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Crucial Theme And Message In An Inspector Calls

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Priestley explores in guilt and responsibility “An Inspector Calls.” Set in 1912 but written in 1945, “An Inspector Calls” uses binary opposition to contrast and highlight the large and growing gap between the lavish lives of the upper class to the struggle of receiving basic needs of the lower class. Priestley joined the army at the start of the First World War in France where he was wounded and gassed; participating in war could have possibly broadened his perspective and made him acknowledge the harshness of war, especially for the lower class, ultimately turning him into a socialist and the author of this morality play. After Britain had struggled through two tragic wars, he felt as though change needed to be made to the upper class to ensure a war like this didn’t happen again, as their ignorance led to these wars in the first place.

One way that Priestley presents the theme of guilt and responsibility in an Inspector Calls is through his specific use of stage directions. The Inspector is specifically instructed to show each character the picture of ‘Eva Smith’ individually, “interposing himself between” people if needed. He could potentially be showing everyone different pictures of different girls that each character has mistreated in different ways, and associated them with a single being to symbolize all lower/working class individuals who have been abused, mainly to see who accepts responsibility, and to expose the sins of The Birling’s and Gerald. In fact, it is almost as if each character reflects different counterparts of the seven deadly sins- a Christian belief on the worst things that can be done.

Mr. Birling clearly is an embodiment of greed and pride, this is evident when he says “ lower costs and higher prices”- the antithesis shows that his only purpose is to earn money, be it at the cost of others’ livelihoods, further reinforcing his very evident, conceited, ignorant and self-absorbed personality. His ignorance is shown in particular when he says “The worlds developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible” and “Titanic unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”- these are both examples of dramatic irony, and emphasizes Birling’s (who along with Mrs. Birling are symbols for the whole older generation, upper class) ignorance, and oblivion to the rest of the world, as only a few years later from when this play which was set in 1912, a war broke out, and the Titanic did ultimately sink. The repetition of “unsinkable” is purposeful to further highlight his absurdity and stupidity. In fact, there is a recurring motif of juxtaposition to do with the things that Birling says and does; like when he fires Eva Smith out of GREED (“its my duty to keep labour costs down), leading to the foiling of desired knighthood, (which he repeats several times to Gerald emphasizing his wealth, self-absorption and PRIDE.) It’s almost as if the world is against him and will do anything in it’s power to contradict his actions and sayings as he is a “portentous”, unrepentant, and selfish man, who is unaccepting of his responsibilities. This could be seen as his “punishment”, courtesy of The omniscient Inspector who is not intimidated by Birling’s stressed status and wealth. Also, “the inspector need not be a big man” suggests that rather than inspiring fear and respect through his size, he has an immediate, and lasting atmosphere of formidableness solely through his presence, attire, and speech that creates an immediate impression of “massiveness, solidity and purposefulness” (suggesting authority), which definitely neutralizes Mr and Mrs. Birlings overall hostility and intimidates them. Priestley may have been trying to say that individuals like Birling who are unaccepting of their responsibilities, and those who do not understand that the easy life that the upper class lead rest upon hard work of the lower classes shouldn’t be supported.

After the Inspectors departure, everyone has clearly been shaken by the Inspectors profound, foreshadowing, and emotive didactic speech. Mrs. Birling “collapses into a chair”, the verb “collapses” suggests that she has given up on defending herself, and has possibly started to acknowledge her wrongdoings. Mr. Birling “pours himself out a drink which he hastily swallows”- suggests that he has been severely impacted by Mr Goole’s speech and the adverb “hastily” solidifies the idea that Birling is indeed afraid of The Inspector, and he swallows his fears along with the alcohol to hide this. The champagne (which would be seen as a luxury at this time) that they have been consuming throughout the whole day is a macabre contrast to the bleach that Eva drank to commit suicide, showing how upper classers are oblivious to the world surrounding them. However, things return back to their normal state once its revealed that The Inspector wasn’t real, and there have been no suicides at the infirmary recently; making the audience realize that the older generation were only fearful of the consequences for themselves, not accepting guilt. However, the play ends with a phone call informing the main characters of an actual Inspector who is about to arrive following the death of a girl. This cyclical narrative could potentially show how the first inspector was simply a warning to the Birling’s that they should accept responsibility the second time around with the actual inspector to avoid repercussions. Mr. Goole, is a homophone for “Ghoul”- a mythological creature, associated with the dead and robbing graves according to Arabian Folklore. Perhaps Goole was a symbol of God, making Priestley’s message of accepting responsibility resonate with the audience more as Edwardian’s were strictly religious. Alternatively, it could show how they will be faced with everlasting visits from Inspectors, and will constantly have to drown in their wrongdoings and feelings of guilt until they all accept full responsibility. Priestley may have been trying to say that instead of running away from responsibilities, you should learn to accept them, or you may have to face the wrath of God, a figure that Edwardians feared.

