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J B Priestleys An Inspector Calls English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2916 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay will present an analysis of the play “An Inspector Calls” written by J.B Priestley and discuss the function of the Inspector within the play. I shall in detail look at key themes utilized by the author and suggest key points the author connotes to the readers. “An Inspector Calls” is a play with a varied, both social and political significance. Priestley was a Fabian socialist who believed a lot in socialism and community based views of morality; this is shown heavily through out the play. Priestley’s intention for the play could have possibly have been to educate the immoral, in order to prevent a reoccurrence of such situations. This form of satirizing relates both to the Dunne’s and Ouspensky’s theory, which I will refer to further into this essay. In addition both morality and responsibility are fundamental examples of such themes Priestley implements. This essay will argue that the function of the Inspector goes beyond the role of the inquisitor.

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The play takes place in the wealthy Birling’s family dining room, a room of which has “good solid furniture of the period”, “the general effect is substantial and heavily comfortable but not cosy and homelike”. The Birling family apply their house as a status symbol and have decorated it in a way to emulate their significant wealth. We acknowledge this from the quotation “few imposing but tasteless pictures”. This quotation suggests the intention of purchasing the art work was not predominately for their “exquisite” looks but instead, value. Immediately portraying to the readers a self indulged pompous family of ignorant individuals. Another alternative interpretation could be that these pictures tell us that the Birling’s are arrogant of their wealth and think themselves to be very important but are absent of the taste which is present in those who are socially superior to them. This desire of being associated amongst a higher class is the crucial reason for Mr. Birling’s perspective on life and those socially inferior to him, in this case Eva Smith. This initial portrayal of the Birling family sets out a clear and distinctive layout in which later into the play, the Inspector will hope to correct. During the beginning of the play the family are enjoying their daughter, Sheila’s engagement to Mr Gerald Croft, an upper/middle-class capitalist, as are the Birling’s in the play. A visit from the Inspector Goole becomes a terrifying occurrence for the Birling’s, as they discover their participation in a chain of events which had dehumanised a young working-class girl had finally taken their toll and so one night she decided to swallow disinfectant resulting in her death. Primarily, the inspector is introduced to the play in order to interrogate the Birling Family and Gerald Croft.

The Inspector in “An Inspector Calls” is one of the most thought-provoking and inexplicable characters, he could for some is the protagonist of the play due to my interpretation being that the play centres itself on the inspector and his investigations regarding the other characters. It is this mysterious component that contributes deeply to making him an extremely appealing character, the inspectors surname Goole, is also a pun for the word “Ghoul” meaning ghost. The readers do not unearth a vast deal out about the Inspector and nothing is overtly informative about him; we are given hints and indications from his actions and dialogue. With these we are required to recreate our own background about his identity and most of all, his role. The Inspector plays several roles within “An Inspector Calls”, one includes the conscience of the other characters which also relates back to the idea of a morality play, this conscience is operated by Priestley to amend the Birling family’s morals which to the readers, seem to be out dated. Although as we get further into the play, Sheila begins to illustrate a cultivated understanding of people in general, “we really must stop these silly pretences”, regardless of class or fortune and is immediate to accept responsibility for her actions; Sheila accepts that she has no excuse for her doings; she was just “in a bad temper.” Demonstrating that there is optimism for the future, and those ideas are maturing; the younger generation are more appreciative of Socialism and the ideology of helping others and not just oneself. In particular Priestley’s political views are highlighted, the idea of socialism are promoted, as a society in which community and responsibility are central. This is strongly contrasted with the idea of capitalism, in which also strongly relates to self preservation, with no second thought for other people. Sheila’s change in righting her wrongs begins to take over the role of the Inspector. The Inspector recognises early on in the play that Sheila is more morally influenced compared to her father as she states that “these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people.” When she says “So I’m really responsible?” Sheila shows that she can admit when at fault. Priestley uses the play as an example of the consequences which can possibly occur if we remain ignorant to the feelings of others, but most off all if we put money over an individual’s welfare. Britain became a welfare state just after the Second World War in 1945. In which Mr. Birling does so with Eva Smith at his work place. “Perhaps we may look forward to a time when Crofts and Birling’s are no longer competing but are working togetdher – for lower costs and high prices”. Birling’s politics of self-dependence and personal responsibility are unashamedly capitalist. He agrees with having “low wages, high prices,” is utterly dismissive of Eva’s strike which is an expression of collective responsibility as espousal by the inspector, and, even at the close of the Inspector’s inquiry, can only limply claim that he would “give thousands” to make things better. The offering of money emphasises that he views the world and everyone in it in material terms and again Priestley seems to be demonstrating how capitalists in general, view the world. Capital, undeniably, dominates the manner in which he functions, even to the extent that, Priestley subtly illustrates, he views his daughter’s engagement to Gerald as an economic gain and potentially the first step towards a union between both the Birling and Croft businesses. The Inspectors role here is to expose Mr. Birling’s lack of morality.

