J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls exposes the hypocrisy and selfishness of upper middle class society. Discuss
J.B. Priestley was a British novelist, playwright and essayist noted for his exceptional art of characterization and inventiveness in literary form and narrative. J.B. Priestley’s play. An Inspector Calls, is a thriller at its core with moral undertones. But the brave experimentation with the notion of time introduces Post-Modern edge to it. It was first performed in 1945 in the Soviet Union and in 1946 in the UK. It is considered to be one of the classics of mid 20 century English theatre. The play is a three-act drama, which takes place on a single night in April 1912. It is a thriller at its core with moral undertones. The play An Inspector Calls criticizes the hypocrisies of English society and
expresses socialist political principals of Priestly J.B. Priestley published his play An Inspector Calls in the year 1946. Its first public show was in Russia because he was influenced by communism and had visited Russia in 1945. The Marxist ideas did influence his outlook on life and literature. Added to this he tried to give a touch he tried to give a touch of mystery by making the central police Inspector appear a little ghoulish. From the days of its production, many attempts are made to study the play under different headings. And each study has brought the text closer to the reader. It seems that the play has three themes. First it points to the need for each human being to accept his or her moral responsibility for the welfare of others. Second it explores the various kinds of evasion of which humans are capable through indifference or rationalization when they try to avoid this responsibility. Finally it shows through a conflict of generations that young people are at least more conscious than their elders. The struggle between the embattled patriarch Arthur Birling and Inspector Goole has been interpreted by many critics demonstrates Priestley’s socialist political critique of the perceived selfishness and moral hypocrisy of middle-class capitalist society. Social responsibility is the idea that a society’s poorer members should be helped by those who have more than them. Therefore socialism stands in opposition to a capitalist society, such as ours, where trade and industry is mostly controlled by private owners. Priestley was a socialist and his political beliefs are woven through his work
2. DISCUSSION AND INTERPRETATIONS:
The play opens in the setting of a ‘dining-room of a fairly large suburban house belonging to the Birlings The Birlings are a family of prosperous entrepreneurs. There have a son and a daughter, Eric and Sheila. The incidenta occur in the years proceedings the First World War. At the opening of the play Sheila Birling, the pretty young daughter of Arthur and Sybil Birling is getting to Gerald Croft. The Birlings along with Gerald are celebrating it in a small way with family dinner. The atmosphere is generally a happy one and the conversation light, with characters hantering playfully at each other on petty things. Mr. Birling habitually interrupts the mirthful mood with talks of business, war and politics, but the others hardly join in. in the main time there’s a knock on the door. Edna the house maid reports that it is a police inspector who has called. The inspector is ushered in by Edna and introduced as Inspector Goole. The inspector is a no nonsense man of business with sharp, agile, authoritative manners. Without mach ado he breaks terrible news to the Mr.Birling, Eric and Gerald. It’s about the suicide of a young woman called Eva Smith The play unveils the life and death of one working class girl Eva Smith. She was an orphan and eked out her living in her own way. She struggled hard to maintain a decent life in English society. She joined an industry, worked had but earned a small amount as wages. It was just 22 shillings. Mr. Birling the capitalistic owner made her a leader of a small group of workers. As there were no incentives, she demanded a hike in her salary. She wanted at least 25 shillings a week for her hard labour. But the owner refused to increase the salary. She met him and placed request before him. He flatly refused the hike. Not only had that he dismissed her from her service. She was forced to spend her days without food and shelter. In the next few months she struggled hard to make a decent living Gerald and Eric entered into her life and made her life wretched. She approached a women’s organization for financial assistance. But Mrs. Birlig who was haughty and proud of her self, rejected her application and make Eva Smith’s life still are unbearable. Out of frustration, dejection and disappointment, Eva Smith committed suicide. The entire drama speaks of a tragedy in a domestic circle. The interior of Mr.Birling’s family members of this house. There is no outer force or interference by external agencies. Hence it is called social drama.
An Inspector Calls is a fantasy and a thriller. It is gripping in its production and leaves an impact on the reader or audience. As a fantasy the play offers an attractive but strange image of Inspector Mr.Goole. There is strangeness in his behavior. The details that he leaves are Priestley establishes each of the characters in the first scene. Arthur Birling is a capitalist businessman and he focused on profit even when discussing the marriage of his daughter. “I’m sure you’ll make her happy. You’re just the kind of son-in-law I’ve always wanted. Your father and I have been friendly rivals in business for some time now-though Crofts Limited is both older and bigger than Birling and Company and now you’ve brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together for lower costs and higher prices”. (Act I, p 5). Here Priestley uses Mr. Birling as a symbol to represent the selfishness and arrogance of capitalists in Edwardian society. His wife Sibyl scolds him, telling him it isn’t the occasion for that kind of talk, establishing her as someone primarily interested in doing things property and conforming to established social rules. Sheila, at this stage in the play, seems to be preoccupied by the thought of her marriage to Gerald, and Eric, appears more interested in the port going around the table than anything anyone is saying. Here Priestley uses Mrs. Birling as a symbol to represents the wealthier, privileged classes and their selfish attitudes. She sees the working class as morally inferior.
