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‘An Inspector Calls’ was written by J.B Priestly in 1945, but is set in
1912 before WWI during the Edwardian period. Social responsibility is the idea
that people should take care of each other and take responsibility for their
actions. It is a message that Priestly was trying to convey to the audience, and
he cleverly does this by voicing his opinions through the different characters,
especially the inspector.

 

Through the younger generation of the Birling family, Priestly shows
that we can change and learn to become socially responsible. Sheila and Eric
both learn to accept their part in Eva’s death, and as a result they regret their
actions. In the opening stage directions Priestly describes Sheila as a “a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased
with life and rather excited”, and by the end of the play she becomes a mature
intelligent woman, aware of her responsibilities. An example of this is when
Sheila is sympathetic towards the lower class when Mr Birling wanted to lower
their wages and increase the prices. This is seen when she says “These girls
aren’t cheap labour – they’re people” The words ‘they’re people’ shows that
Sheila sees everyone as equal, and that people should care and be responsible
for their workers. This scene was perhaps influenced by Priestley’s experience
working in a factory which gave him an insight into the lives of the poor, and
therefore a sense of responsibility towards them. There was no Welfare system
to help the poor at the time, so firing someone, especially a woman meant that
they would have had to turn to prostitution. Priestly wanted to create a change
in society and make the upper class feel more responsible to the other people
in lower classes. When Sheila found out that she played a part in Eva’s death
due to her actions in Milwards, she felt very guilty and was willing to take
the blame. “So I’m really responsible?” When Sheila said these words, her
attitude completely changed as she realised that what she did was wrong and she
wanted to make up for it. Sheila represents hope that people can change.

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      Sheila’s younger brother Eric is presented
to the audience as a drunk and an irresponsible person. We learn that he slept
with Eva Smith and got her pregnant whilst he was drunk, so like the other
members of the family, he abused his power over the working class girl. This is
seen when it says “I didn’t even remember – that’s the hellish thing. Oh – my
God! – how stupid it all is!” The dashes signify that Eric is distressed as he
has just realised that what he did was wrong and stupid. We also find out that
Eric stole money from his father in order to support her, which once again
shows how irresponsible he was. However, like Sheila, Eric takes responsibility
and shows that he is capable of change. “The fact remains that I did what I
did” Eric stood up to his parents and took the blame for his actions. Priestly
uses Sheila and Eric as a way to channel his socialist views across to the
audience, as he believed that if society would ever change, it would be by the
way the younger generation acts.

 

Priestly
portrays Mr and Mrs Birling in a completely different light as neither of them
are willing to take responsibility for Eva Smiths death. We can learn that Mr
Birling is a very ignorant character through the use of dramatic irony in his
speech. He claims that ‘there isn’t a chance of war’ and that the Titanic is
‘absolutely unsinkable’. The play is set in 1912 and was performed in 1946, so the
audience would know that Birling’s ridiculous claims are false, making him seem
very foolish, and showing that he has a lack of social awareness. This is seen
again when Birling says “you’d think everybody has to look after everybody
else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive. A man has to
mind his own business and look after himself and his own” It is evident that Mr
Birling is not aware of how much the poor suffer each day. The simile ‘like
bees in a hive’ is comparing socialists to bees, which contradicts his point as
bees do a good job. This gives the audience the impression that Birling is very
selfish and arrogant, therefore making them dislike his personality. Priestly
does this on purpose as he is a strong believer of socialism, so he uses Mr
Birling as a way to convey his socialist views to the audience and make them
oppress Mr Birling’s capitalistic views. These views were perhaps embedded into
Priestly’s mind after he lived through both wars. He saw the consequences of
what happened when people did not care for each other, so he wanted society to
change to prevent further conflicts. The audience can see this when Mr Birling
refuses to take responsibility for Eva Smith’s death. He fails to see what he
did wrong by firing her, and says “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 does not believe in social
responsibility and even after the inspector leaves, Birling shows no remorse
for Eva, as he only cares about how it would affect his social status. Priestly
uses him to show how the upper class looked down upon the rest of society.

      Mrs Birling is very narrow minded and
shows no care for the lower class. She is described in the stage directions as
“about fifty, a rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior” Priestly portrays her as a snob as
she is stereotyping every working class girl. She clearly didn’t understand
that Eva had no choice just like many of the other working class girls. She
even rejected Eva when she appealed to her charity organisation due to the fact that Eva used her name. Mrs
Birling then later goes on to say “but I think she had only herself to blame”
This is ironic as she was part of the reason that Eva was in that position.

This shows that she was not willing to take any social responsibility as she
only cares for herself – just like Mr Birling. Another example of this is when
she says “go and look for the father of the child, its his responsibility” Dramatic
irony is once again used to make her look foolish and make the audience dislike
her. Mrs Birling is completely oblivious to the fact that Eric is the father of
the child, and when she finds out she hypocritically tries to cover it up.

Priestly is trying to tell us that the older generation are unlikely to change
and its up to the younger generation to change society.

      Gerald Croft is the upper class fiancé to
Sheila, and is caught in the middle, being neither old or young. When he was
interrogated his first instinct was to deny that he was a part of Eva Smith’s
death – just like Mr and Mrs Birling, but he later showed guilt for his
actions. However, when he found out that the inspector was not real, Gerald
reverted back to his old attitude, showing that he learnt nothing from the
inspector, and therefore making him side with the older generation as he was
not willing to change.

 

Priestly
explores the key ideas of social responsibility mainly through Inspector Goole.

His presence immediately changes the mood and atmosphere of the room, which is
seen in the stage directions as the lights get “brighter and harder” when he
arrives. Throughout the play the inspector remains in control as he
interrogates each member of the family, in which he cleverly makes them own up
to what they did to Eva Smith. He says to the family, “each of you helped to
kill her”, showing that he wants them all to learn from their mistakes and
accept and share the responsibility for their actions. Priestly made the
inspector the most morally responsible character, which is why he is said to be
the mouthpiece of Priestly’s socialist views. His final speech delivers to the
audience the key message of the play which Priestly was trying to convey–
social responsibility. This is seen by the anaphora in his speech. “We are
members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” The repeated word ‘we’
helps to enforce the inspector’s point across more to the audience that
everyone in society is the same, and that we should all care for each other.

This was perhaps influenced by Priestly’s near death experiences serving on the
front line in WWI. He had a realisation of class injustice whilst trying to
survive in trenches and he felt a sense of responsibility to the other soldiers
in his platoon. The audience can see this in the inspector’s final words, “if
men will not learn that lesson then they will be taught it in fire, blood and
anguish.” Through the inspector Priestly is warning the audience that if they
do not continue to work together and take responsibility for their own actions,
then they will go back to the 1912 society which he believed lead to WWI.

 

In
conclusion, I feel that Priestly explored the importance of social
responsibility mostly through the younger generation – showing that they can
change in a positive way, and through the inspector who is used as Priestly’s
mouthpiece to teach the audience a lesson. Each member of the Birling family
had a different attitude to responsibility when it came to the death of Eva
Smith, but by the end of the play, some of the
characters did change their attitude. He is trying to convey to the audience
that the capitalistic view of the older generation like Mr and Mrs Birling are
unlikely to change, so it is up to the younger generation to take responsibility
for their actions to prevent further conflicts. Priestly’s socialist beliefs
have come across to the audience clearly through the use of dramatic irony in
speeches, which were perhaps sparked by his experience of living through both
wars and by serving in the First World War. 

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