The play was written in 1945 but based in 1912, Priestly did this because he believed that there were the same social divides evident in his modern day society and wanted to show in contrast to the audience the lack of change needed throughout the past decades and need for change for the future generation. I am going to explore how JB. Priestly presents his views on social responsibility in the play, to do this I will break down the social hierarchy into separate classes and explain each social status, rebellions and the inspector’s unapparent class.
The Birlings themselves regard themselves high up in the social hierarchy. To hold up their own moral superiority they present themselves with a look of success and step into their own premade clichï¿½ stereotypes as rich people by speaking highly of themselves. As seen by Mr birling as he describes the titanic as “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” The statement that the titanic is unsinkable is in actual fact completely wrong and so the audience immediately voids Mr Birling’s opinions and loses respect and belief in his character. Then supports his own comment with a profound sense of self importance by saying “As I speak as a heard-headed businessman”.
With saying that he is pointing out his dominance and authority over anyone else’s opinions because he is underlining his own status. Mr Birling himself embodies the smug upper-class snob-like character Priestly wanted to show. Also the statement regarding the Titanic is completely incorrect, and so the audience would straight away not take Mr Birling seriously and loose respect for his character. Also by him stating something so wrong and then supporting that comment it highlights to the audience Priestley’s socialist views that rich, middle-class people may think they are right, but just because they are financially richer than others, it doesn’t mean that their opinions are any stronger or any more right then anyone else’s, and by Priestly using Mr Birling as a tool to do this he creates a well formed stereotype of a rich society.
Mr and Mrs Birling represent the older generation of people living in 1912, stuck in the old times, ridden with anti-equality views, in belief that they are somewhat above most in their own hierarchical power structures constructed by their own egocentric selves. Their beliefs are challenged at a point where after the inspector has exposed the many actions by their family that brought Eva smith to take her own life. Sheila and Eric, which are seen as the younger generation, began to question their parent’s authority and think for themselves. Sheila states in reply to her parents un-willingness to co-operate and except responsibility for their wrongs saying “it frightens me the way you talk, and I can’t listen to anymore of it” by saying that she is making a stand and refusing to hear anymore of what they have to say.
This shows a halt in their own generation and the symbolisation of Priestley’s hope for the future generation, that people from all social classes will open their eyes to the situations of others, empathise with them and demolish the social hierarchy. Priestley’s views on social responsibility are explicit as he shows the cyclical nature of the issues regarding the older generation in their society.
This is shown through the ending of the play, where the police calls and Mr birling is told an inspector is on his way to ask some questions regarding the death of a girl on her way to the infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant. This represents that if there isn’t an innovation or change in the status seeking upper-class of who gratify the incommensurated classes that the social hierarchy will live in an ever ending cycle, equality will be unknown and society will never change for the better.
There are strong gender roles evident within the characters of an inspector calls, as in 1912 social stereotypes were stamped across the genders throughout civilisation. Sheila’s character developed and altered significantly through the inspectors questioning. At the beginning of the play Sheila’s character is categorised under her own jealous, emotional, materialistic gender stereotype as shown in her happiness in her engagement “you be careful – or I’ll start weeping”, crying symbolises weakness in a character and often women in 1912’th society were judged weak, emotional, and under men, and so by showing this to a 1942 it highlights the issues regarding gender stereotypes and the negative affect they have on their society.
There is a steady insubordination of Sheila’s rebellion against her gender role, and so by the end of the play she starts to stand up against her fathers dominant male character and therefore breaking through the mould in her own male dominated society, she does this by refusing to go back to how things were, knowing her father, Mr birling would and therefore rebelling against his wishes saying “you began to learn something. And now you’ve stopped. You’re ready to go on in the same old way”.
Priestly uses these conventionalized gender stereotypes because he still believed that despite the changes in society the war had brought, not enough had been done to stop the pressure of conformation to gender stereotypes. So by showing the conformities and seclusion between genders, then how Sheila and Eva had rebelled against those stereotypes it shows that if people in decades ago pre-war could revolt against isolation of their own pre-made gender roles, that people in 1942 society should be able to move on from un-equality between genders and start pulling together as a society, regardless of gender and move forward.
In the inspectors concluding speech Priestly is infact completely voicing his opinions through the inspector, he is directing his views straight towards the audience and the characters on stage by strongly delivering his beliefs and his assumptions. He indicates and expresses his thoughts on the current situations of people from the apparent underclass with lives related to those of Eva Smith and exaggerating his point to create a strong impact on the characters and audience, he says “One Eva Smith has gone there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us – all intertwined` with our lives.
This is an example of priestly most obvious and strongest view of social responsibility. Throughout the story the inspector is telling a morbid tale, of which none of the circumstances of the death involved can be helped or changed, but leaves on a note where no matter who in the audience, no matter what class nor social status, will and does have the chance to help someone less fortunate than themselves, and at whatever point in their life have they been anything less of kind to those apparently socially inferior to them it is never to late to change and reform into a better society, as seen by Sheila and Eric.
In conclusion I believe Priestly was successful in his aim to demonstrate and express his own political and socialist views. As through the story he established the realism of the social classes and how it is possible to break free though those stereotypical moulds. As the younger generation in the Birling’s began to challenge and undermine their parent’s unjust authority and think for themselves without being controlled, by doing this he is showing the brighter side for the future generation and how he himself would like to within his power grasp society and show them the light through this play.
I believe that upon a middle class person watching this play it would have affected them, perhaps not those in the same social stubbornness as the elder Birlings, but others would have been. I think this would have opened they’re eyes to a poorer world below they’re fancy lifestyles and the harsh realization of the desperate lives of the working class and might have been moved to do something, or at least stop in their prejudice towards those socially below them.