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Power And Responsibility In The Play An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley deals with the theme of power which is conveyed as; an ability to influence the behaviour of others or events, this is demonstrated through the speech and actions of the characters. The play is deliberately set in 1912 (in Brumley, England), to show the distinct gender imbalances and class divisions which were apparent in the Edwardian times. However, it was written and performed in 1945 to show how these inequalities had changed after the Second World War. Throughout the play, Priestley encourages people to work together to produce a less divided society of equality. This didactic, morality play has a crime thriller form engaging the audience as they are left wondering who is to blame for Eva Smith’s death and if their individual actions are relatable.

The theme of power is introduced through the character of the Inspector by the use of staging and lighting, which is evident in the stage directions. The significance of the lighting being ‘pink and intimate’ portrays a prosperous, jovial mood during the family’s engagement celebration. Likewise, it implies the Birling family see the world through rose tinted glasses, suggesting an optimistic perception of the situation and the audience are overlooking a perfect family which is ironic as they are flawed in many ways. This is juxtapositioned with the lighting which is ‘brighter and harder’ foreshadowing a darker more forceful atmosphere, as the shift in mood signifies to the audience a character of importance and power is later to be introduced. The ‘brighter lighting’ resembles the lighting of an interrogation room, which could suggest the inspector has power over the Birling family. The adjective ‘harsh’ connotes a feeling towards the audience of danger at the sight of an Inspector, leaving a sense of uncertainty and heightened tension.

Priestley introduces the initial theme of power through the character of Mr Birling; who is presented as a ‘heavy looking’, ‘portentous man’ and a ‘hard-headed’ figure within the Birling family. This depiction of wealth highlights Arthur’s significance and high status which portrays his views in the capitalist society. The alliterate phrase ‘hard-headed’ suggests a negative feeling of reluctance and therefore foreshadowing his objection to change his views of which he strongly believes in. Mr Birling’s ‘heavy looks’ suggest his greed towards profits as he is a ‘prosperous manufacturer’ of a successful business. He deprives his workers of a reasonable salary, demanding for ‘ “lower costs and higher prices” ’. This use of dialogue suggests to the audience his arrogance towards the world he lives in and demonstrates his priorities in excelling within the social hierarchy in order to gain power – ‘ “honours list” ’. However, his overconfidence and inadequate judgments lead him to believe the ‘ “Titanic” ‘ is ‘ “unsinkable” ’, which uses dramatic irony as the audience understand his foolish beliefs, conveying an ignorant character who is dislikeable.

Mr Birling’s involvement during the questioning of the Inspector epitomises the way power can be abused and blind someone from their responsibilities. This is apparent in the hyperbole phrase; when Arthur states ‘ “these people” ’ of ‘ “asking for the world” ’ when in fact Eva Smith only wanted 3 more shillings. This demonstrates his power of authority over people lower in class and how he refuses to sympathise if it corrupts his status or wealth. Therefore, this shows how Birling refuses to take responsibility for abusing his power and aiding in Eva Smith’s actions leading up to her death. The blunt phrase ‘these people’ suggest his anger towards the Inspector’s continuous questioning and how he is reluctant to ‘ “accept any responsibility” ’ towards his actions when becoming extremely defensive.

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Inspector Goole is a significant character who contributes to the play’s structure and form within the three acts. The play is brief and deals with a short passage of time to convey the morality effect and change in view some characters undergo. The questioning is structured so that each character is interviewed in chronological order. In addition, the Inspector adds drama to the play as he introduces each question in a systematic structure and deals with each enquiry one at a time. Therefore, this allows each character to express his/her involvement unknowingly by building pressure and tension – on characters such as Sheila and Eric – which resulted in their individual views changing. This is due to them understanding the consequence which subsequently unfolded due to their actions. The manipulative ways the Inspector uses his knowledge in order to discover the truth, affect Sheila the most as she willingly admits her share of the blame as ‘ “she feels responsible” ’.

Our initial impression of the Inspector’s role within the play is shown through his omniscient presence, as he knows the imminent truth through all the lies told. The Inspector creates a sense of purposefulness and authority when he introduces himself as ‘ “Goole” ’ spelt ‘ “G double O – L – E” ’. This noun could be pronounced as ‘ghoul’, implying a morbid or unpleasant feeling when the Birling family receive the unpleasant truth from the Inspector. Similarly, his ghoulish ways are portrayed through the way in which he presents the news of her death in an apathetic, aloof manner – ‘ “a young woman died” ’. The Inspector is presented as a controlling character that overlooks all the arguments with his power of authority. This is evident in the stage direct; ‘massively taking charge’. The adverb ‘massively’ implies to the audience how much power he has over the Birling family, despite his lower status and likewise, how he breaks down the power structure of the family. The verb ‘charge’ reflects the Inspector’s methodical thinking and emphasised his ‘authority’ to the audience.

The Inspector’s final speech is a significant part of the play as Priestley indicates morals which are fundamental in order for the Birling family to allow change. This is highlighted in the simple sentence: ‘ “we are members of one body” ’. This suggests the Birlings are too self-obsessed and that they have lost connection with others around them. The plural pronoun ‘we’ (positive language) could suggest the power of unity, over the ‘members’ of society, if people looked out for one another. Also, it could imply how the capitalists should seek to co-operate with the working class rather than exclude them. The dramatic pause from the full stop represents the time which the Birlings did not take, to reflect on their individual actions and therefore consequences. From this didactic powerful speech, it is clear to the audience that Priestley is portraying his socialist views through the character of the Inspector.

Sheila Birling influences the ending of the play as she represents the way in which the younger generation is able to embrace change despite society’s current expectation. She as with Eric, learn from her mistakes and takes responsibility for what ‘ “had happened” ’, therefore understanding the consequences of her own actions. This contrasts with the older generation who refuse to accept their faults and pretend as if ‘ “everything was just as it was before” ’, demonstrating how they misuse their power even after a (tragic) unknown event. Furthermore, this important ending creates an unforeseen climax which causes more problems than had initially been corrected. The previous fake event, foreshadow what is to come when the Birlings receive the telephone call leading to the cliff hanger moment. The dramatic pauses from the dashes create tension and uncertainty, as the dramatic irony leave the audience with an open ending unsure of the fate of the characters and where it lies.

Within An Inspector Calls, Priestley is insistent that everyone, including those who possess power, should take responsibility for the way they have shaped society. From this, he portrays his views against the capitalist society with the intent of shifting the views of the younger generation. This play symbolises the wrongs many of us commit, but the ease of which they can be corrected if people of society are open to change. Therefore, implying that many of us need an Inspector to call in order to understand how we are responsible for those surrounding us. I believe the strong political moral Priestley is trying to illustrate, is that if people become less self-obsessed (Mr Birling) and instead seek to work together; a society of equality can be built beyond limits ever imagined.

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Power And Responsibility In The Play An Inspector Calls. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
“Power And Responsibility In The Play An Inspector Calls.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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