Moreover the role of the Inspector is one of many levels. In terms of how he is used in the basic formation of the play, he is there in order for the play to progress; he stimulates the characters to confess their stories. If there was not the revelation that he was not a real Police Inspector, he would merely be considered as the narrator and not be engaged in a big part of the play. Because it emerges that he was an impostor of sorts, further questions are asked by the readers and different insights have become likely and it is clear that the Inspector is in the play for various reasons. As soon as the Inspector engages in dialogue, the lighting becomes brighter and any shadows would fade away. This dramatic effect is done so to show that the characters can no longer conceal their deepest of secrets and that the Inspector will bring everything to light. This indeed does take place and all of the problems that have been hinted previously are brought out. The Inspectors role here is to illustrate that things can’t be hidden for long, and that the past will one day have such devastating consequences. The Inspector is always aware. The Inspector makes the characters confess their actions and reveal what he seems to already know for example, at the end of Act One, when Gerald is discussing to Shelia about the time he spent with Daisy Renton last summer. He already knows that Gerald has something to reveal and that it is just a matter of time. Priestly uses a brilliant technique of giving a small part of the next bit of the story and watching how the Birling’s and Gerald react to it. This is used to great effect when he mentions the name Daisy Renton, “First she changed her name to “Daisy Renton”……… Gerald (startled) what?” As soon as the Inspector hears this startled expression, he knows that Gerald is hiding something that may be of use to the investigation. Through the Inspector, Priestley shows us that being wealthy is not enough, nor is being successful. What that status means is that we have to take on responsibilities for others in our society. We cannot have these privileges without the responsibility. “Public men Mr. Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges”. Priestly also uses his characters to expose the attitudes of society because there were a variety of social problems which were raised by Eva’s situation. She is an example of an ideal victim for capitalism; she is poor and uneducated and is therefore very dependent on people like Mr. Birling for a job; is helpless to fend for herself in her condition and therefore needs the aid of charity. She is dependent on the judgment of women like Mrs Birling, who believe that they are superior to her and therefore in a position to decide whether she should be helped or not. So by showing us how each character has contributed to Eva’s suffering, we are given a clear picture of just how difficult and unfair life was in this society for the weak and vulnerable.

In addition not all the characters accept responsibility over Eva’s death, including both Mr and Mrs Birling who refuse to accept any responsibility over the death of Eva Smith, “the whole story’s just a load of moonshine”. Protective of their family image, Mrs Birling becomes defensive and as a result directs the blame onto the unidentified man: the father of Eva’s child. She very gladly says that the man should be “dealt with very severely” and made to “confess in public his responsibility,” unaware that Eric was the father. This is an example of dramatic irony; she believes that the man must be someone who is possibly from a working-class background and has not been raised appropriately because he was a drunk and guilty of theft. Arthur Birling is a wealthy businessman who thinks very highly of himself, even though he is often wrong. Arthur’s family respect him and listen intently to his ideas that “there isn’t a chance of war” and the Titanic is “unsinkable.” As the play was written in 1947 and set in 1912, this is another example of irony and the readers would identify that Arthur was very misguided in his assumption and might even believe him to be unintelligent. Furthermore the use of irony exposes Birling’s misplaced arrogance which eventually results in his downfall.

