Birling sneers at Eric's private education and the younger generation who "know it all", because he worked his way up.
- This arrogance is the reason why Birling is so stubborn. He doesn't think anyone has anything of use to tell him - especially not his children or a lowly inspector. He only listens to Gerald because he's from a higher social class.
- Arthur, Sybil and Gerald's arrogance prevents them from changing. They don't see anything wrong in the way they think or act. They believe that they know best. Mr Birling's views are made clear in Act One and they don't change.
...others try to change
- The Inspector has much more of an effect on Eric and Sheila, who are ashamed of their behaviour. They reject their parents who have refused to learn from the night's events.
- They understand that the important thing about he evening was the lesson learnt, not whether The Inspector was real.
- Before they realise they're involved with the death, they criticise their father's behaviour.
- Sheila changes not only her views but also her personality.
Learning About Life
Ignorance is Bliss
- One of the reasons that the older generation refuse to change is that they're happy living in ignorance. The problems of the working class don't affect them, so they don't want to know.
- In fact, they don't like to think about anything troubling:
- Prostitution - "I see no point in mentining the subject", says Birling.
- Womanising - "you don't mean Alderman Meggarty?" says Birling, even though it's well known.
- Drinking - "It isn't true" says Birling when Eric's habit is revealed.
- Even Sheila tries to forget about her bad behaviour - "it didn't seem to be anything very terrible at the time."
- They do everything they can to avoid changing, even when it's clear that they've done wrong - they refuse to believe it, and blame everyone else instead.
- It suits them to think that they're always right - they don't see the point of changing or learning from their night's ordeal. The system works in their favour.