An Inspector Calls is a play by JB Priestley set in 1912. The play revolves around the supposed suicide of a pregnant young woman called Eva Smith. In the play, the Birling family is visited by an omniscient Inspector Goole while the family is in the middle of celebrating Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft’s engagement. Inspector Goole breaks news about Eva Smith’s death in the infirmary earlier after she consumed disinfectant. The Birling’s are saddened by news of Eva’s death, but at the same time confused as to what is the Inspector there for. After interrogating the Birling family members, the Inspector discloses to them that they all are accomplice in the girl’s suicide.
The play explores five major themes: judgment, generation gap, social responsibility, family and social class. In the essay, I will talk about how the theme of social responsibility is presented in the play.
One way Priestley portrays ‘social responsibility’ is through the thoughts and ideas of the characters. During Mr. Birling’s speech towards the beginning of Act 1, he attacks ‘George Bernard Shaw’ and ‘H. G. Wells’ who were well known socialist writers. This shows that Mr. Birling is not a part of a community and believes that everyone is separate; which makes the audience question his sense of responsibility and criticize his ideology. Priestley uses Mr. Birling to promote his socialist ideas. When the Inspector enters the act, he questions Mr. Birling first, where Mr. Birling dismisses the idea of responsibility, “If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?” Mr. Birling believes that, firing Eva from the job had nothing to do with her decision to kill herself. He takes no responsibility and suggests doing so would make situation very ‘awkward’. He think that community responsibility is ‘nonsense’ and the interest of his business are more important than his workers. This quote suggests that his conscience is morally wrong. Through Mr.Birling’s character, the audience can decipher that he is only concerned about the welfare of himself, his family and business and refuses to take responsibility for his acts and has no respect for any of his workers such as Eva; due to the fact that she was from a lower class and was not as financially powerful. Her being a woman and being a part of the lower class immediately made her disposable in the eyes of Mr.Birling.
However, Mr. Birling’s daughter Sheila; was in fact the complete opposite; when she found out about Eva’s death and learns how she was involved, she immediately takes responsibility for her actions unlike her father. She proves to the audience/readers that she isn’t just a ‘child. “At least I’m trying to tell the truth here.” Sheila understands that she was- in some way or the other; connected to Eva Smith’s death and tells the inspector the truth because she feels guilty. Sheila realises that getting Eva Smith sacked out of spite was very irresponsible and immature on her part. Nevertheless, she wants to change, “And if I could help her now, I would –” we can see that even though her parents opinions are very rigid, she is willing to change and accepts she was wrong. She grasps the idea of a society being linked to one another. This encourages the audience to consider that the younger generation is more cooperative with the idea of social responsibility. As the play goes on, we can see the change in Sheila’s behaviour. She goes from call her mum ‘mummy’ to ‘mother’; this shows that she has aged. ‘Mummy’ is quite often used by children. Whereas, in act 3 she begins to call her mother which is used by someone who is older and mature.
When Mrs. Birling is questioned in the second act, she takes absolutely no responsibility towards the fact that she her actions might have driven Eva to kill herself. “I’m sorry she should have come to such a horrible end. But I accept no blame for it all.” Mrs. Birling is adamant that using her influence to refuse any help affected the suicide. Mrs. Birling- being a woman and a mother herself didn’t think that Eva was important enough for her to give any attention because she was offended that Eva used her last name (in hopes of acquiring some help) despite the fact that she was pregnant. This shows her lack of social responsibility and remorse. Furthermore it portrays how insensitive and cold-hearted she is. Mrs. Birling is also shown to be very self-centred, just like many other women from the upper class. Throughout the play we can see that she dismisses any fact or ideas she dislikes. She doesn’t notice her son’s alcoholism and ignores Sheila’s worries that Gerald lost interest in her. Priestley uses Mrs. Birling’s character to show how much importance was give to social class during the 1910’s. Sybil Birling considers that the upper and middle class have no responsibility toward the lower/working class. Her prejudices are so ingrained they can’t be changed. Additionally, Mrs. Birling blames the father of the child. “Secondly I blame the young man who was the father of the child she was going to have.” She refuses to accept any liability at all; however, she is in no position to blame anybody especially after what she did to Eva. Priestly uses Mrs. Birling to foreshadow about Eric’s situation in the next Act.
The inspector’s final speech in the third act is a clear summary of his lesson about society and responsibility. “But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.” He tries to make the family aware of the difficulties faced by all the ‘millions’ of Eva and John Smiths, he wants the Birling’s to realise their guilt about how the treated Eva. He tries to explain to the family that there must be no discrimination on the basis of social class as everyone is socially connected and dependent. He uses the word ‘millions’ to make the family realize that there are many other people in similar situations. It emphasizes on how many people there were in the world, and that no one is isolated. He then uses emotive language ‘their suffering and chance of happiness’ which makes the audience sympathise with those who are less fortunate. Towards the end of his speech, he uses short sentences to summaries his point. ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.’ He uses short sentences to sum up the idea that we are all responsible for one another. The use of ‘fire and blood and anguish’ foreshadows the inevitable- the phone call or perhaps reminding the audience about the second world war that had just ended. He uses graphic imagery to give the Birling’s a glimpse of what would happen if they were to ignore his advice. The final speech is used to construct a powerful impact to get his point across.
At the start of the play, Eric lacks confidence; he radiates an awkward and stilled aura. ‘I don’t know – really. Suddenly I felt like I just had to laugh.’ Eric is unsure of himself. He doesn’t have any explanation for his sudden outburst. Just like with Sheila, Priestley uses Eric to depict that the younger generation might be the answer to a better Britain. Through Eric, Priestley displays the risks of excessive drinking and casual relationships. After the truth about Eva’s death is revealed to Eric, he feels responsible and becomes more confident with himself. “Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her. It’s still the same rotten story whether it’s been told to a police inspector or to somebody else. According to you, I ought to feel a lot better – (To Gerald) I stole some money, Gerald, you might as well know – (As Birling tries to interrupt.) I don’t care, let him know. The money’s not the important thing. It’s what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters. And I still feel the same about it, and that’s why I don’t feel like sitting down and having a nice cosy talk.” Eric feels attached to Eva and her death releases uproar of energy within him. He gets more upset than other because Eva was pregnant with his child. “I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her.” Eric repeats ‘I did’ and ‘mother did’ and ‘you did’ to emphasis on the seriousness of the situation. He takes responsibility for what he did to Eva. It is clear who he blames. Eric clearer has a sense of social responsibility. Gerald, Mr. and Mrs. Birling dismiss the idea of any event that took place previously once the inspector leaves. ‘I don’t feel like sitting down and having a cosy talk.’ He wants them to acknowledge what they did to Eva and feel responsible for it. Eric argues that their deeds remain the same even though the inspector might not have been a police inspector. His behaviour change from awkward to independent shows how horrendous he thinks the situation is and cannot understand why the others don’t. He wanted to take responsibility of Eva and the unborn child. He might have stolen the money ‘I stole the money’, nevertheless he was ready to help her despite the fact that she was from a lower class.
In conclusion, the two characters whose perspective changed the most were Sheila and Eric. In the first act they were both portrayed as immature and irresponsible however, in the third act the stood up for themselves and their beliefs. The siblings took responsibility for their actions and grasped the concept of everyone being connect in a society. On the contrary, Gerald, Mr. and Mrs. Birling refused to take any responsibility for their actions and assumed that if they ignored the inspector their deeds would hold no meaning. For them: Eva was dead and she held no significance. She was worthless in their eyes.