Written and performed in 1945, yet set in the 1912 Edwardian era, J.B. Priestley produced a timeless play about social action, wealth and responsibility. The play serves as a microcosm (miniature copy) of society and common attitudes at the time.
In An Inspector Calls, one of the major themes of the play is responsibility. At the time, J.B Priestley intended to send a message to audiences about responsibility. He hoped for a society where people accepted their actions and took ownership of their manner and behaviour.
When the Inspector first arrives in Act 1, Priestley writes that the lighting should change from being “pink and intimate” (perhaps symbolic of the closeness of the family at the time) to being “brighter and harder”. This appears to be indicative of the seriousness that the character presents with, but also signifies that the play is going to feature an interrogation. The Birling family are being put under the spotlight.
Priestley intends to overtly instil the importance of personal and social responsibility within the play. The Inspector interrogates each character, making them accountable and asking them to consider their personality responsibility in the events leading up to Eva Smith’s death. Structurally, each character faces questioning in the play’s sequence.
Sheila is the first to accept responsibility, which makes her a more likeable and empathetic character.
The play is structured over the course of an evening, yet the transformation and change in the younger characters is fast and radical. Perhaps Priestley intended to show how change (for the better) could occur quickly, with drastic, selfless action.
Towards the end of Act One, Sheila already starts to commit to the Inspector’s cause, arguing:
“But these girls [like Eva] aren’t cheap labour – they’re people”
Sheila expresses recognition that young women were being exploited by the factories and companies. At the time, women had no rights, or right to vote. The adjective “cheap” really serves to emphasise how someone like Mr Birling views his employees – and Priestley wanted to change this attitude. There is a reference in the play to the fact that Eva was part of a strike effort. As a result, she was “fired”.
Priestley uses the younger characters of Sheila and Eric (Gerald to some extent) to voice the reasons for change and accept transformation. After six hard years of the Second World War, there was a great desire for change in Britain, particularly amongst the younger generation. Priestley feeds into this ‘desire’, with Sheila declaring to her parents:
“You’re pretending everything’s just as it was before.”
Sheila’s dialogue, especially in Act Three, reveals a transformation, becoming more assured and resolute. Sheila no longer seems child-like and submissive to her parents – she has changed from being that “pretty girl in her early twenties”.
Whilst the suffragette movement is not directly depicted, the young female characters of Sheila and Eva can be viewed within the context of women’s struggle for empowerment during the Edwardian era. Meanwhile, the older generation is presented with arrogance and a refusal to progress.
After learning that she turned Eva away when seeking help, Mrs Birling refuses to accept responsibility, saying:
“I’ve done nothing I am ashamed of… I used my influence to have her request for help refused.”
Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the lack of conscience Priestley felt the upper class or older generation had. The repeated use of the pronoun “I” shows how Mrs Birling remains a character who thinks mostly of herself, even by the close of the play.
In An Inspector Calls, class is an important theme in the way that it ascertains wealth and power. Priestley shows how, in the Edwardian era, the upper/middle class had money and ownership of businesses. In contrast, the lower classes were subjected to working for these people. The lower classes were typically paid so poorly that they were stuck in a cycle of never earning enough money to break from poverty or a defining class system in Britain.
The Inspector is the benevolent voice of social change, announcing:
“We are responsible for each other… if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”
J.B. Priestley held strong political ideas: he was a socialist who believed that a better system would be to share wealth and power amongst all citizens more ‘equally’. In the quotation, the reference to “fire and blood and anguish” symbolises hell. It also serves as a stark warning that judgement will come upon those who don’t adopt a (more) socialist ideology.
Dramatic irony is significant in enforcing a negative image of Mr Birling and his class. He is a character who is made to look foolish when he makes claims the Titanic is “unsinkable… absolutely unsinkable…” The repetition of “unsinkable” and the use of the adverb “absolutely” makes the dramatic irony even more amusing for the audience of 1945 – who knew that the Titanic sunk in 1912. Priestley’s goal was to ridicule people like Mr. Birling, who represented capitalism, classism and (in this case) arrogance.
Moreover, the Inspector’s emphasis on shared responsibility is not just a moral appeal but a call for a collective societal attitude. His message implies that the upper classes have a duty to address inequality and support and uplift the lower classes, promoting unity and mutual respect across societal divisions.