Important elements in ‘An Inspector Calls’
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Published: Tue, 09 May 2017
The first act of the play by J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls, displays many of the essential features that will dominate throughout the whole dramatic piece. Set in the Edwardian Era, the play reflects the differences in social classes, as well as the influence of the industrialization over the entire society. Likewise, the rigid “gender roles” of the Edwardian Era are clearly noticeable throughout the different characters. Gerald Croft, Edna, Eva Smith and the Inspector Goole are important characters in the argument, in spite of the fact of not being part of the Birling’s family. The Inspector blamed all characters for the death of Eva Smith, claiming for justice. Finally, Priestley takes advantage of the context of the time when the text was written. He plays with the audience’s emotions given that the audience at that time had recently suffered the consequences of the Second World War.
The play exemplifies the social structure and industrialization of the Edwardian Era all the way through the plot and the setting. The play is divided into three acts and takes place in the dining-room of a prosperous manufacturer, Arthur Birling, in the industrial city of Brumley. At the beginning of the act, the author gives the impression of a “heavily comfortable house”. With the arrival of the Inspector Goole, the lighting turns out to be “brighter and harder” reflecting the change in the atmosphere: tense and mysterious. The Edwardian Era was a period of false security, which preceded the Great War, as discerned in Mr. Birling’s opinion about the unviable “chance of a war” or the “unsinkable” Titanic. These are examples of dramatic irony, as the audience of the play from 1946 had witnessed all the events that the characters in 1912 were unconscious of. It was a time of urbanization and mass production, where the upper class had the whole supremacy over the common laborers. The upper crust was “not supposed to say such things [polite, nice things]” to the hoi polloi. The industrialists sought for “lower costs and higher prices”, touching upon the working class. The employ of the antithesis between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ is really significant as the lower costs mostly take effect by paying the workers less and the higher prices make the well-to-do richer. Gerald Croft’s “engagement to Sheila means a tremendous lot to me [Arthur Birling],” giving clues to the audience about the marriages between the moneyed which ensured the creation of new social positions.
The gender roles are epitomized by the Birling family. At the time the play is set, women and men were unequally treated and lack of gender fairness was a common feature. While Arthur Birling and Eric were able to obtain well-paid jobs, and had a word in decisions, women were unable to obtain education and were kept at home. Mrs. Birling and Sheila are clearly inferior to men, and they could only aspire to make an impact on a bountiful man. Mrs. Birling is aware of these gender differences, and in occasions she suggests that “Sheila and I had better go into the drawing-room and leave you men,” referring to the gender-specific activities of the Era (in this case the men will talk about manly topics, and the women will leave them alone.) Mr. Birling is very proud of his achievements, and he tries to intimidate the Inspector. He is very selfish and only “mind his own business and look after himself and his own.” He is continually trying to protect his reputation and the one of Birling and Co. Eric, his son, is totally opposite to his father as he defends the working class, and he is unfortunately a drinker, he is genuinely curious as he asks quite a few questions. He ironically suggests that ” a man has to look after himself,” showing his will to know the truth. Mrs. Birling, in the other hand, is “a rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior.” We can see from her words, “men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business,” that she accepts the fact that men used prostitution very often. In the other hand, Sheila depicts the generational difference, considering herself modern and is morally sensible.
The outsiders are fundamental figures of the play’s plot. The Inspector Goole gives the “impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness,” the way J.B. Prestley described this central character says a lot of his personality and way of acting throughout Act 1. “One person and one line of inquiry at a time”, this is the way he works. This shows that he is very manipulative in his actions. He tries to find Gerald’s impatience by stating that Gerald “has nothing whatever to do with the wretched girl’s suicide.” The influence of the word wretched is substantial to his slow and convincing movements. Gerald Croft is also a character from outside the Birling’s Family. His engagement with Sheila means a lot to her father, but his aristocratic status makes his future marriage unfavorable due to his higher social status. Edna and Eva Smith are the only characters which belong to the proletariat. Edna is the parlourmaid of the Birlings, while Eva Smith has no family, although she was described as “a lively good-looking girl.” Moreover, there is many discrepancy in the way in which Eva is treated among the characters in the play.
Justice and morality, as well as social responsibility, are essential underlying messages throughout the first scene. The play is morally trying to find the audience’s accountability for its own actions and the corporate responsibility to society. Priestley uses the authoritarian figure of the Inspector to demonstrate each of the character’s responsibility for Eva’s suicide. As the Inspector suggests, “you’re partly to blame. Just as your father is. [Referring to Sheila].” The usage of short sentences makes the statements sharper and direct, however the utilization of the personal pronoun ‘you’ is really significant as it appeals to the theatergoers’ own responsibility. Inspector Goole has the law in his hands, he is the authority figure which seeks for justice of the young Eva Smith. He is in command of giving “us some more light”, a subtle metaphor for truth. Sheila and Eric are morally sensible, she alleges that “these girls aren’t cheap labour – they are people.” The way she claims that they are ‘people’ shows her understanding and respect of the lower classes.
It has now become clear that J.B. Priestley’s first act of An Inspector Calls, is charged with standout elements which are fundamental throughout the whole piece. An evident link has therefore emerged between the Edwardian Era and the way the play is set up. The prerogative class dominated over the majority of the working class which holds a job in the industries such as that of Birling and Co. Following this, gender roles and the responsibility of the characters, as well as the moral purpose of the play show very interesting perspective of a different time, but the rich description chain of dialogues makes this play to continuously be worth watching.
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