Just before the Inspector leaves he turns the culpability onto the whole of society by mentioning that the problem did not lie with just Eva Smith and one specific family, but it was the “millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us… intertwined with our lives.” The Inspectors speech encapsulates the need for collective responsibility and the need to address the lives of working class men and women who are at the mercy of capitalism. The idea being that there are still “Eva Smiths” who can be saved if, the rich in society learn from their mistakes. This could be interpreted alongside Dunne’s theory, which states having the capability of seeing forward in time as well as looking back. This would mean that just as you look back and see what actions led to your present situation, you could also look forward to see the consequences of your actions. So, if you wished, you could change those actions and so avoid the consequences. This was said near to the end of the play so that it would not be an idea forgotten, but one that might play on the minds of the readers. Priestley intended to make his readers think about how they may be abusing people by authority and financial status and to make them undergo guilt for their previous sins. “You used the power you had…to punish a girl”. The Inspector is a useful medium for Priestley’s beliefs to be announced through. However the Inspector says in his final speech “We are responsible for each other…. if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.” This is a universal implication that he is criticising those who do not learn, will suffer later on. In addition the words “fire and blood and anguish” clearly relate to the day of judgement, at the time when one is sent to either Heaven or Hell. It is known that those who follow the “right” way of life and help others will go to Heaven, however those sent to Hell will be forced to learn their lessons before continuing to an enjoyable after-life in Heaven, this too supports the Ouspensky’s theory. Priestley shows that by helping and looking out for one another, God will accept people in to Heaven, but if they don not then they will go to Hell. This results in the promotion of socialism and criticism of capitalism. 

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The play an “Inspector Calls” could also be considered a morality play rather than anything else for the reason that this play, does not only centre itself about the death of a helpless woman, but it is too about the circumstances and the way that all of the people concerned acted immorally in the treatment of the girl according to their own morals and how they have been brought up. Priestly wrote his characters into a morality play rather than a mystery one as he wrote Mr. Birling to be the wealthy, industrious gentleman who has strict morals and firmly believes in the “class” system. This is demonstrated by the way he conducts himself towards his employees; he believes that as he is of higher stature and class he’s not obliged to show common decency to any individual beneath him. This unfortunately was the view of most of Britain until the end of the war. Mrs. Birling also points this out on numerous occasions, for example, when she tells Mr. Birling not to show appreciation to the cook for a nice meal because she believes that the “masters” of the house should not be communicating to someone as low down in class as a servant. Furthermore the quotation “We’re respectable citizens and not criminals” easily links to a morality play as the Inspector is not investigating a legal wrong, but a moral wrong where they are not “Respectable citizens”. The Inspector’s role here is clearly executed by Priestly to enforce a more maturely developed and educated left-wing perspective on what people used to believe what was either right or wrong. An Inspector investing a crime would want to find out all he could and look for evidence and so forth, but the Birling’s have not committed a crime punishable by law. Therefore, the only way for the Inspector to avenge Eva Smith was to make the people in question feel guilty.

In conclusion the Inspector’s main purpose is to educate. Within the perspective of the play, he informs the characters what had happened to a particular girl because they had each been accountable for selfishness. In regards to the whole of humanity, he voiced Priestley’s opinions that we cannot make any improvements if we aren’t “members of one body”. The play finishes with a telephone call from the police force stating that “A girl has just died…. after swallowing some disinfectant” and a real Inspector will question the family. This is an unforeseen twist. The role of the Inspector was there to discipline the characters on a moral level and to attempt and make them feel guilty enough to alter their actions. This was fortunately accomplished with both Eric and Sheila. Furthermore the Inspector acts out Priestley’s morality to the story and this is revealed in the Inspectors’ final speech. He teaches that everyone is linked regardless of society’s conditioning and that we should all co-operate to make the world a better place, and in a way without money we’d all be rich. By the end of the play you are left wondering if the inspector is supposed to represent a real person or a supernatural being sent to warn the characters of what is to come and to teach them a valuable life lesson. Moreover Priestley uses the Inspector to challenge the views of the Birling family and also the audience. Through the Inspector’s questioning, and as events involving Eva Smith are revealed, we learn that we are all part of a community, the human race, and, whether we like it or not, we all are responsible for those within our community and our actions do have consequences on others. Lastly the play mirrors historical events, for example, the inability for us to learn from past mistakes.


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