The First World War

These ideas seem second nature to Sheila. She doesn’t deliberately mean to be thoughtless and cruel, but having been raised with these attitudes firmly planted in her mind, she knows of no other way of behaving towards people like Eva Smith. Mrs Birling also treats Eva Smith as a second-class citizen, and airs these views to the inspector; Mrs Birling: ‘And in any case, I don’t suppose for a moment that we can understand why the girl committed suicide. Girls of that class–‘ (Act Two, page 30). Like Mr Birling, Mrs Birling feels no sense of responsibility towards Eva Smith at all;

Sheila: ‘Mother, she’s just died a horrible death – don’t forget. ‘ Mrs Birling: ‘I’m very sorry. But I think she only had herself to blame. ‘ (Act Two, page 43). From An Inspector Calls we can also find clear examples of the men’s attitudes towards the women, and also the attitudes of the women towards their own place in society. In 1912, women had not yet gained the right to vote, and had no real rights. Perhaps by highlighting this fact to an audience in the 1940’s, where women had more rights and freedom than ever before, Priestley is trying to show that society can change, and becomes all the better for it;

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Sheila: ‘What’s this all about? ‘ Birling: ‘Nothing to do with you Sheila, run along. ‘ (Act One, page 17). Birling: ‘… I protest against the way in which my daughter, a young, unmarried girl, is being dragged into this–‘ Inspector: (sharply)’Your daughter isn’t living on the moon. She’s here in Brumley too. ‘ (Act Two, page 37). Eric: ‘Well, I’m old enough to be married, aren’t I, and I’m not married, and I hate these fat old tarts round the town – ‘ (Act Three, page 52). Inspector: ‘But she became your mistress?

‘ Gerald: ‘Yes, I suppose it was inevitable. ‘ (Act Two, page 37). Not only do her parents treat Sheila like a vulnerable child, but Eva Smith, as a desperate woman, is also used, and then ‘dumped’ by both Gerald and Eric. Throughout the play Inspector Goole (suggesting ‘ghoul’ or ‘ghost? ‘) makes his feelings plain; disagreeing with the other characters, and trying to change their attitudes. In his final comments, the inspector sums up the socialist ideals that the Birlings have totally ignored up until this evening;

Inspector: ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and their fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. ‘ (Act Three, page 56). The inspector often has short, sharp lines, which emphasise his point and make him seem powerful and confident.

The characters in the play all react differently when they are told about their individual contribution to the demise of Eva Smith. Sheila immediately admits her regret and guilt and she is truly sorry for the damage she has caused; Sheila: ‘I behaved badly too. I know I did. I’m ashamed of it. ‘ (Act Three, page 57). Sheila understands that there are lessons that need to be learnt from the inspector’s visit, and can see it was the family’s attitudes which greatly contributed to Eva’s suicide; Sheila: ‘So nothing really happened.

So there’s nothing to be sorry for, nothing to learn. We can all go on behaving just as we did. ‘ (Act Three, page 71). Like Sheila, Eric can also see the error of their ways; Eric: ‘I don’t see much nonsense in it when a girl goes and kills herself. You lot may be letting yourselves out nicely, but I can’t. Nor can mother. We did her in all right. ‘ (Act Three, page 69). The younger generation learn quickly and are open to new ways of thinking; they accept their guilt, and are uneasy about the way their parents and Gerald ignore the inspector’s message.

By criticising their parents’ unchanging attitudes, Eric and Sheila are criticising the capitalist system. This emphasises Priestley’s hope for future change. Birling, Mrs Birling and Gerald refuse, or are unable to realise, the part they and their way of life played in Eva Smith’s death. Mr Birling doesn’t seem capable of learning, and is mostly worried about the affect a scandal may have upon his expected knighthood and reputation; Birling: (angrily) ‘… Most of this is bound to come out.

They’ll be a public scandal. ‘ Eric: ‘Well, I don’t care now. ‘ Birling: ‘You! You don’t seem to care about anything. But I care. I was almost certain for a knighthood in the next Honours List–‘ (Act Three, page 57). Birling is sorry for what’s happened to Eva, and would like to make it right again, but he doesn’t seem to realise that it is the capitalist system that he supports that is also to blame; Birling: (unhappily) ‘Look, Inspector – I’d give thousands – yes, thousands–‘ (Act Three, page 56).

Mrs Birling simply doesn’t want to learn from the experiences of the evening and never admits she has done anything wrong. She is firmly stuck in her ways and opinions. As soon as she realizes that the inspector wasn’t real, she laughs off all that she could have learnt; Mrs Birling: ‘They’re over-tired. In the morning they’ll be as amused as we are. ‘ (Act Three, page 71). Gerald, although younger than Mr and Mrs Birling, is not as open to the message as Sheila and Eric because, like Mrs Birling, he is also from the upper classes and has a very strong sense of social status.

By questioning the authenticity of the inspector, Gerald is also questioning the socialist message that Priestley is trying to put across, and therefore has learnt no more than Mr and Mrs Birling. Gerald wants Sheila to take back her engagement ring at the end of the play, showing that he wants everything to be the same, unlike Sheila, who knows it cannot be. This difference between them underlines the fact that Sheila is willing to accept change, whereas Gerald does not want to.

I think Priestley chose a good medium with which to put across his views, because a play based upon a possible real-life situation gives the audience an example of the evils of capitalism which they can relate to their own lives. Perhaps including more examples of the benefits of a socialist society, rather than concentrating on the disadvantages of capitalism could have further endorsed Priestley’s pro-socialist message. Priestley delivered his opinions in a concise and accessible way. Obviously, there was a mood for change after the Second World War, Tony Benn writes; ‘…

He (Priestley) wrote An Inspector Calls in 1944 and consciously intended it to make a contribution to public understanding which, in its turn, he hoped might lead to a Labour victory after the war was over… The story of that Labour government is now history, with the welfare state, the national health service, full employment and a huge house building programme which gave the people of this country their best chance ever. I believe that Priestley, with his commitment, his perceptive mind and his skilful pen, contributed greatly to the mood of hope which produced that change. ‘