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How does John Boyton Priestley explore the issue of social respon...

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How does John Boyton Priestley explore the issue of social responsibility in 'An Inspector Calls'?

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  • April 3, 2004
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John Boynton Priestley was a socialist. He believed that whether we acknowledged it or not, we are in a community and have a responsibility to look after others. I believe that he wrote 'London' to highlight these beliefs and share them. In writing this essay, I intend to show how Priestley explored the issue of social responsibility.

In 'London' the initial meaning of the play seems to be finding out who might be responsible for the death of Eva Smith in the manner of a detective mystery. As the play progresses, however, it becomes obvious that social, moral and philosophic judgements and responsibilities are being made on all the characters in the Birling house that evening. Everyone is implicated by their attitudes and actions. The characters eventually come to a deeper understanding of themselves and the effects of their behaviour.

Priestley called himself a 'commentator and social philosopher'. He explores these ideas within the different levels of meaning in the play. At first we are introduced to the family and guest happily celebrating the engagement of Sheila and Gerald. The arrival of Inspector Goole unsettles the family and, with the revelation of Eva's suicide, the play becomes more serious. The final layers are added by Priestley using the Inspector to make everybody present face their flaws and contribution to Eva's desperate end. They are forced to examine their own notions of social responsibility.

In the opening scene Priestley informs us about the Birling family's social status. All five are in evening dress and as the play opens Mr Birling says, 'Giving us the port, Edna?' This establishes that they can afford and enjoy eating and drinking well. As well as Edna the maid, Mr Birling also says, 'Good dinner, too, Sybil. Tell the cook from me.' This shows that they are wealthy enough to afford household staff. Mr Birling appears as a somewhat old-fashioned head of the household, expecting his wife to manage domestic affairs. This is...