Inspector Calls Key Themes


Family Life

There were expectations of Middle Class families in 1912:

  • Family members were expected to know their role and accept it - the parents were in charge of the family and children were obedient.
  • "Gender Roles" were well defined for the wealthy middle class
  • Men were expected to: work to support their family, protect women.
  • Women were expected to: marry into money so they didn't have to work, have children, be social, remain a housewife, obedient and quiet:

These expectations are broken in Act One:

  • Clear hierarchy in the family is destroyed when the inspector arrives
  • Without their parents' influence, Sheila and Eric can think and speak for themselves
  • Eric says his mother doesn't "understand anything" and Mr Birling isn't "the kind of father a chap could go to" for help. Sheila & Eric refuse to "go on behaving just as we did". They slowly untangle themselves from their traditionalist views.
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Social Class

  • Priestley designed the characters to put across a message of social responsibility. He challenges views with his own, presenting socialism positively and capitalism/traditionalism negatively. Priestley shows the upper classes as having a limited sense of social responsibility in order to break the divide. Higher classes didn't question the unfair class system because it worked for them. They overlooked unpleasant issues like alcoholism & womanising because it didn't apply to them
  • The Birling's think Class is all that matters:
    • Birling's biggest concern over Eva's death is that he won't be awarded his knighthood because of the "public scandal"
    • Birling thinks that because he has had positions of authority he is more important. 
    • Birling uses Gerald to promote his social class - he asks him to hint to his parents he's expecting a knighthood and is pleased his daughter's marrying into a higher class.
    • Mrs Birling "doesn't recognise" Eva's photo. To her, Eva has no identity & doesn't deserve any
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Young and Old

The Older Generation (traditionalists):

  • Priestley presents Arthur & Sybil as having traditional views
  • By questioning their old views, Priestley also questions their obsession with social class - suggesting the system is out of date and needs to be reformed

The Younger Generation are Different:

  • They're determined & motivated - Eva "had a lot to say". Her courage is why Birling sacked her
  • Sheila and Eric are shown to be challenging the authority in society. Birling feels threatened and meekly warns 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
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Men and Women

The Women & Men start out as Stereotypes:Women - Supposedly obsessed with "pretty clothes", shopping and weddings (Sheila gazes adoringly at her ring). Sheila gets Eva sacked because of pride, vanity and jealousy. Men - Preoccupied with work and public affair. Gerald feels it's his duty to rescue Daisy from the womaniser in the Palace Variety Theatre. Gerald is allowed to sleep around before his marriage. Arthur says that even in his day they "broke out and had a bit of fun sometimes".

The Young Women Challenge the Stereotypes:Eva and Sheila try to rebel and break out of the roles they've been given. Instead of relying on a man to save her, Eva refuses to take Eric's stolen money. Sheila interrupts and challenges her family at different times; grows bolder

By the end: Birling, Gerald & Eric get weaker as Sheila gets stronger. Gerald's rejected by Sheila. Birling is "panic-stricken" and weaker than he proposed himself to be. Sheila voices her own opinions.

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The style is like a Morality Play:

Morality plays were religious plays in the Middle Ages which taught people how to behave and warned them of sins. An Inspector Calls follows the same idea as it shows everyone's sins and gets them to confess and repent. It doesn’t follow Christian ideas. Breaks traditionalism boundaries and introduces socialism.

There's something odd about the Inspector

His origin is unknown and he appears omniscient. They didn't tell him anything he didn't already know - a real inspector wouldn't have known that much. Priestley deliberately leaves questions unanswered as it increases the mystery of the play.

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Social Responsibility

  • Birling - thinks that community responsibility is nonsense. Interests of business are more important than worker's rights
  • Mrs Birling - believes she has no responsibility towards the working class - her prejudices can't be changed because they are so ingrained
  • Sheila - realises that getting Eva sacked out of spite was irresponsible - but she didn't do anything about it. The Inspector challenges her to improve her behaviour
  • Eric - realises too late that his selfish actions were responsible for ruining Eva's chances of improving her life. 
  • Final speech is clear and to the point. a summary of his lesson about responsibility. Inspector wasn't trying to make the family feel guilty, but to make society aware of the difficulties faced by all the "millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths". All the events in An Inspector Calls are connected. Priestley's moral seems to be that "it doesn't take great people to change the world - we all change it every day just by the way we treat others"
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