Social Responsibility in ‘An Inspector Calls’
An Inspector Calls’, though set in 1912 in the Edwardian era, was written by J.B Priestley in 1945 as a piece of socialist propaganda to embrace the socialist views becoming more prominent in society, in place of capitalism. The theme of social responsibility is one of the main foundations of the play and contrasting beliefs towards this attitude are presented through each character.
Mr. Birling is presented as an embodiment of capitalism, with a lack of social responsibility and an arrogant attitude towards the lower classes. During his lecture to Eric and Gerald in Act 1 of the play, he orates that ‘A man has to make his own way…has to look after himself’. Here Mr. Birling is implying that everyone should be self-centred and only strive to better themselves. He explicitly expresses his capitalist view here and this is an iconic part of the play because it is at this exact point at which the Inspector arrives. The Inspector’s physical arrival cuts short Mr Birling’s capital rant and perhaps Priestley purposefully used the dramatic device of the ‘sharp ring’ of the doorbell to foreshadow how the Inspector will contradict Mr. Birling’s views and attempt to change them. After the Inspector’s entrance, Mr Birling very agitatedly mentions ‘(Rather impatiently) horrid business. But I don’t understand why you should come here.’ During the dialogue with the Inspector, Mr. Birling immediately dismisses any sort of responsibility without even knowing what he might be blamed for which illustrates his intolerant behaviour towards accepting responsibility. The stage directions ‘(impatiently)’ display his almost childish behaviour for accepting any blame and suggest he wants this ‘socialist crank’ out of his house as soon as possible and he does not agree with his views at all. Through his character, Priestley presents the heartlessness and callous behaviour of capitalism and is a symbol of the older generation who are unwilling to accept any form of responsibility. Priestley wanted to explore the exploitation and oppression that existed in the country in the Edwardian era and continued to exist at the time of him writing the play in 1945. It was people like Mr. Birling not accepting their social responsibility that led to a huge divide in society, causing many of the working class citizens to be wrenched further into poverty down to higher prices and lower wages for the workers. Priestley utilises the character of Mr. Birling to stress throughout the play the importance of social responsibility and that a lack of it will lead to a downfall in society as shown by the two world wars that the audience would have experienced prior to this play being performed.
The Inspector is presented as a representative of socialism, preaching the message of social responsibility to the Birling family and warning the characters and the audience of the dangers of not embracing socialism and everyone’s collective obligation as a society. The Inspector mentions to the Birlings and Gerald that the incidents leading to Eva’s death were a ‘chain of events’. Chain imagery is created in the audience’s mind, and the Inspector emphasises through this imagery that everyone is responsible for each other and that Eva’s death was due to a lack of social responsibility and an individualist mentality. The noun ‘chain’ suggests the bonds between everyone are unbreakable and that not accepting your social responsibility as a member of society is inevitable. This key message is magnified at the end of the play again by the Inspector when he leaves the Birlings with the message that ‘there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths…all intertwined with our lives’. Here, ‘Eva’ and ‘John’ are metaphors for the working class and interestingly the name ‘Eva’ derives from the name ‘Eve’, the first woman in the Bible, and the surname ‘Smith’ being not only the name of an occupation associated with hard labour work but also one of the most common surnames in the UK. This exemplifies the importance of Eva in the play and here the Inspector is saying that everyone needs to be aware of their actions as it will impact many, just like Eva Smith. The repetition of ‘millions’ intensifies the Inspector’s message of how many working class labourers there are in this world and that people need to start being more socially responsible to help these people, but could also indicated the vast number of people which could be affected by the actions of one family. The verb ‘intertwined’ exaggerates the imagery of the ‘chain’ even further and stresses to the audience how important it is for everyone to be equally responsible for their actions. Priestley uses an author surrogate to plant himself and his views into the character of the Inspector to deliver his message of social responsibility with more success. As a political Labour supporter and socialist, Priestley was particularly dismayed at the period between both world wars, which brought widespread poverty, economic depression and political extremism. He purposefully released the play to be performed first in 1945, at a time where WW2 has just ended. During the blitz, the evacuation of city children both poor and rich meant that people were thrown together in an unusual way. Society united together to fight for the common goal of ending the war which meant people of different classes and genders bonding as one and looking after each other. Due to this, social responsibility was accepted and judgement based on someone’s position in the social hierarchy was ignored during this time. Priestley believed that we are all a community and have a responsibility to look after each other, and this crucial message is showcased through the character of the Inspector, the mouthpiece of Priestley.
Priestley presents the younger generation as a beacon of hope for a change in society as they are the only ones able to accept their social responsibility. As Sheila is being interrogated, she immediately realises the impact of her actions and swears that she will ‘never, never do it again’. This instantaneous feeling of shame and guilt expressed by Sheila indicates how genuinely terrible she feels about having contributed to Eva’s death and is the first to fully admit her part of the blame. The repetition of ‘never’ emphasises how immoral she feels and from this point onward in the play, she works on building herself back up again by supporting and siding with the Inspector for a better society. Although, some audiences might find Sheila’s intense plea of forgiveness as a sign of a good moral character, to some audiences it could be seen that Sheila’s immediate wave of guilt seems quite unrealistic as her instant blame goes to herself, which seems almost too good to be true. Further on in the play, the Inspector mentions that the young ones ‘are the most impressionable’ which is explicitly seen by change of both Eric and Sheila’s attitude towards society and the working class. Throughout the course of the interrogation of the Birling family, the gap between the younger and older generation is widened due to the change in views between the children and the parents. Sheila accepts her social responsibility fully, and Eric partly, and take on the views of the inspector to try to persuade their parents to admit their part in Eva’s death too. Priestley has effectively presented the divide between the Birling family, to perhaps indicate the split in the upper class, where the arrogant parents keep living in their old selfish ways with more progressive values of the younger generation. The 1945 society have experienced many rigid changes and was developing in terms of social boundaries. There were many different changes to the society, like women being able to vote thanks to the Suffragette movement or there being a slight decrease in gender inequality due to the women proving during the war period that they can do the same jobs men can do. Priestley would have partly aimed this play specifically at the younger generation to shape their knowledge of society and plant them into the socialist mind-set so as to avoid making ignorant mistakes like Eric and Sheila have done before. The younger upper class would have found this play intriguing to some extent as it contrasts directly to what they have been taught prior to the war and would have led the audience members to start being more independent in terms of their own views and what they believe in. Although the class distinctions are not so apparent in the modern day, this message is still relevant in today’s society, where many of the wealthy people’s primary concern is themselves. Priestley meticulously presents the younger generation in an optimistic light who not only accept their social responsibility but combat for a fairer society.
Overall, the changing attitudes of social responsibility are exemplified by Priestley through the different characters in the play, and he uses his influence to persuade the audience that a shift in society’s attitudes towards each other is needed for civilisation to better itself.
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