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Furthermore, another way that Priestley presents the theme of guilt is with Mrs. Birling who is clearly the ‘wrath’ counterpart of the seven deadly sins. She is extremely hostile to Eva, and shows that even though men were seen as superior to women during 1912, women could be just as hostile and show no mercy to people. Her wrath is mainly shown when she says “Girls of that class”- this suggests that that she has a hatred of the lower class, to the point where she feels they are not deemed worthy enough to be addressed properly; and the pronoun “that” emphasizes the idea that she would rather distance herself from working class people. In addition, she repeats the adverb “naturally” when trying to justify her role in the death of Eva Smith, suggesting how she has been brought up in a way that taught her these standards, and it is normal for her to think like this, as she is ‘old money’. This is reinforced with the line “I was quite justified” and “I was perfectly justified” said by Mr. and Mrs. Birling respectively, which suggests with the adjective “justified” that they feel that they are morally superior, and that they did what they did for a legitimate reason. Also the repetition of the adjective highlights how upper classers at this time thought in similar ways, and thought that they were right in a bigoted manner. Priestley definitely feels that the upper generation needed to change their ways, and treat everyone like human beings, as we are all worthy of respect

Sheila represents Envy. Out of a misconception, she was blinded by envy and used the power she had as the daughter of a customer with a high social status to get a girl fired or else she’d “never go near the place again and persuade her mother to close her account with them”. However, unlike most of the others, she says “(miserably) so I’m really responsible?”- the fact that she immediately responds with this after being questioned shows the fact that she genuinely feels remorse for Eva. The tone is intentionally “miserable”, as this adjective suggests how she’s extremely sorrowful after hearing of the news. The audience can compare the characters before and after the Inspector arrives. For example, at the start, Sheila says (taking out the ring) “Look Mummy isn’t it beautiful?” this sounds rather ‘stereotypical’ and ‘overly feminine’, but she is only living up to the expectations of women at this time and at the beginning she is seen as ‘insignificant’ and fragile. Also the noun “mummy’ is colloquial and childish, which suggests that she has been pampered her whole life and was completely dependent on her parents- which is reinforced by her name ‘Sheila’ which is a homophone for ‘Sheild Her’. However, as the play progresses, her character develops and becomes more independent, mature, and accepting, feeling remorse and guilt unlike her parents.

Both Gerald and Eric represent lust, another component of the seven deadly sins. Gerald says “Alright. I knew her. Lets leave it at that” which is abrupt, and shows how he is dismissing the situation and being unaccepting of his responsibilities just to preserve his status. In addition, he is described as an “attractive chap” who is “well bred”, and Priestley may have been trying to show how outward appearances mean nothing, as anyone- including those of the upper class- could have questionable behavior and immoral secrets. However, he does admit he didn’t want to “make love to her”, but its revealed Gerald did have an affair with Eva, possibly as he was consumed by lust, even though he knew he was in a relationship already. This would make him feel guilty as it ultimately led to his engagement to Sheila ending, and an unnecessary death. Eric could represent both lust and gluttony. Due to his excessive alcohol consumption, it brings into question whether he raped Eva Smith when he says “I was in that state where a chap easily turns nasty”. However, his excessive alcohol consumption could be due to his bad relationship with his family. This is evident from the start of the play with the proxemics- he is “downstage”, away from everybody else, which reflects his feelings of isolation from his family, and the audience can further deduce this when later in the play, he says “you’re not the kind of father a chap can go to when he’s in trouble”- because unlike his father he is not a “hard headed businessman” (the alliteration highlighting his arrogance) and did not get true motherly and fatherly love from his parents, which could explain his excessive alcohol consumption as he feels that it’s the only thing that can help him with a lifetime of neglect. This makes Birling feel guilty, as his greed and egotism has caused his own children to go against him. Obviously, Eric along with Sheila feel genuine remorse for the loss of Eva smith, they feel that “everything they said had happened really had happened”- and that it is irrelevant whether the Inspector was real or not, or whether Eva really died. They feel as if they should learn from their mistakes and make sure they never do them again. Priestley intentionally switches the age roles here, and makes the younger generation seem rational while making the older generation seem idiotic, to convey his message that it’s in the hands of the younger generation to create a more compassionate and open minded future by fixing the present which the older generation had ruined by being closed minded and irresponsible.

In addition, specific lighting is used to portray the theme of guilt. At the start, the lighting is described as “pink and intimate”, having connotations of love and serenity, making the audience feel like they are watching a ‘perfect and ideal Edwardian family’. It’s almost as if the audience are looking at the Birlings and Gerald through ‘rose tinted glasses’- however, as soon as the inspector arrives, the guise of a loving, serene, perfect and ideal family is dropped as the lighting becomes “brighter and harder”, perhaps suggesting the family’s true colours, and their immoral, underlying truths. It could also be done to purposely make the characters feel intruded, as if a thorough investigation is taking place and a spotlight is shining directly on them in hopes of them feeling guilty and taking responsibility. This creates a sense of smug satisfaction so that The Inspector can suddenly and dramatically shatter the harmony, and Priestley purposefully makes the beginning overly-happy as if it’s inevitable something bad will happen, for these ‘murderers’, so when The Inspector arrives, the audience are struck that something as bad as this would happen to such a calm family, possibly making the audience feel remorse if they’ve done anything similar in their lifetime, as the majority would be middle or upper class people. In addition, the whole play takes place in one room; this has purposely been done to create a sense of claustrophia, which makes the characters feel like they’re ‘trapped’ until they confess. Priestley’s message could be that you shouldn’t be fooled by what you see, because what you see could only be part of a devastating truth, and you shouldn’t be deceived by the upper class as they could be ignorant and foolish like Birling.

In conclusion, Priestley’s message is that everyone should be responsible for what they do, and nobody is good or better than anybody else, no matter what class they are. He felt as if Edwardians needed to work against the sins that consumed their society, and thought that it was in the hands of the younger generation to build a more compassionate future. An Inspector Calls is almost a warning to the upper class to stop taking people of lower classes for granted, or as The Inspector correctly foreshadows with emotive language and hell imagery about World War 1 and 2, they will be taught their lesson in (more) “fire and blood and anguish.”

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Crucial Theme And Message In An Inspector Calls. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
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