Later she got an employment at Milwards. Here too the capitalist’s daughter Sheila intervened and got the young worker Eva Smith dismissed from service. Again Eric and Gerald sexually exploit her for months. In this sense. we can say that Eva Smith suffers a lot in life. Eva Smith is a symbol of the British poor. Society is always cruel to the poor and oppressed. She had lost her parents. She had struggled hard to make a living. She might have worked in various firms. INSPECTOR to SHEILA: “There are a lot of young women living that sort of existence, Miss Birling, in every city and big town in this country. If there weren’t the factories and warehouses wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labour. Ask your father.”(Act I, p. 17). These lines shows how the labour class means lower class in 19 and 20 century England faced so many problems, they considered cheap labour and their wages were very low. Child and women conditions were very bad on that time. “But these girls aren’t cheap labour they’re people” (Act 1, P 17) Sheila tells these words to the Inspector in the midst of his enquiry. He argues that the factories and warehouses are employing cheap labour to run their daily work. The women have become the victims of that cheap labour. It is in this context, Sheila tells these words to him. The young girls should not be mistaken for cheap labour. They have their true identities. Sheila’s words need be understood in the broader perspective of the labour relations.
Eva Smith then, changed her name to Daisy Renton, and it is by this name that she encountered Gerald Croft, with whom she had a protracted love affair. The Inspector next interrogates Mrs. Birling, resistant to accepting any responsibility. Eva Smith came to her, pregnant, to ask for help from a charity committee of which Mrs. Birling was chairperson. Mr. Birling used her influence to have committee refuse to help the girl. I.B. Priestley gives a different twist to the play here, Mr.Goole comes as an Inspector to collect evidence and information about death. His name suggests something strange. He is said to be ghoulish. He is interested in a dead person and comes to enquire the role of all the Birlings in that death. He is successful in his attempt. All the characters involved make confessions of their role in the death of Eva Smith: The two generations of characters make statements owning their role in catalyzing the death of Eva Smith.
INSPECTOR to MRS.BIRLING: “That doesn’t make it any the less yours. She came to you for help, at a time when no woman could have needed it more. And you not only refused it yourself, but saw to it that the others refused it, too. She was here alone, friendless, almost penniless, desperate. She needed not only money, but advice, sympathy. friendliness. You’ve had children. You must have known what she was feeling. And you slummed the door in her face.”(Act II. p 40). It transpires, to Mrs. Birling’s horror, that Eric was, in fact, the father of the child, and she has just unwittingly damned her own son. The Inspector makes a final speech, telling the Birlings, “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. We don’t live alone. Good night”
(Act III, p 50). Here Inspector Goole mysterious in nature. He comes to Mr.Birling’s house much before the death declaration of Eva Smith or Daisy Renton. He not only considers an inquest but also makes the characters make confessions of their involvement in the crime. Every character contributors to the death of that poor girl Eva Smith. But what follows is starting to both the readers and the other characters. In the course of the conversation that follows, it is revealed that Eva’s tragedy had been perpetuated by each of the members of the Birling family and Gerold Croft individually, at different times. Apparently a course of providence had brought each of the Birling and Gerald in contact with the unfortunate poor girl and knowingly or unknowingly each one of them had contributed to her exploitation and subsequent doom. It is revealed that following sacking from the Birling workshop, she had taken up a position of a salesgirl at Milwards, a large cloths shop. But she had to abandon the job following an unjustified complaint against her from a customer. The customer was none other than Sheila Birling herself. Eva Smith was further pushed into the already aggravated gloom that shadowed her life. Eventually she was forced to “go on the streets”, which is a euphemism for prostitution. Ironically she meets Gerald croft who solicits her service. In fact, Gerald ends up as a kind benefactor and patron to Eva and they share a flourishing though short lived relationship. The Inspector tells the characters, “Each of you helped to kill her.”(Act III, P 49), Showing that he wanted them all to accept and share responsibility for their actions. It suggests the idea that we are all bees in a hive and need
to take care of one another, that the past generation has made mistakes and we cannot turn away from the suffering
lower class. His final speech is aimed at the characters and the audience, talking of a collective responsibility in
society. “One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smith 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, and what we think and say and do.”
Finally we saw Priestley’s message to society through Inspector final words, “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body we are responsible for each other”. (Act III, P 50) These lines are delivered by the Inspector at the end of the play, and they reflect the socialist message of 1.B.Priestley’s play that we should all care for play as the death of Eva Smith. This is how Inspector Goole concludes his story. Goole leaves the Birling in a veritable muddle of guilt and apprehension about the future. The final words of the Inspector are a warning to all to change their ways and reflect the social message and are an articulation of Priestley’s own concerns. When these confessions are over, the Inspector leaves the house. Gerald and Mr.Birling event talk with police of the town. They come to know that this Inspector Mr. Goole is a hoax, a fraud and a cheat. Their conversation is centered on that fact how each is cheated. But in the end the police ring up Mr.Birling to tell him of the visit of the police to make an enquiry and collect information about the death of a girl. It is at this moment that the phone rings sharply. It’s a call from the infirmary. They’ve called to inform that a young girl had committed by consuming a very strong disinfectant moments ago, and that an Inspector was headed their home investigate the matter. Its curtains at this point and the audience are left amused and dumbfounded by sudden change of circumstances. The play is evidently an open ended one and it ushers the audience into a wide array of possibilities to contemplate in the wake of what they have just witnessed upon the stage.